Monday, 21 December 2009
They grow friendlier with faithful use.
Stretchable and sure,
They'll rightly endure
Damp feet and mouldering shoes.
I know every stitch on the inside and out,
Each prudently patched up tear.
Like my tenth layer of skin,
It's been wearing thin,
And you're still not my favourite pair.
Friday, 11 December 2009
Sultry afternoon in early July. Sunbaked cement terrace overlooking a patchwork sea of rooftops, flatly scanning the sky. A single line of washing hung limp; a thali of cumin seeds in my lap. And you sitting there, one foot dangling over the parapet, book carelessly overturned. I hoped you were watching, though I knew you weren't.
This was our place. Up and away from the cacophony of family life, kitchen sounds, dirty dishes and cars and children. I'd be sitting in the drawing room, sketchbook open and blank, Twenty20 blaring from the television. And you would look in, briefly, barely noticing. Let's go. So I would. Abandoning pencils and unfinished cups of tea, I'd go, you leading the way. And it was always up here. You never said why, but then, I didn't ask. In the heat of midday and at the fall of dusk, here the light was different. Filtering down on me through high barred clouds. A light broken into bits by the beat of pigeon wings, the rustle of paper kites. My fingers would fall idle. And I would try, once again, to find you in that light.
You were always an enigma, and took some pride in being so. Your words sparse, cloaked in ambiguity, your movements fluidly tense. Most of all, your eyes that rarely met mine. Somewhere, I guessed, there was an unspoken sadness inside you. And in my conceit, I wished to discover it. Hoped that it was me you had chosen. I was very young then.
When I think of you now, my mind colours your face with the shadows of late evening. Darkly purpled shadows, both melancholy and ironic, settled over my young bewildered heart. Even in the bright sun glare of mid afternoon, as we waited for the beginning of the rains, you were living darkness. You with your pale skin and white linen fit for a funeral. You with the lines moulded too early into your face, and your wet coal eyes. I wished then to throw some of my light into them. To probe and pry and find out what you so jealously hid. And I knew- some wiser, older I knew all along- that shadows made you what you were. Thrown into the harsh unforgiving light of my scrutiny, what would you be? Only another. Powerless.
I never tried hard enough. Content I was to watch you in that nether region, neither-here neither-there, a slice of darkness and half-life made alive by your presence. Content sitting with you watching birds flying to shelter in a suddenly darkening sky. Content watching you not watching me, your outline there, undefined, just beyond my reach.
A thin film was being pulled over the earth. Lowering clouds hovered heavy, stretched taut and grey by their burdens. Ragged palms became dark silhouettes, waving grotesque arms to the wind. The washing line was agitated; somebody's sari tore itself loose and went fluttering away like a banner of triumph. I almost rose to go after it, but you hadn't moved. The shadow of the coming monsoon moved over your face, touched your dark fingers with its own.
Come with me, I pleaded, but a peal of thunder shouted my voice away.
The first drops began to fall on the pages of your book and clung to my hair. A smile hovered at the corner of your mouth, the first subtle inkstroke of night. And I did not get up after all.
I watched you then as I have watched you many times since. Fascinated by the play of that strange light in your eyes, dark arrogance challenging the lightning. Cold prickles went up my bare arms as I tried to decide once and for all if you really were the creator here, the bringer of the stormclouds showing off your skills- or just one who liked playing make believe. It was not my place, that. Drenched under sheets of rain, whipped by an exultant wind, I was too much a creature of the light to stay there. But you see, you had called me there. Imperiously compelled me to watch and smiled when I understood less than little. You had called me. I couldn't help but follow.
The first essay I wrote for Chatto. Dated probably sometime in May.
Monday, 7 December 2009
Flat expanse of visibility
And orange suns while she slept.
Destroyed shadows with a glance.
Late night reading was not a problem.
She saw everything
Which refused to be pinned
And slipped away from corners
Even as she looked.
When they spoke of her light
Her conversation faltered.
She suffered disbelief
And ridiculed metaphors.
