Friend. Lost.

Friend. Lost.

We met Jo six months ago on a trip to the UK. She was our host in Teign Valley, Devon. Today, when I got on Airbnb again to plan another trip, I suddenly remembered Jo and Lorenzo and their lovely cat Frodo. And felt a surge of shame at how I had never bothered to stay in touch.

I typed out a long, long email with abject apologies and a recipe for pulao that I had promised to share after spying some spices and long grained rice in her kitchen. After the message was sent, I made a startling discovery: that listing no longer exists.

I furiously googled ‘The Old Barn, Dry Lane, Teign Valley’ and came up with this Stags listing. The house had been put up for sale some time ago and for all I know, is already sold by now. That means Jo’s quaint, lovely barn-home is not just not on Airbnb, but is also no longer hers.

I remember the day we drove up Dry Lane, counting the houses after the Post Office and turning at the Church. It was late evening and the shadows were deepening. As we parked in the shared driveway, Jo came out of the house to welcome us in. She seemed a little apologetic about how small the house was and somewhat anxious about how we would react to it.

But to us, everything seemed delightful–the low roof held up by wooden beams, the narrow stairs we thumped up to our room on the first floor, the teeny, yet utterly cosy bedroom, the shelves and shelves of books Jo had lined up against the walls, and the lovely cats: Frodo the Golden and the shy tabby whose name I forget.

We seemed to hit it off really well and sat in her kitchen talking late into the night, swapping stories about everything from food fads in India and England to contract teaching in England, her years in South America, the problems faced by working mothers, and the twisted logic of picking up (biodegradable!) dog poop in plastic bags in the name of eco-sensitivity. Together, we pored over a map of Dartmoor National Park and Jo marked out for us the best route to take and the key zones to explore, given our limited time in the area.

There was a teary moment that night for me when Jo’s eight-year-old son Lorenzo brought out his piggybank of savings and offered it to us “for the elephants in India”.

“Come to India,” I told him, “The elephants would love to have you feed them the bananas!” And his face lit up at the prospect. I could see the pride in Jo’s face as she hugged him and later, she told us Lorenzo’s father was half-Pakistani and he was thus one-quarter Asian.

That night, I borrowed The Wind In The Willows from Jo’s shelf and read it through the night. I acquainted myself with Rat and Mole and Mr. Toad, their adventures on the River all the more real and delightful because I’d just walked by the Thames in Oxford a few days ago, along the very paths and under the same trees that they had lived out their fabled lives in.

The following day, our foray into Dartmoor, culminating with a hike up to Bellever Tor, was sheer delight, mainly because of the tips Jo had shared. We came home exhausted, yet exhilarated, only to find that things were in a bit of a tizzy. Lorenzo had had another nosebleed and Jo had gotten her mother to pick him up from school and she had an interview the following day for a teaching role that could be more permanent. “I hope I get it,” she said and we saw a flash of anxiety flit across her face.

To cheer her up, we made instant noodles out of the packets we’d brought with us from India and got her to taste some of it, while Lorenzo rested on the couch with tissues to mop up his nosebleeds. That was our last evening together. By the time we came downstairs the next day, she had left for her interview leaving behind a cheery little note. We made breakfast as Frodo looked on with interest, cleaned things up, and left her our card with our contact details on the dining table.

As we lugged our bags down the stairs, the driveway, and into the car, the cats followed us, as though to say goodbye, and I felt a little pang. “We’ll come back again,” SR said cheerfully, “We should explore Dartmoor so much more!”

Afterwards, she left us a review on our Airbnb profile:

It was an absolute pleasure to host Sreeram and Gowri. They were a delight to have around and two of the most considerate guests we’ve had to date. We enjoyed great conversation and a taster session of Indian (fast) food! I can’t recommend them highly enough, and only wish they could have stayed longer ūüôā

Today, as I sit here writing this, I am not even sure if Jo will see my Airbnb message. She is still registered as a host, so I hope she gets my message. But if she is no longer active, she may not see it at all. And with that, I would lose someone who could have been a friend.

