At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water.
I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…
From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.
A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.
I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me.
As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting. I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.
“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious.
The son nodded.
“What are they for?”
“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.
“To be…what! Why?”
“Why?Because…” He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”
Where else indeed.
I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance.
They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.
No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is.
Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.
Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths.Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…
A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.
Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves…
It’s that time of the year when something inside you becomes heavier and slows you down. Not in an unpleasant way, but like your body does after a long, hard evening walk. You look for a bench to relax for a bit, knowing well that you’ll soon get up and get moving. There’s a mild sense of achievement as you sit down, face flushed, still slightly panting, feeling the sweat trickle down your throat and back.
And you look back on the path that took you through yet another year.
You see vistas of sand flanked by concrete buildings, you see cranes sticking out of half-made buildings like skeletal hands reaching out for the skies. Didn’t you hear the earth groan as you passed? You see the workers who were squatting on the ground outside the forbidding fences designed to keep out prying eyes, waiting for un-airconditioned buses to come and pick them up. Exhaustion drawn over them like a blanket, their collective silence punctuated by low conversations and brave attempts at hilarity. What awaited them at the other end of the journey was no lovers’ meeting – just cramped bedspaces in a camp in some forgotten corner of the city. (Forgotten is not the word perhaps, because, those are the places we head to when we feel the urge to do good deeds.) There they would wait in line to wash their bodies and clothes, pray or not, cook in turns, eat, hold conversations over the din of TV, and fall into exhausted sleep.
You look back on the impatient cars inching their way through the congealed traffic, at the taxis with worried, tired cabbies talking to any willing ear about the prohibitive traffic fines. Madam, my eyes filled up this time when I opened the salary slip – I was hoping to send something home at least this month… My wife has been struggling, really, but– Past the tired and hopeful faces of those waiting at bus stops, past young couples pushing their babies in prams, past the mosque-goers on their way to Maghrib. Past the tall gates of the park, on the treelined walkway, and around the lake, dodging other walkers, runners, bikers and stray cats, inhaling the fragrance of marigold mixed with a hint of manure…
You are now thankful for the bench you managed to secure – under the streetlamp, facing the lake. A couple of feet away from the stray cat that is still contemplating the possibilities you hold. Watching the pink and blue and green and white lights of lifetimes lived – yours and others’ – undulating peacefully on the water, as if the chasm beneath did not exist. And you give in to the urge to give in, to wrap yourself in the mild, lingering melancholy of another late December evening. You sit back and sigh.
Really, what do you have to complain about?
I’m grateful for each passing year that has been granted to me. Truly. It’s a gift that so many are deprived of.
For no reason, I’m thinking of my cousin who had passed away when he was much younger than I am today (young being a relative term). He was among the closest I had to a brother, yet we had grown apart. Until that day when, from two ends of a phone line, we promised each other that we’d meet up for sure the next time he came down. Because I am his little sister, and don’t I ever forget that. No matter what differences we might have, we are family.
A few months later, when his body went home in a refrigerated box, I was not there. I mourned for him deeply from inside the walls of the small room in this desert city that I was barely getting used to. But what I mourned for was my loss. I lost a brother, a very very vital part of my childhood, my life. My brother whom I lost before I could–
Grief can be extremely selfish.
Today, years later, I still grieve for him. Not in a guilt-ridden, debilitating way, but as a fleeting, momentary sadness – a small white cloud at the corner of the sky that disappears as quietly as it appears. Today it is for him that I grieve, for what he lost.
My brother, I wish you had lived. Long enough to experience the luxury of growing older. Of watching your hair turn grey (though knowing you, you’d have reached out for the bottle of hair dye at the first glimpse of it). Of discovering that peaceful space within yourself…
We could have sat on the porch of your old house and laughed about our childhood antics. Remember the time when you–? We could shake our heads and smile knowingly as we watch our children walk through life as if it was something infinite, to be taken with utmost seriousness…
I still miss you, you know. At times.
I don’t know why I’m thinking of him today, now, in this December morning when the mist outside has all but hidden the buildings across. I did not start out with the intention of writing about him! I was going to take a look at the year that was. I was going to contemplate on my own journey: the books I read, the people I met, the lessons I learned. I was going to talk about my writing – complete and incomplete, the teaching projects I have taken on, my students who are my dopamine.
