In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore
Welcome, The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore

It is my nature that on festival days, I feel very restless at home. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traditionally a festival I’ve followed for years or a festival I’ve just been immersed in due to the accident of location or company but there is that smell in the air and that sparkle in the light around that just does not let me stay at home while the city decks itself in lights, crowds and festivities.

And so it has been with Chinese New Year this year.

So on Thursday, armed with a guidebook that says SINGAPORE in large letters on the cover, I get to the train station in the afternoon determined to reach Chinatown. I carefully tuck the guidebook away in my bag because I hate to have people think I’m a tourist.

Not a UFO. It's my train station.
Not a UFO. It’s my train station.

Before the long weekend for the Chinese New Year starts, several people already warn me that I should stock up on groceries because “Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving in the US. All restaurants and stores will be closed. Make sure you buy some groceries.”

The streets had indeed seemed empty when I had paid a visit to the local mall to eat on Wednesday evening, a place which is always throbbing with life but was shrouded in an unnatural, quiet stillness with most shops and food kiosks closed. No exhibitions inside the mall, no crowds on the giant escalators, no salespeople standing on stools hawking smartphones.

The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.
The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.

Continue reading In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

Writing Memoir on Social Media

I’m doing something in the room and The Boy walks in stealthily from behind me and suddenly there is a shower of bubbles in the air and lots of childish laughter. I turn my face and I see a host of bubbles floating up and up and up towards the light, their shiny surfaces catching the light and turning them into iridescent rainbow hues. It’s hard to tell how each bubble will float away, where it will stick and when it will burst.  But together they transform the room.

Actually I’m not just sitting here doing something. I’m writing yet another blog post. It isn’t unusual at all, while I’m writing, for a childish face to peek in and insist on typing a word or two or close a window or want to check out a blinking light below the touchpad. But bubbles? They are new.

The bubbles floating around me make me think of a lot of writing I’ve been doing lately. Light, beautiful, polished, iridescent and ephemeral.

What really has been the end goal of these pieces? To live for a bit, to catch the light, to stick in someone’s mind for a moment and then to disappear? To float directionless, to dazzle and to die? Continue reading Writing Memoir on Social Media

Friends down memory lane

It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did. ―F. Scott Fitzgerald

We sit around a huge bed covered in a thick, rough, cotton fabric next to huge windows overlooking wide expanses of this city of asbestos roofs, open dumpsters, pretty apartment buildings with AC’s hanging off the walls and rickshaws and BMW’s parked next to each other spanning a vista that looks almost pretty in the bright sunlight if you had the eyes to see it.

We’re still sitting in a circle, almost happy, almost young, almost twenty.

Some of us (who can) look over our shoulders in a familiar gesture to see if auntie (one of our mothers) is at the door to supervise us. But she has become too old now and retires to her room in the afternoons.

At first, we start talking like we always did whenever we met for the past ten to twenty years, since the steady decline of opportunities in the city and this age of globalization showered it’s bounties upon some of us and catapulted us to various parts of the globe.

Other schools, other cities, other jobs, other husbands, other children, other friends, other neighbours, other colleagues, other languages and other ways of life while some continued here in the city, swaying with the pull of distant lands or staying steadily rooted, yet none being able to ignore the loss and gain of bonds in our new and changed world. Continue reading Friends down memory lane

The Old and the Young

For expatriates, visiting home after long periods of time reveals slow changes imperceptible to those who live close by. The changes most noticeable are those in the old and the young.

The Old Man sits on the same seat on the couch everyday lost in his own thoughts. There’s a din around him consisting of the cook’s angry exclamations on the dearth of red-pepper powder (the lack of which jars against her professional perfectionism), the washer-woman’s insistent tramplings carrying heavy wet clothes to the balcony to hang, the all-purpose domestic’s comings and goings looking for mosquito nets to fold or to look out the verandah to see who has been pressing the “calling” bell for the thousandth time.

Despite all the din, The Old Man’s world is quite silent. He sits with the unfurled newspaper most days or just with his thoughts. He has grown a little frailer, lost a little weight, grown a white beard to complement his white hair. Yet, when there’s a soft discussion in the background between the domestic and The Old Lady that there’s no fish in the house for The Boy, he stirs from his seat as though to go to the market in the burning heat. When I pull up my huge American suitcase up the stairs, quite out of scale in this Calcutta apartment, he gets a grip on it pulling it up (looking as though he shouldn’t be), while all us ladies look on with concern trying to persuade him with words to let go but not daring to touch the handle to take it away from him. Continue reading The Old and the Young


11846714_1037934142886313_230547596092357787_nSometimes you find magic in the weirdest of places like the tiny blade of grass that grows in a crack in the concrete. White, grainy, dusty all around in the dazzling hot sun and then a small line of green on a hard surface.

