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The Games People Play (or) How It Is Sometimes

In another lifetime they might have been good, perhaps even great friends. Their natures each pitched to unusual keys, offset just 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.


The kind of falling out that sinks beneath the surface after the initial confrontation. Unsettled ghosts woken by the disturbance now refuse to fall back asleep. They cast a gray pall over these relationships. Joy like a migratory bird leaves for warmer climes. Pleasantries continue to be exchanged, small kindnesses done. But there is wanness to them. Like winter sun. A futility. Like seed cast on stone. Everything feels smaller than. Diminished. Emptied like a shelled pea-pod. A once container. Contentless yet true to form. The ghosts stir the hollowed out husks with their sighs. ‘Do you remember?’ they whisper, ‘Do you remember those days when life was unbroken, the illusion whole? Do you remember when this friendship made anything possible?’


A variety of veiled distrust between them that self-righteously tilts away from full-blown disagreement, and nurtures instead, many minor refusals to correspond in perspective. The bigger battlefields have been wisely abandoned. The smaller ones foolishly overrun. Each bends over backwards  to avoid seeing eye-to-eye on minutiae. For to concur on trivialities admits common ground. And the thought of shared turf even in its most innocuous forms, is still repellant. A passive contrariness becomes the weapon of choice. Difference of opinion wielded as, not sword, but toothpick. Capable of wounding nothing, save vanity. Horns will not be locked like battering rams. No. Nothing so honest or conspicuous. Instead balloons will be pricked, and sails quietly de-winded by turns. Subtle deflation the new strategy.

Winter Solstice

Daylight in winter rushes away with the urgency of a doctor on call,
Leaves you mid-sentence, without so much as a backward glance.
This daily abandonment takes some getting used to. You frown at the
first star in the sky. Feeling jilted. You do not see the velvet shadows
swirling around you. You do not feel the darkness slip its hand into yours.
But late December on a moonless night, you look down. And see your feet dancing.


Spend some time everyday looking out your window the old woman said to her. Notice things that are right under your nose. And if anyone tells you not to walk around with your head in the clouds, do not under any circumstances listen to them. Cloud air as it happens is exceedingly good for the constitution. Also make sure there is at least one window in your house that you can lean out of. This is an excellent way to take the temperature of the day, and it has a marvelous effect on the heart — in that it fills it with joy and renews its willingness to beat. When you drink coffee sip it slowly and always sitting down. Preferably in front of a window or a good book (which often times amount to pretty much the same thing). Alternatively, sit down next to someone who loves you dearly. And do not say anything, or alternatively say a good deal of nothing to each other in tender tones. At least three times a day listen for birdsong. Train your ears to tune into these sounds. Do not become adept at the art of blanking out the beautiful and thankfully un-monetized moments of your day. Scrub your kitchen floor every other week. Because it brings you close to the ground and reminds you of the honor that dwells in humble work, while simultaneously producing a clean kitchen floor. And in troubled times do not stir the stew of your discontent- do not let it simmer. Switch off the stove and take a walk. Pick apples if it is the season for apples- if it is not the season for apples pick something else round and sweet and simple. Look up at the sky. Look at the sun shining as brightly as it can to please you and win your attention. If the sun is hiding behind clouds remember how much you like cloudy days. When you have walked far enough to make your feet wonder a little warily whether they are going to be able to carry you back then turn around and walk back but not just exactly the way you came. Try and get a little lost before you find yourself back on the right road. This is one way to have an adventure. When you get home walk directly to the stove and pick up the cooled-off stew with both your hands, cup it carefully, even though you are going to pour it directly down the sink, still, handle it with respect, and a little regret for the waste. And then wash your hands and whistle if you know how. Whistle merrily not carelessly. You want to convey a sense not of nonchalance which can be uncaring but of joyousness which can be contagious.  

Planet Discovery

The poetry of planet discovery puts us in our place. Reminds us that even after all this time, even with all our cleverness and contraptions, we are but beloved, untidy children of a fathomless universe. Living in a home where unsuspected planets roll into view as casually as lost marbles out from under the bed. This happens more often than you might think. Last October for example, we found three (planets, not marbles). One of them rumored to be made up of solid diamond. Another with four suns. Four! Imagine that. Like hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock. A sunrise followed by a sunrise followed by a sunrise followed by a sunrise. Four dawns a day. I could get used to that.