I was going to talk about my ever-lengthening bucket list…
Instead, here I am, writing about life and loss and the evolution of grief. Maybe it’s time I stopped. I can start again, on another December morning. There’s a weekful of them left anyway.
Another Onam day. And like on every Onam day for the past howevermany years, today too I feel that familiar, lingering sense of sadness. Melancholy, as a thin film of salt water that gathers at the corner of my eyes, blurring my vision ever so slightly.
Why sadness, you might ask.
And I would say, because I miss–
Oh, so many things!
I don’t know. Things… There’s a word for it – there has to be. For this longing for the unnameable; for what’s lost and can never come back… Ah never mind!
But let me tell you this. Very, very long ago, I’d started writing a story.
So what’s new in that, you might ask again.
Nothing at all, I’d say. It’s just one of the million almost-but-not-quite-complete projects that fill the hard drive of my Mac. Only, this one is on Onam. So I remembered it today. Also because I tend to drivel, and today I feel the itch to.
So allow me to share the beginning of my Onam story, Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams. As I have named it, for whatever it is worth.
Maybe I’d shared it here before? I’m not sure. Pardon me if I have. Here goes, then:
Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams
“I love Onam, don’t you!” She finished the sentence with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark, overwrote the ‘love’ and underlined the ‘Onam’, secure in the knowledge that the ‘you’ at the receiving end shared her passionate love for Onam. Malu was writing her diary after all.A worldly-wise fourteen, she hadn’t managed to outgrow her fascination for the festival. She loved the rituals and the colours, and more than anything else, she loved the folklore associated with it.
“It’s the most beautiful festival in the whole world.”Again she underlined and overwrote as required, for proper effect.Her ‘whole world’ began at Thenappilly where she lived, a small town with a radius of roughly six kilometres, to her father’s village – about twenty kilometres away. Her school was somewhere midway.
“Legend says that Kerala had, once upon a time, been ruled by a benevolent asura king, Mahabali. Now, Asuras were traditionally expected to terrorize humans and loot the land.Mahabali, on the contrary, loved his subjects, and was in turn loved by them.There was enough of everything for everybody in the land, so there was no theft, nor any other crime of any sort.”Kallavumilla chatiyumilla, kallatharangal mattonnumilla…There was no child who had not heard those lines and marveled at the utopia that Kerala had once been.
“However, the Devas – the Gods above – did not like the state of affairs in Kerala.They were worried that if this little piece of land became such a heaven, what was going to happen to their own ‘original’ heaven?So they decided that it was time for some subtle political manoeuvres.” Like dethroning the king, sending him to the netherworld, and claiming the land for themselves…The usual stuff.
“So they approached Lord Vishnu, one of the three mightiest gods, the thrimurthis. Vishnu heard them out, and promised to do something.”
At this point, Malu made slight alterations to the story.She did not like to believe that Lord Vishnu, her favourite among all the Gods, would do what he eventually did, just to appease some jealous immortals with serious complexes.No, he was too much of a man for that.There had to be a greater, more benevolent, reason! So Malu clung to a more acceptable version of the story she had once heard or read somewhere.
“Mahabali was a great guy, but his sons had not inherited his benevolence.Lord Vishnu feared that after Mahabali’s time, when his sons took over, they would reduce the land to nothing.He had to do something before that, so he intervened.”
That sounded like a reasonable enough explanation.
“So Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamanan, a dwarf Brahmin, and came to Mahabali’s court to ask him for three feet of land.No one refused a Brahmin anything. And Mahabali, who did not refuse anybody anything, told Vamanan to measure out the land he wanted and take it.The prudent men of his court suspected foul play and tried to stop him, but Mahabali, wise as the sages, knew his time was up. So he decided to play along.” After all, it was Lord Vishnu himself who had come for him!
“Vamanan the dwarf then grew so tall that the first foot he measured out covered the earth. The second encompassed the skies, and there was nowhere left to place the third foot.So Mahabali bowed down and asked Vamanan to place it on his head.
