Picture Perfect

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Look at this picture.

What do you see?

You don’t need to be an expert to say-

This is a family.

 

This family is out on a picnic.

Daddy, Mommy and Lil’un.

 

This is Daddy.

Daddy looks impatient.

All he wants is to get back home

Slump on the couch and watch boxing on TV

The punches flying about like butterflies,

it’s Ali after all.

 

Daddy lets out a belch.

In the dark, the light from the telly flickers.

Daddy cheers.

Goes to the fridge for another beer.

 

This is Mommy.

Mommy likes to clean.

Right now Mommy is worried.

She sees ants crawling into the picnic hamper.

 

Mommy is clean. Mommy scrubs.

Mommy dusts. And scrubs some more.

Mommy does not like to be touched.

Even by lil’un.

 

This is lil’un.

Lil’un ain’t got no clue what to do.

 

Lil’un wets her bed.

Waits for the brush.

 

Lil’un breaks a plate.

Cayenne pepper it is.

 

Lil’un washes her eyes at the sink,

 

Lil’un blinks.

Lil’un can see again.

 

Sometimes it’s a heated spoon

Lil’un waits for the sear.

Mommy puts Burnol

to make it all go away.

 

Mommy cries.

Lil’un looks at her with her big eyes.

 

Mommy cries some more.

Daddy looks angry.

Daddy breaks a bottle.

Mommy screams.

 

Lil’un hides under the covers.

 

Mommy comes in to put out the light.

Lil’un tries to give Mommy a hug.

Mommy pushes her away.

 

Mommy says- You should not show love.

You should only feel it in your heart.

 

Lil’un remembers how good it feels to hold a puppy.

Lil’un wants a lil pup.

Mommy won’t even hear of it.

 

Lil’un closes her eyes

wakes up in the middle of the night

sobbing.

 

Look at this picture.

Don’t you see?

You don’t need to be an expert to declare-

This is a family.

 

 
Expert

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Lethal Life

 

They say I cheated.

That I was supposed to die.

That I’m not supposed to be here.

Maybe.

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I was a product of violence.

My conception, a burst of agony.

 

I was that tiny spore

that wanted to bolt,

find itself a new place,

away from the muck.

I propelled myself

defining a perfect trajectory,

Pushed deep

from within

to get away,

as far as possible.

 

My arc led me to travelers

long journeys to sandy deserts.

At first dismayed,

I soon learnt the ways…

I waited patiently.

 

Unceasingly, I held on to dear life

that threatened to escape.

I held on,

defenseless and vulnerable

to the rays of the sun.

 

Would I even thrive?

Would I be allowed to?

Would there ever be a flourish of little heads around me in a little magic circle?

The enchanted circle?  Would it happen?

The rings of family, the circle of love, the burgeoning of lyrics, the poetry of life?

Or would I encounter only arid lands, unresponsive and cold under the blazing sun?

Pure rhetoric. I’m sure you know the answer.

Not in a million years.

 

So I nestled in the thorns of parched land

I lay dormant for years,

dying a little every day

in the scorching heat

and the freezing anonymity of it all.

 

I built layers around myself,

protecting the remnants of life within

sheltering brazen hope

never gave up.

 

My optimism was repulsive, even to myself…

did I not know enough?

Hadn’t time in the grooves,

among the others,

taught me the merits of giving up?

 

Close my eyes now?

Have the darkness close in?

Never wake up?

 

My dream began to die.

A little.

The life in me fell asleep,

despite my craving to come alive.

 

The tales I had heard in the past,

the promise of warmth and moisture,

the muggy atmosphere which I needed to thrive,

all an unbelievable dream.

 

Let it be this way.

Oh, the bliss of letting go.

Floating away.

I was a spore, after all.

I knew best how.

 

I found myself in lush greenery again.

The afterlife?

No.

This life.

 

Don’t ask me how it happened.

I don’t have any answers.

Maybe it was destiny.

Maybe it wasn’t my time yet.

Maybe…

 

All I remember it was painful.

And I don’t want to revisit.

I won’t.

 

So I found myself on this damp log,

I put down roots

shot branches out

reluctantly at first

then lustily.

 

The others watched.

Dismayed.

My intrusion unwelcome.

Obviously.

 

For they were the privileged shoots,

the original inhabitants of the log,

the ones born with a ready musty log

to receive them.

 

I was the intruder.

 

The buzz kept me awake.

 

For some time only.

 

I learnt to shut my eyes and ears to them,

did what I was good at…

survive.

 

I survived.

I watched.

I waited.

 

For I noticed the others

being cut from their stalks regularly.

 

Not the ones too close to me.

I remained untouched.

Would it be my time?

Soon?

 

I heard whispers

‘No, not that one.’

‘Do you want to die?’

‘Poison!’

‘Poison!’

‘Poison!’’Poison!’’Poison!’’Poison!’’Poison!’

‘Poison!’

I found great beauty in that word.

 

So I still stand.

Even a dog comes sniffing,

takes one breath and turns,

loping away in haste,

breathing in fresh air

with greater alacrity.

‘Poison!’

 

Meanwhile I keep my eyes and ears open.

I am totally aware of my surroundings.

