Sunday, 19 January 2020

Flexi-identity





What kind of papers? Will this portrait do?
My aunt had drawn it on a whim, freehand,
many years ago. I was twenty two.
The eyes are the same. You must understand –

I wasn’t written into the family tree
since that would mean rubbing me out again
upon marriage. We’re flexi-identity.
Daughters. Wives. A multitude of women

each one of us. Okay, what about this?
My father’s letter, mailed from Najafgarh,
the postmark is clear, the name and address.
Will this be proof enough to consider?

Well, that’s it. I can’t show you anything else
except old letters, treasures, some torn bills.








Sunday, 12 January 2020

Marshal




Maybe this too is a lesson after all
the endless wait in mizzling winter rain
windows pricked by droplets, has a moral.
A training in patience, and speaking plain.

Some distant hands ball into angry fists
an old protest song raises a dust storm
the poet’s labelled, it’s you who feels diminished
at the narrowness that now defines home.

The tamarind - wasn’t it enough for ten?
the tiniest spaces were stretched into broad
a foothold for the last man on the train,
was he ever asked for the name of his God?

Maybe the message nested in this pause
is to marshal your breath, and words, for the cause.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Clampdown!



A short story I wrote last month for the MOOC I just completed. Not so much a story as an extrapolation of reality...based on one of the conversations I had about the current situation in North India. The setting and characters are fictional, the clampdown is not! Longer than my usual post at 1300+ words (5 mins).  

Please read and share if you agree that citizenship should not be based on religion and India should remain open to refugees, regardless of their faith. 


~~~~

Clampdown!

Deepak slams the curved receiver down on its cradle. He does not aim quite right, it sits at an awkward angle, his annoyance goes up a notch at having to correct it. This froglike thing is no longer familiar, nearly all calls come in on his cell now. When did he lose the ability to function without a mobile phone? He tries to cast his mind back but he is too frazzled to think too long on it, his mind jumps from one jumble of thoughts to another. The internet has been cut off for ten days. The mayhem this is causing is in itself quite enough, without the smart-Alecky HR guys at the HQ breathing down his neck about the deadlines. Don’t they get the newspapers? Deepak had asked Anish sarcastically, but the latter said nonchalantly there was no news of the shutdown in the ones over there.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Molina's Key





Would you believe me if I told you that it took decades for us, my cousin and I, to compare notes and figure out the whole thing? She had passed away by then. Our aunt, I mean - Matulu we called her, all the siblings and cousins of our generation. I was well into my teenage when I saw her open a bottle of Coke and the penny dropped finally. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to wonder at Molina’s choice of the Keeper of the Key.

The key to Molina’s room was kept on top of Matulu's Allwyn refrigerator. It was  huge, easily three times the size of the normal keys we saw tucked in at the waists, beyond the saree pleats of our mothers or tied into a knot at the anchal of our grandmother. Ornately fashioned from inlaid brass, with a vine and flower design climbing up the shaft, the key was impressive, and scary.

Matulu was an easygoing, affectionate maternal figure. Nearly a grandmotherly one in my case, as she was older than my own mother by almost twenty years. I spent a lot of time in her home. But I can’t remember her ever in any disciplining mode – she was always smiling. Always ready to make me my favourite dishes of Mohanbhog, Malpoa and fried potato matchsticks on demand.  And she fed them to me personally with endless tales of Teacher Fox and his Students, the Crocodile Hatchlings. The disciplinarian was Molina. Quite the opposite of Matulu, in fact.

Molina lived within the precincts of the lake on the opposite side of the road from my aunt. None of us had ever actually seen Molina up close, but we knew her well enough. Not particularly endearing, she was old and walked with a limp, in the spotless white of a Bengali widow. She had bloodshot eyes from staying up nights. Molina knew every child in the neighbourhood, even the ones who were only visitors, their comings and goings, their intentions good and bad, their deepest, darkest secrets. She took the too boisterous, the disobedient, the misbehaved ones away to the small room atop the water tower that stood beside the lake, rising many stories  above the surrounding low-rise homes.

“Into that room high up, up, up she takes them, locks the door with this key and teaches them a lesson,” Matulu said. She took the key from the top of the fridge and let me feel its weight in my small, four year old palm.

“Will she take me too, Matulu?” I asked, the key twinkling in my hand, heavy and ominous.

“Oh no, never,” came the instant reply. ”You’re a good girl, aren’t you? You’re my golden girl, you’re the best behaved. Molina only takes the naughty ones to that room.” Matulu took the key from my fingers and put it back on the fridge again. She bent down and hugged me close. “You’re ever so lokkhi. Molina would never even look at you.”

I immediately resolved to grit my teeth and be as well behaved, as lokkhi as was humanly possible. If the key to the room was this big and scary, what would the lessons conducted therein be like?

Sometime past sixteen, I saw Matulu open a Coke bottle with Molina’s key and realised that hallowed and feared object’s real purpose. The key, or the bottle-opener, still lived on the Allwyn fridge.  Why Molina, even if she did exist, would choose to keep her key on Matulu's fridge never occurred to me once in all those years of childhood.

Just a few months ago, one of my cousins and I got reminiscing together and an avalanche of a-ha moments later, figured that Molina was a common motif Matulu used to keep all her nephews and nieces in line. An imaginary, invisible disciplinarian but so very effective. We laughed, and then fell silent. Matulu was not around to see our epiphany, she has been gone more than a decade now. But she would have enjoyed it, she always did like a good laugh. 

Only carrots, very little stick. A neat trick, and gentle. Molina’s key. Kind of sums up the zeitgeist of our entire collective childhood.