We read so much about how travel expands our horizons and lets us meet new people and experience new things. But Jo was one of the few people I’ve met during our travels who wasn’t a caricature. She was¬†real–vulnerable, yet strong, an amazingly interesting person, and a very, very kind host.

I mentioned this in my message to her, the one I don’t know if she will ever see, and I will say it again: she and Lorenzo and Frodo will forever remain in our hearts and our prayers. I hope wherever she goes, she finds happiness.

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Memories in a chocolate box

Memories in a chocolate box

It’s Saturday morning and we’ve all woken up uncharacteristically early.

It’s all SR’s fault. He has woken up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and wants the entire household to follow suit. He takes first S and then B for a walk. He gives them their breakfast and gets them settled down. Then he finishes some stuff for work. And then starts sorting out a drawer full of old bills.

All before I’ve even finished my morning coffee.

I want to feel useful myself. So I look around for something easy to do. Clean the fans? But we have no step ladder. Laundry? Already done. Take the clothes for ironing? It’s too hot to get out – I can do that in the evening. Prep for lunch? I don’t even have an excuse for this one.

So I drift into the bedroom and pull open my accessories drawer. I’ve been meaning to sort things out here for ages. Now is as good a time as any.

One of my prized possessions is my earring box. It’s an old plastic Ferrero Rocher tray that I have repurposed to keep my earrings sorted into pairs. But over time, they’ve gotten all mixed up. I empty everything out on the bed and start sifting through. B jumps up at once–he loves everything shiny–and S follows suit. I tell B sternly not to put anything in his mouth and then cave and give him an old cloth purse to chew on. S, the angel child he is, needs no such sop. He watches with interest for a couple of minutes, then lies down on his side and drifts off happily. No doubt dreaming of chicken legs.

I set the earrings out in pairs and and all of a sudden, it’s like sifting through a box of old memories.

There are the long, glassy green drops with gold accents that ammai bought for me from someone at the bank. Turquoise blue raindrop-loops a friend got me from Amsterdam. A pair of flat, jimikki-shaped earrings with white stones–the first of many pairs that amma has gifted me over the years. Violet twine hoops that I bought from Brigade Road to replace a similar pair I’d lost on a flight back from Singapore. Every piece seems to trigger a memory, a reminder of happy times.

There are even four mismatched presses that hold the earrings in place. I keep them aside as backups, in case I lose the originals.

I’m nearly done putting everything in place, when I come across them. A pair of pink and silver studs that I have worn perhaps thrice in my life. It’s the very first present SR bought for me, over 9 years ago. It’s not the prettiest of earrings and I remember him telling me he’d bought them from a Coimbatore street-side vendor for thirty rupees when he went to write the CAT exam. They’ve been with me all these years, but I’ve seldom worn them because I have prettier, bigger, longer pink earrings. Multiple pairs, in fact.

They’re slightly dusty and I wipe them with a soft cloth. As I hold them in my palm, I realize they look just as good as new. The stones haven’t fallen off. The silver hasn’t blackened.¬†I’m suddenly reminded of all the good memories from our years together. The houses we’ve moved. The journeys we’ve taken. The food we’ve shared.

Like every other couple, we too have our share of ups and downs, disagreements and frustrations. But somehow, in the face of this little token from a long time ago, those seem small and unimportant.

I put them on, wondering if SR would notice or remember. I know it’s highly unlikely that he would–but I’ll still wear them through the day. As a reminder to be grateful for what we have, something precious not in value, but for what it stands for.

 

 

City-dweller’s requiem

City-dweller’s requiem

Long corridors with pale yellow walls, down which dry leaves come hurtling by.

Desks with chalk marks, blackboards now greyish white.

The faint sounds of laughter and conversation.

Snatches of Shakespeare. Discussions on Dickinson.

Just behind walls, faces that could have mattered to me.

In another life, another time.

If I had chosen to push open these gates.

 

Instead, I have chased yellow butterflies across three states.

I have eaten creamy pasta and touched a napkin to my lips.

Past glass-fronted cafes, I have walked,

surreptitiously checking my reflection and adjusting my stole.

I have spent hours in cold storage, surrounded by others in similar boxes.

All of us being conveyed at a funereal pace to larger, colder storage boxes.

