Sunday, 22 September 2019

Through a Million Births






Her stories live - in the lining of my skin.
From  birth to rebirth, all down eternity,
retold in dim rooms, and across open sea,
till they’re woven out and again woven in.


Braided  into my hair when I was a child,
melded into the weight heaved by the adult,
like leaf shadows on my windows, old and dulled
by pain, like the glint of teeth each time I smiled;


they glow in the games I played by the roadside
on flights of jewelled daydreams I went alone;
in cold breaths of breath, fused in the bones of bones,
in lapsed lifetimes and those not yet occupied.


However far I fly, small or deep I dive,
they beam their muted threads into all my lives.






Last week was my mother's birthday. My twenty something-th year to mark the occasion away from her, in a different city/country/continent.  But really, what do physical distances even matter? 


This is the one cord that's never cut, not in this lifetime, nor in the next seven. Or seventeen. i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)...through a million births if there were/are to be a million.












Sunday, 15 September 2019

In praise of gasmen I've never met



Credit


The streetlights come on in a single sweep,
anonymous hands have turned on a switch
or maybe they're not hands - a sensor keeps
tabs on lumen levels - a drop, a smidge
of twilight means it's time to turn things on,
then nip them closed when dark fades into dawn.


Fancy names I have often heard these called,
this dusting of lights at the waters' edge,
but that's not top of mind. Stories told, retold
- gasmen, another street, a different stretch
of water, and time, each light lit one by one,
turned off singly too, when their work was done.

Less grand. Less automated. More in tune
with the soft drapes of the dark, stars and moon.









Sunday, 8 September 2019

Mirrored





I saw the lights on a mighty waterfall
and a rainbow bridge connecting the two sides.
I heard six-lane roads running parallel
to rivers, strange leaf shadows amplified

by the angle of light on woodland trails,
albeautiful, all never seen before;
yet they felt like reflections, the blurred details
the water picks up from the river shore -

as if this life flowing someplace elsewhere
had been a surface for those reflections,
as if the gradients, the clouds, the flare
of sails and sunsets had really begun

long before they were finally encountered,
mirrored in the mind before being seen or heard.


Sunday, 1 September 2019

Follow







I will follow you where no one else will -
till the far bank. Till the automatic doors
click shut.  Till the long train pulls out. And till
the last ocean reaches its farthest shore.

From these rooms to the routes by land and air,
on the road and off-road and by the hill,
at rest within walls, or restless, I’ll be there
wherever you choose to stop or travel.

When the light dazzles, or the darkness blinds
and the world offers a shoulder that’s cold,
the ground gets boggy or you suddenly find
the cliffs won’t let you get even a toehold,

when the earth and sky feel like a cosmic sneer
reach out for me and I’ll be there, my dear.



So, I am back in couch-potato mode, newly empty nester-ed and somewhat ill at ease with this whole caper. The offspring is now a few thousand miles away, I'm a few thousand years older, not a look that suits me, I'm sure. My heart is bursting with a deadly strange mixture of pride and fear, and also beating in all the wrong places...

The alarm clocks have been turned off, the school routines binned, but...I'm still waking up at crack of dawn every weekday, uber frustrating! The sleeping in till I drop off (the bed) plans will have to take a backseat for now...while I get my coping mechanism sorted...lots of hyperventilating coupled with beverages of caffeinated and alcoholic kinds should do the trick...and of course, poetry, the panacea for all milestones and malaise!

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Write...Edit...Publish...+ IWSG : August 2019 Red Wheelbarrow




It's time to get back to Write...Edit...Publish... this month and I'm still with essays. Or memoirs, if you prefer. But there's a slight difference this time, more about that later. Here's my entry for Red Wheelbarrow...


Wheeled In, Wheeled Out


Memory is a cloud on a Himalayan slope, slinking in through the open shutters and leaving everything misted with a certain coolness, bedewed with moisture. Memory is a jewellery box, an old radio, a cigarette holder between gnarled fingers; it is a suburban house that morphs from cage to polestar depending on who is looking and if they are inside or out. It is a mossy pump housing against which pinwheel flowers bloom.  A rockfall on NH 31 somewhere near Sevoke, the Coronation Bridge on its peripheral vision. The smoke from a grandmother’s coal fired stove stinging early morning eyes. And it’s also a decrepit wheelbarrow that Matthias the gardener wheels in from somewhere with a heap of suspiciously smelly black lumps. 

