Author Archives: Pavithra K. Mehta

The Framed Infinite

I believe windows are celebrated in direct proportion to the degree one is conscious of circumscription. For those who live a seemingly free range existence, oblivious of external limits, the window’s presence and function is assumed. Simultaneously looked through– and overlooked. Unregistered as the pattern of curtains in a neighbor’s home, or the direction of the thieving wind that rifles casually through the hillside untouchable by man made laws. 

Windows exist to be looked through yes, but they are not meant to be overlooked. Being transparent is not the same thing as being insignificant. In this way windows are related to the invisible. 

Put another way: if you do not have a meaningful relationship with windows, then it is possible, that you have some difficulty perceiving grace.

For those whose days are contained, and conscious, the window is as impossible to overlook as a peacock or a comet. It is a portal, a bridge, an altar and avenue whose significance is vital and imperative to life. 

A window is the infinite, framed in a rectangle of glass, granting depth, mystery and the possibility of exploration to actors who play daily in very small, forgotten theaters. 

Patients in hospital beds understand the silent sustenance of windows. So do prisoners. And largely housebound creatures with vast interior lives — like dogs, cats, very young humans, very old ones–and Emily Dickinson. 

It must be mentioned here that for optimal results windows must not be overzealously substituted for walls. A residence where all walls double as windows soon grows tedious and disconcerting. A reverse prison. Celebrities and goldfish understand this better than most. 

It is sometimes necessary to explain to denizens of the modern world, that television is not the same thing as a window. Neither is the internet. They bear certain overt similarities yes — but overt similarity is a very low bar for most things. A table and a panther are similar in that they both have four legs. But you cannot interchange them without attracting notice and untoward consequences.

If you find it absolutely necessary to draw comparisons, then a window is more like a book or a boat than a television or a computer screen. Should the occasion demand it you may swap one for the other without hesitation or catastrophic result.


How Do You Live In Your Days?

Do you live in your days like a forgotten ticket stub in someone’s jacket? As if the show were behind you? As if you went out one evening to watch your life, and decided halfway through that it wasn’t worth the price of admission.

Other things more interesting stole your attention, even though we’ve been told and told that all that glitters is not gold, we are so easily seduced by sparkle and the kind of food that fills our mouths but not our stomachs and never our souls.

How we gorge on the insubstantial, and substitute the vibrant, risky, full-bodied occupation of life with a weak-kneed, lukewarm stupor.

Do you live in your days like an unmarked bottle in the back of the fridge? A bottle that has been there so long that no one remembers what’s in it. Do you live in your days like a lone sock in the drawer whose match disappeared in the wash weeks or years ago.

Think. Think hard. What shape are you holding and in what container are you held? Those are not questions to be asked or answered lightly.

Live like the roar in the cave of the lion’s throat. Live like the mustard seed that is dropped into hot oil — ready to explode its flavor into everything. Like the wick in a candle. Flickering. Fierce. Alive.


Coin Toss

A full moon flips

Into night sky

Quickly now!

Heads or Tails?

What will you call? —

Earth in the balance.


Protocol

She enters the room slow marching, in the manner of a bride down the aisle– carrying not a frilly bouquet– but a tray bearing six individual steel tumblers of steaming coffee. Her eyes are downcast, giving viewers an impression of timidity or coyness or both. In reality she is neither. She is just a woman trying very hard not to spill coffee. As she walks, unbeknownst to her audience she is maneuvering the tray through a series of skilled and imperceptible movements to ensure that these cups, (which her mother with misplaced enthusiasm has filled to the very brim) do not runneth over. As protocol dictates she approaches the oldest man in the room, her grandfather, and extends the tray. As protocol dictates he waves her towards the oldest male guest, her prospective father-in-law. As protocol dictates he waves her in the direction of the host, her father, who waves her back. All this hand-waving is accompanied by a specific brand of head-shaking intended to imply gracious deference. A visitor from a distant land might understandably, if incorrectly, conclude from the proceedings that the order in which these half-dozen tumblers of coffee are dispensed is a profoundly significant matter, one with serious implications for national security or global warming. Meanwhile the tray is growing unbearably heavy and our slow marching prospective bride is sorely tempted to drop the whole thing on the floor and head for the nearest nunnery.


Senti Mental

As a teenager I was once informed, and not unkindly, by a cousin whose earthly years tallied in the low single digits, that I was “a senti mental.” He split this four syllable word into two words of two syllables each, and pronounced each syllable as distinctly as only a born and bred South Indian can. Senn-ttii Menn-ttall. Taking into consideration his pronunciation, enunciation, and the general context of the conversation, I believe he believed the word (or in his usage, words) referred to less than sound faculties of mind. I recall the combination of confidence and concerned affection in his voice. It touched and amused me then as the memory still does now. I do not think it was an entirely misplaced diagnosis.