~~~

So that's it folks, 2019 is done, the last post is written and here is a brand new decade waiting to start. Who knows what exciting things it will bring?! A happy year end to you and the very best of the New Year 2020 and the coming decade! 


Monday, 23 December 2019

Take it back!




I refuse to shrink to a plastic card,
a stamped deed for a factory or courtyard,
an affidavit, a certificate,
a timid thumbprint on some ancestral debt.

Not for me your laws on citizenship.
I am the soil, the berth, the landing strip.
I’m the weed, the waving grass, the creeping vine
that covers the rubble of all your designs.

I grow everywhere out of all the cracks
in your architectures of bills and acts.
How will you stop me? - I’m the rolling clod
which is small in size but its world is broad.

No, not for me your thoughtless wall and fence,
I’m the tiny blade and the soil immense.




I was planning a nice feel good festive post this week, but what with all that's going on back home, kind of impossible to achieve.  

Season's greetings to you and yours and warmest wishes for an awesome New Year 2020!




Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Write...Edit...Publish...+ IWSG December 2019 : Footprints




Time for the final Write...Edit...Publish...+IWSG Challenge, this month a little early to allow us all to disperse for the festival season. The prompt comes from Tyrean Martinson as the winning entry for a contest at IWSG last year. I have loved writing to both the IWSG prompts - it's always more interesting to write to, when someone else dreams them up! :)

My offering this final challenge of 2019 is also a memoir/photo essay. With this I have managed to write memoirs for all the prompts this year, so if that qualifies as a writing goal it's been ticked off, yesss! The original is much longer,  I am presenting an excerpt. 





The C-word


The years blur, it is so long ago now. Time spins to a different, wobbly-quick yet interminably slow beat during tumultuous events. The years blur, but the month stays, and it is an early morning in March. Memory is that March morning, as I come awake in Delhi to the sound of a taxi entering the block and coming to a stop just underneath the window. When I look out, both my parents are alighting from it. Memory is a stab of pure surprise – because they had written to cancel the trip my mother was to make.


Mother and I much before Nigeria
My maternal grandparents had died in quick succession, one death in December the previous year and another two months later. My mother was supposed to come in February but she had cancelled. But here she is now, not even a month later, come without any notice. Her jawline altered out of recognition, her hands in mine hotter than a Sahel sun. Lots of young folk don’t have mothers, you’ll have to be strong.

Her eyes are clouded with an unfathomable distress but her words are crystal clear. There is no false escape to be had, no refuge in imagining she is delirious. She has just made a journey of nearly 7000 miles with a body wracked by disease, but her mind is still her own. She does not believe in the comfort of white lies.

I’m nineteen and in university, but I’m still a child. And terrified at the thought of a world that does not include her - it turns my brain inside out and ties it up in a million tight Gordian knots.

I hear the adults murmuring in the sitting room while I sit at her bedside. What I hear in snatches makes no sense. Her fever remains at a searing temperature that I never thought was possible for humans. My father whisks her off to Calcutta. And calls me from Dover Lane a few days later. Will it hamper your studies if you come away now?