She finally decided,
Unmoved, as befits those
Who have seen it all before.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Friday, 16 October 2009
Lemoncoloured butterfly in a fluoroscent glare. Counters stacked high with paper, size A4, ballpoints and glue and staplepins. Screens pulled shut. Electric hum of generator. Lemoncoloured fleck spinning around a lightbulb, now captured against celluloid green of a Sprite bottle. You watch, fascinated, its careering frenzy. Ponder metaphors as lemoncoloured wings disappear into the Xerox machine.
Tuesday, 15 September 2009
The decision, surprisingly, wasn't hard to make. Packing didn't take more than some hours. I was done by lunchtime and had time to sit around on a dusty floor, looking around me, at walls that would never talk. Everything I wanted to take along was already outside, packed into easy-to-carry boxes.
I opened the red cardboard matchbox. It was all that remained to be done.
A spark, a match dropped onto the threadbare straw carpet, and the smell of sulphur dragging itself through the house. Upstairs and downstairs, into the basement and up to the attic, finding every knothole, every square of wallpaper, every empty bottle and broken candlestand and creaking doorless cupboard. Smoke trailed into every bedroom, wreathing the mothball curtains, discovering the old bicycle in the kitchen, the doll's cradle in the nursery. Fire danced around the boxes left stacked in corners, boxes packed to bursting and sealed tightly shut, many more than the ones saved. All that was outgrown turned into cinders. Evidence of lives past crumbled into ash. After I was gone and the key buried in the backyard, nobody should be able to find a trail.
I couldn't do it.
My old house still stands as and where I left it. Maybe I will come back one day. And then again, maybe not. Funny thing is, I'm not afraid. If some stranger like you were to walk through the woods and find my house, you would see the door standing open and a waiting fireplace. An umbrella hung in the hall. An untouched piano. And maybe as you drink a cup of tea and look at the pictures on the wall, you will see a glimpse of what was my home. You might as well. Think of me when you do.
Sunday, 6 September 2009
Today is Sunday. The Metro carried pictures of three old men- one barechested, another spectacled, a third reportedly ninety years of age but not looking it. The last of the great masters of Kumartuli. God makers. Men with magic fingers who live and work in the backlanes of North Calcutta, in nondescript godowns and teetering sheds. A people warren, complete with shifting bazaars, ancient shops with handlettered signs, chalk coloured houses through which cows and dogs pass freely, and a railway line running through the very heart of it all. They say the light changes in Kumartuli every six hours. I don't know the place intimately at all and hence love it as if I did. I've entered a stranger's house there, played with her baby, climbed a twisting wrought iron staircase to look down on rooftops that touch each other and touch the sky. I've felt the noonday sun there and seen naked children racing across the railway track, propelling themselves off the ghat and into green water in one liquid burst. Clay streaked children with dazzling grins who jostled for attention as I asked for a photograph. They say novels are born here every day.
Kumartuli is dying. Nobody wants their sons to become idol makers anymore. Not when there are art colleges you can send your children to. Not when Bollywood hires set designers and theme pujos demand statuary in fibreglass, plywood, plastic. Not when the government harasses you with paperwork and environmentalists lobby for lead-free paints, soluble raw materials, a cap on bishorjon in local water bodies. No one comes to the masters to be apprenticed these days. Old men with arthritic fingers squatting in the same hovel for generations with wood and straw and clay. Near-sighted eyes behind plastic-framed glasses work quietly, creating the kohl-lined gaze of the goddess one more time this year, then another year, and another, until darkness falls.
The boudi whose house I had invaded "for the view" offered me water and mishti because it was my sixteenth birthday. Her child, son or daughter I don't remember, peeked at me from behind its mother's sari as pigeons gurgled around us on the open roof. I refused the mishti but said I would return, certainly, maybe in the monsoon to see the para become a living flood, or on any evening for the lighting of the lamps. A year and a half ago that was and I haven't gone back. I was so sure then, and in the days following it, that I would return, wander the bylanes of another city and wait for the stories to come alive. This is not a story and it was a long time coming. It is all I have to offer to the artists I saw but couldn't speak to. My offering to gods I don't believe in. Gods of colour and clay who in their earthy human beauty showed me a spark of the divine.
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
I didn't know then that the water was frozen over only three and a half inches thick. There was shouting and laughing and you calling to me to be careful and I didn't hear the ice creaking under my blades. I sailed triumphantly to the opposite bank and sprawled on the hard-packed earth. Come along, I urged. It's easy.