Unexpected. Undesired. Perhaps unwanted but there it appears, out of nowhere. Unmistakable, undaunted.


You come to a place with no expectations, with no knowledge of history, culture or connection, a blade of yellow hay adrift, rootless, homeless in a turbulent sea. You are reluctant to leave a place on the other side of the world where you had received strange comfort, being seen off by people at the airport who had given generously and loved smoothly, awkwardly, reticently or overwhelmingly, as was the nature of each , but surely and steadily through your short acquaintance.

Hence leaving was like a six-year-old leaving for boarding school. The ceviche was cooked just right on the last day, the suitcase was carried and parting gifts stowed away in the checked baggage despite their bulk. For the longest time, a purse that showed the different neighbourhoods of a bumpy city where one had gone during undulating quirks of fate was carried everywhere with new, shiny money of a new country and a mug with a porcelain spoon stood on the wooden surface of a new desk next to the several plug adaptors that were needed to make one adaptable to too many places that one had bounced off from for some time.

For despite rootlessness and directionlessness and being without a centre, the human mind often imagines a place where it has belonged and belongs now, no matter how fleeting or false or transient the experience. Imagination can create a resting point where there may or may not have been one.

And that is how, floating about the world, I came here.

Here turned out to be a strangely alien place at first, not just alien to me but perhaps as close to a place where real aliens from a sci-fi world could make their local habitation on earth. It was a place full of glass and metal and sharp, angular buildings, of changing lights and squeaky-clean newness  like living constantly in someone else’s imagination. Someone as different from me as one could imagine.


It was a place where buildings had numbers and rooms had names, where only exit signs marked entrances, where floors had strange circular depressions as though to mark the area where space-ships had landed, half-staircases blended into their wood-paneled backgrounds leading nowhere specific, a place where libraries were almost bookless with bleached, white, smooth surfaces and beeping doors, buttons had to be pressed and cards had to be swiped seemingly for little reason, machines sang tunes and switched on and off mysteriously as though they could sense you. No matter where you were, you could sense man or machine, safe in their gaze but aware of something over, above and beyond you, taking care of you, watching you as you watched them.

Not a UFO. It's my train station.

In the daytime it was a world like a copy of a world from a building simulation on someone else’s computer screen and at night it dazzled with lighted dots like a 3-D pixellated space in a video game. Corridors turned in circles, elevators spoke warnings loudly, verandahs had no corners, every rooftop garden looked the same and people found places through intuition perhaps as a rooster crowed loudly from the vegetation many floors above the ground mistaken for someone’s android phone alarm going off ever so frequently.


It was a place that must have looked spectacular to those who could be passing via aerial paths over our earthly abodes deciding whether or not to stop by at our galaxy.

Stop at our galaxy they must have and sent some soothing stardust my way.

When healing magic happens, it does not happen the way we imagine it. Perhaps there isn’t any magic at all differentiating itself as extraordinary from the ordinary, the mundane from the fascinating, the prosaic from the poetic. Perhaps magic happens when we exchange our mundane for someone else’s extraordinary and start living in it. Then, one day, as every little overlooked detail of our existence accumulates in our ordinary existence, we look back suddenly through that someone else’s eyes and our lives are transformed to magic.

Fleetingly, transiently, and yet giving us some rest from reality.

That is maybe what magic means, when getting lost constantly helps you find your way, coming to a completely unknown place surrounds you in a familiar bubble, the haze that floats over from someone else’s backyard blinds you and helps you see, when someone makes coffee for you in a new way and offers to read the shapes in the coffee grinds someday.

11825823_1037934116219649_4880292144912315095_nFor that is what happens when an ordinary person like me meets so many extraordinary people in an extraordinary place. People whose humility is humbling, whose persistence is inspiring, whose determination and optimism in the face of pain and uncertainty makes hope, whose desire and ability to share only multiplies their gifts, whose complaints turn to attempts at change and above all, whose vast differences between themselves engender not alienation but empathy, not division but pluralism.

The sun through the haze from my balcony. The only picture by me.

Today is a holiday for a festival in this place while forest fires from a neighbouring place have engulfed us in a haze which has dimmed everything and has turned the bright sun into an orange orb in the sky. Someone has indeed prepared Turkish coffee for me and has offered to read clear shapes in the grind as the world outside has lost its clarity. The pictures are by a wonderful friend who, despite being on the other side of the world today let me have them while others are also traveling in various directions like magic people transferring at a tremendous pace using Floo powder back and forth from Hogwarts for such magical reasons as creating music with brain power and climbing mountains and talking about flying things.

Sign from above

I love going to restaurants and movies alone. When alone, I usually don’t get a good seat but today they ushered me to a pretty good spot at my favourite Sichuan restaurant right under this lighted sign. I felt pretty good.