Blissful that I am toxic.

Exultant even.

‘Poison!’

 

So, that’s why they say I cheated.

That I was supposed to die.

That I’m not supposed to be here.

And just maybe, I cheated death.

Maybe.

 

‘Poison!’

 

Hey, I’m still here.

Deal with it.

Cheat

Down and out

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You spoke to me? Me? Ok, give me a moment.

Yes?

Home? Huh? What’s that?

Where do I sleep?

When it isn’t raining, the trees there form a perfect canopy…

When it rains, you ask?

The priest at the temple allows me to shelter under the old stone ceiling of the mantap, the porch.

A mattress? Ha! Ha! I don’t need one. I know how to bring up the warmth of my body by controlling my mind.

No, I have not chewed on any special root, leaf or fruit.

Yes, I am high.

On life.

I don’t need to explain how.

You wouldn’t understand.

Food?

The forest behind, she gives me all I want.

No, I’m not hungry.

I do not want your bread.

I certainly do not want to share your food.

You need it more than I.

It is all the same to me. I cannot discern any taste. It is only food, something to keep me going.

And I certainly do not need any.

Why do you insist?

What is this need you have to feed me?

Does it make you feel good about yourself?

No?

Then I don’t  know why  people like you throw unwanted scraps at me.

No!

What are you doing?

Please don’t leave food by the side of the tree.

Never mind, I shall give it away to the dogs by the temple.

It is all the same.

The dog and I, what is the difference?

Why do you look angry?

I did not ask you to stop by.

Please leave.

I do not want your attention.

Leave me alone.

Get back into your metal cage and go away.

What?

What makes you think you can help me?

What makes you think I even need help?

I see.

I look like a destitute person.

You, with all your need to reach out, help, and console people seem more destitute than I.

I am content with my lot.

I am poor. I know that.

I choose to be poor.

My poverty is my wealth.

I do not sit at the fringes of your life, begging for money, food or even attention.

Ever seen yourself?

Seeking approval.

Feasting on scraps of good opinion.

I may look like a beggar, but I am not one.

Family?

I must have had one in another life.

I don’t remember.

I choose not to remember.

Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, who are they?

It isn’t relevant.

No, I never married. I did not need to.

Marriage is for people like you.

I am wedded to my death.

The moment I was born I was betrothed to her.

She is alluring and constant in her devotion to me. She walks steadily with me, her step never faltering, her sight never wavering.

Faithful.

She is my beloved.

Every moment I have, left in my life, is hers to claim.

I have given up everything in her pursuit.

I wait for her embrace, her everlasting embrace when I can close my eyes and never wake up.

Never wake up.

My breath, my final gift to her.

What’s that you say?

Have a little faith in God?

What do you know of the faith of people like me?

All we have is faith.

We have little else.

What are you saying?

Visit a shrine?

You  go in search of God here, there, and everywhere.

You fail to see Him in yourself.

I don’t need to go to a shrine to find Him.

I am connected completely with Him within.

He looks out for me, watches over me.

Is me.

And my beloved waits for me, at the end of this path.

Really?

Am I putting my life in danger?

What is danger?

And what is this life?

What?

You ask me why I have been answering your questions if I did not want anything?

You see, you had the look of an impoverished beggar on your face, so eager to please, so eager to help.

Please! Please! Please!

That’s right, please go away.

Next time, be more careful.

Don’t court danger, ever again.

The next stray dog you stop to pat, to feed your scraps to, by the side of the road, might not just growl.

Unlike me.

Jeopardize

…on a loop…

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“The ocean sleeps. The ocean wakes. And the waking of the ocean is the waking of the soul. At midnight wakefulness springs from within the ocean.” – Wasif Ali Wasif, Dil Darya Samandar.

Darya sat there, as calm, deep and still as an ocean on a beautiful day. The restful waves she created droned on, ebbed and flowed, enchanting and lulling the audience into a peaceful state.

She sat demurely, on the stage, behind the maestro, Ravindra Kumarji, the celebrated singer who was in the throes of passion, his voice inextricably tangled with the melody provided by the others, seeking blessed, divine release. He squinted in concentration, arms moving about, tracing patterns in the air drawing from them, the effort required to push the notes out, with precision,just so.

Somnath Bhat saab tried to drive him on with his well-ejaculated ‘wah wah’, general expostulations of appreciation, and ‘kya baat hai’, awesome, would you look at that, in this case, hey, did you hear that, could you just believe what you heard? And the maestro beamed at him, spurred on to reach his peak.

Darya listened indifferently, and by now she was so used to Ravindra Kumarji’s ascents to the summits of his notes that she could even detect where he missed a step and even faltered, fumbling for a foothold.

She raised her eyelids and looked up.

The audience was oblivious.

Was that a note that hadn’t quite reached there?

Somnath Bhat saab wondered too, as his fingers drummed incessantly on the table. He looked at the audience. They had hardly noticed. Anyway, with the rhythmic pattering of the tabla, the pair of hand drums on which the player was playing, his palms held steady and fingers almost invisible in their speed, he assured himself, nobody would notice.

He attempted a more enthusiastic ‘Wah, Janaab’ , Wow, Sir!

