We entered our sixth year saddened and in pain.
Every day my son asks me,
‘How long my father, until we return?
I miss the children of our street,
I miss the taste of our water
And the weather of our gorgeous country.’
Shiva read out the lines to me this morning. Written by Salam Ashara, a Syrian refugee. It was part of an article on refugees in an old edition of Gulf News, one that fell out of a shirt that came from the laundry. The launderers here fold the clothes around newspapers while ironing – perhaps for ‘structural support’ as Appu insists, or, as I suspect, for the fresh, crackling sound it gives off when you touch it.
Just a few lines of poetry, crisp like a starched and ironed cotton shirt. Lines written by a father who wants to keep his country alive for his children. How else does one keep anything alive except through the written word, the symbols – letters – it comprises?
The Malayalam word for ‘letter’ (from the alphabet) is ‘aksharam’: ah + ksharam. That which does not perish. Everlasting. Timeless.
Young Saintana was my colleague during my short stint as external consultant at a PR firm. She used to give me a lift sometimes, when we both finished work at the same time. Meandering through the peak hour traffic from Internet City to Al Rigga Station, we would talk about random things. And very often our conversations moved between her passion for perfumes and cooking, and her memories of her hometown somewhere up in the mountains of Syria – which she hadn’t visited for ages.
Beyond her delicate Mediterranean profile and tumbling sunlit curls, beyond Dubai’s speeding skyline, just short of the orange sky, a thousand vivid images would shape themselves into an abstract tapestry. Woven as much by her words as her slim fingers waltzing in the air. Colours, smells, tastes, togetherness, warmth, love, nostalgia…Grandparents who told stories about the past, ‘jamming’ and pickling seasons when all members of the family gathered around a table, picking the finest fruits and vegetables and spices…
“Our hands would be all red with the juice from the cherries,” she would say, smiling at the memory. And I would watch her fingers wrap around the little red fruit that only she could see.
I loved listening to her stories. Stories of a culture so different from mine, yet so similar. I too have stories like that. Stories of what once was, and now isn’t. All gone – just like that. Never to return. Or to return as something else for someone else.
Like the digamma.
The Digamma is the title of the book that I’m currently reading— Correction: one of the three books I’m reading intermittently these days. It’s a collection of poetry in prose by Yves Bonnefoy, published by Seagull Books. Out of the five books by this great French poet that my kind friend of words had sent me last month, I chose this one because its title intrigued me.
The internet has a lot to say about the digamma.
a letter of the Greek alphabet (Ϝ) that became obsolete before the classical period of the language. It represented a semivowel like English W and was used as a numeral in later stages of written Greek, and passed into the Roman alphabet as F
I don’t understand – not really. A letter that was once a part of an alphabet, and then wasn’t. Which then became a number, and was eventually passed on to someone else to become something else…
How does it all work?
I’m reading The Digamma in fits and starts – one little paragraph, a page, a couple of lines at a time. I lose the thread somewhere in the middle and put the book away, then take it up and start rereading it.
I’m also reading And; Nonetheless by Philippe Jaccottet (ChelseaEditions) and the last few pages of the latest Seagull Books catalogue in between.
I pause to marvel at the beauty of a word, a sentence, an image it conjures. Then I lose my grip on the text again, put it away again and this time, head to the kitchen. With something bordering on despair.
“Despair, ‘Mma? Isn’t that extreme?” Adu asks. Perhaps it is desperation then, not despair, that I feel.
Cooking always helps. The absolute physicality of it, I mean. Till it tires me.
It has been like that for a while now. I’m unable to read or write or do anything else as I’d have liked to. I’m restless, listless. Just less.
Perhaps like my body, I too need a complete overhaul. And some green. There’s almost no green left in me now. The summer, the desert, has drained me of green.
I have the sun, baby, but not the chlorophyl! So I can’t photosynthesise.
Urgh! That sounds cheesy even to me!
Let me say it again: I blame it all on the summer in this desert. This desert as in the desert on this side of the great desert out there, the one you see as you speed past it on the highway. That one is vast and primordial, like an ancient bedouin matriarch with deeply wrinkled face and hands, peering at you benevolently from behind her batoola. That one still has ghaff trees and bone dry desert shrubs. And if you stop your car, step out and wiggle your toes in the sand, you can find seashells buried within.
Seashells! Can you believe it?
So this— no, that desert out there was once a sea, an ocean. Blue and green and thronging with life. And then it was gone. All of it. The blue, the green, the life… Became something else. Like the digamma. All that is left is this vast, insatiable lust. For blue and green and life.
Still, on a winter evening, you can go out there, spread your arms and embrace the desert. And the sky, the bare hills, the sea you know is there, somewhere. Beyond, beneath… Who knows where, exactly.
This desert, the one you see in between the glass and chrome and concrete, this one is different. It gets to you. Gets you, rather. Sooner or later. This one is just sand, and one day you realise you’re also just sand. Perhaps with bits of fossils buried in you. And you also know that eventually they’ll dig you out, out of yourself, and build another skyscraper where you now stand.
And you, like the digamma, first become obsolete, then return as a number, and then become something else for someone else. A handful of sand? Seashells? Stardust? Memories? Or a story you narrate to a colleague on a summer evening as you weave through the rush-hour traffic?
You, then, are a letter in an alphabet, a symbol. Aksharam: that which does not perish. That which is, even when it isn’t. Like the digamma.