At Honguo, Bugis, Singapore
At Honguo, Bugis, Singapore

In case you can’t read this, here are the lines:

Sometimes streets are half wet and half dry
The climate is vertical.
The weather is changing from time to time.
One side of a street is raining and the other side
Might be shiny bright.

On the way back a few raindrops fell on me but I didn’t care.

Bugis, Singapore: Why I keep coming back

Yet another shot of Marina Bay Sands and the ArtScience museum taken by yours truly that will come up most commonly  if you do a simple search online for the city

Traveling is often conceptualized as a passive activity, as though seeing new places enriches you somehow when you gather new experiences. Yet, it often turns out to be more about active self-discovery than about seeing a new place, about experience that could not have happened exactly the same way without you, the active agent at the center. In the following post about Bugis, I admit that I’ve been unashamedly at the center of my experience far more than Bugis.

When you place yourself against something sublime or complex in front of you, such as a man-made building or a natural structure, a teeming marketplace or a superbly constructed mall-airport, you think you’re simply soaking it all in in wonder because that grand structure is an objective thing and you are the observer.

Yet, many grand experiences, when you encounter them for the first time, and some grand experiences when you encounter them every time, have the potential of changing you because you don’t just see the object in front of you. You see yourself from yet another perspective, one you hadn’t quite seen yourself from before.

Encountering new experience becomes about altering, rearranging and re-thinking the old experiences which had structured the topography of your mind thus far, which you had become habituated with, which you had inhabited for a while. Your world  changes ever so slightly when you see a different kind of architecture, a different way of life, a different set of people, a different history, a different center for the world of a different set of people, about seeing how a different set of people had reacted to the same forces of imperialism and change and adapted in different ways than you.

And then there are places that are very similar to what you have been used to, some exactly the same, some an enhancement of what you already know, some a bit of a sad imitation of a place you have seen before. In our globalized world, such spaces are becoming more and more common and these are the places far easier to find online and on guidebooks than places that are different. Sometimes these spaces, so wonderfully characterized by sameness, are mind bogglingly spectacular reminding  you of spaces that are better or worse than what you’ve seen before making you feel like that first experience was more genuine and the current one merely an imitation.

The mall at Bugis, Singapore
The mall at Bugis, Singapore


Bugis Junction, Singapore. It was a very cloudy afternoon.
Bugis Junction, Singapore. It was a very cloudy afternoon.

Singapore, for an outsider like me, has been very easy to navigate with its awesome public transportation, clear maps and friendly people everywhere who speak a language I can understand in some shape or form and food, glorious food everywhere. I have not seen such dazzling architecture and such clean bus and train stations and such orderly crowds who respect rules anywhere else despite the huge numbers of people and despite the fact that anything man made that exists does so against a fierce struggle with the elements-: a harsh burning sun, very high humidity, moss, algae, insects, putrefaction that happens almost overnight to anything left alone for a bit four degrees North of the equator.

Despite such obvious advantages that lend clarity about the city to an outsider, from the moment I landed on the fabulous Changi airport, I have struggled to find those places on online sites and guidebooks that tell a long-time story of Singapore.

The Singapore that may not be so fabulously fabulous and yet could be a perspective-altering experience for someone who comes to its shores.

I know it exists. Layers and layers of history peek out of the city in the way people dress, in the hybrid languages they speak, in the food they eat, in people’s names and the various systems they have for identifying themselves and in the way they behave differently in different public spaces. It is a place of Chinese temples and Indian temples and Indonesian mosques and ordered housing complexes and malls and spectacular streets and waterfronts. It is a place where people look at their smartscreens as they walk on the pavement and stand in the trains and a place where people crowd around huge statues of ancient figures to find out their fortunes at temples and carnivals. It is a place where everything is automated but there is a human helping out right behind the machine when you need them. It is a place where people keep within the yellow line as they walk if a sign says they should.

Within this non-chaotic chaos of a populous city-state I found my spot on the island. Or rather, the spot found me. A place I wouldn’t have found as a must visit if I had taken online advice too seriously.

I can’t quite remember when or how it was that I landed up in Bugis. But once I found it, I have realized now that I keep going back every few weeks. I wonder what it is that makes me keep coming back. It isn’t as grand as the Esplanade area with its spectacular architecture nor as distinctive to the tourist as Little India or Chinatown.  It isn’t as full of grand old buildings like the City Hall area or as fascinating as the Botanical gardens with its old trees and herbs and orchids and the rainforest.

Bugis Junction, Singapore

I have only scratched the surface of Bugis till now. The placards tell me about the Bugis people who came here from the Sulawesi province of Indonesia as maritime traders after the British established a trading settlement in Singapore in the early nineteenth century. They dominated trade in the Malay archipelago until Western ships achieved dominance later in the century. The English word “bogeyman” seems to have originated in reference to the Bugis, ruthless seafarers and pirates (smiley face here) who seemed to have plagued the early English and Dutch trading ships.