With that preamble, from sometime after the turn of the millennium — a decidedly Senti Mental somewhat poem.

and this time
i know
will fade–like the memory of winter
(like the clichéd memory of winter)
when Spring is come.

and when you are arrived
(like that soulsweetseason)
with leaftipped promises
of blossoms and bliss
with brightlipped promises
of–

i shall recall with the
faint bewilderment
of the backward glance

days that were
longand

difficultand

dark

but–

i will not
be able

to summon
this current sensation

this current
current of
sensation–

of
being
cold

coldcoldcold

(and old)

of being
not so much

alone

as–

(only.)

everything that now insists
on its separate

sadness–

the dawn ritual
of heartache-
regular
rehearsed.
a line-perfect

pang.

faking-a-waking.

the swiftsighs swallowed
like small stones
filling nothing
(and lots of it)

smiles tossed like wistful garlands
wreathing the happiness other people
have found

in

eachother

everything now
poignantprofound
everything
par-t-ic-u-lar-ly

painful

shall fall silent and

as

easytoforget

as

asoftlysleeping

scar

that I shall wonder at when
I push back the sleeve of
this time and see it

there–

witness to a wounding
i will barely recall
(if at all) —

so close

soclosesoclosesoclose
will i be

someday

to the sun of your

love

(the sweetsumofyour

love)

there will be
nothing remaining of

this time

to hold onto.

an icicle- sharpointedestined
to melt into the memory of
something-
sharpointedestined
to melt into the memory of–

so close

soclosesoclose
will i be

someday

to the sun of your
love

(the sweetsumofyour
love)

that this time
i know
will fade-

like the memory of winter
(the clichéd memory of winter)
when Spring is come.

and when you are arrived
(like that soulsweet season)
with leaftipped promises
of blossoms and bliss
with brightlipped promises
of—

there will be nothing left
of this time to
hold onto

(save only

…this.)


Fortuities

Necessity knows no magic formulae-they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders. — Milan Kundera

There are days when I look out the window without meaning to, as if my glance had been commanded by a consciousness beyond that typically called my own. And I catch, not the sight but, the sense of a bird. The briefest of blurs, a velocity of being, accompanied by a communication whose unmistakable imperative is simply: LOOK. 

I have an unaccountable conviction in these moments, unlikely as it seems to my rational mind, that I am being summoned to witness something. Someone. But I cannot will my way into such witnessing. I can only intend and then forget. So that the surface of my mind moves unselfconsciously, while the depths have been readied.

Sometimes it takes a couple of days. I feel a quiet, almost imperceptible surge, but my gaze is belated, catches its breath not on bird but on space freshly emptied of bird. Even these misses have their magic. And then comes the barefoot discovery– always barefoot– for there is never time for mind to pull on shoes, slip into slippers. 

The first time I–felt– more than saw, the somersaulting shadow of wings, and was pulled to the window by the gravitational field of an invisible presence. Three perhaps four times this happened, over one afternoon and into the next. Then there he was. A young hawk perched on the wire closest to our home and lowest. An unusual bird placed in unusually close range. Those colors, those curves and angles enclosed in and enclosing such wild grace. A sense of young majesty, a presence aware of being within the radius of another’s awareness. 

A little over a year earlier a turkey vulture had alighted, on the wire opposite our living room window. A hulking black-shouldered, red-headed bird gazing deliberately into the heart of our home, while my mother served hot dosas to a guest. No this had not happened before, and has never happened since. And yes there is a story, but for another time perhaps.

And then last week, while making breakfast (oatmeal), I turned (or was turned,) abruptly from hot stove toward kitchen window and caught a fluttering handkerchief. Small, black and flying, falling, dancing. I recognize, without knowing how, the movements of familiar birds. I do not dissect the invisible warp and weft of their intricate weaving. I could not describe it to you even if I care to, but am glad for the quiet backdrop of their daily and dynamic craft. This pattern even peripherally caught, was unfamiliar. Less subtle, more demanding of audience. Snared I walked to the window searching for the bird behind the show. At first nothing but empty driveway and branches and sky– and then he materialized. 

An immediately likable bird of an immediately likable size. Charcoal-smudged body with a roguish, tousled head and such an unafraid, arrested quickness in his being. A purposeful sense of pause. “You’ve been seen,” I told him silently. Perhaps he was unconvinced, or perhaps he was simply being sociable. Either way when I stepped outside several minutes later, he flew past me and perching on nearby branch proceeded to sing a single note. So sweetly, single-mindedly, so persistently that I could not help but think he was telling me something. I noted then, his white breast, how it peaked crisply between his dark lapel feathers. How oddly formal he appeared, how like a bird in a tuxedo. A dapper bird who had remembered to dress for the occasion–but had forgotten to comb his hair. And all the while he sang his tail pumped, keeping time. He watched and sang as I watered the plants. Unfazed by my size, my species, my lack of song. I watched him watching me and wondered where he had come from, where he was going. Wondered who and what he was.

