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.

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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. “I was berated for the lapse,” she said.

Kishore left the world scribbling a note that read: ‘Maranathinappuram enthennariyamennulla ahanthayode’ (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’s 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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Trying to Get Back

I haven’t written much these last few months; not that there wasn’t anything to write about, but because there was a lot !!! Entirely too much, I would say. And I was finding it tough to take it all in -the whole new experience; a totally new life- let alone write about it.

But I guess I’m settled now and the words are tumbling over inside, trying to spill over onto paper….

I’ve travelled halfway across the country and am right now at the centre of India, in this quiet, beautiful little city of Nagpur. It is a wonderfully pleasant place to live in from July to February. The rest is Summer. Hot, Dusty Summer; But thankfully, that’s when we do our internships -away from Nagpur.
🙂
I’m not even in the city per se, but tucked away in a corner, 35 kilometres away. Here, and on the way here, I’ve seen things that I’ve never seen before…

The whole 35 kilometre journey takes around an hour by bus–which are not at all like our KSRTC buses; The windows have glass panes because Nagpur gets very dusty in the summer; and there are two two-seaters inside with such a wide aisle that most boarders (who are usually farmers) sit on the aisle with their children and baggage so that theres’ no way you can stand, let alone move about. The leather on the seats is very scratchy and makes you sweat.

But the sights outside make up for all this -there are nothing but green fields and cattle on either side of the road; in the distance, you can see the purplish heads of mountains. The fields have a wire fence around them, over which flowering creepers grow. They are covered by tiny violet and white blossoms; Bougainvillea and a bright yellow flowered shrub grow in abundance by the wayside.

The bus ride is, in a nutshell, a snapshot of a simple, rustic life.

The “B-School” (didn’t you know – we MBA’s don’t say ‘college’ anymore? 🙂 ) nestles between Kalmeswar and Dorli. Of the two, I would say that Kalmeswar is a town while Dorli is a village; The differentiation is based on the fact that Kalmeswar has an SBI, two ATMs, numerous kirana stores, a lodge, a market, a school and a medical centre. Most of the inhabitants work in Govt. offices or private firms.

Dorli is a different story. Most of the villagers are either farmers or cattle-rearers. There is an absurdly startling resemblance between them and R K Laxman’s Common Man. Many young men from Dorli work at IMT as “Dustblower Boys”; This is a coveted and prestigious profession for them – working at IMT. It was a surprise to learn that these sons-of-the-soil prefer cleaning someone else’s rooms and toilets to working in their own fields. According to one of them – who calls me Didi – he gets a uniform; a salary; a ‘tag’ and hence, high ratings in the wedding market –all thanks to his Dustblower job. I empathize with him, remembering how 5-6 years ago,we were all clamoring to enter the IT and BPO fields because of the remuneration and social standing it offered.
More about life here soon….