Ravindra Kumarji looked up at Somnath Bhat saab and now the action was concentrated between the two.

They locked horns and the jugalbandi commenced. Jugalbandi or ‘Entwined twins’ was the most popular and much-awaited part of the performance, of the entire evening.

The listless audience, who most of the time, with the exception of the music-lover, the music-enthusiast, who attended every concert religiously, was there because they had been prevailed on to be the mandatory escort, chauffeur, or pretentious ass who needed to be seen at all the right places, or had a couple of complimentary passes.

The audience perked up. It was time for the tango. Really the chemistry between the two was incredible. The tension was palpable; they were on fire, these two.

Darya plucked at her strings rhythmically. She played the tanpura, a long-necked stringed instrument.

Her job was simple, she plucked at four strings, in a cycle, unerring in her timing and precision. There was no melody, but she added to the cycle of a sonic drone in the background against which Ravindra Kumarji and Somnath Bhat saab drew the source of their melody and used her notes as the base.

She played on, in a loop, effortlessly.

Darya was chosen by Ravindra Kumarji’s wife, Roshanji, who was her mother’s friend.

Roshanji played the sitar, another long-necked musical instrument, made famous all over the world by Pandit Ravi Shankar and his association with the Beatles and more recently by his beautiful and accomplished daughter, Anoushka Shankar.

Roshanji was a better sitar player than her husband was a singer, but she was condemned to the wings, Ravindra Kumarji not allowing her more solo time on stage than what was necessary.

Roshanji plucked at the strings of her sitar, with more force than necessary, for the Jugalbandi had commenced.

Really, the two seemed to forget the world around them.

Darya looked over, when she saw from the corner of her eye, Roshanji viciously tugging at the strings and Roshanji looked at her with a mad gleam in her eyes.

Oh, no, thought Darya, was she reaching breaking point?

She continued to pluck at her strings, effortlessly, serenely, on the surface at least.

She remembered how agitated Roshanji had been during the rehearsals when she was almost rendered invisible, the playful banter between the ‘entwined twins’ creating such magic. The planning and discussion of the act on stage extended beyond rehearsal hours, spilling over, behind closed doors.

Darya had touched Roshanji’s feet in respect, before leaving their home, and Roshanji asked her to stay back for some refreshing lime sherbet.

Darya could hardly refuse, she loved this quiet elegant woman who spoke so softly and dressed so elegantly, so unlike her mother. Darya needed money for college and this stint of playing the tanpura with this musician family helped. It hardly required any effort and the shenanigans often were a great source of drama and entertainment.

Darya had been the perfect choice as her classic beauty added to the old-world charm of a traditional concert. Darya would have been happy to perform in her jeans and tees but she could not dare to appear in a Hindustani classical music concert dressed inappropriately. Silk kurtas, tunics, the occasional silk saree gave her a bewitching look, made all the more appealing because she was the daughter of a beloved friend. Almost like a daughter of the house.

‘Don’t I look beautiful any more, my dear?’

‘Hmmmm,’Darya gulped and hastily spooned her sherbet down, before the conversation would take on a more dangerous tone.

‘ And my sitar…don’t you think I…?

The entwined twin act went on uninterrupted upstairs, the music now an assault, a sharp raucous contrast to the peaceful notes of Roshanji’s dulcet voice, drowning her words.

Roshanji directed a kohl-laden look in the direction of the door, from where her son, Rohan entered.

‘If it hadn’t been for my zabardasti, my insistence, I wouldn’t even had had my Roshan.’

Oh dear, how quickly could this mountain of sherbet be demolished?

Hardly tasting anything, Darya made a quick dash for the door, hurriedly muttering, ‘Amma will be wondering…’

And now Darya watched with incredulous eyes.

Ravindra Kumarji was raising his notes to an ecstatic pitch and Somnath Bhat saab was tapping measure for measure. Very soon they would reach the pinnacle of culmination and it would all be over.

Darya looked over at Roshanji who was thrumming her sitar passionately, fervently and vehemently, eyes flashing a brilliant black, seeking attention that would never come her way.

Nothing stayed hidden from her eyes.

She perceived, it was only a matter of time, before it would all be over.

Darya shut her eyes to the whole scene, concentrating only on the loop of her tanpura.

The familiar comforting loop, the underlying soothing notes, reassuring in their ease.

Eyes

Rambling wraith

The shroud of mist lifted halfheartedly and the house, reluctant to reveal itself, appeared in patches of brown and dark green, till finally it stood, mute, glowering down at the intrusion.

I looked up at the sheer, imposing walls and breathed in the magnificent splendour of it all. Fell in love with it, again. I walked in, and the heavy old door closed shut behind. It was now me, the house and…

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I rose when she entered. She brought the fresh air from outdoors. Panting a little from the exertion of her walk, she halted in front of the window and stood by me, watching the others play outside. I leaned forward to whisper, but she moved abruptly and walked into the adjoining room that led to the kitchen.