“Mahabali was thus sent to the netherworld. He asked for only one thing in return – that he should be allowed to return to his beautiful land once a year to visit his ‘children’. Since then, every year, his subjects welcomed their beloved king in the happiest way possible, regardless of the religion they followed. They made beautiful flower carpets in front of their houses through the ten days of the festival, and on the tenth day made the traditional feast, sadya, in his honour.” Malu was also writing for posterity.
Malu enjoyed preparing the flower bed in front of the old tharavadu – the family house where she lived with her mother and aunt – although growing up had curtailed most of the fun.When she was younger, she used to get up early in the morning and join her brothers – though she was an only child, she had plenty of cousins – and a few other children from the neighbourhood to pick flowers from anywhere they could. Roadsides, fences, temples, even other people’s back- and front-yards. Malu firmly refused to call that ‘stealing’ – it was every child’s solemn duty to gather as many flowers as they could on Onam days. The end justified the means, as they say.
So they would gather as many flowers as they could, rush back to tharavadu, and share the loot.While sharing, there would be a lot of arguments and fights, but in the end, might was always right.Malu’s brothers had a standing in the group that was unparalleled, so they were never short of flowers.
But now that she was fourteen, her mother refused to let her go with her gang.Added to that was the fact that now this ‘gang’ was almost non-existent – only one of her brothers lived at home; the others had left for big cities in search of jobs.So now she had to make do with the flowers from their own yard, and the supply was limited.
“Oh how I miss the Onams of my childhood!”
She drew a line to indicate that the entry for the day ended there. Then she decorated the margins with flowers and leaves.It was the Onam day entry, after all.
So it goes, my not-so-short story. On and on and on. Like me when I start talking. Do you know that I can talk myself out of anything? Sadness, nostalgia, frustration, anger, broken heart, broken bones… you name it. Ask my family if you don’t believe me. Or my students. In fact, people get worried when I am silent.
And see how I’m already feeling better?
Anyway, here’s wishing you all a very, very soulful Onam. There’s a payasam boiling away on my stove, in case you’re interested.
Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.
Many times while reading Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’, I asked myself if this book would have resonated so much with me had I not been living here, in the UAE. If I had not had, among my friends, people who hail from other Middle East nations. If we had not shared stories with each other over tea and croissants. Or reminisced longingly about our home countries while maneuvering the rush hour traffic…
The answer is, probably not. Because some stories tend to remain once removed until they enter your immediate orbit. Until the ambiguous ‘they’ becomes a Maha, Sameh or Yasmin. Until you see at close quarters the shadow of displacement and hopeless longing at the edges of their brown, sun-lit eyes. Then they begin to find their echo in you.
Once, early on in my brief stint with a corporate house as its content provider, I was introduced to someone who had just come back from Syria after the funeral of his sister. She had been arrested some weeks ago for taking part in protests. In the same office, a young girl, only slightly older than my son, went to her country on vacation and was held there under house arrest. In the idealism of her youth, she had posted some images of protests on social media. It took months of intervention for her to be allowed out of her country.
In the Country of Men reminded me of all these stories. And others I have heard and read over the past twelve years in the Middle East.
Set in Tripoli, Libya, during Qaddafi’s regime, the narrative unfolds as a series of events seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Suleiman. Slooma, as he is fondly addressed by the people close to him, is a not-very-silent witness to personal and political realities he is unable to fully grasp. His beautiful yet ‘ill’ mother is an enigma; so is his businessman father who suddenly goes away without informing him. Then there are others – friends, neighbours, and acquaintances – whose lives are inextricably tied to his own: Moosa, Nasser and several others, including his friend and next door neighbour Kareem and his father Ustath Rashid.
Suleiman is puzzled and deeply hurt by the events that unfold, and he reacts to them in ways that only a child is capable of. In the end, he too bears the brunt of an uprising gone wrong in the world of adults.
In the Country of Men is also a story of love – the love of a nine-year-old son for his mother. She who condemns Sheherzadie of One Thousand and One Nights for choosing the life of a slave over death. Suleiman’s love for his mother is complex, often inexplicable even to himself. He longs to protect her from her own past, from all the men who seem to run her life. Yet there are times when he is filled with anger and hatred towards this self-absorbed woman with secrets he can’t bear to be privy to.