We don’t age. We don’t wrinkle. We don’t feel the wind in our hair.

We don’t speak our native tongues. The words live and die inside our throats.

 

Sometimes, on evenings such as these, I look through the glassed-up windows

(Oh, why is there so much glass? Glass, glass everywhere.

Showing you what you are missing. But offering no reprieve.)

I see, unseeing, the thousands of twinkling lights.

The dark, shadowy outlines of building tops.

(No canopies here, swaying in the breeze).

I smell the smell of rain on the earth.

I close my eyes and bite into a banana chip.

If I keep them shut, I tell myself, I can go anywhere.

 

Pretend worlds of green and brown spring forth around me.

Now I am walking down corridors paved by slanting rays of sun.

My hands drag across the wall, the peeling paint rough under my palm.

I slip into a room, where they are talking.

Five men and women on two shaky benches.

I slip in, unseen, unheard.

An engineer’s ghost in a literature class.

Soaking up greedily the words and their sounds.

Here, no bells will ring. No peon will come in, shuffling papers.

I can stay for as long as I like.

Perhaps even, forever.

The scent of loss

  1. Will you not tell me your pain?

An empty hall. My stroke-stricken grandmother sleeping in the other room, with her home nurse dozing by her bedside. Neelu had come home crying, limping, her leg bandaged from knee to ankle. She’d had a bad fall, and my uncle and aunt had dropped her off here for a while. I didn’t know what to do to cheer her up. So, I sang this song instead, accompanied by a ridiculous dance routine.

“Manikyaveenayumayen manassinte thamara poovilunarnnavale, paadukille, veena meettukille, ninte vedana ennodu chollukille?”

You who took form in the lotus of my heart with your magical veena, will you not sing? Will you not play the veena? Will you not tell me your pain?

Dressed in nothing but a petticoat and with my hair standing on end, I would have presented an absurd little figure. She sat on the¬†window seat, laughing so hard that tears rolled down her cheeks. Every time I sang “Will you not tell me your pain?”, she would take swipes at me from her seat,¬†shouting “Yes, come here, I will tell you!” and I would dance out of her reach…

I can still hear the laughter.

2. Daisy

“Ormathan vaasantha nandana thoppil…”

In the garden of memory, only one flower remains.

It was Achan’s cassette. He used to play these songs on Sunday mornings on our old, fat two-in-one¬†that sat on the bench in the terrace outside our bedroom, while he shaved, and Amma oiled our hair. ¬†Daisy¬†sounded like a happy song to me. I used to sing along, shouting “Daisy… Daisy…” along with the chorus.

Years later, Amma, Nandu and I lay in the dark, night after night, listening to this cassette. Somewhere along the way, I stopped wondering who Daisy was and listened to the lyrics instead. It was a song of love and loss. Funny how I’d never noticed.

To this day, I cannot listen to the happiest song in Daisy without feeling disturbed.

3. The fragrance of memory

“Ormakalkkendu sugandham… en atmavin nashta sugandham…”

Oh, the fragrance of memory! The scent of my soul’s loss!

Something was choking up my nose and throat, pricking my eyes, threatening to spill out. Thankfully, I was squatting on the floor with¬†my back turned away from¬†everyone. I stared blindly at the screen, scenes flashing through my head. I wanted to whimper, but I didn’t. I just sat unmoving, my hands clenching my knees…

And then abruptly, the song changed. The jingle of an advertisement for soap or biscuits came on. When I eventually turned around, I saw Amma disappear behind her paper, her cheeks wet too.

4. Gold, not mud

“Chandrakantham kondu naalu kettu, athil chandanappadiyulla ponnoonjal!”

A naalukettu (house) built of moonbeams, in it a swing of gold with a sandalwood seat…

I was sitting on the Hero Honda, in front of Achan, a trophy clutched in my hand. We were returning triumphantly from a painting competition conducted by Nirmithi Kendra. I had won the third prize.

As a filler during the prize distribution ceremony, they had played this song and it was stuck in Achan’s head. On the way back home, he kept humming it.

“Chandrakantham kondu naalu kettu, athil chandanappadiyulla mannoonjal!”