For all practical purposes, all this information is available to me via a few placards placed in between carts selling scarves and handbags and make-up in a superb covered part of Bugis junction in between big stores exhibiting major fashion labels and sales announcements. There is, of course, no sign of the transwomen who roamed the area attracting Western tourists a few decades ago in nearby Bugis street which is completely reconstructed now.

One of many placards about the early Bugis people in Singapore
One of many placards about the early Bugis people in Singapore

Yet, the cobbled paths, the street shops, the huge Hawker Center, the stores that sell cheap clothes and tropical fruits and juices and confectionary keep making me come back many times over. Along with the lychee and the rambutan and the dragonfruit and the pineapple there is always the inimitable durian in the fruit stands. This place is very different from the nearby mall, which is fascinating in its own way but could have belonged to other places too.

But Bugis carries glimpses of uniqueness. Perhaps that is why I keep coming back here.

Bugis Street, Singapore
Bugis Street, Singapore

Bugis Street, Singapore
Bugis Street, Singapore
Shops, Bugis Street
Shops, Bugis Street
A temple in the Bugis Street area
A temple in the Bugis Street area
The Hawker Center, Bugis
The Hawker Center, Bugis
Bugis, Singapore
A man kept driving this motorcycle around the streets accompanied by loud music and inevitably a crowd gathered around to watch. That is the spirit of Bugis.

Signs of Singapore

When you come to a new country which is multilingual and English speaking, where the number of languages most people speak is at least two, if not more, you tend to think, at first, that you understand signs and what they mean when they are in English.

Until you realize that you don’t, quite.

After six months in Singapore, it’s still hard for me to know when Singaporeans are serious and when they are tongue-in-cheek, when it’s a genuine mistake in translation and when it’s simply a different usage of English (from what I’ve been used to) and when there is some history behind a term I’m totally unaware of because of which I just didn’t get it.

I’ve passed by this sign for a restaurant at a beautiful mall in Bugis. I thought I’d take a picture of it today. There is a picture of a whole skinned chicken next to it.

At the Bugis mall
At the Bugis mall

There are signs for sales everywhere. This kind of humour is something I’m more familiar with:

At Bugis
At Bugis

The construction taking place all over the island is accompanied by a ubiquitous term that I wouldn’t have used quite the same way but I’m getting more and more used to it– “business as usual.”

“Business as usual” signs are everywhere

Sometimes there are signs where I think there is an issue with translation when it isn’t an issue at all.

Dare I try Item #7? Spotted in Chinatown and lost in translation.
Dare I try Item #7? Spotted in Chinatown and lost in translation.

The caption is from an older post but I found out later that this is a dish invented by a husband and wife duo and not what it seems like at all.

Other occasions show signs for more practical reasons but they still seem unfamiliar (to me). These cutouts of cows representing various professions of people here on the occasion of fifty years of Singaporean independence are in many places. But also accompanying them is a sign:

I’m sure that as I spend more time here, either this list will become longer or shorter depending on whether I spot more and more signs or whether I get so integrated that I stop seeing them.

For those of you who are not familiar with this part of the world, I’ll leave you to decipher the following sign:

On the MRT train

Writer’s Block

July 8, 2015

I have my word processor open but I’m thinking of the ants this morning. They are not the ticklish, harmless, black ants climbing all over the tabletop I wrote about earlier (from coke can to mouthwash) but a line of red ants on the concrete walkway that were crossing my path this morning. It was clean concrete which made the goal-oriented line of industrious moving red dots more well defined next to my memory of the haphazard black ants from last night.

Clean concrete makes me think of the dry, fresh concrete on the bathroom floor next to the window. It’s lighted up by the bright, dazzling sunlight of these hot, summer afternoons on this tropical island. The concrete is warm, fresh and clean and I know that if I were to put a drop of water on it, it would spread outward slowly absorbed by the hot, dry surface just like in those long summer afternoons in the Calcutta suburbs where the sun was just as strong. My mind flies back three decades to an oldish house in small-town India, to a courtyard with cracked, white, grainy concrete with green weeds growing out of the cracks and a vision of me hopping across the length of it to the kitchen at the far end because the sun had made the concrete too hot.

The blinding dazzle in that memory sticks in my mind. It makes me move to something more mellow and rather silverish, more than half-way across the world, to a bright winter morning in San Francisco as a whole dazzling white arch of concrete lay in front of me, spread out along the  sparkling blue bay along the Embarcadero against billowing white clouds on a spotless blue sky. Memories of desperate and happy times, of kindness and of friends make me wander to the point of almost no return and I am about to give up on this typing.