If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark, warm embrace of hate, but always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.
In the Country of Men certainly has its moments. Poignant ones. Some as beautiful as the Mediterranean sea and sky they evoke. And there are words that linger even after you close the book and put it away.
I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. (…) How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if we hadn’t got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us.
So it goes, Matar’s narrative, which effectively conveys Suleiman’s love, loneliness, bewilderment and misplaced anger to the reader, while highlighting the pervading sense of the fear and anxiety that stems from Libya’s political climate of the time. The unease that Suleiman feels is also the reader’s.
I have to admit though that I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, especially towards the end, when the story suddenly seems to fragment, dissipate. There are paragraphs that felt disjointed and rushed, pages I sought more from. When I turned the last page and closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative stopped just short of achieving something. Poetry, perhaps. Or something equally vague.
Or perhaps the fault lies in my expectations.
For a while now, I had been reading more about books than books themselves. My desk and bookshelf are full of half-read fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Sometimes I feel as if the summer has a vice-grip on my soul, not allowing me to focus on anything. ‘In the Country of Men’ is, in truth, the first book I have completed in many weeks. And I feel a sense of release – as if a dark spell has been broken. As if the ennui, the listlessness, will soon begin to ebb, like the heat outside. In that sense, I do have a lot to be grateful for. To Hisham Matar’s Man Booker Prize-nominated book.
I woke up to those words. They were there, inside the warm sheets, hovering between me and my sleep. Nudging me awake. Gently, persistently. I wish I knew what they meant, those words. I wish I could read dreams.
But then, I don’t remember dreaming of dragonflies. I just remember the words. And they didn’t come in my dreams. They woke me up.
This morning, there are dragonflies in the air. Just words. Without a speaker or a context.
When I was a child, I remember my mother peering at the heavy, grey-green-and-brown sky above our front yard and telling me: See how dragonflies are flying low? It’s going to rain! Come inside! And I would stand there, looking up at them, listening to their glassy wings, waiting for the rain. Wondering whether they were flying low because it was going to rain, or it was going to rain because they were flying low.
This morning, there are dragonflies in the air.
But I’m in a city now. A desert city. In the summer. With a pale, cloudless, dragonflyless sky stretched endlessly outside my window. High above the sand, the cars, the buildings and the few brave trees. Out of reach of us, little people. There are no dragonflies in the air. Never been.
In my living room, a painting. The result of a six-hour lesson on acrylic painting years ago. Where everything is a deep blue. The water, the sky, the sun, the people… Even the pink of the lotus is blue. In there, just above the flowers are a couple of dragonflies. Blue ones.
It’s summer, like I said. It has been for a while. Like forever.
Daylight peeps in through the closed curtains of my bedroom at around 4:30 or so, forces its way in through my eyelids, prising them apart. I remember one of my boys doing that when he was a baby. ‘Mma, are you sleeping? he would ask, peering closely into my eyes. (Who was it? Appu or Adu? Or both? Funny – I can’t recall now. I can only recall the tiny fingers holding my eyelids open.) Of course I’m not, I’d reply, and pretend to listen. As if I wasn’t dying to go back to sleep.
Well, summer days are like that too – persistent, and childishly inconsiderate. I fight it for up to an hour sometimes. And then I give in. Do I have a choice, really?
Standing in front of the mirror with my mouth full of toothpaste foam, I pick off a long(ish), silver hair from my pale purple housecoat. Whose is this now? I frown. And how did it come here? Then I realise it’s mine. Ah well. I’ll get used to it, eventually.
Madam, aren’t you colouring your hair? The young girl in the salon asks me each time I go for a hair cut or a head massage. (The latter is my vice, indulgence, and sin.)
I smile the same smile each time, and reply the same reply. No, thank you.
But Madam, it’s turning white. She lifts a lock of hair from my right temple with the hairbrush and holds it up for me in the mirror. See?
I know. And that’s okay. I continue smiling.
But why? You’ll look old! Her face is a mask of concern.
Because I am old! I reply, without letting the smile falter. At least, old enough for a few grey hairs.