That’s it. The phone call seals it. My world comes crashing down. My veggie-growing mother has grown some awful unknown disease. My tiny-spunky, Tagore-obsessed, a-smile-per-minute, brimming-with-life mother, is dying.

***

The bungalows of the long, narrow footprints had passed out of my teenhood. End of school in Bauchi I sat for the certificate exams and thereafter came back to Delhi to finish my education. The West African grasslands felt many galaxies away - Delhi was very different. The capital city of much layered history, judiciously urbanised and landscaped green, a culturally and politically happening, never-a-dull-moment, hyper-stimulating metropolis. A far cry indeed from the laid-back, low-rise, sleepy, ‘broken-china-in-the-sun’  West African towns tucked into the Sahel or the Sudan Savannah.

Before my world came crashing down.
In Delhi after Nigeria.
I was kept busy transitioning to an entirely different, very urban Indian lifestyle, and didn’t have any time to consciously think of missing anything. Delhi had been my home before I’d gone off to Nigeria, and I was back, I was ‘home’ in India. Perfectly logical, perfectly normal then not to feel any lack, to slot right back in. I lived with relatives who had known me and my father from our respective early childhoods. There were no reasons for even a twinge of misgiving.

Just that sometimes, I would look up and the sky would be a little, faded blue patch caught between the edges of buildings, sliced up into portions by electric wires and TV antennae. I would look across but my eyes would be cut off by someone’s roof terrace or washing lines. The horizon was nowhere visible, unless I got on to a train to Calcutta,  and until it pulled out after Ghaziabad into open countryside.

But those vast expanses where I could turn my eyes any direction and not spot another soul, those skies of a million diamond-bright low-hanging stars, those wide open spaces where nothing obtruded upon the eye, the sheer beauty and majesty that could squeeze my chest and make my breath catch in my throat? - they were nowhere to be found again. However, I had no conscious knowledge of what exactly was missing, I was not self-aware enough to be able to articulate it. There was enough going on to stop me thinking on it.

But then one night a young man making ordinary dinner conversation asked me some casual questions. Do you miss the place? Really? What about it?  And I came up with a list so long and delivered it so forcefully that I made him nearly jump out of his skin. I startled myself as well with my own intensity. In a flash I had matched words to the feelings, I had learnt to articulate my losses. I do. I do. I do. Footprints, birdprints, leafprints, skyprints, starprints. Invisible. Indelible. All over me.

***

The path lab reports have not come in even when I get to Dover Lane. My mother is with her eldest sister at Jodhpur Park, another house the footprint of which is permanently etched into my life. I move between the two houses, the days spent with my terribly ill mother and the nights with my father. Both my parents have withdrawn into their respective familial comfort zones at this moment of crisis. I am straddling two houses, two parallel worlds, as I have always done since early childhood.

The reports finally come after endless checking, rechecking, these decisions are not handed out lightly. I had hoped against hope…but there’s none. The last remnants of childhood are yanked off in one night like a Band-aid from a raw wound. A piece of paper has finally pushed me over the edge and sent me reeling into adulthood.

I spend that night at Dover Lane in wild terror.  I alternately weep and rant. Neither father nor daughter gets any sleep. He too never offers the comfort of platitudes, the easy escapes of glib positivity and white lies. 

How are you so calm?! Are you not worried?! 

He is infinitely patient, exhausted but composed. Yes, I am. Worried sick. That’s why I’ve brought your mother home. 

What are we going to do?! 

We will do what she wants. And exactly as the doctors say. 

But she’s not even 45! 

That, child, is our misfortune.




Mother and I in Calcutta. Nov 2019.





WC-1043
FCA


Read the other entries:





Here's a sneak peek of what's happening at WEP next year! Join us again then. Wishing you all a great holiday season and a very happy and creative 2020! 







Sunday, 8 December 2019

Unpacking







When you get to unpack the case, you’ll find
the folded river like a paper crane;
the courtyard, the terrace and the blind lane
have travelled with you, nothing’s left behind.

In some garment, in the collar or cuff -
the smell of rain. The lamppost under which
the poor sold bargains pressed hard by the rich
has come with you and can’t be shaken off.

Each time you inhaled, breathed in the air
and your lungs bloomed like trees of night jasmine,
the shapes of old yarns, skeins of old chagrin
are coded in your baggage tags somewhere.