I interrupted him, laughing, “Acha, mannoonjal alla, ponnoonjal!” (The swing is made of gold, not mud) He shrugged it off, smiling.

Nearly fifteen years later, SR and I were listening to this song. And as SR hummed “mannoonjal” instead of “ponnoonjal”, I burst into tears.

A Night Trek to Anthargange

A landscape of rough grassy patches dotted with large volcanic boulders and rock formations. Naturally formed uninhabited caves. Wild flowers blooming in the thorny thickets under a wide, clear sky… that is Anthargange for you.

Situated in the Kolar district, 75kms away from Bangalore, Anthargange literally means “The Ganga inside”. It is a heritage spot, owing to the temples present, and also a getaway for adventure seekers.

This weekend, SR and I went on a night trek to Anthargange.

“Night trek? Can’t you go somewhere during the day?” was our parents’ first reaction when we told them of our plans. Being amateur trekkers, we were a little apprehensive ourselves, but¬†we knew that a nighttime trek would be an experience to remember.

Though the tour guides had recommended track pants and cotton shirts, SR and I dressed in multiple thin layers and jeans, because both of us are prone to catching a chill. We also carried 1.5litres of water (split between the two of us), biscuits, a blanket each (again, not on the tour’s recommended list, but we know our bodies), and 2 torches.

The trip organizers picked us up at 10.45PM and the drive to Anthargange took about 1.5hours. We were part of a group of around 50 people. After a quick briefing, we were given sleeping bags and sticks.

The trek was along a narrow, rocky path flanked by tall grass and thorny bushes. Every now and then, we had to balance ourselves precariously on boulders and jump across pits. After a 20-25 min trek, we reached the caves. Leaving our sleeping bags and backpacks behind, we descended into the caves.

Last year, we had explored some caves in Shillong, but those had been thoroughly ‘civilized’ and had light fixtures to guide us in many places. Plus, we had negotiated them on our own, quite easily, without a guide’s help.¬†The caves at Anthargange are classified as ‘Moderate’ in difficulty, and they were certainly more challenging than the Shillong ones.

Exploring the caves took about 45min, and afterwards, by around 3.30AM, we walked to the hilltop with¬†flat rocks and patches of green, where we would camp out for the rest of the¬†night. The guides set a couple of bonfires going with the same sticks we’d carried up, and we found a relatively ant-free patch of grass to lay out our sleeping bags.

The idea was to sleep till 5.45AM, by which time it would be daybreak and we would see the sunrise. Unfortunately for us, a thick fog rolled in by around 5AM and refused to clear. By 7.00AM, we gave up waiting, and started our walk back to the bus.

 

The tour included breakfast at a Shanti Sagar in Kolar (1 idli-vada, 1 thatte dosa, kesari bath, and pongal), which was quite good. Both of us slept off in the bus, which got us back home by 9.30AM.

All in all, I would rate the experience 3.5/5. The thrilling experience of trekking at night, the beautiful location, and the perfectly adequate arrangements (sleeping bag, breakfast) were the positives, and these made up for the annoying boisterousness of some of the crowd (drunken frolicking around the campfire)

If you’re interested in this trek or other getaways around Bangalore, check out escape2explore.com

 

A Ming Vase

During my first year of engineering, a senior named Amar, from the Computer Science department,  pulled me up for ragging. He engaged me in a long, pointless debate, obviously looking for clever repartee. At the end of ten minutes, his eyes already scanning the rows of other first-year girls behind me, he said,
“Nee vicharicha athreyum illallo…”
You are not as smart as I’d thought.
It stung.

More than 6 years later, the memory of it still stings.

Sometimes, I feel I am like last year’s Diwali firecrackers. They show a lot of promise – make a lot of noise… whizz and spit… but in a few seconds, they splutter and die. The onlookers are not terribly let down – just mildly surprised.
“Oh,” they say, “I thought it had more going for it!”

Like when you bite into a puffed-up kachori and your teeth snap on air because somehow, you thought it had a mash filling. But it’s just empty. Puffed-up, but empty.

Perhaps now is my turn to be mildly surprised.

A Prophet without Honor. A Stranger among his People.