She looks at me sympathetically, even tries to comfort me. For growing old, for having grey hair, and for giving in to both without a fight. You should colour your hair, Madam. Really you should. You’ll look and feel younger.
I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She means well. So I tell her things like how I tend to be sloppy with things. Not very regular, you know what I mean? And white roots would look so bad, no?
That she understands. Hmm. She nods thoughtfully. You should come more regularly, Madam. After forty, it’s important that you look after yourself…. She goes on to suggest a maintenance regime that, if followed properly, is sure to keep me looking at least ten years younger than I am, no matter what my age is.
I nod earnestly and ask the right questions. And get educated answers.
I’ve learned from experience that I shouldn’t try to tell her that I truly don’t mind. Not my grey hair, not my wrinkles – nothing except the weight that tends to pile up at odd places in my body. That in fact, I consider each passing year an achievement of sorts. See, I’ve lasted. Despite everything. To see my hair turning silver. Yaay!
Roopsha had come home the other day. Auntie, you should try colouring your hair – some blue highlights or something, she suggested. I’ve been telling my mother too. She would, of course. Petite, and exactly half my age, she looks lovely with pink and blue highlights on her short, straight hair.
I have to admit though, I’m not totally averse to the idea. Maybe I’ll live to be old (and bold) enough to try it out. Because growing older is, among other things, liberating. See how I wear turquoise nail polish these days? I wouldn’t have dreamt of it even a year back. And I’ve started sporting an anklet too, for good measure.
I go to the kitchen and pull out my chair. That’s where my morning writing happens. In my tiny kitchen, sitting on my tiny green wooden chair. The one that Adu outgrew some eleven years ago. With the Mac balanced on the wooden cutting board. All the other rooms, including the living room, have sleeping bodies in them that I don’t have the heart to disturb. But the kitchen, now that’s my sole domain. At that time of the day.
It’s my twelfth summer here, in the UAE. And just like the eleven earlier ones, this summer too is a living, fire-breathing entity that has me in its vice grip, and doesn’t let go. I have to prise it off finger by finger, and if I slack for a moment in between, those sizzling hands will clamp over my temples again, pressing against my thoughts, choking them. There is no getting used to, I realise, when it comes to summer in the desert.
But I’m being self-indulgent here, talking about I, me and myself yet again. I, who is sitting inside a reasonably comfortable apartment and making a reasonable (though it could have been much better, certainly) living doing what I enjoy doing. There is running water, electricity and all other basic amenities that one could wish for. And more than anything else, I have my family with me. My children, my husband. Some friends and family… Each of which is a luxury, denied to many. Here, in this desert.
I’m grateful. Immensely.
A few months ago, Appu and I were discussing the Danish word Hygge which Christina had sent me when she was in Denmark as an exchange student. I was her English teacher back in 2007-08 when she was a mere eighth grader. Now she is all grown up and travelling between continents, but she still finds it in her to gift me interesting words and flavoured tea. Teachers are, by the very nature of our profession, privileged.
I’m digressing. I was talking about hygge.
“We should consider something like that for our summers, ‘Mma,” Appu suggested while we were discussing the way Danes prepare themselves for winter. We decided vaguely that we would make our indoors cozy enough to beat the summer-induced depression, listlessness and claustrophobia – those unfortunate traits which both he and Adu, my younger one, have inherited (to a lesser degree) from me.
So this summer, the boys and I have managed to keep a house that we wouldn’t actively want to leave for the great, searing, blinding outdoors. And this summer, the green in our balcony, though dusty and sometimes tinged at the edges with brown, has so far survived the 40+ degree (Celsius, mind you!) temperature. My plants are standing up straight – or however they are supposed to stand.
Pigeons and sparrows still visit, though unlike last year, they have chosen not to build nests among my plants to lay eggs. Procreation must be the last thing on their mind, given the heat. But they are still territorial. Very much so. The other day, an errant mynah came to steal the tender leaves of our equally errant mango sapling, and little miss pigeon mercilessly drove her off, sputtering with rage.
You can’t blame her for getting angry, really. There are times when I wish I could make a huge fuss like she did, and get my point across to whoever it should. And there are so many inhuman beings I would like to bite a chunk off and drive away from my world as she had done.