The bends of roads, the blends of diesel smoke,
a certain blur of traffic and townsfolk.





 

Monday, 2 December 2019

Because a graffiti artist drew a prayer on a pavement, and someone remarked he’s uncomfortable with the Saviour’s face on the ground…




I.

If you believe, then He is everywhere –
under each sole, beneath arches of feet,
in the minutest of grasses. In prayers
of chalk on asphalt on a peak hour street.

Does it unnerve you if He’s not always
smiling down at you from a lofty height? –
from a cross, a pedestal, carved cliff face,
hidden beyond the range of outer sight.

Too big for boots, He could very well choose
to look up at you from a pavement sketch,
and measure obeisance in passing shoes -
and they need not cautiously skirt the edge.

Don't worry, He can’t be trampled upon,
whatever the height, wherever He’s drawn.


II.



Didn’t He state unequivocally
that He is the Object of all worship?
the forms and rituals tweaked locally,
suitably adjusted for human grip.

You know no earthly murals can contain -
no carvings, no altars, no blocks of stone
mean anything, just a guide for the brain
which can’t grasp the formless, the unseen, unshown.

Everything, and nothing, is holy -
sacred’s not a place, it’s your mind, and mine.
He’s as much in buildings as in a lowly
coloured chalk drawing at a roadside shrine.

Don’t worry, He won’t be trampled upon.
He’s not just an idol, or icon.







"Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion also worship Me, Kaunteya, even if they do not observe the usual forms. I am the Object of all worship, its sole Consumer and the Lord." Bhagavad Gita, Ch 9:23.













Friday, 29 November 2019

বাংলায় - আমায় দাও



On the way to Queen Elizabeth National Park from Kampala.
Image credit : Valley Isle


এই ছবিটা  আমায়  দাও - খোলা আকাশ,  বিস্তীর্ণ  তৃণভূমি,
বাতাসের ছোঁয়ায় নোয়ানো এলোমেলো ঘাস,
পৃথিবীর কপালে কালো তিলকের মতো কাটা এক পথ;
বিষুবরেখা এফোঁড় ওফোঁড় করে চলমান শরীর থেকে বিচ্ছিন্ন  মন,
বাবুই পাখির বাসার মতো ঘন রাত,
তার বুনোটের ফাঁকে ফাঁকে অজস্র তারা,
অন্ধকারের ভাঁজে  হাতির অবয়ব, সিংহের গর্জন,
অতি ক্ষুদ্র পোকা মাকড়ের অনাবিল জীবন।
এই কবিতা আমায় দাও, এই প্রগাঢ় প্রকান্ড দিন,
লালমাটির মহাদেশে হঠাৎ দেখা
লালকমল নীলকমল সুয়োদুয়োরানীকথা,
কোনো অচেনা শিশুর চেঁচিয়ে নামতা পড়ায়
শৈশবের সাদা কালো ঘোলাটে গল্প আভা।
এই ছবিটা, এই কবিতা, এই আফ্রিকার
নিগূঢ় নির্মল সৌন্দর্য, আনন্দকণার  দীপ্তি,
আমাকে এক মুহূর্তের জন্য হলেও দাও।



