Category Archives: The Abstract

A Strange Predicament

When I stop to consider the facts they astonish me. There you are couched in your own skin, and here I am in mine. No matter how close, we must each do our own living. Your heart cannot be persuaded to pump my blood. My lungs will not consent to breathe for yours. It is an odd arrangement. Inside me a mansion of memory and anticipation. A place other people may visit, like a museum. Inside you, a similar mansion. That I can visit and with your permission gaze at pictures on the wall. But only until closing time. And is this not a strange predicament? This seeming and inescapable individuality? The hard shell of ‘I’ that we live inside like soft-bodied sea creatures. When did we choose this? And on whose ill-advice? How different the world would be, if we could waft through different identities as easily as the wind inhabits the trees. Then the woman selling flowers at the street corner would be me. And the crumpled leaf of the half-blown rose in her bucket would be me. And the man reaching into his back pocket to pay for the bouquet – me. Me. Me. Then I would not be ‘I’ any more. And neither would you. No not at all and never again. Once out of the bottle, no genie of sound mind ever chooses to return, to such cramped, uncomfortable quarters.


A Secret

Listen. Today I will tell you a secret. Attached to my right pinky toe is a silver thread spun finer than the eye can see. So long that it spans oceans and continents, so strong that nothing, not even saber-toothed tigers nor Time, that masked highwayman, can snap it.The other end is slipped over the curved horn of a very old buffalo who spends vast quantities of time meditating, some might say sleeping (I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt), in the midst of a once blue lake that has long been under siege by an army of purple waterlilies. Because he stands for the most part with the still grace and perfect indifference of a statue, I forget the thread’s presence for long stretches of time. Like I forget my breath (that other faithful silver filament). But every so often a wayward fly will land on the buffalo’s nose, inspiring that large head to flick itself to one side in a grand, sweeping motion. The thread pulls and tightens momentarily. Jumbled visions dance in my dreams. I see palm fronds on the horizon, rubber chappals in the rain and saffron strands in rice pudding. I see painted masks mounted on unfinished buildings and small, green parrots. I hear my mother’s voice calling my name up the stairs. I hear the honk of my father’s car at the gate. I see my sister’s blue and white school pinafore folded on the bed and I wake with an ache of love and wistfulness. On rare occasions, the buffalo heaves himself out of the lake, dripping water like diamonds. Weighty with wisdom and age he walks on red earth. In the way of all buffalos, unhurried and deliberate. As the thread that connects us grows slowly taut, my dreams turn technicolor. I see children with braided hair burnt orange by the sun, I see wiry street dogs with eyes expressive as bharatanatyam dancers. I see ladoos arranged in golden pyramids, thatched roofs, and mustaches on most of the men. I hear the complicated festival of extended family calling to each other. I see the gap-toothed grins of my nieces and feel their small fingers tugging at mine. I wake with a smile and palms that tingle. Listen. Today I will tell you a secret. The old buffalo is awake. He has been journeying for many moons towards the next lotus-choked lake. And though today I sit here at my computer, sipping green tea, paying bills and settling trifling disputes between the Californian sparrows outside my window, I feel the silver thread at my toe straining East. And I know. Soon it will be time. To go home again.


Truth

I went questing for truth in the world like a knight, with set jaw and drawn sword. Ready to scale mountains and slay dragons in their dens. As if truth were a phlegmatic princess, captive, inert and awaiting deliverance. I found it not. I went haggling for truth in the marketplace like a shrill housewife, beady-eyed and tight of fist. Trading insults and scorn. As if truth were a loaf of bread or a ruby-red pomegranate to bargain for. I found it not. I went begging for truth like a vagabond, with bare feet, tangled hair and a piteous expression. As if truth were a susceptible kinsman with philanthropic tendencies. I found it not. So weary with questing, and barter and plea, emptied by failure I called off the search. Leaned my forehead against the window, and looked out on a moonless night, too tired for thought. I watched as the stars came out, like so many lights on so many distant porches. I stood as quiet witness. And I do not know why somehow this — was enough.