But I am prodded back to the present by a common ping. One of those emails with “gentle reminders,” so common here, that says there is going to be a talk on carbonate, concrete and trash in the afternoon. What a coincidence!

There are a lot of talks here in this technological school I’m now a part of and this one is going to be on sustainability. Last evening, I was sitting in a packed auditorium at such a talk by a world famous architect (talking about his critique of the digital revolution and the way smart cities are being conceptualized and the panopticon) but when I think back on that talk now I see something else. He is tall and thin, clad all in black, showing us various aerial images of cities on a huge screen and what I remember now is that those cities look like cubes of concrete placed side by side in a grid no matter what I thought they were like then.

Cubes make me think of ice, for it’s very hot here, and how it feels to chew an ice cube from a cool drink. (Only they’re not cubes any more in drinks but cold, translucent, hollow cylinders with holes in the middle that you can put your tongue through.) The ceiling fan keeps swishing, slicing through air and there’s yellow fish in the pond right outside my window where a four hundred year old Chinese structure stands.  Except that there’s no ceiling fan here but it’s the AC making the noise and there’s no pond outside but an artificial rooftop garden where a random rooster keeps crowing because this is the office and that was home last night and one noise has blended into another conflating one place with another as I type making time collapse into itself like two videos coalescing into one another on the same screen with echoes of everything else that this screen has ever shown in the background.

I still try to write as my mind wanders from thing to thing, from place to place, from time to time as I cannot concentrate on anything except this shifting topography of the mind, of concrete images, of material things and physical sensations in random order connected by impulsive and tenuous links that come from I know not where.

Just like it isn’t easy to give up on an old bad habit, it isn’t easy to slip back into an old one. For the past few days, I’ve been trying to get back to blogging, which, as any blogger worth their salt knows, is more about the process than about the final product, about the ability to keep at it, the ability to give up your fears of exposing thoughts as they come, the ability to record life as it happens, the ability to go around framing experience and the final ability to distance yourself from what you see yourself as doing.

But in the final analysis, writing is, perhaps, about taming the mind which I’m trying to do even as I write these lines so please bear with me as you hear me talking to myself.

I try.

A coffee mug at the gift shop at the Singapore Zoo but that could be me.
A coffee mug at the gift shop at the Singapore Zoo but that could be me.


While discussing student written responses on Amy Tan I’m telling the class it would be conventional to refer to her as Tan rather than Amy because . . . when I look around and realize that some kids present have no lastname, some have upto four names, some may be using the family name as their firstname & given name as lastname, some may have both an Eastern & a Western name, some may have named themselves just for “Western” teachers like me (oh the irony–who mispronounce their names or can’t even hear the tones) or have simply picked a videogame character to name themselves (true!) or are just trying on diff “English” names like Charlotte, Emily, Anne.

Considering I’ve been forced myself to switch between the anglicized & Bengali versions of my own lastname at diff times at diff schools, I realize the irony of it all talking about Chinese American identity & the English language to a class of multilingual speakers from many countries in a place not the US at a school with a hyphenated identity. I’m not so sure now how to fill those ellipses or if I should care but these kids have made me rethink my own fraught relationship with my own lastname & its history. Perhaps the time has come for me to forget being stressed about anglicization and simply say “What’s in a name?”

— at Singapore.

Sudden Status

A familiar sight after many years once again: moving black dots covering a neglected coke can as soon as I’m done, the white sink covered in moving black dots in the morning drawn by the sweet, peppermint mouthwash from last night, dead, winged insect on the white floor suddenly moving away held up by moving black dots. Oh black ants, you bring back childhood memories.

Goodbye, Friend, until we meet again

I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land
And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.
And you—oh you, who the wildest yearn
For an old-time step, and the glad return,
Think of him faring on, as dear
In the love of There as the love of Here.
Think of him still as the same. I say,
He is not dead—he is just away.

Away by James Whitcomb Riley via

Dear Friend,

I must say that at first I could not believe that you had left us this week. In fact, if I had to believe that it would have to be one of us who had been in such a hurry to leave, it wouldn’t have been you.

Somehow, you had seemed so stable, so very well grounded than the rest of us that I wouldn’t have thought that of you at all. And I doubt that if you’d been here with us today, sitting across a table perhaps at a restaurant or on your couch in your solid, suburban house that I could have been so candid with you.

For wasn’t that how it was that last time we met, all us girls, about how fun and carefree it was, how girlish, us in that very sleek, very grownup Manhattan apartment and fancy Thai restaurant, ducking our heads loaded into that taxicab rushing along Holland tunnel, giggling in our headiness at having defied those silly rules, as though we were still in our maroon and white school uniforms tarrying a bit too long at the water cooler missing Subbu’s Chemistry class?