Give me this image - open skies, expansive grasslands, 
haphazardly waving grass touched by the breeze, 
a road cut like a tilak across the forehead of the earth;
a mind detached from a moving body that pierces the Equator through and through,
a night woven as dense as the weaver bird's nest, 
innumerable stars caught in its warp and weft,
the shape of an elephant in the folds of darkness, the roar of a lion, 
the inexorable lives of the tiniest insects.
Give me this poem, this intense, immense day, 
fairy tale characters suddenly spotted 
in a continent of red earth, some unknown child's singsongy
repetitions of multiplication tables
dredging up the black & white, blurred glow of childhood stories. 
This image, this poem, this mystic, clean African beauty, 
sporadic beams from fragmented delight, 
give them to me, even if it is for a split second.


~~~




I know it's a bit strange coming back from Cal and writing about Africa :)  - Writing in Bengali because I was in Bengal, and Africa because it's Africa and has this overwhelming place in my life and affections. 

While I was in Cal, a nephew, a keen and excellent photographer from days prior to digital cameras, who's also visiting faculty at Iowa State Uni, travelled to Uganda with a group of his students for a study abroad programme. He posted some of his images online. So I asked him if he'd be so kind. So that's the explanation...








Thursday, 14 November 2019

Just keep writing...just keep writing...



Oh yes, I have been writing...I have. Only not poetry...only not at this blog...

Firstly, I've been a bit busy wrapping up the October Challenge at Write...Edit...Publish... - I had hosting duties for the Horrible Harvest Challenge.


I've also been writing to the Words for Wednesday meme over at Elephant's Child's for the past three weeks... building up the same flash in three sections. It is unbelievably lovely and liberating when someone else dreams up the prompts! :) They have been provided by Margaret Adamson for all three parts, thank you. And thank you, EC! I earnestly hope you are better soon.


So here’s the whole flash together in this post. The prompt words are in all caps. Hope you enjoy it. 


WfW 1 (30.10.2019)

I went in for the CONSULTATION and made it quite plain that I wanted one like the heroine in that MYSTERY MOVIE but the hairdresser – awful, awful man, made the HAIRCUT into a horror film! The weather is too MILD still to cover it up with a scarf - I don't know what to do. Life is all about living with UNCERTAINTY and bad hair. No JOY in it.


On the SURFACE, it's such a paltry thing. But actually it's more than just appearances. Covering up hair or wearing it loose or whatever - it's never that simple, is it? Women's hair is more than just hair, d'you know what I mean? From crowning glory to political statements! Didn't Saki say that hair was like a husband, so long as one is seen to be in AGREEMENT in public, the private differences do not matter? Well, something like that. My differences with my hair have stopped being private, screaming from the rooftops, more like. And there's a new FRECKLE the size of a continent to cope with as well.

But it's not just the haircut. Or the skin. Ghastliness happens in threes. Henry's partner decided to go SOLO suddenly, and that's another catastrophe. Well, from his point of view anyways. I personally think it's a golden opportunity to get the FIXTURES changed, they've been coming unstuck for years now, not living up to their name at all. Those two could never reach a consensus about anything lately. I would have thought it would be a relief, but no! He’s going around with an expression between a whipped mongrel and a constipated criminal. I mean, men! Hairdresser or husband - the root of all my problems.

WfW 2 (06.11.2019)

Hairdresser, husband and to top it all, hubby’s business partner. Melvin is normally quite CHOLERIC, not exactly a ray of sunshine at the best of times. First he decided he’s done, then two ticks later, he came LOLLOPING back, perky eyed and smiley faced, super-suspicious! I knew he’d come to push the same weird AGENDA. Clearly, the INVESTMENT consultant had shot down his ludicrous project. Now he wanted me, us! to get involved in his hare-brained scheme. One is quite ARTICULATE but some people can render one speechless with their cheek!

He bounded in on Sunday, I was struggling with CURLERS, trying to minimise the damage done by that Oblivio hairdresser –  I had meetings the next day. My allergies were really bad too, nose like Rudolph Reindeer. Not a good time, I told him.

He paid not a jot of attention and made himself a drink, nonchalant, as though it was his house and not mine. Started the same old spiel. I told him nothing doing. A product based solely on ACKEE extracts is too extreme niche for this market. Trust me, I know. He said I should stop behaving like an overprotective HEN with Henry ha ha and open up to the potential life has. Open up an express route to the PAWNBROKERS more like it! Besides, ackee can be toxic, he’d never make it past the rules or the RULERS.

Just then Henry came in and I escaped. Which was a mistake. I heard them SPEEDING off not ten minutes later. Henry was unusually solicitous when he came back, all kinds of fuss with cushions and wraps and soups. As if I was pushing eighty or something. And he actually said, very almost-pensive-casual-like, maybe we should reconsider this ackee business? Might even be better ROI, pioneer advantage and all that. What?! Excuse me?! Men, really! Living with ANOSMIA and bad hair is easier than living with them! 


WfW 3 (13.11.2019)

They ganged up on me, even Oblivio hairdresser – not satisfied only with messing up my hair majorly that last time, he took a stab at ruining my life as well. But it’s Henry and Melvin I’m really cut up about.

First Henry and Melvin fall out. Then two seconds later, all that vehemence about going it solo if no-one else is interested etc etc vanishes into thin air. Mel tries to insidiously win Henry over through the backdoor, thinking I would grease the hinges. Only he is much mistaken if he thinks I am a backdoor, not for him, not for Henry, not for anyone. I made that plain. I also explained, in detail, over and over again why this ackee line wouldn’t work, but would the pair of them listen? A men’s cosmetic line based on a fruit that smells like scrambled eggs? I mean, seriously? I told Henry I’d have nothing to do with it. Money, unlike ackee, doesn’t grow on trees, have they noticed?

I don’t know how Mel convinced Henry. Hang on. Maybe  I do.  All you have to do is to somehow hint Henry’s being a stick-in-the-mud and letting the old boys’ club  down and that’s it, easy as a pie. I saw them hurtling off together and magic! When Henry came back he’d lost the hang-dog look and was singing around the house like a tone deaf nightingale. I had my suspicions, but kept a very neutral face as I asked him the reasons for this sudden inexplicable cheerfulness. Oh nothing, nothing, glad to be home, he said. I was a treat for sore eyes with the new hairstyle, he said. Yeah, right. Pull the other one.

I found out later, much later, when everything had gone belly up, they had convinced that Oblivio hairdresser about the whole ackee caper, how men’s cosmetics were booming and he was missing out blah blah blah…. He’d obviously been doing quite well out of his business of ruining women’s hair. I’d changed my salon, went to Sofronie’s after that debacle, feel much safer now. But I saw the men’s section coming up next to the old  salon, and then the ackee based cosmetics in the window. Of course I came back fuming. Of course it was bound to fail. When I pointed that out, I mean what man would want his hair smelling of scrambled eggs?

Henry looked acutely uncomfortable, the initial uptake hadn’t exactly been euphoric. But he said, NOTHING VENTURED NOTHING GAINED. No-one was queuing up to have his hair or other body parts perfumed with ackee, however, even months later. Good money down the drain, thank goodness it wasn’t ours. I knew I shouldn’t be, but I was sneakily glad it was Oblivio’s head on the block this time. Well, there’s a sort of poetic justice to it, you’ve got to admit.

But do you know what Melvin said? How was a woman with anosmia qualified to give marketing advice on men’s cosmetics, that too based on smell?

Talk about adding INSULT TO INJURY! Honestly, men! 


