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


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’ 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

Read the other entries here: 

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Out to Harvest

This is just to say

I’m out to
harvest, maybe the
plums in the icebox,
maybe not

if you’re saving
up your plums
for breakfast
please don’t,

the challenge
is almost here,
plums and pumpkins
all welcome.

Come join me -
they’re so delicious
so horrible
and so cold. :)

Read the original

The October Challenge at Write...Edit...Publish... opens on 16th, are you ready for the horrible harvest? 

Monday, 7 October 2019


I think of Giza often, I think of how
azure the river runs between those banks
as the brimming desert pivots on its flanks,
and the distance covered between then and now.

The way the trees shred themselves in season
and carpet the walkway by the riverside;
skies convulse with colour, the sun ends its ride,
and they map distances done, then undone.

The sleepy movements of waters and winds,
the mosque in silhouette on the far shore,
the angles of sails I don’t see anymore,
and distances that can’t be imagined.

I think of Giza often, somewhere westward
and distances that can’t be mapped and measured.

Once upon a time I lived in 6th October, which is an important date in the history of Egypt and gives its name to a place in Giza. Need I say more?

Sunday, 29 September 2019

One True North

I am only my road, my winding route,
you are the mango orchard beside it.
You’re the languid afternoon, heavy with fruit.
You are the absence that makes the music –
the blowhole and openings of the flute.

An orchid-white jet contrail, I’m hardly there
once the craft has flown, easily confused
with a daub of cloud. You’re water, and air.
The one true north, the point where all routes are housed;
my broad breathing earth; my paved city square.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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.


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!