We had kept our grownup selves at bay for a few hours to relive our girlhood once again after what was more than a decade of separation. Yet, you were the one who had insisted on trying to eat the unexpected dish that arrived, an entire fried fish, huge, with eyes staring and all, when the rest of us had been doubtful about touching it. You were the one that had wanted to take the train as the sensible way to cross the river that night. You were the sensible one, even more than me in our little group and that is why it is so much harder to believe that you would leave first and even harder to think that you might have known about the journey that was inevitably coming, which would be so much longer than simply crossing the Hudson that night.

The usual baggage of life, the cache that does not get cleared, the burden we live to carry on in our adult lives had separately been on each separate minds as we had played at schoolgirls  that evening. I knew we hadn’t shared all like we did in our schooldays  but I never thought that the play itself was coming to an end for one of us so soon. That your missive for your mission was already here while the rest of us were still struggling with the prologue.

It was mid-afternoon late on Thursday when I saw your obituary. It was clear as clear could be and very professional. It said it had been all over on Wednesday, which means it may have been Thursday where I am already. It is the miracle of social media that carries news so fast across a twelve hours’ time difference that it makes the shock as fresh and as acute as though I was right there in New Brunswick with you. Hence, while you were in deep sleep, even deeper than those in your part of our earthly abode, I was in the workplace at mid-day, suddenly seeing your face against some text on Facebook, knowing the inevitable, even while voices around me discussed schedules and curriculum and meeting times and the card readers on doors kept beeping as a reminder of place and time and context impinging on my dumb comprehension of those facts on the page.

Things clicked in my brain in quick succession then, why you were so unusually striking the way you were for the past three years and the difference between what I had seen and understood and what you were really trying to do. While it would sound like a cliché, I cannot believe you were so brave, fast forwarding life in so many spectacular ways to raise awareness and make memories for others that will have to carry on in your absence.

It wasn’t until I got home that day that I cried a bit. That puzzled me for truth be told, I wasn’t as close to you as that act would suggest in the last many years of our lives. It was only the second time I’ve cried in the last year and the first time was about something as banal as harsh detergent and peeling hands in a tiny shower. After that one cry, I continued on as usual, on my Skype chat later that night, my meetings the next day and my weekend date with Shakespeare in the park.

WhatsApp and Facebook exploded with updates, your Wall filled up with shocked comments by those who did not know this was coming and strangely, questions from those who, perhaps, still thought you could provide answers on your wall. Generally very voluble on social media, I could not find anything to say, not even on your funeral website made by your Funeral home in the style of your adopted country that you had made your own. The cacophony on all our online homes was distressing though, like loud voices at the end of a somber play or the harsh jangle of a bagful of coins falling to the floor during a moment of silence.

A story had unequivocally ended and had closed off a part of the story of my life with it. Perhaps that was it—the real source of my distress.

I don’t quite remember the start of that story in third grade but I do remember the moment when your smart, older cousin (much admired by me) had brought you over to my place. “My cousin from England,” she had said proudly and I knew you were something better than us, and by a quirk of fate, by that act of moving from England to Calcutta you had created the lucky chance for me to get a seat in the school that had set the tone for the rest of my life by making the school admit a few students out of season in the middle of a term.

Over the period of the next nine years, we’d be growing into a comfortable closeness simply based on proximity and the shared experience of a bunch of girls growing to almost womanhood in a closed environment. Because we never grew overly close, our lives, to me, always seemed parallel, growing in different directions, making different choices within the limited ones available to us those days, similar enough to warrant comparisons in my head and different enough to lend meaning to the narrative of my own life. That narrative of your life, which was always present in my peripheral vision alongside mine is rounded off and closed now and I am at a loss.

Just wanted you to know that I shall miss you and I shall miss that.

Yet, there’s been more pain than this account would suggest.

That afternoon two young faces flashed in front of my mind. The youngest is only as old as my nephew. At that age, I remember, my mother would be so very careful of me even spending a single night away from her watchful eyes at home. I wondered how you must have felt knowing that you would have to embark on this long journey leaving such young children behind. I could only grasp at what strength of mind you had summoned in the last few years to lead such a full life knowing what you did doing your utmost to leave behind memories for them.

I doubt that I could have been so candid about how I felt were you really here sitting across a restaurant or a cafe in Edison or on a plastic chair holding a plastic cup next to me just keeping our voices audible over the evening programs at a Durga Puja hall in New Jersey. Then we would have exchanged the facts of our lives with some censorship, talked about some common friends in an attempt to keep the past alive. We would have taken pictures, uploaded the best ones on WhatsApp, talked about whether we were taking a cab or the train home or whether someone was picking us up letting the banalities of the everyday swallow what I really should have said to you.

But since that will never happen now, not in a Thai restaurant in Manhattan, not at a bus stop on Lindsay St. in Calcutta, not at Durga Puja in that Ukranian Church in New Jersey, I thought I would just say what I wanted to say in a letter and let this go into the chaos of the internet, which, for some reason, seems like another world to me, as though I could reach you there.