No, I don’t mean the ones who come to steal a leaf from my balcony. I mean those other faceless people. Like the ones who have printed that ugly (and I use the word with great deliberation here) massage centre card we found on the pavement, while walking to the supermarket. The one with the picture of an innocent looking adolescent girl on it. How can you sell your services using her? She’s just a child! I want to scream. At somebody.
I shudder at the thought of those other faceless people; the ones who pick up that card and dial those numbers. And I feel angry that those who should feel angry and can dosomething about it, but don’t. Angry. And impotent.
Then there is this young man who comes to clean my apartment. The latest in a row of people who have come and gone in the past few months because of some visa-related issue or the other. This young man is polite, minds his own business, and does a fantastic job of cleaning. For the first time, even our fans are sparkling. Well, almost. And then a week ago, Appu told me that he is a graduate, and holds an MBA degree. He is looking for a job, and has so far been unable to find one. So he has taken up the current position until he finds one that will pay him better than this one does.
I feel angry. At a system that is making someone who is better educated than me clean my house. But if I replace him, he will lose even the paltry sum he is currently earning, which is infinitely worse. I tell him to bring his CV so we can update it and send it ahead. He says he has it in his email and will take it out for me tomorrow. We will do it, I assure him, knowing that I’m powerless to do anything much. I feel angry. At myself. Angry and impotent.
The same feeling I have when I read about what’s happening in my country. When I think of how Shobha, Alex and Nazar have become Hindu, Christian and Muslim respectively. How homo sapiens have become disposable commodity based on colour, creed, bank balance and political leanings. Impossibly, impotently angry.
Pause. Take deep breaths. Count till ten. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Coming back to hygge – or my version of zen. So I have decluttered my minuscule kitchen and streamlined the cooking process down to a seamless, easy one that I finish before nine in the morning. I have jars full of all kinds of Mini-made curry/spice powders which I whip out proudly at the drop of a hat. I also have time to write, socialise via (the social) media, and have long and utterly pointless conversations with the boys. I even sing aloud despite my complete tonelessness.
I was singing ‘Beat it!’ yesterday evening while we were cooking pasta. “Amma, you know why you don’t drink?” asked Aditya the Wise. He was referring to one of the items on my wish-list that I keep talking about: to get punch drunk one day.
“Why?” I paused to ask him.
“Because you don’t need to. You’re on a high even without it. If your health is fine, and you’re not worrying yourself sick, that is.”
Yesterday I saw some lovely green moss in a flower shop. The young Filipino manning the counter told me I could buy it only as a box, for a hundred dirhams. Collected from the mountains of Holland, madam. Very difficult to grow. We don’t sell it loose. Five minutes later, he took pity on my wistfulness (I guess I can do a Puss-in-Boots when push comes to shove) and gave me a handful of them for five dirhams, to try my luck. In return, I have promised to report to him my progress (or not) with growing it.
Google tells me that moss draws moisture from the atmosphere, so I keep spraying water around it every so often. “‘Mma…! Are you trying to choke it death?” asks Appu. I sigh.
Tonight Juhi, Ahmed and Mustafa are coming over for dinner – a mild sort of celebration for something she achieved. Their collective love for my brand of potato stew means that cooking is no sweat. And after that, if there is time, I will have my daily dose of murder and mayhem – in the form of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
A couple of hours ago, Rachna, who’s on her first vacation from university, gave me Bis gleich, and has promised to come over for tea on Friday. I am planning to serve her something deep-fried and totally unGerman with tea. The joys of teacherhood!
See, summer? I have you all sorted out. The twelfth time round.
Srilakshmi is, in her own words, ‘A doctor passionate about Kannada literature who just happened to translate one poem for you me.’ So it seems only appropriate that I include the original Kannada version of the poem. How I wish I could read it!
Though Srilakshmi and I are yet to meet in person, we are connected by a shared love for the written word. So when she generously translated a poem she wrote in her native tongue for me to read, I was more than touched.
Then there is the topic – depression and de-personalisation. My old friend, the dementor, seen through another pair of eyes. A familiar dark world captured in the few lines of a poem. Of course I made my ‘guest blog’ request; some voices have to be heard.