Memory is forever a smell – of animal dung fertiliser, of petrichor, the rains hitting parched ground in a needle thin, sharp sheet of silver. Of the bushfire crackling across the drive from the windows, of your mother spraying you playfully with Revlon’s Charlie as she completes her dressing to go out. Everybody was crazy about that perfume in those years caught between kiddiekidness and grownuphood. The Harmattan haze like teased out cotton candy falling on the bougainvillea, just like that Himalayan cloud only a different colour, a different smell, and dry as a bleached bone.

From Dover Lane to Delhi. And then wheeled across several borders and seas nearly 7000 kms away, only the world hadn’t gone metric yet so it was all miles still. When your mother told you that you all would have to leave Delhi - your school, your friends, your entire hitherto familiar world, you don’t remember being overly dismayed. Which was strange for a child, now that you come to think of it more than four decades later. But the bonds loosen automatically as soon as another home, another city, another life of a different texture dawns as a possibility on the horizon. That is what it has been like for nearly all the moves, bar one.   

Memory is the name of a friend from a childhood city, a fixed telephone line recalled from another one, the exact sound of your father’s car turning into the driveway when you were thirteen.  It is an atlas first and later a spinning globe, seablue and mudbrown and icewhite and all the little countries marked out in different colours – India in pale lime, Nigeria in peach. Memory is a strange sequence of numbers and words – 18/68B Dover Lane and E-79 NDSE Part I and E-823 C.R. Park and 46, New GRA. That small white painted sign listing next to the culvert and the green 46 stencilled on it - memory is even tinier than the footprint of that sign, but still as huge as the 46+ years that have lapsed since you saw it first.


Parents and I in Maiduguri, early 70's.



***

Airports in the early 70’s were more basic everywhere, at least those you travelled through. No sleekness or softness anywhere, no gleaming granite floors, no fancy lighting. Signages were cruder, functional. No barcodes on baggage - bags got misplaced regularly. A collection of hard chairs and hard floors, uncomfortable seating arrangements in less-than-plush transit and departure lounges. Planes, on the other hand, had something called legroom and seats that reclined more than 5 degrees, even in economy.  

Rome had uniformed security personnel toting machine guns and an air of complete chaos – intimidating.  Heathrow even back then bristled with maps to go, the underground one was your favourite right from the first. Kano had bright blue and orange agama lizards alongside the runway, stopping to nod, nod, nod, three times in quick succession, before skittering on. So much more interesting than the drab sand coloured geckos on the walls back home in Delhi. Maiduguri was a windsock and a control tower perched on the fringes of the Sahara when you landed on 29th April 1972.

Memory is a child’s delight at finding the bottle of Coke supersized by a continent move, just like that - 300 ml instead of  the 200 ml available at the local paan biri shop in C R Park. It is the wonder at seeing the baobab illustration in a favourite vernacular story book come alive in the Sahel, so close! After the first roundabout in the GRA and then again just before the turn into the drive of 46. Something that a fictional hero might have sat under, now miraculously available within the range of your own senses, to see, to touch, to scoop out and eat the tartness of it fruits.


***


In the square hollow created by the garage, walkway and the external wall of the kitchen, your father planted a golden cassia sapling for shade so that future visitors had somewhere to park their cars. It grew ramrod straight, its lower branches longer and heavier than the higher ones, like a comical Christmas tree, the whole idea of shade and parking somehow gone wrong. It topped the roof and rose higher in the years you spent there. Memory is about vaguely wondering now, 46+ years later, if that tree in 46 GRA still stands, and if by chance it does – has it grown a canopy under which a car can be parked for shade on a scorching hot Sahel afternoon? Memory is all about not knowing and having no means of finding out.

Leaving for Bauchi, March 1976.

In the album there's still the last photo of your family with friends come to see you off when your father was relocated out of Maiduguri. Your face reflects your misery – the only time you were beside yourself with desolation, completely out of love with the idea of a move.

The humongous North Eastern state had been carved up into three, and two brand new towns needed to be built up – from almost-villages to the state capitals. Resources in Maiduguri were allocated to the new states and your father was one such resource allotted to Bauchi. So goodbyes were said, the last bread broken, promises of undying friendships made and addresses exchanged. One March morning, NES 4579 was loaded up. You sat at the back window with an entire universe worth of resentment churning within you, your elbow against a pile of stuff teetering on the seat, held up at the other end by your mother’s help, Balai. And so you were wheeled out of 46 New GRA  and the Sahel for the last time.