A cool draught of wind ruffled the hair on my neck and I shivered. It was warm in the house but the area by the window was cold. It must be these old houses. Unseen gaps in the woodwork of the window frame and air gushes in, even when it is not wanted. I moved away from the window and walked into another room. The kitchen faced the back yard and had a beautiful latticed screen separating it from the trees outside. The branches swayed and cast shadows on the wall. Beautiful. This house had a soul. I could feel the connection, again.

She stood fascinated, looking at the screen and the trees beyond. She whirled around to look at the walls. I glided there and she saw me, the shadows dancing around me, and smiled. I smiled back. I liked her, it was wonderful, again.

I took my time. It was as if the house spoke to me. I could feel a sense of belonging, a sense of calm as  if I were home again. Something that I had never felt all these years. I touched the old, old pictures on the wall, straightened my favourite one.

I waited. I gave her, her little moments. She smiled, looked wistfully at the old photographs on the wall, she appeared fascinated by one. I leaned over for a closer look. Ah, she had taste, it was my favourite one as well. I followed her, my skirts swishing ever so lightly, the rustle of my silk matching her step, as we ascended the staircase leading to the bedrooms. She stepped in, closed the door. Closed doors weren’t a great barrier.

I loved this room. It was exactly as I had left it. Years ago.

She really loved this room. I could see that.

I stood by the ornate mirror and gazed at my reflection. I looked so young, so alive, if I could say that, unlike what I had glimpsed in the morning. I needed to get out more often.

She lay on the bed and closed her eyes. I walked over and smoothed a stray curl. She stirred and I moved away. I caught myself looking at my reflection in the mirror. Right! I did look younger. I had looked drawn, haggard and pale this morning. I was right. I needed to get out more often. I needed to feel alive.

I walked over to my self and merged my consciousness with her dreams.

Ghost

Looming on your horizon

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Time does not matter to me.

Time is inconstant.

Time changes.

I don’t.

 

I am a rock that erodes the waves of time,

reducing them to spray.

Impotent minutes and ineffectual seconds.

 

They come to me, in different guises,

stare at me, marvel at me, and depart,

changed by me.

 

Some curse me,

for I prevent their movement,

forward,

becoming a barrier

to their feeble attempts at progress.

 

They tried.

They cut into me, hacked me down,

Well, they tried. I’ll concede that.

 

My walls stood impregnable.

I stood silent against their onslaught.

 

The surge of mortality, I overwhelmed.

 

Every boulder I call my own, waiting for my command,

Morphing,

from a latent threat to a dynamic attack.

 

Why don’t they really look?

 

Well, I am not taking any decisions.

Decisions are not mine to be taken.

I am waiting for a higher power to intervene.

 

I am content to hold my fire,

even if waiting is all what I do,

till I crumble in the distant future.

 

Yes, I am aware of my own mortality.

 

This is transience, I am aware.

 

I am still, you see, and I absorb everything.

 

But the thought that I don’t have to take things in my hand

fills me with peace.

 

I know my space.

I know my limits

and I know my ephemerality.

 

And that is my strength.

 

I do not extend my boundaries more than I have to.

 

Why don’t they really look?

 

Do I need to?

Well, I have never felt that way.

I see it all in their eyes.

Why don’t they really look?

 

As if I were a remnant of the past, an object to be revered.

I look at the unchanging sky and the changing landscape and wonder at their adulation.

Why don’t they really look?

 

As if I were a victim to be mutilated beyond recognition, my wealth plundered and carried away in haste.

My granite walls eye them and close shut.

Why don’t they really look?

 

As if I were this impossible summit against which every hard contour and soft cavity of theirs is measured and fails.

My eyes remain shut.

Why don’t they really look?

 

As if I were susceptible to effective logs of dynamite intended to blow me up.

Well.

Why don’t they really look?

 

As if I were preventing the landscape from improving itself…

Well, I am blotting out their sunlight and hiding their favourite view…

Why don’t they really look?

 

Well, they are all welcome.

 

All I know is, I am in control of myself.

Why don’t they really look?

 

I never profess to be in control of anything else, or anybody else.

Like I said, it isn’t my business.

 

The clouds wafting above nestle in my arms, curl up against me and deeply rested, move away.

I do not attempt to hold on to them.

Freedom is absolutely important. 

Mine and theirs.

 

I am here today.

I may not be, tomorrow.

When I am, I completely am.

When I go, you won’t even find a pebble, a trace.

 

I like being here, so I still stand.

 

If it were not so, I’d allow the wind to blow every bit of me away

particle by particle.

 

I’d  allow the rains to lash at me, washing away myself

grain by grain.

 

I would shift.

Drastically.

 

Tremors cleaving my rocks,

scattering them over the landscape,

obliterating it,

forming a new landscape.

 

Meanwhile, I know there is a reason why I am here.

I don’t know what.

I am not even going to pretend I know why.

 

All I know is that I am still here.

And that is enough for me.

 

Why don’t they really look?

 

Confused

I, a speck.

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It looks good from up there, doesn’t it? Believe me, you don’t want to zoom in. I am just a speck in the far corner to the right, part of the crowd having gathered here at the boat races.

I am a mere spectator. I choose to be this way.

After years, I find myself in an unfamiliar land. The people are different. The language, to me, as of now, is incomprehensible. The food is however, divine. The lush greenery around me soothes my tired eyes and the deep, still waters calm my mind.

