Thursday, 18 January 2018

Fresh new eyelids

Somewhere in a river of red Sundays,
in thick drifts of January headlines,
somewhere in black boxes of old crosswords,
perched nervous on a taut wire of sunshine,
I’ve waited for you to give me back my mind.

Somewhere in yellowed photograph albums,
in a million cracks of brittle glassine,
staring at the six-faced dies of mind games,
turning the wheels of dead mundane routine,
I’ve waited for you to tell me what you mean.

The years fall like petalled rain on fingers
and both my hands and eyelashes are wet.
On the highway piled up sullied winters.
You’re still out shooting, eyeballs on target,
but no more waiting, I’m primed to forget.

Eyelids are woven so they’d be drip-dried,
strength’s a dragon kite flying at its own will.
I’ve torn up all the rivers and cracked glassine
and forced the boxes open, dies to spill.
You’ll be in sometime. I’ll be quite civil.

And I’ll claim back each of the shot Sundays,
and every blank box on the crossword grid,
rake back each ribbon of hijacked mindspace
and weave myself a pair of fresh, new eyelids
and brush off all that you did, and undid.

Sunday, 14 January 2018



The first discards are not even noticed -
the packing newspapers, old magazines,
the shift in the definition of local,
and the weather displayed on tiny screens.

One day too soon the memories are blurry
and previous city roads get unravelled.
The radio programmes, heights of doorframes
shift slightly to let you know you’ve travelled.

The last of the old supermarket’s brands,
bags bright in undegradable plastic -
a beaker bought there is suddenly broken
and shattered pieces of glass equal homesick.

You sigh, sweep up and throw them in the bin,
and that’s when the meaning of home sinks in.

I'm still celebrating the mundane, which is what I do, generally. I know, I should get a life! This year, I promise. I'll make a serious attempt. Right after I finish this post. 

Anyways, last month, last month? year end, I was talking to my friend, and of course, we started with something very crisp and concrete on the agenda and wound up someplace completely unrelated-fuzzy, history, and homes, and the meanings of both.  And something that was said - home is shared history, the stuff you carry around, the interior of the mind and not the interior of the house - must have stuck in ye olde subconscious and produced the above. 

An Egyptian kettle and a teamug broke in the  meantime, I don't know how they managed to sneak in here. But things have got to a pretty desperate stage if broken mugs and electrical appliances are making it to poems! Must find mundane, but less mundane, stuff to celebrate. Pronto!

What are you celebrating today? :)

Sunday, 7 January 2018


The yin and the yang, the fizzle, sizzle and bang
the sparkle, the circle, and line
oh, I am grateful for all, the short, tall, oddball,
the glass and the fuss and the wine.
The stable, unstable, the three-legged table
so long as there’s place it’s just fine.
The pins and the prongs, and the fork’s probably wrong -
but I’m grateful it’s still got tines. 

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Hello, 2018!!

Not many photos of the grass
-  so remiss! So remiss, because
the earth there wears a festive lace,
it shimmers when a mild breeze blows.

Not many photos of the grass
as it’s not in the line of sight,
effort’s needed to find the grace
that’s not obviously supersized.

Just one photograph of the grass
to snag memory in a snare.
The small always made even less,
ignored as if it isn’t there.

But the grass underfoot makes me ache,
it’s lace, and longing, and heartbreak.

I was in the African savannahs over the holidays. Got lots of photos of the wildlife, the big 5, the mammals, even the smaller less drooled-over species like dung-beetles and lizards. The variety and the beauty of the grasses blew my mind, the delicacy of their seedpods, the slant of their bending to the winds. I didn’t get too many photographs though, the breeze was always blurring the picture, when I made the effort to focus in the first place, that is. Which is odd when you think of it, because surely the star of the show in the grasslands ought to be the grasses and not befanged and betrunked animals?

But I got a few photos, and one of them is up there for your consumption, for whatever it’s worth. Not every magical moment/thing can be clicked and binary-coded into hard disks and boxed up even if I were to be less remiss – that too is a life lesson in acceptance.

I also had this vague expectation, fully aware it was wrong and therefore duly afraid of being disillusioned as well - this mixed and mixed-up expectation that somehow it would offer me a route to the utter peace, the aching content that the savannahs of my childhood did. It was a thinly veiled attempt to return to lapsed spaces and times. Which of course was doomed to fail from the outset. 

But as it turned out, it wasn’t a failure.  The landscapes of the East are different from the West where I spent my childhood - the acacia species, the missing baobabs, the mango trees laden with a totally different red-magenta fruit. Even some of the grasses felt different. But that heart-stopping hushed feeling when in the savannahs, stretching from where your feet are planted to the horizons? Exactly the same. You breathe deep, and you mentally clasp your hands together in gratitude.

