Tag Archives: life

Suffocating

It was a very hot May night and I was on a folding metal bed that was wide enough to hold me if I did not stretch my arms and just long enough to accommodate my not too tall a frame. The Old Man had unscrambled the rather dangerous metal contraption refusing any help, every step making me scared that he would bleed from the rusty pinch from cheap metal hinges that seemed like a hundred years old.

It wasn’t the Old Man’s fault. Time closes in on everything. Even space. Especially space.

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The old have a daily ordered life.  They sit on a certain chair just so every day and reach for that bottle of brown digestive medicine on the shelf standing on a certain square of a mosaic tile by stretching their hand just so after dinner. When that certain square tile is occupied in an unexpected fashion in a sudden, unprepared way, they will tell you nothing about the discomfort of the sudden intrusion but will but try to get around the new obstacle in various unobtrusive ways.

The next day, the same surprise at the same intrusion in the same time and space will take place as the same need for the digestive medicine arises. Again, they will tell you nothing about the discomfort of the sudden intrusion and will try to get around the still new obstacle in various unobtrusive ways.

And so the cycle will continue until short term memory becomes somewhat long term.

That May, a long time ago now, everything about my presence was an intrusion. I had intruded on the space and the space had intruded on me not so unobtrusively at a very painful time.

I suspected that the fifty-year-old roll of cotton wool in front of the dressing table next to the bed contraption might agree. In fact, it might spring to life at nightfall and make some derisive comment to the bunch of thirty-year-old safety pins lying on the carved, wooden tray (from that trip to Darjeeling thirty four years ago) about the shiny, oversized, impertinent, upstart suitcases lying in the middle of the room showing off the newfangled bar codes as in some Enid Blyton novel from second grade when the toys had their party after the girl went to sleep.

But this was no Bedtime Story.

Being that he was the Old Man, I had to let him take care of me. I was homeless and he wanted to protect me now as he did (or did not) when he was younger.

As will happen with wild animals that lived in ordered captivity a long time and went down the rabbit hole like Alice, only to emerge on the other side not in wonderland but in the old chaotic wilderness, I had lost the adaptability to survive.

Yet, this old place wasn’t the wilderness red in tooth and claw with its own tenor of sound and fury one could learn to survive in with time. Rather, it was the cultivated wilderness of the rainforest in the botanical gardens (if you’ve seen one in the tropics) where bloody dying animals could lie in plain sight while other animals scuttle past going about their daily business.

It turns out that evolution with time is a strange gift. It relieves you of the sensory burdens of disturbing sights and smells and covers the unseemly with invisibility cloaks to compartmentalize life experiences of others in civilization’s enchanted forest.

The ceiling fan, it turns out, was one of the evolutionary traits that I myself had either evolved beyond or fallen behind on because of my own life experiences.

It was one of the hottest months of the year. As the whole house became quiet I heard nothing but the unfamiliar flap-flapping of the ceiling fan.

I could not breathe. The flat nylon strings of the cot bit into my back, the narrow cotton sheets tied up my feet, I felt too hot and too cold at the same time. No one used comforters in the wilderness in the summer while in my temperature controlled captivity that had been a choice.

I tried to turn and the metal joints screeched.

Everyone had gone to sleep but the Old Man. In the wilderness, it was always the case that the Old Man took up the most dangerous jobs. Or had to be made to think that he did. That night he insisted on sleeping on the deathly contraption himself. So we whispered back and forth across the sleeping old woman across the two beds in the room, taking care not to wake anyone.

I remembered enough about the laws of the land to know that when women in the wilderness wanted men (old or young) not to do something, even for their own good, they were never given the real reason. For true explanations rarely worked with real men. So instead of saying that the Old Man could not handle sleeping on the metal contraption at his age, I said that the metal bed was actually better, because.

And yet, the ceiling fan kept going flap, flap, flap, flap, flap. Although I was not directly under it, it kept sending these little sheets of solid air that slapped my nose and circled the room. One after the next after the next came the sheets stopping my breath until I was being suffocated in an orderly rhythm.

So I got up from the cot when the old man was asleep and cleared the shoes in the other room to lie down on the floor. I was a bit scared of the cockroaches that lived in the shoe-heap in the back that was rarely disturbed who might resent my sudden intrusion into their space as well. I wondered if any of them would remember me as the legitimate inhabitant of the wilderness from the days of old.

[The wilderness was like those beaches with the very fine, white sand where the waters are warm enough to dip your feet in. When you stand a long time on the shore and think you’ve made a footprint simply because you’ve been standing there a long time the big wave comes in and closes in on everything. It brings in more and more and more, seemingly endless sand and covers everything to make space for new shells and rocks and seaweed that make their mark for a while. If you stand on your one space for too long you feel the sands shifting under your feet in the water and then you lose your balance.]

Sensation Water Feet Beach Water Sand Touch Light

I dozed off eventually (maybe watching a scuttling cockroach) but in the morning, only the little boy was surprised at the unexpected spectacle on the floor. The other animals stepped over me and I got up before the old man had seen me.