I have spent three rather sleepless nights since you left, I really don’t know why, and that while you may not have been aware of it, you shaped my life in some ways just by choosing to be you in your parallel life. But this early twist in the tale and the sudden exit is something that I hadn’t anticipated and so I wasn’t prepared for it. So since you left, I’ve been thinking about my own life a lot, what matters and what doesn’t and how short everything is.

I have to say I am very proud of you for having lived the way you did, so gracefully, knowing what you did and I hope I can find the same strength to live in style against all adversity so long as I have to continue on this journey until, perhaps, we meet again.

Goodbye until then and rest in peace.

Your Friend.

What Blog Is

Sometimes a blog is just what a blog is. The recording of a moment, a sudden attempt to capture what is by nature ephemeral, to grasp at the truth as though it can be held back as it slips through the sieve. Sometimes, a blog is just talking to yourself, catching something that made you smile, pouring out something that would make you burst otherwise, as is, half formed, half lived, half tested. For the heart is what it is. Continue reading What Blog Is

The Circle of Life

Kahin To Yeh Dil Kabhi Mil Nahin Paate
Kahin Pe Nikal Aaye Janmon Ke Naate
Ghani Thi Uljhan Bairi Apna Man
Apna Hi Hoke Sahe Dard Paraye

Kabhi Yun Hi Jab Hui Bojhal Saansen
Bhar Aai Baithe Baithe Jab Yoon Hi Aankhen
Kabhi Machal Ke Pyaar Se Chal Ke
Chhuye Koi Mujhe Par Nazar Na Aaye

Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye
Sanjh Ki Dulhan Badan Churaye, Chupke Se Aaye
Mere Khayalon Ke Aangan Mein
Koi Sapnon Ke Deep Jalaye

The bridge glows like a jewel in the dark in front of me. Many a time I had crossed it earlier without knowing what a spectacular view it provided to the casual onlooker from a distance against the dark sky and the wide expanse of the bay spread out like a black satin sheet at this time of the night.

When you’re on a bridge you rarely know what crossings overs look like.

Yet, jewel the bridge is not. The hard, glittering, diamond-like effect against the night sky is not static. The light is softened by a dynamism that makes it come alive. Continue reading The Circle of Life

Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

It was Durga Puja. The air was full of the non-stop beat of pujo’r dhaak (drum), music, microphone announcements, children’s elocution recitations, honks of a thousand cars, autorickshaws, rickshaws, voices of screaming kids and parents, lost and found announcements, children bursting crackers in their toy guns (“caps”) that went off with loud booms, pujo mantras (incantations) and loud ghanta’s (pujo bells) for the last five days.

Now there is all silence.

Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa--Burosibtala, Behala)
Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa–Burosibtala, Behala, Calcutta)
Buroshibtala Pujo, Behala
The water is a million hands (top) and inside the pandal it’s cool (AC’s) with scattered fish, mermen, rowers and underwater creatures (bottom two pictures).

The roads were full of streams of crowds from all walks of life, mostly youngsters and huge groups from distant parts of the city and outside suburbs walking along the roads inside bamboo barricades, dressed in their best new finery (some of which had zari borders that glowed in the dark). They had to stop at police ropes at intervals, taking tiny detours around sleeping dogs who seemed pretty nonchalant, considering the crowds who were desperate to see the pujo pandals, either patiently waiting or getting into skirmishes with police and volunteers, lifting their hands as far above the million heads as possible to take pictures, posting on social media in real time, desperate in their desire to savour the moment.

And this morning, it’s all empty.  At least as empty as Calcutta can get. Continue reading Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!

If you’ve lived in one of the great Indian mega-cities for any length of time, one of the things that you can never forget is the street food. But street food during a festival like Durga Pujo? You have to see it to believe it.

Calcutta street food
Phuchka, Shoptomi morning

I’ve only really lived in one Indian city, Calcutta/Kolkata, and even though I grew up almost on a daily  diet of various kinds of street food (my parents being a little less strict about this than many and my stomach having grown most resilient via this eclectic exposure) I wasn’t prepared for the number, scale and magnitude by which street food culture had proliferated in the city during my absence of fourteen years and the subsequent fifteen annual Durga Pujo’s I had missed.

The crowds in front of a pandal, Behala, Kolkata
The crowds in front of pizza, coffee, ice cream, paan, coke

I took all these pictures on Shoshthi evening and Shaptami afternoon, the first and second of the five days when Pujo crowds are only warming up. I just walked a little in the evening, barely a ten minute walking stretch from my parents’ place to the major road in my area. It’s a very middle-class neighbourhood and didn’t include any of the city’s major intersections or Pujo-visiting destinations or markets and must be a very miniscule picture of the city’s crowds and street foods this Pujo.

