My blog seems to have lasted with me longer than the people in my life have. Never thought I’d be writing this one. But here it is, published in American Kahani.
Losing Ma: The Last Time I Saw Her She had a Little Too Much Vermilion on Her Forehead
My blog seems to have lasted with me longer than the people in my life have. Never thought I’d be writing this one. But here it is, published in American Kahani.
Losing Ma: The Last Time I Saw Her She had a Little Too Much Vermilion on Her Forehead
And so it is that I try to resurrect something that has fallen by the wayside in my attempt to live in the last few years. And yet, it is so hard to tell stories at a time when the people whose stories one might tell are all so far away.
Watching a man walk a dog or a woman flailing her arms about jogging along a sunny road from a distant balcony is like watching a movie without the sound on where nothing much happens except to provide you the opportunity to describe a green meadow or the light or a plant which has flowered in the Spring.
It is too hard to read the captions. It is too hard to think and so much easier to let the afternoon lethargy take over.
Yet, this is the time of the most terrible tragedies and the most acute pain. Daily news through news channels is slowly becoming numbers numbing the senses already. As news comes in of real people from the city through other means, it is a name or a face that flashes in front of my eyes many times and then blends into the current big, terrible story. Someone’s father, someone’s grandfather, someone sick writing an email themselves.
Then, more waiting. Cooking, eating, watching the weather.
It is like refreshing a social media page waiting for a notification. It always comes, with bad news.
I’m aware that there is so much privilege in waiting. There is so much privilege in having nothing happen. There is so much privilege in being able to socially distance (as people are calling it).
This is especially clear to those of us who live straddling two different countries, one where there is so little opportunity to hunker down for days in private spaces where older loved ones are left to fend for themselves when one is so far away.
The waiting, it is terrifying.
Wondering about older loved ones. But also wondering about younger people in crowded spaces in the same city who don’t have space struggling with everyday living.
But this isn’t so isolating.
There are the people of the videoconferencing apps. Framed people, some in odd angles and some the perfect pictures. Albeit devoid somewhere of their peopleness. Real people who aren’t people. But will be someday. One day.
Let us wait.
I once lived in a green, tree lined little oasis in the middle of a big, bad, smoky, sooty city where the train used to whistle by at all odd hours and the grass used to be lined with unopened buds of red krishnachura flowers from the gigantic trees after summer storms. It was as hot as it is now in the place I live, just as sunny and the house used to have concrete floors with big windows just as they do here where I live now.
But when I went back to see my green place after many, many years (the place I still see in both my dreams and nightmares), the trees were smaller, the roads narrower, the street dogs followed us with some suspicion. A painted blue (toy) swimming pool had replaced the patch of green we used to play on. It was the same place yet not the same place where the kids played in a nearby field with equal gusto.
Returning to this online space after so long feels the same. A place familiar, yet unfamiliar in ways that underscore both the passage of time and the ways one has evolved oneself. There are still some of the old familiar names, many still writing and so many that are new. The interface has changed and many of the old bloggers have evolved in new directions. Some, I see, have developed new insecurities about constantly writing for an audience and are feeling the pressure. Yet, the familiar sense of people exposing their thoughts as they come, from day to day or week to week is still here.
It still feels like a place I know.
In the past weeks and months, so many thoughts have come and gone. So many moments that could have been framed, so many instants that could’ve been recorded that will seem different if recorded now, after layers added to memory via the intervening months.
Something is always lost by not blogging about it. Even the darkest moments gain some value by being framed for posterity.
Yet, as I reenter this space, I feel the passage of time not just on the topography of this space but on myself. I remember the old rush I used to get from writing a post and then immediately hitting the publish button. The number of hits and likes and ebb and flow and the slow dwindling of interest on the posts seem like the distant rumble of music from a far off island at dusk from the shore, gaiety remembered with fondness like late night parties on distant islands.
Time seems to pass faster in online spaces than in life (one hopes). Or perhaps this change I notice between youth and age is more a reflection of changes I could not record in the interim.
My dear device on which I used to write has almost breathed its last. I miss its frayed plastic, it’s partially functioning “3,” the comfort of my fingers traveling familiar distances to reach the keys. It was almost the only constant in my life through the ups and downs of these intervening years. In its place, I type now on a myriad new-fangled devices, none of which I have made my own yet. It seems like the old world of device monogamy is over and one must prepare for a life of complete device polyamory if one is to get with the times and survive.