P.S. Srilakshmi’s daughter Srushti is a budding writer, and I had the occasion to publish her lovely little piece ‘Wonderland’ in a blog I have created for my students. (No, she’s not my student – she’s just young enough to be one. Read Wonderland here: https://minismenon.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/wonderland.
The conversations around you. Brittle and brisk. Without meaning. Words hurriedly strung together. Shoved into a tin can. Shaken. Made to rattle in short bursts. Like gunfire at close quarters. Tweets of fate. And happenstance. Like firing squads. Immediate. Transient. Relentless and vicarious babel. Grab and shoot. Who has the time? To think? Or breathe normally. The normal? Now a different shade of pale. Like running a hundred meter dash in less than 9 seconds. On shards of glass. Breathless. And bleeding. Gladiator sport. The kind that seeks out language only to thrust a sword into it. While the mob brays. For more bloodletting.
Slow everything down. Let your fingers grind to a halt. The forty-five on your turntable. Your skin scraping the grooves. Slurring the song. As if strangling the words. Almost.
Start afresh. Begin a new sentence. A long one. One in which with extreme patience and a strong dose of diligence you once again lay down the ground rules for language with a past history of elegance and a turn of phrase that makes you gasp with admiration for the one who has penned it with such élan and taste and wit and a sense of literary tradition passed on from writer to writer through centuries of fine writing where the meaning of words as they combine and mingle with each other takes precedence over mere ornamentation and where the complexity and density of a thought is chiseled to succinct and purposeful perfection in a heady mixture of fine prose or poetry or drama or whatever be your particular calling.
Now punctuate it.
Show them how things work. Or at least strew the air with hints. Let them be razor sharp. The clues. And full of wit. And irony. And the chutzpah that says it like it is. Up in your face. Like truth. So that no one believes it. As the truth. As nature. Both yours. Mine. And Natures. The way things appear to work in Nature. In life. Or on stage. Like the web that the spider weaves. Against the light. Visible. A work of art. Or a trap. Depends on who is admiring the spring like strands that shine and glint in the sunlight or turn invisible as they snare a fly. The strings on stage that create the magic of a floating cloud. An entire flotilla of white that suspends belief even as it is suspended in the air above the stage floor. Look carefully and you will see the nylon threads that like the spider’s web hold the white bags of polyester filled with yesterday’s news. Crushed and torn into different fluffy shapes. Light as the air they are meant to simulate. Be something they are not. Sleight of hand. Or a trick that the eye missed. The ones that do not bear muster close up but in the right kind of light. And colour. Glowing with gold and red and silver white. With spotlights that make no attempt at being hidden. Hung and patched. In full view. On metal battens. With exposed wires. Process. The craft of magic made visible.
The truth is always other than what it appears to be.
When I thought of inviting some of the writers (and lovers of the written word) I have come to be acquainted with to pen down a few lines for my blog, the first name that came to my mind was of Naveen Kishore – a writer, poet and person I tremendously admire and respect. Not to mention the publisher of some of the most beautiful books in existence today.
I admit I was skeptical – asking the one who publishes Nobel Laureates and their ilks to write for my humble blog sounded preposterous even to myself. But I did, eventually, and Naveen graciously obliged with a casual ‘See if these ‘jottings’ work. Call it whatever you wish to.’
Today is Seagull Books’ 35th anniversary, and I can’t think of a greater honour than to be able to host his words on my blog. And Sunandini Banerjee, whose magnificent collages are the lifeblood of Seagull Books, has allowed me to use ANY collage I’d like!
Once there was a river. Cold and gentle and full of dark shadows. She was as blue as the sky above her, and had a heart large enough to drown all of the world’s grief. Which, of course, was why they called her Sokanasini.
We walked, my best friend and I. We walked back thirty odd years retracing the once familiar, well-trodden path. Looking for her – our Sokanasini. The one who had so willingly accepted all our sorrows back then. In exchange of narrow pink bunches of wildflowers, and rounded pebbles that glinted in the sun.
But she was nowhere to be found.
Now there are just ghosts. Of what once was. Memories – brown, brittle. Drawing their last breath.
Yet, what was it that pulled wetly at my feet from under it all?