~~~

I'm travelling for the rest of this month and will pop in as and when. Hopefully, back soon. Stay well and happy writing.




Sunday, 27 October 2019

Diwali 2019

A lamp my son painted many years ago which is lit every Diwali since.


My moon is rising somewhere far from me.
All nights are moonless darkness over here
and not one lamp in brass or clay's ready
to take on its obligations this year.

Phases, waxing, waning, it's all the same -
the days weave into nights, nights into days,
the wicks are peeved and won't take on a flame
and neither be ordered into arrays.

Without my moon what do I celebrate, 
what occasions on the calendars to mark?
and how to observe rituals of this date
with lamps that are hellbent on being dark?

Teardrop shaped darkness instead of light;
empty clay; and rebel wicks in white.







Strange sort of Diwali this year. On the one hand, everyday  I celebrate the son who's gone off to uni. But on the other, there's no reason to celebrate Diwali with a gazillion lamps and the usual paraphernalia. A single lamp and a darkened house feels appropriate. And celebration enough. 

Happy Diwali to you! 

And happy autumn! to you, if you're not celebrating this specific festival.










Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Write ...Edit ...Publish ... + IWSG October 2019 : Horrible Harvest




Creeeeeak!!


That, dear Writers, was the sound of the October Challenge opening at Write...Edit...Publish..., so click ye forthwith and link up with your post URL directly over there. There are multiple prizes this time. Quick!…the linky closes on the 18th…What’s that? you don’t do horror…you have no dealings with zombies…nor vampires…and...supernatural beings just don’t...um...rock your socks? 


Not a problem! Write what you fancy and interpret the prompt whichever way your heart dictates. I am doing that myself and sticking doggedly to the photo-essays … :) Because there are only three rules at WEP – no genre restrictions, no genre restrictions, no genre restrictions (except erotica). No, four - another one re word count.


Come  join the fun!



Grow. Yield. Reel.


Memory is a late afternoon shimmering in the backyard, if it could be called a yard, because there was no fencing, no boundaries. The front of the house came with some kind of a rudimentary driveway at least.  The backyard ended where Matthias the gardener had decided to stop hacking the scrub bush, marked vaguely by a giant wild fig.  The bungalow style quarter had an oddly  long, narrow footprint - memory is that house in all its minute detail though I spent most of my waking hours outside – either at the front gravelled driveway, or in the back, watching the antlions’ dens…the comings and goings of tiny animals…the young household help inexpertly slaughter a chicken.  I would come back from school, slip into a muslin chemise which for reasons unknown was called a ‘penny’, have some lunch somehow and  rush outdoors as soon as the ‘sun’s-too-high’ curfew was over.