I rejected a land that considered me a freak. I have no home. Nothing.

I have an education that taught me when to shut up. And my education apparently came in quite handy all my life. Quite a few times. Too many times, I admit. I had to get away.

I have always been different. I can never do the thing expected of me. At first, I could not afford to be like everybody else. I was different. And then I learnt to celebrate my unique nature. I took pride in being apart from the rest.

This fierce quality was appreciated by those who understood and after much deliberation, I accepted an offer. An offer of marriage. This was a unique matter in the society I lived in. In fact, my great-aunt remarked that it was a ‘strange’ match, unconventional and unorthodox.

I had always felt unorthodox and unconventional were out of the ordinary. Qualities to be exalted. Celebrated. Turns out I was wrong.

It was one of those ceremonies after the wedding. The groom’s family had to host lunch. Everybody sat down to a meal that had been cooked by the elderly women of my husband’s family. I offered to help, but they turned down my offer. I attributed it to the customary pampering of the bride before her mandatory stint as housekeeper began. My parents and relatives were made to sit in a separate room and were served food. My husband sat with us and there were a couple of banana leaves ready, but my mother-in-law, politely excused herself and my father-in law,  saying she would have her meal in the kitchen, could they be excused?

My father stood up. I gave him a beseeching look. He sat down. The food remained untouched on his leaf. Through a film of tears, I saw hardly anybody had touched the leaf. My husband tried to coax everyone into eating, but his words met stony silence and averted eyes.

It was then that the coin dropped.

Being of another caste, we were untouchable. They would not break bread with us.

Untouchability had not existed, technically, in my life. But now, I realized that as long as you were in your own sphere, you were safe. My friends belonged to different communities and were welcomed into each other’s homes. I believed this was true of all the world. Till I was proven wrong.

It was a weapon used against me, to make me feel humiliated and vulnerable when I could not defend myself. My husband was upset but he did not stand up for me, against his parents. He would tell me to be the ‘bigger’ person and ignore it. How long can you ignore a thorn in your foot? How can you pretend to be blithely happy when an abscess forms, filled with blood and puss and throbs painfully even when you are not walking?

The roots of necrosis began dramatically with the meal after the wedding and continued insidiously.

In conversations when I participated, well, with my silence of course, remember, I was ‘educated’…

What are the sweets you make on auspicious occasions?

Oh, we make them only during death ceremonies.

Who is the presiding deity of your home?

Really? Never thought that possible.

…and in discussions in which I starred, invisible, my presence like a ghost that is only felt and not seen…

Come, come, Jayamma, how are you today? What vegetables did you bring?

Tomatoes, brinjals, ladies’ fingers, pumpkins…

What did you cook at home, Jayamma?

Amma, I made rice and we had yesterday’s lamb curry…

Chee, do you really like eating meat, Jayamma? Aren’t you filled with revulsion?

Amma, I have been brought up this way. If you had been born into a family like mine, you would have been at the butcher’s shop now, buying the choicest cut of meat and maybe we would be swapping recipes of mutton curry…

Stop it, Jayamma!

My father-in-law chose that opportune moment to walk out of the house to go to his favourite ‘paan shop’ for his customary cigarette.

What does your husband do, Jayamma?

He sells fish at the market, Amma.

Oh, how do you bear it? You sell clean vegetables, and he sells unclean fish! How do you bear the stench? Fishy odours are the worst!

Jayamma got up in a haste and struggled with her flat basket after she placed her rolled-up towel on her head, cushioning the basket. I helped her place her basket on her head, while she ranted.

Well, in that case, how do you bear your own odour, Amma? Don’t act as if you smell of flowers! Every man to his life and taste. How dare you ask me such questions? I fact it is people like you who are contributing to the increase in the price of non-vegetarian food. Ask your husband and sons what they eat when they go to the hotels on Sundays…

Jayamma spat on the floor of the veranda and swore she would not return. I cleaned up the mess she had left behind. My mother-in-law swelled up with righteous anger and spoke about how ‘these’ people had become uppity and forgotten their place. She threw a dark look in my direction and spoke about the dilution of race in Kali yuga.

I did not react. Jayamma was not literate. She could speak up. I had an education that clamped my mouth shut. I stayed quiet.

I had a baby. A girl.

And then it began. The slow poison. The orientation. The grooming. The hidden signals that I began to notice.

She must have been three when she brought ‘Asterix in Spain’ to me and placed it on my lap. Her favourite comic.

Amma, this is yuck. 

What is?

This is yuck, look at this.

I looked at the comic and at the picture of roast boar, the favourite meal of the Gauls. I had never tasted pork, but the picture of roast boar in the Asterix comics always made me feel hungry. Golden brown glazed meat, juice dripping onto the tray, Obelix devouring it greedily…

It is food, we must not say that about food. People eat it. You must not talk about food like that.

No, Grandma says it is ‘chee’, yuck, ‘kaka’ and people who eat meat are unclean.

I spoke to my husband that evening.

We spoke about this before we had her. We decided to allow the child to grow up my way. It prevents any kind of confusion. An identity crisis.