WC 1070 FCA






I'd be particularly interested to hear your views on the second person POV in the excerpt above.  Do you think it works? Does it distance you from the narrative? Would you prefer to read memoirs in the first person only? Thank you as always, for your feedback.

Incidentally, 'Sahel' is an Arabic word meaning shore and it is used to refer to the fringe of the Sahara. The Sahel Savannah is a geographic zone stretching more than 3000 miles across Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

This is a scheduled post as I am travelling this month. I will be reading as and when I can, but will catch up with each one of you once I am back. Meanwhile, happy reading!




Sunday, 28 July 2019

Don't quite recognise this street



II.

The map says the coordinates are the same, but 
something's moved, irrevocable, intractable
there seems to be less space around the round table
and if I try to speak, some young voice pipes up, cuts

me off mid sentence. The cushions have hardened
what was lived-in is now lumpy, there's vermilion 
on the wall, dried leaves, extra sprees of religion,
too much incense, and some freedom's drawn to an end.

I can't recognise this street address, I can't breathe 
for the smoke from ghee burning lamps, and the shadows
under them are the deepest, a golden flame glows
beside the threshold but the plinth erodes underneath.

The rug's frayed, the floor's crumbly - friable concrete.
It wasn't this way, don't quite recognise this street.






Okay, so I hope the political storms in the teacups of my brain are over. Of course everyone should take a stand to defend whatever opinion they hold, but I am glad it's out of my system. Don't get me wrong, I'm not for one moment saying that it's okay to be intolerant and obnoxious, just that I'm going to resist that tendency in our politics elsewhere. Here I'm happiest being bindaas and will be reverting back to that state forthwith.



All of next month I'm travelling - in USA for the first time, and meeting people I haven't seen in several decades, so excited! My post for the WEP is scheduled and I promise it's nothing political :) I will be catching up on the blog as and when I can. Meanwhile, have the most wonderful month.


Sunday, 21 July 2019

Thirty Years Later



I. 

It's almost thirty years by the time I get back
and meanwhile all the furniture's moved around
even the window's broken - the street lights and sounds
whatever's within, beyond, feel like an attack,

an assault on the memories and their value.
How can this be home? the rose bush in the courtyard
has been torn up, paved over with a ruthless, hard
concrete and fancy pedestal, much to-do

with a tulsi and a trident. While I was gone
someone has changed the drapes, painted the parlour walls
in a stifling shade. There are many more keyholes.
From the street a strident speech pierces known comfort zones -

intolerance wisps in the air like chloroform,
slogans shove a wet rag on the nose. This is home?





Sunday, 14 July 2019

Small my footprint



I.

Not even the fringes will do, because
they are no longer safe or sane, unquiet
stalks me everywhere on earth, day and night,
upends the natural order, the laws
of compassion and civility. Pause
the diatribe, switch off that awful might,
the cameras, the cross-hairs of those rifle sights.
Hubris can't win unconditional applause.


But I'll escape deeper, further inward,
beyond the fringe, beyond the last desert
into forbidding terrain, but I'll cope.
I'll burrow with the antlions into hope
where the sharpness of neither steel nor word
can pin my silhouette within their scope.



II. 


But for now I'm here, and I'll stand my ground
however small my footprint, or how quick
the winds blur it. Unapologetic 
I stand here, and no-one will beat me down
with a mandate. They've been voted, not crowned.
The seasons, moons and success are cyclic
and that is that. There's no template, no trick
to avoid change forever, it will come around.


For now I am here, and I won't submit,
this is my patch. Here the sands don't permit
creeping flames, because there's nothing to feed
a fire, no undergrowth, no grass, not a reed.
Can't burn or stamp me out, can't try it -
a waste of matches for they can't succeed.




A few days ago, I shared a new Indian opposition MP's eloquent speech on my timeline with the tagline - the quality of your democracy is directly proportional to the space for dissent...well-said, lady! 


A couple of FB-friends who are avid supporters of the PM didn't like it, they thought the speech and the MP were anti-national, and by association I was too.  The assumption was illogical and they lapsed into rudeness and personal attacks when they couldn't win the argument. 


I generally stay away from politics on any social media, but...I do object strongly to incivility and shouting down. I don't approve of rudeness and rough language. And I totally don't approve of erosion of human rights and freedoms. I don't care a fig what size mandate you got. If you can't take care of your minority rights, if you can't take criticism, if you don't allow questioning or free thinking, you have no right to call yourself a democracy, largest my foot.