A search for mettlesome black bird with white breast brought him up immediately on my screen. A flycatcher — a Black Phoebe. A songbird, I am informed, that does well around humans and is known to sit on low perches in backyards and keep up a running series of chirps while scanning the horizon for edible insects. The most wonderful thing I learned about this bird is that the male of the species will show his mate possible nest sites by hovering in front of them for approximately ten seconds awaiting her ay or nay. She will make the final decision on where they nest. An arrangement that strikes me as eminently sensible on all fronts.

All morning I cannot shake the sense of his presence. Finally I take out my brushes, a paint set and begin. In London and New York passersby can get their portraits painted in a matter of minutes by gifted street artists. In the backyard of our little home, certain feathered individuals, unconcerned with quality or self-image can get theirs painted by a rapturous amateur, for a song. 

***

It does not have a name, and I do not know nearly enough give it one. The birds are privy to it though. This impulse that leaps my gaze to the window, this force that draws being forth and tangles my fibers with the pulsating beauty of this world, destabilizing strictly human concerns, re-centering perception.

***

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, said Dickinson, and perched it in the soul—where it–

“sings the tune without the words–

And never stops–at all–”

If I had to wager a guess I’d say she was privy to it too.

IMG_20190707_191259338_HDR


Wings

“She has what?” His mother’s voice escalated dangerously and he realized that this wasn’t going to go over well. Returning, newly-and-unexpectedly-married, from a routine business trip to India had been bad enough, but now there was this awkward situation to be dealt with. He cleared his throat and tried to sound casual, “She has wings.” His mother dropped the tea cup she was holding.

“She has wings?” His mother uttered the word like she’d never heard it before. Yes he nodded, trying to appear casual. As if flying appendages attached to one’s bride were perfectly normal. “And you knew this when you married her?” He nodded again, remembering their first meeting. She had been barefoot. Standing on the sea shore, wearing a white blouse, a long moss green skirt and a wistful expression. Her wings were fanning gently behind her, like a resting butterfly’s. He had never seen anything so beautiful. She filled his heart with tenderness before he even knew her name. He did not know what she saw in him. Safety maybe? In a flighty world he was solid as the earth. He asked her out to coffee, and even though she did not drink caffeine, she said yes. They were married within the week.

Somehow the wings had never troubled him. In his eyes she was a magical creature, a being not entirely of this world. On her the wings seemed perfectly natural. He’d asked her about them once. And she’d answered his questions without hesitation or embarrassment. Yes she’d had them since birth. No her parents (both dead) did not have them — though there were rumors of a maternal great-great-grandmother who had been ‘touched by angels’. No they were not removable. Yes they could be concealed under clothes without discomfort. Yes she could use them to fly. High enough to clear tree tops, but not much higher. And only for relatively short distances — she could cross a pond or a small lake easily, but not an ocean. So he bought her an airplane ticket, and they traveled back to his home in the United States together. She had never been in an airplane or out of India before. On the flight they traded seats so she could look out the window, her eyes enormous with wonder.

His mother who knew he was returning from a work trip had been expecting him, but not the bride. They had not informed anyone on either side of the wedding. Delirious with happiness he imagined his only living parent would be thrilled to have him show up on their doorstep with this lovely overseas wife as a surprise. His well-bred mother’s eyebrows had shot up past her hairline when they were introduced at the door. Her smile had stayed in tact, but lost its warmth so rapidly, that his dark-haired wife actually shivered, and hugged her elbows. A gesture that made her look so lost and waif-like that he wished they could turn around and go home.

After seating them in the living room his mother had excused herself to put on a pot of tea. He had followed her into the kitchen, and wanting to have it out, had mentioned the wings. After high-pitched disbelief, and a shattered teacup, grimness had descended on his mother’s face like armor. “You have obviously lost your mind,” she said, “ I don’t know what kind of trickster that woman is, but she’s up to no good. You’d better keep a separate bank account and one eye on her at all times.” He tried to stand up for his wife’s innocence, but his mother waved him aside with a swatting-fly gesture as old as his childhood. She placed a white china teapot patterned with pale pink roses on a tray, with matching cups and saucers. “We’ll have to look into clipping them,” she said. “Clipping what?” he asked bewildered. “Her wings of course,” said his mother, before sailing through the door to serve hot tea with a side of chilliness to the woman waiting in her living room. A woman whose eyes were slowly beginning to spark, like two black shards of flint.