A Certain South Indian Childhood (Part II)

The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood entails a thrice shaven head plastered with sandalwood paste and an early introduction to the moon as your maternal uncle. Also a black dot daubed on forehead or cheek, sizeable enough to divert all eyes that chanced upon you (Evil ones included). You were sun-ripened, hardy, dauntless. Capable of sleeping soundly on a dyed and woven straw mat on the floor, sitting sidesaddle on a metal bicycle carrier, and stripping the purple bark off a woody stalk of sugarcane with your teeth. You were unfazed when a corpse-bearing stretcher lurched down your street accompanied by loud drums, dancing and trampled rose petals. But a cloud of live chickens tied upside down by their feet on the back of someone’s scooter knotted your throat. As did pairs of white oxen with black-rimmed eyes pulling too-heavy carts with such patient faces.

Mornings were domestic cacophony. The brisk splattering of water on ground outside your gate, sharp whisk of coconut stick broom, vessels clanging in the sink. A radio chanting, then milkman’s cry, the koel’s piercing call, a clamorous pressure cooker competing with the grinder’s dull roar. Drifting through it all the transcendent aroma of filter coffee. Afternoons were indistinct. A succession of hazy losing battles with sleep under the circling trance of ceiling fans. Evenings were jasmine-scented, lamp-lit, inexplicably wistful. Temple bells at dusk blending with the lusty honking of horns. Cricket song, the muffled laughter of children, then the muezzin’s call crackling mournfully over an ancient sound system. Nights were deep, moss-covered wells of forgetting punctuated by the low rumble of lorries. From the gecko on the wall, a cryptic clucking.

Your days were owner occupied, industrious. Each morning you placed a tidy vermillion dot between your brows that streaked like a small comet by nightfall. You played tennikoit, one-legged tag and under duress the veena. You tested the waterproofing of lily pads, observed the unpredictable flight patterns of winged cockroaches, stockpiled cowrie shells and petitioned scorching skies for rain. You picked tiny guava seeds out of your teeth, acquired a taste for gooseberries, dissected a shoeflower and fell asleep on your grandmother’s swing. You wrote exams with a wayward fountain pen on ruled foolscap and memorized antiquated couplets by a poet-sage (His verses still return like migratory birds to surprise and comfort you). At the wedding of your youngest aunt you were enlisted to sprinkle rose water from a swan-necked bottle on arriving guests. The delicate nethichuttii that cascaded down the bride’s parting was graceful as a falling star. Its perfect beauty taught your heart to ache.

Fate you were told, was easily tempted and writ on foreheads. Goodbyes were implicit promises, never simply, “I’m going” always “I will go-and-come”. Your gods had endearing flaws, favorite foods and approved of full-moon fasts. Your minor sins were repented for by a series of squats performed with crossed arms and pinched earlobes. Step on a book and to this day you will lean down blink-swift to brush it with your fingertips, dab each side of your jawline. You remember temple walls painted in broad red and white stripes.  Carved pillars, poised gopurams, lotus ponds, smoky lamps, sleek idols, the reek of bats, feel of cool stone under bare feet. Bearded sadhus smeared with ash, broken coconuts, the clink of coins on metal plate, a brief brass crown, holy water spooned into cupped palms. The eloquence of silver anklets. And in jostling bazaars a glittering array of glass bangles that regularly robbed you of breath.

So much more than you realize was learned ‘by heart’. The raised contours of the custard apple, the connotation of toe-rings, the whorled conch shell’s stirring call. Not to mention the clacking of tailor’s treadle, the rattle of pleated shutters, the exact location of the dhobi’s cart at noon, the feel of saris stiff with starch, the smell of hot black tar. Also the curious shape of buffalo horns and goat droppings, the tall-spined elegance of peacock feathers and please don’t forget the unequalled fragrance of wet earth after rain.

Encased in your mortal being, all these and other golden pods of memory, multitudinous like jackfruit. And like jackfruit, sweet and strange.


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


The poetry of maybe is first cousin to the poetry of perhaps. Kinsmen hailing from the clan of IfnotWhen, congenitally incapable of ever making a promise. Bred from infancy to sing in the low, sweet tones of an untroubled ocean. In whose depths possibilities and their opposites swim like shimmering schools of fish, back and forth through doors that are never fully open or shut, but always left ajar.