Welcome! to M-i-V in 2018, which is going to be roughly the same as it was in 2017, but hopefully a little wiser, a little less remiss, with a slightly clearer focus on the grasses while keeping an eye out for the betrunked and the befanged in the savannahs of life.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Meetings with Mozart, Ney, Oud, Percussion and Qanun

Classical music from the West has always inspired many singers/musicians in the East. Here is Omar Kamal, a Palestinian singer, known popularly as the Arab Sinatra, singing Fairouz’s cover of Mozart’s Symphony 40. Have a listen:

Fairouz, as everybody knows, is from Lebanon, one of the most revered singers across the Arab world. Lebanon has contributed a large number of talented musicians, something about the topography?…or maybe the water?…anyways, here is a young, superbly talented violinist from there with Made in Lebanon. Divanessa, was born in Canada and educated in Lebanon, click on her name to find out more.

Since we are on the subject of music, just thought I’d mention here that the solmisation in Arabic, which is called Durrat Mufassalat (meaning ‘separate pearls’) goes daal, ra, meem, fa, saad, laam, ta, these are letters of the Arabic alphabet associated with the seven notes. There is apparently no documentary evidence that the current form of Western solmisation, which happened during the medieval times, is in any way based on the Arabic one. So I am not saying a word further about Arabic influence, ha! We deal only in hard proofs.

Music is such a primal thing, I mean, I’ll bet that there was someone breaking into song long before we had alphabets or even before man was really Man, you know? The great apes can sing, and they do, as signals to other members of their group. In India the primordial sound is thought to be is ‘Om’ a syllable that is sung. All our poetry, which was religious to begin with and predated other literature, was chanted. Man probably hummed before he learned to speak, who knows? he was probably tuneful before he was articulate. Or perhaps I should say Woman.

I can totally imagine Neanderthal and Australopithecus mums crooning to the babies to make them sleep, can’t you? while the dads used frantic but silent gestures ('don’t just stand there! throw me that spear for heavens sakes, man! this springbok’s getting away!') at the hunts to avoid noise. Can this be the underpinnings why women are verbal and men are visual? Anyhoo. I digress.

But this be the thing - did you know, from the Far East to Europe, the entire old world in other words, uses the same number of notes as the basis of music? We name just seven basic notes, though there are many cultures which use half-notes or quarter-notes in between two. In Indian music there are the komal and tivra and shuddha to denote the in-betweens, but the names of the notes add up to the same number, with the name for the first and the last note repeated.  Daal-ra-meem-fa-saad-laam-ta. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.   I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni. The more I dig into things, the more gobsmacked I get really. 

Incidentally, the traditional Arabic ensemble did not include the violin, it’s an import from Europe, but has been made a part of the Arab orchestras from the 19th century onwards. The stringed instrument that is traditionally included in the Arab ensemble is the oud, which can be traced back to Persia some 3500 years ago, a short-necked, fret-less six/seven stringed instrument. Similar instruments have been found on ancient Egyptian paintings/frescoes from the Pharaonic era. The Arab armies brought it back to Arabia either from Egypt or from Persia in the 7th century and made it uniquely their own. The Moors then took it to Spain where it was known as the lute (al-ud), and from there it branched off and evolved into the modern day six-stringed, fretted guitar.

The oud is the main accompaniment to a traditional Arab song, it is also played solo. Listen to an eminent Iraqi Kurdish oud player Naseer Shamma in this clip below

And to these Palestinian oud players, brothers Joubran:

The other instruments that form the Arab ‘takht’ (ensemble) are the Ney – an end-blown flute and the percussion, which is usually the goblet drum - Darbouka, also called Doumbek.  Another prominent string instrument in the Arab ensemble is the trapezoidal zither - Qanun, that's often also played solo. Listen to this Qanun piece by a famous instrumentalist:

The qanun is also the ancestor of the Indian santoor, incidentally.

The Alex Trilogy

Just my quick review of this book -

This is Alexandria from the perspective of real, feet-on-the-ground for generations, Egyptian working-class residents, as far away from the expat-bubble rarefied-prism POV as one can possibly get. Set during WWII, the author has used quotations from other authors/poets - al Niffari, Rumi, Cavafy and Durrell among them, as chapter banners to anchor each chapter, and the reader, in place. Of personal interest also were the glimpses of Indian soldiers fighting the war in Egypt seen from a non-Indian POV. 