After the first tumultuous year, Matthias and my mother planted a kitchen garden between the back patio and the fig. I was not too fond of vegetables – the Indian bitter gourds, the terrible bitter dishes of neem-aubergines which were cooked with shoots freshly plucked off the neem tree on the far side of the garage. The pale squashes and cauliflowers and squat looking cucumbers – I mean, what self-respecting kid likes those? That harvest was as horrible as it could get.


My mother spent a heap of time in lynx-eyed vigilance against creeping and flying pestilences that might descend on her beloved veggie patch. The budding of the aubergine, both flower and fruit, were Events – marked with the quick spontaneous parody of famous Tagore songs, much laughter and general celebration. The garden cramped my style a bit, because I had been used to setting up my own games under the shade of the fig, but now Matthias had flowerbeds in front and this densely planted veggie garden in the relatively well-shaded, more private back. Around which I had to tiptoe lest the plants get disturbed and stop growing.


He told me off for stepping on a squash vine once and when I complained to my mum, she heartlessly sided with him and said I should stick to the porch. And why was I roaming around outside in front of the gardener in a flimsy, strappy chemise without a proper dress on anyway?  Don’t do that girl, you are not a child anymore. But though I learnt to put on and keep on a dress over the chemise, even on shimmery hot afternoons, I remained a child for a long time after.


As every parent knows, growth is a step function, it happens in spurts. My growth was signposted by deaths in the family. The first was catastrophic – though I was too young to appreciate its overarching implications at the time. A few months into our relocation in Nigeria, my father’s young brother-in-law, the youngest son-in-law of the family at Dover Lane, died in his early thirties.  It reset the family dynamics forever and tightened up my relationships with Dover Lane and its residents subsequently. The second death was that of my grandmother, the one who left a legacy of pickles, priceless lessons in grace and minimal gold value. Life and death both have their own strange, irrevocable ways of growing people up, wherever the individual may be on the learning curve. Witnessing grief is the first step to navigating it  - an education in itself. But the scariest growth spurt, the most horrible of the harvests was still to come.


***


The kitchen garden disappeared like a puff of smoke when we moved to Bauchi. That tiny town-suddenly-elevated-to-state-capital was wholly unable to cope with the rapid and massive influx of the relocated personnel. There was no place in the government facilities, there were no starred hotels in Bauchi then, only the government rest house. Which was full up with other officers, come in from the trifurcation of human resources. Only one of my father’s Maiduguri colleagues was allotted quarters. I have no idea why, but my father was accommodated in the guest annexe of the bungalow of a British officer,  at that time possibly the seniormost expat in Bauchi. There was no kitchen, I’m sure the lady must have made an offer to my mum about dining arrangements, but neither party knew the other, so obviously my parents did not want to intrude more than they already were. We ate at my father's colleague's quarters, and slept at the Brit officer's. Seriously weird system, but the discomfort of sleeping under a perfect stranger’s roof kept my resentment at the relocation simmering pleasantly along.


Courtesy: Malini Mehan
In time we were moved into a house, three bungalows away. It was a complete contrast to 46, G.R.A., Maiduguri – an ancient, stone-built three-bedroom colonial property dating from the 40's or 50's maybe. My bedroom was really a wide passageway - it had no door, and no washbasin, unlike the one I had just come from. No wrap around balconies here either, no ceiling fans, instead a fireplace in the living area! Also a driveway lined with a row of mature, tall, pale-barked, probably gmelina trees. They would fill up with caterpillars once or twice a year. Apart from the trees, the rest of the compound was bare, beaten earth. I’m sure it must have been landscaped originally, but nothing of that was in evidence. There was no question of our planting anything, because there was no extra water. The supply was brought round by tankers at periodic intervals. The taps would often run dry before the tanker called. I hastily learnt to be economical. My mother gave up all notions of growing Indian veggies pronto – the only good thing to come out of the move from my perspective.  


But unbeknownst to all of us, she was growing a far more sinister crop. That, when it ripened, grew me up completely and sent me reeling into adulthood.


WC - 986
FCA


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