It turns out that breathing with a ceiling fan on throughout the night is an acquired respiratory reflex and I had lost it by being away a long time.

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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

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

From eleven-year-old Bottledworder

You all have been reading Bottledworder for the past two years. Thought you might enjoy something I chanced upon covered in brown paper tied with a jute string this week.

They were old exercise books. Peeking out of one of them was an old, yellowed exam sheet with the words Better English, Class V-A on top.

Not ashamed to say the word “good” was written in red with my English teacher’s signature on the front. However, I seemed to have scored only 26.5 out of a possible 30 in the whole test.

Here’s where I lost a point-and-a-half of those missing 3.5! Not ashamed to admit, again, that I’m wondering, even after all these decades, what I was supposed to write for a full 5.

Ms. R, if you ever chance upon my blog, could you please explain? 🙂 Continue reading From eleven-year-old Bottledworder

The room of my own

When my brother and I were little, we used to play this game in the afternoons sometimes. My brother would sit on one side of the bed and I would sit on the other and we would imagine that the bed was a boat and that we were floating away on the ocean.  We would imagine that the space in the middle was one where we would keep all our prized possessions. My brother would keep his tools and I would pat the bed and say, “This is where I’ll store all my boiled eggs.” Continue reading The room of my own

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

Them in the City

Something or the other is always happening in Calcutta.

Many of these events would be quite outside the scope of my experiences in the US and yet here they seem to fit in so seamlessly with the daily course of things. The events I’m talking about could be as simple as an altercation with an autorickshaw-wallah regarding the lack of change while paying the fare or hearing of a hanuman (big monkey) sighted on my street in the early morning sitting and eating kachori at a popular roadside stall with other customers (even while in many ways city life here is in no way different from anywhere else in the world as people use smartphones and laptops and commute to work on buses and cars and the underground metro).

Here’s a really unexpected event that occurred this week which reinforces my belief that if you’re looking for stories, there’s no better place in the world to come to than our very own Calcutta!

On Monday evening, my parents are about to leave for the market. I am ready to see them off when we open the door to an unexpected sight.

Our very long term domestic help P’s saree is strewn all over the landing between the main doors of the two apartments that face each other. A bunch of black hair, clearly cut with a pair of scissors, is strewn on the floor next to it.

The hair looks dark and glossy and freshly cut. Continue reading Them in the City

Home on the Interweb

At the end of play or at the end of work, when the sun is rising in the wee hours of the day or when the sun is going down, when you pull the curtains on prying eyes at last or when you display your exploits in their splendour on the wall to envious eyes, you want to return home.

Home is where work gets done, or no work gets done at all, where a thousand voices descend on you the moment you enter the door or where you sit still in solitude deep in thought. It is where you are thankful for today or you wait for a hopeful tomorrow or you sit and wonder if this is all there is where one day fades into the next quite silently with indistinguishable footsteps where not even a mouse clicks in the dark.

When you stare into the distance of a blue river or a blank screen from your window or when you spot a poster on the wall (of paper or pixel) next door, you float up and down memory lane or look into the crystal ball of time from your couch at home.

Home has the old and the familiar box from where you shake out a dusty album or it houses the kaleidoscope of friends and relatives, living or dead, floating down a timeline at the click of a mouse, as though they were all there in your living room sipping tea and munching sugary biscuits this afternoon. [Such as when a pop-up floats about a sidebar and says “Say Happy Birthday to S today” when you know that that smiling S left both the world of humans and Netpeople three years ago and left her profile active to haunt us forever every year on this very day.]

Thoughts of homelessness spring to mind as you get away from home for home in another part of the world on a huge airplane. You look down from the window at the familiar skyscrapers and trees and river fading into the billowing clouds.

When you’ve moved many times, between home here and home there, so many homes are scattered in different places that there is no getting away from home although there is no living at home without all those other homes knocking at your door always to come home.

Continue reading Home on the Interweb

The Calcutta Cricket

One of the new experiences you have to adjust to when you visit your home in Calcutta from your home in New Jersey, travel from the temperate zone to the tropics, is that of living with the constant presence of insects in the summer. Even in city apartments, these companions make their presence known in various obscure or aggressive ways.

The glow worms are beautiful when they float in during a power cut.  The ants and the spiders are a silent lot. If you leave a box of sandesh on the table, in no time will you see a group of industrious ants pushing globules of sweet, white balls away. You might have to keep an eye out for the spider doing the silent dance around the toilet seat or the lizard suddenly bursting into a loud tick-tick-tick on the wall. The millipede could climb on your arm while you’re asleep or a winged cockroach might decide to spend its last few hours with you. Then of course the mosquitoes will sing to you and keep you company through the night until dawn. Those who are wise know that a single one inside the mosquito net could treat you to its serenade all night long.