But, I cannot have her head being filled with such prejudice. It is not fair. She needs to respect other people, other cultures…

My voice trailed after him. He had walked away by the time I could even get a sentence out.

A year passed and my daughter began talking about caste.

My husband ignored me. He ignored her.

I packed my bags and went away with her to my parents’ place.

He didn’t notice. Work had taken precedence over everything.

Meanwhile, I was not welcome there. My parents let me know, in those little ways. Leaving me out of their everyday routine. Being unbearably polite and courteous. You can be violent in peaceful ways, you know.

After all, I had dug my own grave and I had to lie in it.

And so my education came in handy. The education that earlier, had gagged me and prevented me from speaking up, gave me a life.

A friend who lived in a town far away offered me a place to stay, while I picked up the pieces of my life.

I moved away. Began afresh.

It was hard, I admit.

But, I was free. So deliriously free.

I taught my daughter never to speak about caste, never to ask anyone for details nor venture to share any.

I taught her creed and race do not matter.

I taught her the importance of learning as many languages as she could and speaking in as many tongues as was possible.

She was young. She could unlearn everything before any permanent damage was done.

I know she would not put up with any nonsense any more. Unlike me.

Did I say earlier that I have nothing? I was wrong.

But, how, you may ask.

You see, I have everything. Everything that matters.

I have the conviction to stand up for what I believe in.

The deafening cheers of the people break my reverie.

I now stand here, humbled by the awesome display of strength and power at the races. The sheer power unleashed by human beings who can choose to be all- powerful and all- mighty when they want to.

And I am a mere speck.

An uncomplicated speck.

But I think of myself as a speck, a speck that makes a difference.

I know, I do.

You see, I’m a speck that will make itself seen and heard. If you are observant enough, even felt.

What’s uncomplicated about that? You may ask.

You see, it’s simple, really. Just know this. Nobody can get away with heinous acts of racism or even talk suggesting discrimination.

Not on my watch.

And that is the uncomplicated fact of the complicated matter, that governs our lives, and threatens to break us apart.

Complicated

For all we know…

Has it been a week already?

It’s time for them to go.

Not so soon, I selected the buds with infinite care, arranged them in this divine vase, and I changed the water every morning and evening.

Look at the water now. All clouded and dirty.

Already? Look! The sweet-smelling sap from cut stalks oozed a certain interesting cloud into the transparent clarity only afforded by plain water, before its sojourn in the vase came to a satisfying end. 

Hmmm. The stems are black now, have  lost all firmness, are limp, ready to give up.

But look! The flowers are now in full bloom, opening into pristine white clouds to reveal the sun nestled inside. A glorious burst of white against the cool blue walls, they were the conversation piece of the evening. Did you hear them wax eloquent? You didn’t ? I see. What were you doing? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen much of you this evening.

Never mind. The flowers have to go. Maybe the vase as well. It looks old, The copper has lost its sheen. At least get it polished. And that grotesque china plate, I insist on it being removed, or I shall have break it, maybe accidentally, you know.

What! The plate! The fish swims eternal circles, patterned on fine china, the artist’s flair for capturing movement in a rigid state is legendary.

I’m sure, in an artist’s world, anything is possible.

Maybe china is fluid, taking on the movement of its maker’s wheel.

What defines our understanding these days? It is incomprehensible, really!

Well, the artist certainly knew how to breathe life into his work.  He also knew how to ensure they lived, these living things, I mean. As you know, all living things grow…

Aren’t little ones taught that in rudimentary science class? It’s been some years, but I confess to a little remnants of knowledge…

Don’t interrupt. So, the fish grows and continues downward in its search for the depths where it can submerge itself completely, to merge and lose itself in the union between depth and understanding. Do you follow?

Maybe.

Do you even understand my artistic sensibilities?

Maybe! Can I leave now?

Hold on. Oh, this is so frustrating. You are as elusive as…

This fish?

Enough! See, now that the water is changed, the petals fall off, ripe and satiated.

Satiety?

Yes, they thrived, their pure life in the garden was done and a sophisticated but transient life, in exalted company, awaited them. Sadly, it is time now for them to lose themselves in the larger order of things.

The larger order?

Where are you going? Listen to what I thought of, just now. It is rather clever! Allowed one last burst of colour, bloom, dear ones…

Dear Lord!

Straining at your seams, you are allowed but one bout of flirting with the setting sun, one last desperate fling…

Ooh! Interesting. Desperation.

One last attempt to capture fleeting attention, one last longing look at the mirror, one last breathless breath,

Oh good Lord! Breathless breath!

One last bow to your reflection,  for everywhere you look, you see yourselves mirrored in astounding similarity.

Confound this!

This one moment is yours…

Dear Lord take me away!

…before you call it a day, the blue walls a perfect foil to your beauty, we are only too aware of our mortality,

I’m only too painfully aware of these moments that don’t seem to end, my dear!

They speak to me- Listen! ‘Take a look at our stalks rotting in clean water, while on the surface, the race is on, who can bloom the largest, stay fresh the longest…and then maybe we can call it a day!’

I’ll drink to that! Let’s call it a day!