This is not a light page-turner, it's a huge, sweeping story of friendship, of overcoming religious differences, of hardships, of working class people, of war in faraway places upending lives in ways small and great. Above all, it is the story and the history of Alexandria from eyes and nose close to the ground. It needs some work and concentration to get at the novel, and I make a habit of often getting distracted by futile thoughts of what's lost in translation when reading translated Arabic, can so do without it! It's a densely packed, teeming, aromatic and rich-complex read - if you are interested in a POV that contrasts Durrell's and the more aloof Eurocentric version, go for it.

The book was longlisted for the IPAF award, I'm not sure these longlists or shortlists should be the reason for choice, a reader's criteria can be vastly different from the juries', but anyhoo. Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, a multiple awardee, has gone on to write two more books set in Alexandria forming his Alexandria trilogy. (Echoes of the Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz?!) Birds of Amber and Clouds over Alexandria followed NSiA. Read an interview of the author here.

So...that's the last post for the year. It's been a tumultuous one...2017 has been a tough cookie! Though I am grateful that I have a cookie, chewy or otherwise!  But glad to make a fresh start :) 

Thank you all who stopped by here and made my online life a respite and a refuge from the not-so-nice bits of my offline one. Wishing all of you a very happy and fun and fulfilling 2018 -


Sunday, 10 December 2017

Storms and Uniforms : Write... Edit... Publish... December 2017

Hello WEP-ers,

It's the final month and the final prompt, 'the end is the beginning' at Write...Edit...Publish, hosted by Denise and Yolanda. I'm posting an abbreviated version of a long story, and posting super-early as I'll be travelling over the holidays - I'm not sure if there will be a WiFi available.

Shankar is a school drop-out who's left the village, drifted to the city and into petty crime. He has been picked up by the police on occasion which has led to an aversion for uniforms and bureaucracy. He escapes a police raid and goes back to the village to avoid the lock-up, but ends up in a different cell anyways. 

Btw, a Daffadar is a rank in the Indian Army, equivalent to Sergeant. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Jordanian celebrations of a Khedival Love

Listen to the Jordanian opera singer Zeina Barhoum below:

Just after I wrote in a previous post here that most Arab women tend towards altos, I discovered a whole slew of singers who are not, naturally! what else should happen when anyone reads and believes such silly generalisations :)

‘I’m out of here! Off to Europe!’

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Hallucination of Room

I’ve breathed in your dust through my eyes
smelt the waves lapping at your shore
I’ve heard the silent towers rise
felt skin part as they stabbed the skies
reflection of cranes on glass doors.

Who knows who has the right to call
your mud their bone or blood or home
and what’s that except a set of walls?
one trumpet note and that set falls,
the hallucination of room.

The hallucinations of roofs
and rooms, this nothingness enclosed
and dust breathed in without much proof;
home always, but at a remove,
conflicts, and space juxtaposed.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Not so sucky: Remakes Blogfest

Today Ninja Captain Alex J Cavanaugh and Heather M Gardener are co-hosting the funnest blogfest on Remakes, irresistible! and I'm taking a break from poetry and jumping in.

The raison d'etre and rules  -

Remakes – most of them suck. Now and then, one comes along that is as good as, if not better, than the original. And after all of the bad ones we’ve endured, we want to know about some good ones.

On November 13, 2017, blog about your favorite remake: movie (or television show into movie and vice versa), song, or book – or all three! Post a YouTube video and links where we can find these treasures. Tell us why THIS remake doesn’t suck!

Sign up here or here. Post on November 13 and visit others on the list. Time to unearth those good remakes! 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Q & A

What colour's your poem? she asked.
I said,
mostly blues and greens, some yellow, some red.
Like twilight - maybe a shade of lilac –
some of it fluorescent, some grey and drab
and some parts dissolved small town mud track,
silvered power cuts with a few dabs
of starshine.  Lost fishhooks on dry riverbeds,
waving heat haze and groundnut pyramids.
Some lines white, some unavoidably black.

What colour is your poetry? 
I replied,
some quite see-through, like rainfall on the wide
lit savannahs, on which the long grass feeds
and grows its shadow, neat corn-rowed mornings,
windows missing louvres of glass. Low-speed
smiles, bright swimsuits flashing in the hot springs
in deep forest. The negative space between
points of bison horns, the dragon fly sheen
of streams. And some as opaque as safekeeping.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Hanine and Helw the Lion Tamer, and Idris' angle

Here is Hanine el Alam, a violinist, composer and performance artiste from Lebanon - take a listen to her brand of fusion in this track called  'Arabia' - and click on her name to find out more.

Another megarambler

This is kind of a complicated non-story in a non-story in a non-story post, the usual megarambler only the rambling quotient even more ramped up. Bear with me, please.

