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.


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


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…


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.


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.