But you knew. The minute you'd step down, it would give way under your uncertain feet, huge chunks crumbling around you, pulling you into the bitter dark water. You knew. And you couldn't come. So, petulantly, I left you there and went off on my own to explore the woods. Later, I decided, before a roaring fire, I would tell you about all that you had missed and demand that you come. Next time, you must come along.
Now the winter is gone. Slow waves go crashing down the river, breaking the last floes of ice, heaving against submerged boulders. I still cross the water for the sake of the newly green woods, the smell of moss, the swallow song. I come alone. The river unfroze, but did not allow you across. Me, I knew I would be safe.
I come alone. And it doesn't surprise me anymore that the woods and the sky and the smoke-tinged mountains are just as I had once found them. Unchanged. Glad to be mine.
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
I ran up the last flight of steps. Came face to face with a new door. Metal. With cross bars. Sharp edged lock. A thin sliver of light sneaking out from underneath.
Typical really of everything else that's happening these days.
Monday, 8 June 2009
There's soft afternoon light here. Roofs fall away on every side from where we're standing. A low parapet all around just right for tightrope walking. Barred clouds move slowly overhead, filtering light and shadow over the compound. A wistful breeze purses its lips and whistles in your ear.
I'm not alone. A pigeon sits in its own corner on the parapet, mumbling itself to sleep. A sparrow explores a flowerpot with cockheaded curiosity- Hey, what's that? A myna watches us from the widespreading krishnachura a few metres away. A crow perches on the highest point available and busily surveys the area. Nearby there is the chatter of starlings, a gleam of bright green as a parrot swoops by. Hardly aware of your presence, but comforting all the same.
I lean against the parapet and look 0ut across the compound. An expanse of square patchwork roofs, white marble columns and all touched gently by a kinder sun. Far away there is a jagged city skyline, a paper cutout in the distance. Somewhere far below there are chairs scraping and the halfhearted remains of summer vacations. Somewhere there are colours that hurt the eye and the monotone of voices. Not here. Here there are birdcalls. Clean empty air. Time on your hands. And freedom high above in a perfect blue sky.
Down below a bell begins to ring. It rings and rings as doors are slammed and footsteps thunder down passages. There is a brief flurry of wings, and the birds take off as one, wheel over the roof, the lone krishnachura, the grey tarmac. They rise higher and higher, circle the bare field and fly away. I watch as they disperse, flying solo, growing fainter and fainter along the skyline. Click my heels sadly lacking in ruby slippers and wish- wish- wish that I could go too.
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
So long. I am off on another finding-things-out trip. If I make any discovery worth the while, I'll let you know. Until then, don't hold your breath.
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Up on the window eaves of a neighbouring house, in a position where I can see it from my balcony, is a nest. That nest is occupied throughout the year by a family of crows. This is precisely why I hate waiting on the road for my schoolbus every morning. Bag slung over a shoulder, RC Majumdar weighing one arm down like a ton of bricks, it leaves me very little means of defence. A few early joggers pass by. The milkman cycles to his daily round. A grey and white cat sleeps between the wheels of the neighbour's Maruti. And always there are the crows. Perching comfortably on the mass of electric wires, finishing their morning toilettes with mock delicacy. Always watching. Lazy malevolence in their gaze. Shuffle a little bit just to see me flinch. Then fly off to find a place on the tree in Tamalda's compound, scornful of my human dread. I don't know the name of that tree, but around this time of the year it is covered in bellshaped golden blossoms. They flock to it, jostle for room on its slender branches. As if they own that tree, every leaf and golden petal of it, every beam of sunshine and fleck of shadow on it. If I wasn't so afraid I'd almost envy them.
It rained all morning today, the kind of rain I love. I stood on the balcony literally leaning out to taste the cold in the wind. A lot of small boys sat on the rok next door, dangling bare legs, throwing stones at newly forming puddles. Two dogs chased each other around sagging piles of sand and cement. The leaves on the trees were washed to a bright green, the air was clean, and the flowers were blooming again. And then I saw them. A lump of shrivelled blackness crouched over the precariously placed bundle of sticks on my neighbour's window eaves. Shrunken bird of prey with skeleton wings. Behind it wriggled two balls of dirty grey fluff, stretching out scrawny necks, blinking with pink sightless eyes.