In about 9 days from now, my father would be dead for 14 years. Black October. That’s what I used to call this unfortunate month when I was younger. At some point, I forgot that name. Just like I forgot to mourn his death anniversary.

Two or three years after his death, a journalist wrote a book called Avinasham. The protagonist of her story was modeled on my father. She even came to visit us at our home, not long after the book was published. I remember her only vaguely. I only remember that my aunt was choked up and that my mother was empty.

I tried to read the book then but most of it must have gone over my head, for I remember next to nothing. Strangely enough, I have not attempted to read it afterwards. I have often seen it sitting on our library shelf at home. Once or twice, I have reached out to take it, but hesitated. I was afraid that it would be too depressing. Depressing! As though the death of one’s father were not enough! As though one had to read about it all over again!

During my late teens, my father re-appeared in my life as a raw, gaping hole that I could not fill. I did not know enough about him. He was like the edge of a fading memory. Sometimes, I thought I could hardly remember him. But he came back in the form of a stranger’s mustache; or soft fingers with blunt nails; or a signature made in Malayalam. And I would remember his voice, his smile, the smell of coconut oil and sandal powder.

In those days of desperately wanting to know more about my father, I should have turned to that book. Tried to discover him through a stranger’s eyes. But I never did. And my father was reborn through my imagination and lies.

A few days from today, that book is being translated to English. I have been invited to its publicity event, where I can meet the author. She has sent me a touching personal mail. The moment I got it, I Googled her name. There were numerous articles, interviews… most of them mentioned my father. After all, he was her first muse.

“Her tryst with writing began when she worked in Thiruvananthapuram as a sub-editor in a Malayalam newspaper. One day at the night desk, she passed the obit of a writer named T.P. Kishore. It was a small, single-column report, while other newspapers carried detailed stories on the writer. ‚ÄúI was berated for the lapse,‚ÄĚ she said.

Kishore left the world scribbling a note that read: ‚ÄėMaranathinappuram enthennariyamennulla ahanthayode‚Äô (With the pride that I know what lies beyond death.)

“she authored it during a few months of painful seclusion that she forced upon herself as she struggled with an inexplicable inner unrest provoked by the suicide of a stranger, writer T P Kishor.”

“My protagonist, Avinash Suvarna was modeled after TP Kishor, who apparently lived an ordinary life and died an extraordinary death in proof of his extraordinary self.”

“A deeply philosophical novel about the trials of a writer, it revolves around a one-line suicide note left behind by a small time writer and how it reveals to a young journalist, the mysteries of living and the travails of creating one‚Äôs masterpiece.”

My father whose masterpiece was his suicide note. My father who lived an ordinary life and died an extraordinary death.

About 24 people commit suicide everyday in Kerala. What my father did, is it then, so extraordinary? I have not acknowledged it till today. But someone else has. Many others have.

Inexplicably -for I have tried my best to not become sentimental where he is concerned -I am stung by the repeated references to ‘a small-time writer’ that are splashed across the web. The phrase hints at an insignificance that I am unwilling to accept in him. I would like to shake his shoulders and scream at him,

“Is that all you were? Tell me! Tell me!”

Because, in my mind, he is much bigger. A complicated man with many dimensions. A sphinx. A leprechaun at the end of my rainbow. My secret source of smiles and sandalwood scent.

I can now see it -his self-deprecatory smile. The clink of beautiful liquor bottles. The pages and pages of A4 paper covered in his writing. This is what he wanted to escape. The words and days of judgment. The stifling need to prove his self. I am almost sorry for him.

And a little ashamed of myself.

What is the need for so much drama? Why not write a couple of lines in polite acknowledgement and attend the event? Tell her quite firmly that I don’t remember much about my father. Tell her that I am sorry, but I’ve not had a chance to read her book. Applaud, shake hands, walk out. Another chapter closed.

Prove to everyone that Gowri N Kishore is undamaged and whole. Pristine. Not an emotional wreck. There are no skeletons in her cupboard. She is not a failure. She will not end up as one of the 24 Keralites.

I do not believe that ghosts walk among us. They merely draw up a chair and keep watching you from afar till you walk out and join them.

With the pride that you know what lies beyond death.

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