Relationship

Today as I chop small red tomatoes in our light-filled kitchen, I look at the green trees waving in the window and think about death. How we travel closer to each other every year, every moment really. The way people in a long relationship move imperceptibly towards each other across time and space, until their beings are so braided together it is difficult to discern where one leaves off and the other begins. At the end of this humble task I will be fifteen chopped mini-heirloom tomatoes closer to my last breath, because life is in a committed relationship with death I think to myself. And it is as if I am discovering this truth for the very first time. The thought fills me with wonder and surprise. Makes me lift my head and look out the window past the green of the trees. To whisper softly,  Hello partner.


A Lightyear

The poetry of a lightyear lies in its dreamlike definition: a unit of length equal to the distance that light travels in one year in empty space. Just under 6 trillion miles (or 10 trillion kilometers if you prefer). A unit of measurement, in other words, that belongs to the gods. Who, it might be noted, every so often catch us religiously tracking our frequent flyer miles, and try not to smile.


Happiness

The poetry of happiness depends on an element of surprise. It is lithe and built like a jungle cat. Adept in the art of camouflage, capable of consummate stillness and able to traverse large distances with great velocity. In ill-advised moments you find yourself stalking it through the jungle of the day with your too-loud feet and bad-timing (your species was not built for stalking). Later, in an unguarded moment, happiness will pounce on you. Roll you to the floor with soft paws and sit on your stomach gleefully. Joy will swallow you whole. Because you are prey to happiness. And always have been. Not the other way around. It. Has. Never. Been. The other way around.


Flaunting

The poetry of flaunting originated with the night sky who refused to put away its diamonds for safekeeping. Not to be outdone, the sun secured a golden chariot and perfected the art of the grand entrance. This brazen show of wealth did not trouble the oyster but irked the athletic ocean (who harbored a competitive streak, and had long been prone to restlessness). Thus began a ceaseless foam-crested display of strength and stamina. The mountains shrugged their glittering shoulders and declined to comment on the state of affairs. Never one for admirable restraint the peacock fanned its jewelled feathers and invented the strut. Then humans entered the fray. Needless to say, it all went downhill from there.


A Certain South Indian Childhood (Part I)

The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood means that you have bathed in at least three waterfalls and been blest by more than one elephant. You know with a knowing that predates language: the scents of jasmine, of camphor, coconut oil, and filter coffee. Know them the way you know the particular sound of your mother’s bangles. The way you know the sound of the latch on your front gate, and the sound of wet laundry slapping stone. You belonged to an off-key choir of schoolchildren who chanted morning lessons in unrecognizable English and ear-splitting unison. Your to-go meals were eaten aboard trains and came wrapped in banana leaf and newsprint, neatly secured with twine. All your uncles rode motorcycles.

You are an encyclopedia of wonderfully specific wisdom. You know what a hill station is, and are familiar with the many shades of cow dung. Also the urgency of pressure cooker whistles and the buoyant trill of bicycle bells. You know exactly how stubbornly red earth will cling to white canvas footwear. And how deliciously lime pickle will stain a snowy bed of curd rice in the bottom most compartment of a steel tiffin carrier. You spent a monkish amount of time sitting cross-legged on the floor.You memorized a poem about daffodils long before you ever saw one. You were raised by a village. Leaning out the window of a schoolbus you didn’t yet know was a luxury, you watched little girls march bravely to school. Small brown faces dusty with talcum powder. Beguiling bite-sized ghosts in their too-big pinafores and two tight braids doubled-up and tied with bright ribbon bows. In a lamplit shrine you waited for the shred of holy leaves the priest pressed into your palm that later tingled your tongue.You placed a coin in a withered, grateful palm on a busy street, and wished with sudden fierceness that you lived in a fairer world. You encountered an anonymous rickshaw driver or tea stall owner who did you a kind turn when you were most in need of one and then promptly disappeared.