But here’s my experience this summer with a harmless insect I’d never thought I’d have to battle with so vehemently in a city apartment. Continue reading The Calcutta Cricket

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

Hope

I step into the tub for a shower.

Ahh.  A greyish black speck against the perfectly smooth, white surface of the tub.

I was bound to notice. Everything else was bleached clean, sparkling, sleek, shiny and fragrant. The slender faucets glinted in the recessed lighting, complexly designed yet pretty in the light that came in through the spotless, transparent shower curtains. Everything in this space was designed for perfect control from the temperature of the water to the force of the jet from the showerhead. A smell of heavy, synthetic fruit from green plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner overwhelmed the senses with promise divorcing existence from the brutal wintry day outside in its sweet entrapment.

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A speck it was indeed, quite out of place in this dazzling white cube of perfection. For the person who occupied the tub, the roof was perfectly angular in the corners, the tiles sparkled white, the tub was cleverly contoured and the plastic shower curtain sparkled.

Just like the city outside with its perfectly clean river and its hard, glittering skyline full of metallic jagged angles and spikes on a sparkling clear day brutally cold like this one.

There was no wind here in the tub. Yet the speck moved. Continue reading Hope

Of cool writer dudes

So you go to a party and are introduced to a stranger  for the first time as a writer. Said stranger moves his chair up to you and decides to be nice. “So how’s the writing coming along?” he asks. Or even better, “What’s your novel about?”

It seems to me that only writers are graced with such pleasant conversation starters.  Imagine someone wanting to make small talk at a party with a person from a different profession. “So how’s the coding coming along? “And how’s the plumbing going?” (unless you are personally invested in the results of said work) or “So how are the surgeries keeping you occupied?”or “What’s your criminal case about this week”?
Continue reading Of cool writer dudes

Thrift Stores: Memories and Things

I have this gigantic beige coat that has been lying unused a long time in my closet. It’s humongous with a gigantic aura of fake fur trimmings. It is certainly at least a size too big for me. It makes me look very well equipped for a trip to Antarctica whenever I get into it.

Because of the recent snow storms slamming the North East, I took the coat out at last a couple of times this season. I noticed that a tag  under its collar says L.L. Bean. Yet, I vividly remember the day I bought it at a store in Florida which is as far as it could be from a nice outerwear clothing store such as L.L. Bean or Burlington Coat Factory.

Having always lived in tropical climates, I was stumped a few years ago when I was due to visit Philly at the height of winter from Florida, where I lived then, for some interviews at a conference. I realized that nothing I possessed could match the kind of cold I might have to face up North. Knowing I’d never use the coat beyond the day or two, I visited the town thrift store to look for something suitable.

Image by brina_head on flickr

It was a biggish store with vast spaces full of clothes on hangers hung on rails with bright natural light coming in through the windows. Almost all the clothes there were either cotton or made of artificial silky material that hung on the hangers with slumped shoulders looking like they could be crumpled into little balls if needed. Continue reading Thrift Stores: Memories and Things

Home and the Blog

What does my blog mean to me?

Many a time, as I’ve sat by myself at night when the sounds of the day have quietened down and noises of the night have become louder, such as that of the whooshing of the AC, or thud of the softly falling snow or rain, the zzzzzing of the ups and downs of voltage brightening or dimming the tubelight or the buzzzzz of a single mosquito trapped in the mosquito net, or the dulled sounds of boats in the fog or the frogs croaking outside with the glow worms, depending on which part of the world I am in, I’ve wondered what the blog means when the writing has or hasn’t come.  Continue reading Home and the Blog

Of bloggers, Birbal and birds: How to make yourself heard

An old post revisited

How many of us bloggers are out there?

A mind-boggling number very hard to grapple with for sure.

Our sheer numbers  reminded me of a well known tale of Akbar and Birbal I came across recently on my flight back to the US from India. It was a version of the story in animation adapted for kids which I watched on the screen trapped in my little space in the sky.

It goes something like this: Continue reading Of bloggers, Birbal and birds: How to make yourself heard

A great post I read this week

I chanced upon this piece by Elizabeth Gomez called My Life as an Engrish to English Translator a few days ago on the Freshly Pressed collection. I laughed hard and was touched by it and so I thought I’d share it with you. It relates a series of experiences where the writer, presumably Korean-American,  had to keep “translating” her Korean mother’s hilarious “Engrish” on numerous occasions all through her childhood. But the light touch belies the seriousness behind it all–the episodes are really about a lot more. The post reminded me a lot of Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue. Continue reading A great post I read this week

New Year’s Resolutions for the Blog

Develop focus

It’s been quite a while for the blog now. From day one, I thought it might be necessary to have a plan for the blog. A year-and-a-half into it, I’m still planning to have a plan. What themes do I focus on? What character do I develop for the blog?

If nothing else, this plan to have a plan has made me think a lot about myself and my writing. So it’s not been all strife and missed targets but perhaps a little trimming of subject matter and presentation might help. Continue reading New Year’s Resolutions for the Blog