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Maybe

Frozen sunlight

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Nagpur. The oranges. Little bursts of sunlight frozen in pulp, waiting for sweet release. The train chugging into the station. Being greeted by vendors selling the finest ‘Santra’ as oranges are called. The freshness of the leathery skin loosely holding the segments together. Collecting the seeds and planning to plant them in the garden at home. The taut knots in the stomach relaxing into a heap. Breathing again.

The huge railway station at Nagpur. The ancient clock, a relic of colonial times, housed in a building gloriously colonial in features. Wide arched doorways. High ceilings. The eager trudge upstairs. The clean, clean waiting room. The familiar service staff. The welcome smile. ‘Kaise hain aap?’ Bacchi kitni lambi ho gayi hai. Aur itni patli. Kuch khaati nahin kyaa, beta?  How are you? How tall has your daughter grown! So thin! Doesn’t she eat anything? Best of all my mother smiling and talking. Gosh! How beautiful she looked when she smiled!

Affectionate ruffling of the hair. Now, how did she manage to keep her hair so smooth and well-groomed? My mother and I had curly hair that refused to be tamed.

How wonderful it felt! The knots in my stomach relaxed and unravelled themselves. I felt lighter. I could breathe easier. Deep refreshing breaths and I didn’t mind the awful smell of the medicinal carbolic soap that was placed in the washroom. It felt so clean, somehow.

There was a huge earthen pot in the corridor, covered with a wet cloth and I loved the taste of water that was sweet and cool. Water at home always tasted salty. I got used to it, but when we tasted water as fresh as this, why I could drink gallons!

For a tip of twenty-five paise, the supervisor in the waiting room would watch our luggage while we traipsed downstairs to the dining hall that was cool and comfortably dark.

The din of people conversing, the slow rotation of ancient fans suspended from the high ceiling, the clatter of cutlery against crockery, would occasionally be interrupted by the announcements of incoming and outgoing trains and the glorious sound of the trains chugging into the station.

Mother always ordered hot, buttered toast with an omelette. She would use her fork and knife and I would imitate her, feeling incredibly sophisticated. The omelette was fluffy and I swallowed huge mouthfuls, biting into crisp toast, melted butter dribbling down my chin, while waiting for Mother to make tea from the tea service that was placed in front of us.

Fascinating. A spot of milk. Fragrant, golden tea poured elegantly from the teapot. Two lumps of sugar for me, one for her. The delicate tinkle of the spoon as it described circles in the cup, dissolving the sugar. A sip. Feeling warm and golden inside. My stomach feeling incredibly light and  not even remembering, any more, what the knots felt like.

Boarding the little train that travelled over the ‘narrow gauge’ over hilly terrain and cut through little hills flanked by thorny shrub and trees, the domain of monkeys that stared at the train, as it trundled by. The carriages rattled away and we were covered by a layer of fine charcoal dust by the time we reached Chhindwara.

My Grandfather stood alone on the platform waiting for us, in the cold, I was shy, at first, unable to talk, but I would gaze at my mother as she suddenly became this young girl, saying Baba that and Baba this…and the guard would whistle, and the train would continue on its way to Nainpur.

It was a joke among us, Nagpur se Nainpur tak! From the city of the nose to the city of the eye! How clever we had thought ourselves to be!

My aunts and grandmother would make the most delicious sukha rotis, phulkas and smeared a little ghee, clarified butter on them. The aroma of the ghee was enough to make me feel ravenous.

We would sit down to the evening meal and I wondered how people could actually laugh and talk in a relaxed manner. How could so much joy even be possible! How could my mother be this woman who laughed and spoke so much! How could she even smile?

I never saw her smile at home. She hardly even spoke.

The entire holidays would pass by in a blur of happiness. Happiness that had to be stored away in the mind, like concentrated orange juice, in orangeade or orange squash, to be diluted and had, on a rainy day to bring back memories of the sun, or on a sunny day, to show the sun its place.

The return was fraught with silence and my mother stopped smiling a week before we left Chhindwara. I could feel the muscles in my belly begin to contact again. I tried to make her smile, but she would not.

The knots gathered in full force at Nagpur station. I tried to feed on the sunshine of my juicy oranges, in my big basket of oranges. But even the sweetness of the oranges could not help me feel better.

As for Mother, she had this fixed look in her eyes. The lines about her mouth and the frown on her forehead seemed more pronounced.

I knew I had to wait another year before I could see her smile and hear her laugh. It was such a luxury.

A luxury that we could not afford.

For long, long years.

And now I must say that Mother and I live in the lap of luxury!

For we can smile.

For real.

Oh, the luxury of it all!

If you knew what knots in the belly feel like,

you would agree

this is

true luxury!

Luxury

Peel or Fade?

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Time spares nobody. I may peel off but you shall fade away. Fade away. Fade away. It’s all a matter of time.

Is this all you have with you? Are you sure you cannot impart anything anymore? Hurry Sir, you have no time left.

I have taught you everything. This is all I know. Hurry up and understand before the paint peels away and obliterates me.