The lone crow swayed where she stood, getting wetter and wetter in the relentless drizzle, ignoring the scuffling and scrambling in the nest behind her. No defiant caws this time. No sweeping flight past my face to the highest chhad in the para. It pretended not to see me. And for a moment, I wished I hadn't either.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
In the still of the afternoon, the church is quite empty. Bars of sunlight fall on the granite floor through the arched windows, staining it in patches of amber and rose. In the churchyard, the priest leads a group of visitors past the rows of tombstones. Marble seraphs pose solemn among the chrysanthemum and ivy. It is a hot day. A few shift uncomfortably in their black mourning; lace handkerchiefs are wrung in sweaty hands. Inside the deserted sanctum, a little girl is playing hopscotch. Hopping from one flagstone to another, clearing each pew, landing safely every time. Single step, double step, hold your breath and jump. She has made her own rules. Hop all the way up to the altar, with a vague knowledge that she must touch the altar rails immediately to win the game. Look up at the golden bars towering above her, and the twisted wooden form of the sad looking man behind it. Light surges in through the window on her left, creating rainbows at her feet. In a niche under the sill sits a lady, her blue gown glowing in the sunshine. Cradled in her arms is a little child who stares at the girl with large, wistful eyes.
The girl, flushed after her victory, does not notice. The voices outside move further away and she knows she is safe. Sitting down, she takes off first one shoe, peels off the clammy stocking underneath, and then the other follows. Stands up straight, barelegged, and turns towards the luminous window which seems to shine in disrespectful abandon. And then she sees him. The little child sitting on his mama’s lap, watching her every move.
“What are you doing there?” says the girl.
The child is astonished. She stands there looking at him, speaking to him, waiting for an answer. He feels he has to say something.
“I don’t know.”
She shakes her head impatiently. Of course. He is only a baby. Babies don’t know too much.
“Come down from there,” she says, “I’ll show you how to play. You might even win if you learn quick.”
The child looks doubtful. “Can I?”
“I said I’ll show you! Hurry up, my mama is outside but if she calls I’ll have to go.”
The child seems to remember something. The blue-cloaked woman sits unmoved; her hard hands hold him stiffly. The strange little girl stares at him, curious. Suddenly he knows he cannot climb down.
“I can’t. Please come closer.”
The girl obliges. She walks right up to the blue lady and climbs on to one of her knees. Making herself comfortable, she faces the child again and makes a proper introduction.
“My grandaunt died yesterday. She’s being buried right now. My papa and mama are outside. Papa said grandaunt had the lumbago for years and it’s a wonder she didn’t go sooner. What’s lumbago? Do you know? I’m in the first primer now and we do verbs, and tomorrow I mean to ask teacher what lumbago is.”
The child doesn’t say a word. He only listens. The girl fidgets in her seat, looks around the empty cathedral once more. Shadows sleep in the pews. Blackbirds come to roost on the wide casements from the nodding branches of the elm tree.
“Why don’t you come outside?” she finally demands.
The child doesn’t know why and can’t imagine why this never occurred to him. “Nobody ever asks me,” he finally says, “Why? What’s outside?”
“What’s outside?” says the girl, incredulous, “You silly little boy, everything’s outside! There’s a road, and a market down the road, and a clock high up in the sky, and a little schoolhouse for Sundays, and when the funny old man takes you down to the garden... haven’t you seen the garden?”
“What is it like? Tell me. Please.”
“Alright. Listen then.”
She went on, relishing the grown-up tang on the tip of her words. He listened, clear blue eyes growing wide and wondering. The feel of a dandelion. The motion of a tyre swing. The exact shade of the sky at high noon. Dim pictures of colour and light played in his mind and he listened hungrily to this strange new lullaby. In another world a hot afternoon wore on, ashes turned to ashes and dust to dust. When the girl finally heard the bells tolling, she started and slid off her seat. The child watched her pick up her stockings and put on her shoes.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go look for my mama. But listen, I’ll come back. I haven’t finished telling about our cat yet, and she just had kittens too. Wait a bit. You can keep these.”