Outer timidity can mask a fierce resoluteness of spirit, a domineering exterior house deep-seated fragilities. And no one’s wings can ever be clipped without the clipper losing their own place in the sun. He knows these things, or at least suspects them, and because he is not a man given to foregone conclusions, he finds himself curious about where this situation is headed.

As he joins the two women in the living room he is thinking of systems dynamics, non-linear relationships, the butterfly effect.

A woman chances to flap her wings on a sea shore somewhere in India and…


New House

The telephone was installed at 11 o clock on Monday morning and now sat on her desk like a perfectly self-contained cat. She derived an odd sense of pleasure from seeing it there. “A telephone makes a new house less lonely,” she said to the wall of the study. It stared back at her wordlessly with a pale, blank face, and she made a mental note to hang up some pictures that afternoon. Maybe the watercolor prints she’d purchased for a small fortune from that shivering sidewalk artist in the park. Thin boats silhouetted on an indistinct river at sunset. She knew very little about great art but enough to know that this was not it. And yet something about the narrow frame of the boats and the flawed river had moved her indescribably. They spoke to her of life’s uncertainty, its ultimate imperfection and now, months later, a lump rose and bloomed richly in her throat just thinking about that moment of insight and extravagance on the chilly pavement.

She hadn’t yet admitted it to herself yet, but she was waiting for the telephone to ring. Outwardly she busied herself with other tasks. Cleared up the breakfast dishes, and carefully collapsed an empty cereal box before folding it as flat as she could to store away in the recycling bin outside. Tuesdays they collected the recycling. Was it Tuesday? She wasn’t sure. She would have to crosscheck with the printed calendar sheet they had given her with the collections days marked off. She pulled the sheet out of a kitchen drawer, stared absent-mindedly at the array of empty numbered boxes that represented the shape of her days. She didn’t notice the way her head had tilted slightly off to one side, the way it does when one is trying to listen for something in the distance.

She loved the sound of the telephone ringing. The high, clear insistent purr of it that rippled in the air like an invisible flag – a declaration of someone’s particular need in that instant to reach out to her. That was part of the reason why she never answered it in the first ring, not even if it was a call she was expecting and she was right by its side. She always waited for at least three rings before picking up. Letting the sound fill her the way air fills a balloon, gives it definition and bounce. When she said “Hello” the balloon lifted softly and drifted towards a blue, cloudless sky of conversation.

She frowned down at the sheet she was holding. What had she meant to look up? Oh yes, the collection dates. It was Tuesday just as she’d thought. Why did that seem such a long ways away? Tuesday was tomorrow. It was the silence of the new house that did it she decided, it stretched from this present into the future like an empty clothesline on a windless day. For the first time she wished she was more of a plant person. It would have been soothing to have a couple of potted geraniums on the window sill or a small, sturdy palm in the living room. Something she could name and then talk softly to. She had never understood until now why some people did that.

***


Elevator Music

In another lifetime they might have been good, perhaps even great friends. Their natures each pitched to unusual keys, offset enough to harmonize in inspired ways. But they didn’t. Not this time around. What emerged between them instead, was the relationship equivalent of elevator music. A vast politeness, a blameless bond neither strong nor interesting. It held them temporarily in the same orbit, no more, no less. Like passengers seated next to each other on a plane, who exchange brief pleasantries then fall into their separate worlds. Or acquaintances at a mutual friend’s party, who listen to one another’s stories with that air of formal attentiveness that betrays a lack of natural sympathies. From their forgettable interactions was absent the trouble or reward of real conversation. They traveled a shared highway, a little more than distant and much less than close. You know how it is with some people. And so it was with them. Though it might have been otherwise.


I Think I Heard Her Sing

And if there’s no bread to be had tonight I will eat words she said

I’ll sprinkle them all with pepper and salt, and gobble them up in bed.

***

If light is a language and sunset a sermon

And dusk is a tribesman in deep purple turban

Then why speak in words that will ruin the night?

When nothing that’s said can ever be right.

***

Bright lights on the hillside no stars in the sky

My heart it is heavy and it won’t tell  me why

The frogs they do croak and the crickets they chafe

While alone at the window I stand like a waif

Though my life it be full of love and its singing

It harbors still shadows of pain and its stinging.

***

Who put the cluck in the chicken and

Sharpened each green blade of grass?

Who rouged the cheeks of the sunset and

Filled the blue rivers with bass?

I’ve scoured the world for the artist

Whose skill grazes everything

I haven’t glimpsed her yet, but once

I think I heard her sing.

***