I suppose it all started with the film.  A short film called The Chair Carrier won a prize in some festival in USA late 2010 and appeared on my feed somewhere. I watched the film and liked it (and shared it as part of my A-Z 2017 series Arabiana. Watch it here) In the credits was the name of Dr Yusuf Idris, the writer of the original short story from which the film was adapted. I filed the name away in my mind for future reference.

This was a few months before the Spring was sprung. The film went on to win a slew of prizes across the world. Later, after the President fell, it naturally cropped up regularly all through 2011 alongside words like prescient and prophetic. I might mention here that the original story was written long before the film was made.

The Lion Tamer

As I’ve said earlier, 2011 expanded my cultural horizons in myriad ways - and one of them was Galal Amin. Here's another excerpt from an essay of his –

The opening of the National Circus...was part of a wider scheme which included, among other things, theatre, ballet, folk art, and classical and Arab music institutes, and it succeeded in unearthing new talent and in attracting wide audiences, until the events of 1967 put an end to it.

Soon after the military attack against Egypt and the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the National Circus suffered a recession, as did many other aspects of life in Egypt. This derived as much from the depression and hopelessness felt by many Egyptians in the wake of the army’s rout…

In this general dispiriting climate, a tragic accident befell the most important personality of the circus and the most prominent member of the Helw family. A lion named Sultan fatally mauled the trainer Muhammad Helw as he stood in the ring before the audience. This was on the night of October 12, 1972, and it so happened, that the gifted Egyptian author Yusuf Idris was in the audience that night. In the tremendous shock of the event, Idris saw something fearsome in the human side of the tragedy, symbolising not only the state of the circus at the time, but also the political and social life of Egypt in the aftermath of the Israeli attack. He recorded his impressions in a famous essay…published in the newspaper Al Ahram a few days later. The essay had widespread reverberations of its own, because it echoed exactly what many people were feeling at the time. He concluded that the lion’s attack on the trainer was an allegory for the state of Egyptians of that time – fearful, defeated, their high ideals lost, and their dreams of heroism and glory destroyed.

 ~ Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin

Oh déjà vu 

The retelling of the circus tragedy totally blew me away - déjà vu a thousand shades deep! 

Flashback to mid-seventies, to my schoolgirl self growing up in Maiduguri, in Northern Nigeria. I read a Bengali short story in one of the annual issues of a children’s magazine, these were fat, hardbound books with a wide collection of children literature written specifically for the annuals – general fiction, sci-fi, whodunits, poetry, cartoons and what have you, published every year in Sept/Oct to coincide with the autumn festivals of Dussehra/Durgapuja, and lovingly sent to me from India through snailmail, which I would receive the following spring and duly gobble up. 

Anyway, to get back to the point – I read a short story in one of these jobs about a lion tamer who devised more and more daring acts to attract audiences, upping the ante till the audiences sat with their collective hearts in their mouth. The final climax of his act was putting his head into the lion's jaws and then his release upon command. And you can guess what’s coming, can’t you? - one evening the lion clamped his jaws down and didn’t release the trainer, the story ended there with this awful cliff hanger, with the trainer’s torso suspended from the lion’s fangs, thrashing around in agony. Quite horrifying enough to read, can't imagine what it must be like to watch.

For some reason, I instantly got it into my head that this story was connected to the events at the Egyptian National Circus, quite firmly convinced. Sadly, though I tried all sorts of ways to confirm the link, I just couldn’t, both the author and the title of the Bengali story have passed completely out of memory, total blank.   So the cast iron conviction turned out to be the usual modification of memory to suit the present and clear biases. Sigh...

The first man to put his head into a lion's mouth was an American animal trainer  - Isaac Van Amburgh, way back in  the 1830's, and he may have been the inspiration for the story, though he did not die of mauling - one of the few lion tamers who died a natural death. Several lion tamers got injured when they put their heads into a wild cat's mouth in the 1800's, read about one here. Circus animals quite regularly maul their trainers, the story may also have been inspired by any number of other such attacks. There have been at least two more similar incidents in the Egyptian Circus itself, Ibrahim el Helw was mauled fatally in 2004 and his wife Faten was attacked in 2015, though she survived. In spite of these maulings and deaths, the Helw family have been steadfastly working as lion trainers since the 19th century.

I tried to trace that famous essay by Dr Idris too, but no luck there either, so I went and got his novel ‘The city of Love and Ashes’ and an anthology of his short fiction. I enjoyed the short stories more than the novel, but then I always have been an absolute sucker for short stories anyway. Right from schooldays till now, I'm blaming that on those annuals.