Out of her pocket she pulled a handful of wilted violet petals and heaped them carefully in his lap. Straightening her dress, she waved once, then ran back up the aisle, out of the heavy wooden doorway, and down into the churchyard. The people were beginning to file out in a black throng and soon she was lost among them. The child listened to the shuffling of their footsteps for a while, and when the silence returned he closed his eyes and fell again into a deep sleep. This time, he dreamed of fields of wild violets. He was very young. He did not know that one day she too would grow up and learn how to disbelieve.
Saturday, 25 April 2009
Any number of reasons, excuses, apology notes.
One day of rain.
Twelve cigarettes just in case.
One pair of magic sunglasses.
A song that sounds like do-re-mi.
Ten fingers, ten toes, itching all the time.
A pair of shoes that won't leave a trail.
Four days, and a few hours extra.
All the time in the world.
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
When I am old enough to lose my way, this is how I would like to go. Slip away in the heat of the afternoon through the sal bon, past the jheel, taking the dusty red road with me.
Kothay jachhish? Ekhane. Okhane. Jani na. Ashi?
I'll remember to lock the door behind me. Don't worry. I won't need to dress warm.
Tiny gray boat, rough wood under my fingers. No mast, no rudder, just enough space for one. Enough room to lie down comfortably, feet curled up inside the prow, drawing the sky down over you like a frayed white sheet. That's all I'll need. Little waves lap around the vessel, pulling gently. You push off and earth moves away. Coarse, heavy earth with sorrowful gashes across its face. Ravaged grasses nodding goodbye.
A pale ocean, so quiet, unmoved by thunder or storms, my little boat hardly making a furrow on it. Sometimes I sleep, sometimes I don't. Look at clouds, drifting above me, beside me, falling apart at a touch. Little by little, I will learn to forget. Forget how to count, the multiplication tables, the immutable laws which govern This, That, and the Other. Forget many words, forget the sour taste of thought. I will forget names and it will not matter. I will forget faces and find relief in the anonymity. I will discard it thankfully, throw ballast overboard. Tiny islands bobbing in the wake, sinking and not leaving a mark.
Mostly I will sleep. My little boat without a sail will float along, somewhere along the Tropic of Cancer, between the end of the world and the gray havens. The sun will fade away and the water will be cool. There is no evening and no night, but I will sleep. If I'm lucky, I might dream about the sunflowers. I can dream, and maybe somewhere on the ocean there will be fields of gold.
Saturday, 28 March 2009
Each precious. Each beautiful.
Now she stood at the shore, the pockets of her thin blue dress weighed down by their burden. A strong wind whipped against her legs and blew eddies on the sand. The tide was in and the dark waters surged close. She was quite alone. One by one she picked them out, her treasures, and, with a practiced flick of her wrist, sent them sailing far out to sea. She counted under her breath and the waves kept time.
Splash. This was a bedtime story she once told herself.
Splash. Here was a bruised knee from long ago.
Splash. There went a torn littlegirl slipper with a rubber butterfly on the strap.
Splash. These were many evenings spent in futile rage.
Splash. This was a poem, hopeful and fragile, written for nobody.
Splash. Here was a white lie that lived in the cobwebs, followed by more of undefinable colours.
A pocketful of fancies of all shapes and sizes, shining with the promise of bittersweet romance. Rubbed almost perfect by her small, trusting hands. Splash.
One by one they flew past the reef, skipped on the water, once, twice, and sank beneath the foam. Her aim was very good. Soon her hands were empty. The sea still thundered and beat against the rocks but she did not stop to listen. As she walked home, she did not look back once.
When she arrived the fire had been lit and a stew was bubbling on the flame. She kicked off her shoes. He passed her a dish and spoon. They helped themselves, scalding their tongues on the hot gravy. They talked, and she told him about her day. He did not ask questions, for which she was glad. The night wore on. The faraway rumble of the tide quietened down to be replaced by a silence that needed no explanation. The moon came out to watch them and lingered a moment on the used dishes, the rusty crates, the tangle of shoes and rope and fishing line. It followed their trail and settled finally on the little pile of pebbles, grey and unremarkable, heaped beside the open door. The moon noted that there was no poetry in them, no colour that she could see. Those two silly creatures had picked the lot up that very morning and carried them away like triumphant conquerors. And here they were now, so very plain, so ordinary. Already worn smooth and warm by the pressure of two pairs of hands.