And today is Bastille Day which is a good reminder for all democratic people and their leaders. So I thought I'd share the verses here for the occasion. The universe's timing is always faultless, no? :) 






Monday, 8 July 2019

Countdown to College




A hodgepodge carton of books and soft toys -
a whale, a dolphin, teddies, the Gruffalo
tucked away in a higher shelf because
you stopped needing, reading them, years ago
when you were five or six. Children outgrow
all their stuff quicker than mothers. I pause
the decluttering, though I know, I know
everything must go, boys are only boys

for a finite time. Yet I cannot bring
myself to throw away a single thing.
Some childhood remains in these residues
in soft toys for which you’ve no further use,
old and matted, beaded eyes coming loose;
in well-thumbed pages you’ve finished reading.







Monday, 1 July 2019

Build me a home...somewhere on the fringes


There’s a peace in the fringes of the desert,
in untouched yellowed grasses of the earth,
sands marked with only antlions and birdprints,
in the cricket’s song and the pale moon’s rinse
on the unmarked path that’s barely a path.


It’s not that I have not loved the cities
the streets of bookshops, artworks, topiaries,
the tempests in the endless cups of tea
the bustle of trade, the quick repartee -
but they’re all smoke and change, nothing’s at peace.


In the capitals some or other tribe
jostles for power, takes a random swipe,
narrow minds and narrow rules deal hard blows
to ones they called neighbours just days ago
and peace is a stranger to urban life.


The sands are ever changing, ever still
the antlions likely still pockmark the Sahel,
the birds still sing, the trade wind brings and pours
a fine mist of dust wisped in from the north
only the grass trembles, the rest is tranquil.


But that Sahel’s a figment, just a dream;
the sands are churning, the grasses aren’t serene
some manic sickness has taken sudden hold -
and the innocent suffer all round the world
no antlions those, they’re something else it seems.


Build me a home where humans have forgotten
to aim and shoot, sharpen the war obsession,
where the Sahel and the green are both peaceful,
the olive shades the white dove and keeps her cool,
where ships are only transport and not weapons.




Sunday, 23 June 2019

Two more




XIV.


The gallery halls of history are
crowded with the victory lists
now tell me about those who were
eliminated by its twists.

The unrecorded hoi polloi
who wove the carpet, served the bread,
cleaned the stables day after day,
sorted the mail, counted the heads,

the ones who had the silver spoons
only to polish and lay back,
their boards were sparse, their plates were crude -
not the type anyone would track.

Speak of the ninety nine percent
to whom history was indifferent.




XVIII.


Speak of those who sang note perfect
raising the tunes in unison
off screen and on, across the stage
yet no glory was ever won.

Those who sang anthems, raised slogans,
matched their steps and marched for miles,
cared nothing for repercussions,
but never got to reach the aisles.

The stable hand who trained the colt,
the jockey who reined in the horse.
The race driver - not at the pole
but the last chap who stayed the course.

Speak of the ninety nine percent
who don’t win but are persistent.



This ended up as an out-of-control 21X14 matrix :) and it has been written as it came so here are two more from the same series. Hopefully it's out of my system now....


Have the most amazing summer/winter!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Write...Edit...Publish...+ IWSG : Caged Bird June 2019




In life nothing is constant but change, and I'm dealing with a whole slew of them. Some changes are expected, I'm okay with those - seasons, months, growth, the expected transitions...but not all. Especially discomfort-inducing are those changes which happen too fast and without reason, descend on me with a rush like a rockfall. But...thankfully, some changes are reversible. Storms in teacups, not much harm done to the cups or the tea. C'est la vie... the idea is to keep calm and carry on writing...at Write...Edit...Publish...  - where I’m continuing with my photo-essay spree, and it is strangely apt that someone who taught me the definitive lessons on navigating change, should be the subject of it. 

The original is way over word count, so my entry consists of a few sections only. To explain the title - the person was a posthumous child, his losses started even before birth and carried on from there.



Born into Loss



S.N. Maitra with two of his grandchildren at 18/68B Dover Lane in 1982.


Three things are indelibly associated with that time and place, and with him – the wall clock, the tobacco water-pipe, and the small radio with the wooden fascia. I asked about them years later, but they were gone by then. Sold off to the junk-dealers because the radio and clock had both stopped working. Not sure what happened to the water-pipe, maybe the scrap traders got it for the metal.