Unsung talents dwell in you. Such as the ability to drink water from a tumbler without your lips ever touching the rim. You were raised in a home crowded with miscellaneous context. Bougainvillea. Black bobby pins. Bore wells. Beaded lunch baskets. Brooms that require you to bend while sweeping. Bandini dupattas. A scythe to split coconuts. Steel buckets. Storerooms. The spit and crackle of mustard seeds in hot oil. Power cuts. Petticoats. Gas cylinders. Guava trees. Geckos. Head baths. Handkerchiefs. Kerosene lamps. Kannmai. Kolam. Cotton wicks. Custard apples. Curry leaves. Ceiling fans. A cyclone of cousins. A fond flock of aunts. Tear-off calendars. Turmeric stains. Whitewashed walls. Red chillies dried on hopping hot terraces. Key bunches tucked into sari waists. Safety pins stored on mangalsutras, and sticker pottus  on mirrored surfaces. Stories of mango-stealing monkeys. Hibiscus bushes. Heirloom silk saris stacked in the mystical recesses of your grandmother’s olive green Godrej scented with a strange, heady mixture of sandalwood, incense and moth balls.

You traveled a fantastical landscape cluttered with color and chaos rendered familiar by dailyness. Loudspeakers. Lopsided buses. Buffalos. Bullock carts. Banyan trees. Boiled peanuts sold off carts in paper cones. Paddy fields. Dried river beds. Dragonflies. Temple bells. Bus conductors sporting pink nail-polish on a single untrimmed thumbnail used to tear off tickets. Bananas, green, yellow and red hanging in thick clusters like the fingers of a giant. Stray dogs. Colossal crows. Cricket matches.The peculiar and literal sales pitch of street hawkers whose hoarse, hypnotic chants floated above the din of narrow streets and into open windows. The crumbling and friendly (if somewhat Draculaesque) smiles of the city’s paan-chewers, Diamonds that flowered and flashed in an old woman’s nose ring. A vegetable vendor’s impossible earlobes freighted with dull chunks of gold and stretched like chappati dough down to her shoulders. Women jostling with curved rim water pots at taps that ran dry (their wells of rough-mannered affection did not).Weddings where hundreds came and nobody rsvpd. Where the serpentine notes of the Nadiswaram coiled through the air only to be overtaken by the adrenaline rush of the thavil in gettimellam mode. Where food was ladled out of large shiny pails by sturdy men and you were plied with freshly fried appalam the size of frisbees, mountains of steaming white rice, and shockingly orange jelabis sticky with sugar syrup.

One day you watched a man climb to the top of a coconut palm pulling himself up with his bare hands. On another, you touched a garland thick as a tree trunk woven from tuberoses and marigolds. You woke a baby fast asleep in a cradle fashioned from nothing more than an old cotton sari, soft with use and slung low from a ceiling hook. Once upon a time you were bitten by an army of tiny red ants.You wondered about the white stripe that dances the length of a squirrel’s back. You rode triples with your sister on your father’s trusty scooter. You opened a pale blue aerogramme. You chewed a neem leaf (the memory still has the power to pucker your face). You cracked open a tamarind pod and sucked the sweet and sour flesh off its hard black seeds. You were stalked on a hot summer night by an impressively single-minded cloud of mosquitoes. You caught sight of a spiky green chameleon in the garden. From a small roadside stall that sold soap and sugar, peppermints and pencil boxes, you purchased at the princely sum of fifty paise, for a geography class, the outline of a world map printed on grimy grey paper. Nameless continents and countries stitched together. One vast and various world of implacable mountains, whistling deserts, talkative oceans, and fertile jungles. Not unlike the nation of a certain South Indian childhood. Each day a planet and a profusion. Of unremarked yet not unremarkable experience.

***

The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood (Part II)


Surprise

The poetry of surprise speaks in the vivid springtime language of bulbs. A daffodil-sudden assault. We believe in the sure ground of the familiar, forgetting it is rigged with trapdoors that drop us slickly into the fertile depths of wonder. The head is confused but the heart knows enough to skip a beat and the breath to catch, when the wild beauty of hummingbirds darts into the frame of a dusk window, when red umbrellas flip inside out in the rain. When renegade moments break loose from the predictable march of calendar time to color our lives unexpected and real.


Stillness

The poetry of stillness sits cross-legged with closed eyes, cradles opposites. Outside a scholarly breeze leafs through a dictionary of
trees (looking up the meaning of life). Sound of muffled footsteps in the hall. Somewhere a door opens&shuts. Amidst untold comings&goings the thought of death flits across mind’s sky; harmless as bright-winged blackbird. With no warning the scent of seventeen lilies floods the room.