Yet, though much is taken, much abides. This space survives and perhaps recording change can bring some permanence to slipping time.
Hoping to be a denizen of this space once again if life does not intervene.
Forever hopeful . . .
A little corner of a space station,
on an island-city-nation,
between what is known and unknown
I tried a couple of times to write something about the letters, to say something smart, witty or profoundly philosophical but nothing that I started to say was going to come close to the complexity of what these contained or how I felt when I read these today with the burning sun outside just like it was there on the island.
I’d held on to one for four months without reading it and another followed me to yet another address making it quite clear that I wasn’t forgotten.
The second one was a postcard so there was no excuse to wait to open the cute little seal as one would have to do for the first one.
But still I waited.
It was a magic place last year, magic for me anyway, where the letters were from.
It was a place full of technology people where, paradoxically enough, I grew to love handwriting on paper once again. It was a place where heads bent over exercise books and scrawled notes from end-to-end from one margin to the other and people suddenly took out little Moleskines to note down something innocuous even in the midst of the most everyday of conversations. I saw folks treasuring pen and paper in a digitized world, folks who were pioneers of online education, thinking about the future, talking about handwriting in keynote lectures while I’d thought the skill was about to make a final exit.
I spent one summer afternoon in that land of perpetual summer watching The Tempest, that play about island magic as we sat on an open field on our island waving free plastic fans sponsored by some cell phone company to ward off the heat and humidity chewing on samurai flavoured McDonalds burgers.
That summer I also read Villette on my flashy new MacBook, light and thin as a gold sheet, cold and sparkling as a jewel, for the very first time, quite in contrast to the novel (if you conceive of the novel as a thick-bound sombre-looking volume behooving its Victorian character).
A novel about a schoolteacher spending a long summer in an empty school, a misfit, an outcast, an abandoned Victorian woman burdened with a case of incurable cerebration if ever there was one.
In the book, Lucy Snowe is also obsessed with letters, not so much to read them as to touch them, feel them, look at them, hide them away and find a corner where she might almost read them.
Just like one of these letters, which travelled with me, sealed, in my most important carry-on in my most important pouch with my passport, through four plane rides and three countries as I moved between my known and unknown . . .
I had seen my sender write letters of course, spend evenings on them, scan them, post them, track them (also worry about how scanners in post offices read envelopes) and render words into things you could touch, feel and maybe smudge a little.
I was influenced.
I even became a thoughtful-looking picture in a gigantic stamp myself in that magic island where you could be many of the pretend-things you wanted to be (if only in dress-up parties for grown-ups or in pre-set photo booths at malls and exhibitions).
So when I received the letters, they were treasures. Of course I put off reading them savouring the anticipation, cherishing the future moment when I’d open them.
Then four whole months passed and here I was bumping into one of them while looking for a government issued photo ID.
What if there was some important information somewhere in that sealed envelope? What if the sender had assumed all these months that I had, indeed, read whatever it was and my non-response was a response?
All the while, the words on the envelope, standing between the known and unknown, had been one of the few still centers of my rather uncertain life. A jingle that stayed, a rhythm that soothed, a memory that brought back faith of something that was coming. A little bit of happy life trapped in memory and memory trapped in words and words preserved in slightly smudged writing that gave the illusion of permanence through its perishable, material, graspable, slightly stiff surface.
All the same, I took digital pictures first before I read them today.
My reward was that I got transported back to that Shakespearean and not-so-Shakespearean world of container ships and bubbling fountains and flying planes and glass offices and bazaar-style electronics sales and little 7-year-olds who asked you (like any other 7-year-old in any other place), ‘What’s the only kind of ship that never sinks?’
Sometimes 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.
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.
For 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.
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.
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.
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.
is a joy for ever
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are signs for sales everywhere. This kind of humour is something I’m more familiar with:
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.”
Sometimes there are signs where I think there is an issue with translation when it isn’t an issue at all.
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:
I have so many things to write about that I have written about nothing.
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.
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.
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.
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 ma.tt
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Would love to say something on all ten thousand of you but realized that a poet had said it so much better than me about 200 years ago. Continue reading Ten Thousand Followers!
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.
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
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.
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.
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!