Unlike his wife, he left me nothing tangible. No childhood presents, no souvenirs, not even a book with his name signed on it. No photograph albums, fat chance! - no such luxury. There’s just one photo I have, with him, my little cousin and me together in one frame, the one above, I was nearly an adult then. But he did leave me three clearly enunciated names – Meghna, Machhpara, Faridpur. And he left me an example of how to calmly navigate change and carry immeasurable loss without disintegrating. Intangibles all. Nothing that I can quite close my fist around, but all worth holding on to.

He had a cigarette-holder too, small, jet-black with a filter incorporated, in which he occasionally smoked a brand called Capstan, one cigarette cut carefully into pieces, for reasons of economy rather than health. The family was hard up even then, even with his elder son working at a renowned architectural firm in the city. A decade back, the father had sold off his last valuable - his gold watch, in some vaguely grand, O’Henryesque gesture, to pay off the backlog of hostel fees of his adult child, without which the said child would not have been able to sit his final university exams. A whole cigarette in one sitting felt too extravagant still. 
  
Everything was eked out, cigarettes, coal, postcards. The last item he filled with XXS size handwriting, beautifully formed letters by a rocksteady hand, without a hint of a tremor, even when he was 90+. But again, I get ahead of myself, I was the recipient of those 15-p postcards in teenage, where an entire week’s worth of family news was written on less than 50 square inches. But then Bengali is a compact script, there are hardly any loops and flourishes below the line. There was a singular lack of loops and flourishes below the line in our lives then, his and mine.
  
The room had several windows, green louvred with straight, black, vertical wrought-iron rods - forbidding, cool to the touch. The ceiling was low, the floor was set a couple of steps down from the landing, the same polished red oxide as the rest of the house. The door frame was smaller, lower than the others in the regular rooms on the upper or ground floor. He was a tall man, very spare, very upright, he must have had to duck to get in. There is, of course, more to being caged than a cramped room and straight bars on a window. And one man’s cage can be his grandkid’s polestar.  
  
***

I once asked him why he didn’t show the papers of the village property and get due compensation that the uprooted from East Pakistan were given by the Indian government. His told me that there were other branches of the family still living in the property, the papers were with them, naturally. Besides, where was the chance? We didn’t really plan this move, we didn’t flee as refugees, we came here to work, to get our children educated. We just got trapped this side of the suddenly sprung-up border. There was no way to go back.
  
I don’t really know how that feels, I was born years after the Partition. But I can take a good guess.  From the rambling, many-roomed, haphazard homestead with four courtyards, built over centuries a wing at a time - to a new built, two-storey, tiny, suburban house with a courtyard the size of a hanky. From being one of the first families in a small village where everyone knew him by name to the huge anonymity of a city of millions. From the collective memories of generations rooted in the same patch of land to one where there was no memory to draw upon. No templates for living life - the old ways rapidly disappeared, the new ways were not yet devised. 
  
Sapta purush jethae manush shey maati mayer baRa – where seven generations have been brought up that land is greater than the mother.*  How to negotiate a change of citizenship in which your own birthplace, the land of your ‘seven-generational’ ancestors becomes foreign and forbidden to you? He lived nearly half his life in Dover Lane, away from his home and birthplace, both forever out of his reach. It must have been excruciating. Trapped on this side of the border. We are all trapped by our respective borders and yet we can never know the exact nature of anyone else’s struggles, regardless of how close they are to us. 

***
  
One Wednesday afternoon in April 1986, my father called me at work. Come to Dover Lane. By then my parents had moved back to Calcutta, my mother was in remission from cancer, I lived with them in their hastily-acquired new home and worked not too far from Dover Lane. 
  
I found the house fuller than usual, my father’s cousins had come by, my eldest aunt, Boropishi was there sat by his bed. She told him I had come – he opened his eyes, looked at me for a long moment but said nothing; and then shut them back again. My grandfather lay perfectly still, his face calm, the eyes shut, the bones of his jaw and chin very prominent, his lips thinned as if some invisible internal force was sucking them in.
  
Shortly after, he sighed  - a long drawn out, rasping groan. The usual rituals were observed, a drop of Gangajal was touched to the mouth. My father checked for a heartbeat and could not find one. The neighbours, who happened to be doctors and had treated him for years, were called in and medically confirmed the death.
  
There was no last minute rushing in and out of hospitals, no last words, no mortal agony – just a peaceful departure. One minute he was there, the next he was not. My grandfather died with the same quiet dignity with which he had conducted himself all his life.  The cage had finally broken and the captive had gone free.



WC 1075
FCA


*A line from a famous Tagore poem called Dui Bigha Jomi (Two Bighas of Land)



Read the other entries here -