Three ways of looking...
It is time to head back to Write...Edit...Publish... for the October chapter and this is the much anticipated Halloween month. There's a choice of two prompts, both utterly yum! I am going with the Constellations prompt, there are enough scary stories in my life just now to want to write more :) The scariest thing in the world in uncertainty, not knowing what the outcome of any given event will be. That one thing can reduce me to absolute jelly-legs. But that is also the one thing I, in fact we all, live with on a daily basis, dealing with our given portions as best as we can.
Recently, I have been reading some modern American poetry and specifically fell in love with this poem here, which worked itself into the title. Not sure what these things are, they aren't poetry, and they aren't fiction. And they probably aren't fact either, though they might feel like that to me. Memory is a tricky thing, always selectively romanticised in retrospect. Whatever they are, I am happily dedicating them to my mother, who, I am pleased to report, is now recovering at home after her recent illness. She is named after Arundhati, the Indian name for Alcor in the star pair Mizar-Alcor which are part of the Big Dipper (called the Saptarshi, or the Seven Sages in the Indian system of astronomy). I don't know of anyone more deserving of being named after a star.
...at Constellations of Meanings
The sun leaves smudged finger marks on the sky as he disappears. Smoke-lilac, bruise-purple, ash-pink, burnt-rust. I feel like taking a pot shot from the hospital window. The glass pane is large, divided into three. So many things are divided into three. Day and Night and the In-between times. Heavens, Earth, Underworld. Left, Right, Centre. Faith, Belief, Rituals. Daughter, Mother, Dust.
She is named for a companion to one of the Seven Sages, she taught me that constellation in the sky herself. It’s the only one I can immediately identify looking up more than forty years later wherever I am in the northern hemisphere.
“It’s a question mark in the sky. See?” And I had traced it out with a childhood finger and seen. “And that one in the middle of the downward stroke? That’s Great Sage Vashistha. Look a little closer, do you see another? Not as shiny as the others, but she’s there. That’s the one. Not as conspicuous as the Sages, but always constant, always shining, sticking close to her partner. She’s a good star to have on your side.”
I look from the window to her face on the pillow. It is tired, lines of pain etched into deep grooves, the claw marks of time running parallel on the forehead. Her eyelids look a few sizes too big for her eyes, ringed with the same smoke-lilac of the sunset sky. My hand on her forehead feels unwieldy, not delicate enough to touch fragile things. Her skin is cool velvet, the fever has broken sometime ago, the clamminess now a faint residual glow. Outside the threefold panes, the constellations have quietly climbed into their places meanwhile. The Sage’s Companion is faint, but still burning. Still a good star to have on my side.
A snatch of song interrupts my titanic struggles with the Red Giants, White Dwarfs and Black Bodies.
‘Oh my mother’s smile lights up the face of the Moon; her tender gaze, how can it be lost? it’s there in the eyes of the stars; the sun steals her vermilion to deck the dawn…’
It is a 1950’s number popular with her generation, ostensibly an elegy for someone’s mother. Both the melody and the lyrics are maudlin and mildly annoying, really, Bengalis!
‘Please stop! I am trying to study here. And my grandmother isn’t dead, why are you singing that?? It’s a silly song anyway.’
I can hear her laugh, she is always laughing, the house rings with it all the time, expansive, pervading, infectious. But her comeback is devoid of laughter. ‘You get distracted too quickly, child! And it’s not about your grandmother, it can be about any mother. Mother Nature, the Earth Mother. Mother is a vast word. One word, many interpretations, whole constellations of meanings.’
‘It’s just an awful sentimental song.’
‘Space for your dislike too in this house. Just shut the door.’
Blue, white, red, dead. All things born must die. All the stars are dead. The constellations are dead, they are prehistory, primordially dead. Dead is dead black, matter burnt to a crisp, to a nothingness. Blue is hotter than red. Red is hotter than dead. Cool ice blue, fiery red hot. No, hot blue, cool red. Constellations may actually be patterns connecting star-corpses. Constellations of bluewhitereddeadcrispblacknothingness. Constellations of ancient, ancient light caught in a time warp. Constellations of meanings.
I get up to shut the door. She has meanwhile switched to a different tune, ‘Are you only an image? Are you not true like the planets, constellations and the sun?…’
A single star pins up the sky in place. The sunset is a ragged, multicoloured curtain on the horizon. We heave ourselves off in long strides, back off the inselberg at the starting point of the highway. The twilight is just one sharp flare of light - and it goes quickly here. We haven’t left ourselves much leeway.
‘Pretty, isn’t it? A bit more colourful than back home.’
I am silent. Because her ‘back home’ isn’t mine. She is in a boarding school somewhere abroad, here only for the long summer holiday. I live a little way up the road, my school a fifteen-minute drive. The local girls’ school - a compound of low buildings splashed with vivid bougainvillea and hibiscus. A residential school where I, as an expatriate child, am exempt - let off every afternoon to go back home.
Back home is a phrase fraught with many difficulties. Because half the time home doesn’t feel anywhere at the back, it is right here in front of me, in this wide open, magnificent savannah I have known half my life. And the other half? If I listen carefully, I can hear my still unformed identities split down the middle. When I go on holiday, my grandfather rebukes my parents in absentia through me, ‘For how long? This nomad’s life? Settling down is also something. Do you know what your ‘gotra’ is?’
I don’t have the faintest clue. And I don’t much care. My father makes an indifferent Brahmin, I don’t see him wearing the sacred thread around his torso, don’t see him do the ritual sprinkling of water before meals, I have never seen him pray at all. My mother now - hers is a different world altogether, she prays on the full moon night of Lakshmi-puja, marking the Gregorian calendar painstakingly in ink, picking out the correct confluences of suns and moons and constellations from letters that take more than a month to bridge the distances between her home and homeland half a world away.
She stands under the porch now in the fast fading twilight.
‘You’re late, child. The rule is to get back home before the streetlights come on, remember?’
‘Where’s back home, Ma?’
'None of your cheek!' But something in my face arrests her displeasure. ‘Home is that land which puts food on your table. Never forget the respect you owe her.’
WC - 999