Thank you, oh thank you for all this. And now I shall let everybody know, of course, I speak, on your behalf…

That will not be necessary. Your gratitude grates, in all its insincerity. Hold on before you begin your long, tiresome tirade, I have a last request to ask of you. I don’t have much time left. You have modelled yourself on my likeness. I have always been plain, not preferring colour, always intending to be plain, that has been my chosen path, and you, being a little green behind the ears, fancy yourself in a splash of colour. As if the coat of paint you splash on shall last!

Why? Sir? Does it offend you to see me develop my personality and grow thus? My take on what I learnt from you, I bettered it. It was because I had the ability that I used paint, you could also have done so, who stopped you?

Nothing. Sometimes I wonder if I had done the right thing imparting to you all that I had, maybe you weren’t ready enough.

Excuse me Sir, take a good look at me. You are losing your head now that the paint there is peeling off. I have always been ready. In fact nobody can beat me…

It has now come to this. I don’t have time to sugar coat this. Plain talk now. You had nothing. You followed me till I gave in. God gave me enough, I did not need what you had to offer. I gave up what I had, time, energy and inner peace, to accommodate you. To make you feel a little less inadequate. And now, with your blue socks and fancy cap, you are the cynosure of all eyes.

Do you mean to say that I had no innate capacity but just achieved all this because of you? I may have learnt from you, but I bettered myself, every step of the way.

Yes, I concede that. Your resilience and single-minded pursuit of your goals were all your own. I had nothing to do with all that.

I owe you nothing.  My blue socks, my fancy headgear are all my own. Look at you, you are not capable of splashing on a little colour on yourself, in fact with all your knowledge are you even able to prevent yourself from being peeled off?

It saddens me that this is all that you, in your haste, have managed to grab from my store. My knowledge has been the fruit of years of pain, hard work and understanding. Your learning has been an offshoot of mine. It isn’t intrinsically yours. Therefore you cannot even understand-

Oh, don’t undermine my intelligence. I  understand your words perfectly. The sad thing is that you have no more relevance left. And that is something you need to realize, for all your wisdom. Look at you, peeling away. Soon there won’t even be a sign that you had ever existed.

I might chip away, peel away, but till the last bit of my self is peeled away I shall have retained my identity and finally at least when I’m gone, people shall wonder at my absence. My absence shall have become greater than my presence.

You could always turn a phrase.  I’ll concede that.

The space that I had taken up cannot even be occupied by another, leave alone fathomed. And that is how the natural order of things should be. You don’t count on everything you learn, to be flaunted at a foolish world, taken in by a bit of colour. Storing away every bit of knowledge you claw from the earth, you regurgitate everything till you stun the world with the confusion of cogitations and excogitations you spew.  You intend only to impress.

I do nothing of that sort. You cannot sit there and accuse me…

If the others matter to you so much, your thoughts and cogitations need to flee from you, scouring the world and touching a flower here, improving its tint, splashing on a butterfly there,making it more brilliant.

I know what to do.

Only if I am painfully peeled off will I get release, blessed release. I am born into a thousand different pigments and tones once I am destroyed here. My destruction paves my way to better things in the future.

Huh? I am certainly not going to peel away. I have a lot left to do, scale greater heights…

You may not peel away. You certainly know how to hold on. Remember, you are, but colour, bits of pigment crushed and added to a medium.

Huh?

If you do not know your purpose in life and, more importantly, know yourself, you are going to remain here, haunting this wall like a ghost not knowing what to do, unable to see the light that guides you away from a hell of your own making.

Stop!

Fading away, every day with the sunshine beating on you, dissolving a little with the tearful rain, and the wind covering you with a layer of dust every time he blows. You have no options left. You shall lose all semblance of self, it is commendable I can even say self, because apparently I haven’t seen even the existence of one.

What!

Yes, you have completely neglected that area of growth in your pursuit of external appearances and instant gratification. Just look at your blue socks and your cap.

My socks are my own. I worked hard, I deserve them and my cap, it was the gift of the ruler of this land who saw so much in me, and was pleased enough with me, to reward me for my extreme resourcefulness.

And this is irrefutable proof of all that I have to say. You show great pride in satisfying your thirst and the interest you evinced in acquired knowledge.  It is time for me to go. I wish you well.

Goodbye.

Much can be said for integrity and detachment. Learn while you can, listen to the voice inside, before it gets silenced. And oh, practise silence while you can.

Oh, peel off!

I may peel off but you shall fade away.

PEEL OFF!

No substance within, you are a ghost, neither here nor there…

Silence finally.

The blue-socked dandy cringed and watched as the paint continued to peel away further, mercifully  the mouth of the one whom he could not bear to listen to, any more. He could see the body tense and relax as if in engaging in animated conversation, but as there was no mouth, not a word was heard. But he felt his anger, contempt and impatience. He was happy when, finally, the entire figure had peeled away.

When the wind scattered him here, once, after many years, he glimpsed the fate of the blue-socked one, now an ineffectual ghost, for those who do not work on themselves and on forging their identities, stand the risk of losing themselves, even if they cling desperately to walls of fame.

He wondered at the futility of it all, the webs of deceit and the cocoons of denial, as he gathered forces with the returning wind and prepared to leave.

In a gust he was gone, to touch another land, to grace another life.

 

Paint