Yet, just as the spirit of the Goddess inheres in the smallest Debi idol in the tiniest by-lane in the littlelest poorly-lit Pandal as she does in the award-winning enormous mega-Pujo’s, I’m hoping that this chronicler’s mini-attempt at reflecting the spirit of the season will convey a little bit of the excitement and anticipation regarding how the Goddess has transformed a city of a 4.4 million people (14.38 million if you take the metropolitan area into account and swelling during Pujo) into a cosmic food court. Continue reading Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!

My Writing Process

This post ought to have been left blank because I realized that I have no process. Or perhaps there is no process.

Except that process where you have shown perseverance in spending time glued to the chair at your desk, tearing your hair (if you have any left), sighing in despair, pacing up and down the floor and sitting through the bouts of time when there has been no writing.

I realized also that you must have reached a goal, albeit set by yourself, weekly or monthly, of a number of pages/words that you decided to write, even if the writing was all gibberish, to have started thinking about a process.

The gibberish is an important ingredient to start with.  It is the one that might or might not lead to magic.

Unfortunately, I have realized through the years that there is no magic in the world that you haven’t produced yourself. But try enough times and you’ll see that for those who know how to look for it, lo and behold! “Zim zam zambowe/ Magic comes from nowhere!” (so sings the wise, white-haired, white-bearded sorcerer from the Indian children’s show Chota Bheem).

The sorcerer with Chota Bheem and his gang. The image is linked to the the image url. Thanks to The Boy for locating this image.

The following steps are solely how it happens with me. I’ll be very glad to hear how it happens to you. Continue reading My Writing Process

Does writing advice really help?

from pixabay
from pixabay

People vary vastly in their approach to work or play. So when I see a lot of writing advice doing the rounds (including my own), I’m rather skeptical.  Unless the advice is really specific, regarding tone, structure, syntax or something else, it serves little purpose for me beyond motivation, which, admittedly, is a huge part of success in any endeavour.

Some of the advice comes from writers themselves, when a dry spell probably compels them to write about something and what better a topic than the one they know most about—writing?

A lot of the impetus for writing about writing comes from a high demand amongst readers, who would be writers, and are looking for some magic recipe that will tell them how write. They expect such instructions to be clear and bulleted, exactly like the ones on how to put a bookshelf together or how to identify nasty weeds in your garden.

Again, such lists serve a purpose, to an extent, if you’re looking to churn out writing that will fulfill a purpose, and in theory, will help the next person write a similar thing should s/he be able to get to the instructions just like you did. Catch the reader’s attention with the intro, use a quote or an anecdote and end with a question or comment. Or, make sure the characters develop and edit out the parts that don’t fit.

But really, if someone has not recognized that they need to catch the reader’s attention or to make the characters come alive like real people from his or her reading of good authors, and is spending valuable reading time on reading a list of five points with clear headings and sub-headings on how to write, is this a person who should be thinking about writing for an audience at this stage?

That is not to say writing about writing serves no purpose. In a discussion or workshop based setting, whether face-to-face or online, talking about craft in a specific manner really helps. Where is this piece not working? Am I failing to connect here? Am I too verbose? But without a specific piece to start from, is it possible to discuss writing? Continue reading Does writing advice really help?

Tales by The Boy

Thanks to the exploits of The Boy on the word processor, the nascent blog post I wrote has been deleted.

Mischief by H. Brückner. Print showing a boy and a girl pouring ink and water on papers they removed from a desk and placed in a wastebasket.

Various experiments were performed by The Boy on a solitary sentence I had churned out after almost half an hour’s worth of staring at the screen when said boy decided to alter words here and there to check the various colours in which a spelling and grammar check was going to underline words.

Several minutes were spent finding words that were not words so that the underlining could happen effectively until we discovered that it isn’t easy to misspell words when you badly want to. Then fonts were changed and clip art inserted and magnified to fill the entire screen until the sentence was edited beyond recognition.

Hence, on the palimpsest of my poor, solitary sentence, having run out of ideas, I had no option but to regale you with stories by The Boy himself. Continue reading Tales by The Boy

Freshly Pressed! Times 5

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened my email! I’m going to be Freshly Pressed for Writing Memoir on Social Media.

Freshly Pressed
Freshly Pressed

I must acknowledge my debt to two people for the post: Cheri Lucas Rowlands (who also happens to be the editor who chose the piece) whose recent post brought to my attention The New Yorker article by Dani Shapiro I talk about and The Boy who blew the bubbles that turned into Writing Memoir.

Please like me on my Facebook page because, well, there’s stuff that I can do on Facebook that I can’t do here on the blog. Continue reading Freshly Pressed! Times 5

easy reading is damn hard writing


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