We are here only

There is a girl who lives 2 houses behind mine, and she never misses sunsets. We don’t know each other and this is ok because what would we do with the sudden, almost brutal knowledge of seeing each other one morning, sitting demurely on our two-wheelers, in our office clothes, going to office? It is far too naked.

I like that this is the only way we have come to know each other. Together, we watch the sunset in Basavanagudi. It might be setting everywhere else too, but from the way we both swallow the orange pink light, and eat the sun whole – from here and from there – it feels like it setting only for us.

It’s nice to know that there is always a moment when we walk the length of each of our terraces, that when we are walking away from the sun, we are both wondering what we are missing, so we keep looking back to find that nothing has changed and everything has.

There is also a boy, a few houses to the left, who stands at the edge of his terrace, (dangling from it, really) to take pictures. Occasionally we look at him but in our universe, he is a dot. He isn’t here for the long haul like we are – where, after the sun disappears into the papery thin sky, and there’s that moment of total silence (as if the only thing that should happen when the sky is drained of color, when the plunger plunges everything out from the sink – is silence) he is gone, but we are here – she and I.

That’s when the birds come. They fly in the same pace, towards the same direction, often noiselessly, like a still painting where only the birds look alive. It’s then that we leave, the both of us, feeling full and somewhat empty.

We is

As part of the Study of US Institutes (SUSI), teachers from 17 countries were invited to Seattle University to learn more about contemporary American literature. This happened over six weeks, two of which were spent on study tours in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In DC, we were introduced to a poet and a musician and here’s a little something about the evening spent with them.

Samuel Miranda and Pepe Gonzalez are full of love. One Friday evening in DC, we walked with them into American Poetry Museum. It was a small, bright room with books, and art work all around. On a table by the entrance there was an old typewriter sitting quietly.

I didn’t know much about Sam and Pepe except that they both had the kindest smiles. Earlier that evening when they had introduced themselves to us so happily, you could tell they were the kind of people around whom it’d be difficult to remain unhappy, bored or tired. Exactly the kind of people the world needs more and more, especially today.

Sam read out poems from his book ‘We is’ while Pepe played the double bass. It was my first time seeing–listening to poetry being accompanied by music or was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Because on stage his poem held hands with his music and I couldn’t tell what was feeding what but it grew together.

Sam asked, ‘How many of you have known and lost students to bullets?’ and some of us raised our hands. I felt a chill. I didn’t have to look around to know that enough of us had lost students to guns. He read out a poem called Traffic Light Shoot-Out.

“The bicycle’s hooded rider
was a stranger. A body. A corpse.
A corpse I knew
when it still had breath”

Sam read his poems with an intensity and calm that closed old wounds and opened new ones. Pepe smiled with his eyes. I have never seen a musician make so much eye contact with his smile. There was something oddly calm and powerful happening in the room. Most of us couldn’t hold back our tears, some wept openly, some swallowed painfully, some watched Prof C crying and broke down. I withdrew deeper into the folds of my dress and felt smaller than I ever have.

“We is not the singular
dotted i, black figure against
white background.

… We is the traffic
rushing past the living
and the dead
forgetting to write our songs down
breathe into Chinese medicine bottles
so we can heal the wounds
of our entrances and exits…”

When the stage was open for us, I didn’t move. I have never been one to volunteer to do anything. But something in me had moved enough to want to share with them all my grandmother’s mad stories, and the stories of the women I have known and loved. And so I did. I told them about Mouma’s magic blouse, about the woman who challenged power by refusing to cut her hair, about how she hired people to stand on top of stools to pour water down her long, long, hair. And about the woman who rubbed wild flowers on her body early in the morning so she could hide the smell that disgusted those who refused to give her tea.

When we reached the end, evening had become night and we had been vulnerable with each other in the way only citizens whose countries are vicious can be. We had exchanged fears, stories, and histories and as we hugged each other — I wondered if the power-mongers lurking on the outside of poetry in their country, and mine would continue to be so hateful if they knew how much love there was inside. But maybe I was being too ambitious.

I let myself be dissolved in the moment and hugged them all openly.

This morning, I thought of that moment and was suddenly reminded of love – once again – of how much love we are capable of and how often we forget to remind ourselves of this.

I love you, Katherine Hepburn

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Day one of Kate/Duplikate: Summertime

To watch Katherine Hepburn in Summertime (1955)  is to have a dream-undream realised.  There is the simple pleasure of watching her arrive in Venice – alone (unless you count her camera-companion), in love with the idea of being on her own, and worrying that she won’t like the city.

Sitting next to a man on the train, she asks him, even if her attention at this point is really on the city unfurling outside the window –‘Do you think I will like Venice?’

She follows the porter carrying her luggage out of the railway station with the briskness of a free woman chasing her dreams, with the stubbornness of Rani in Queen who wouldn’t let go of her bag.

She is not going to let anybody ruin this for her, not even herself. Even so, despite the joy she brings to her face, and ours – when she swallows the city with her eyes, she is also sincerely vulnerable in the way we are when we find ourselves companion-less in strange cities. No matter how much we have longed to be there, how much we have fought to finally be on our own, sometimes the silence of empty chairs next to us is too loud.

When I was 25, I took myself to Goa – alone. It was better than I thought it’d be. I was happy: I ate, I drank, I read and wrote, I watched Magadheera in Hindi on Sony Max. Everything was great – except on the last day at lunch, when the only other occupied table next to mine, paid their bill and left – I felt so abandoned that I began to cry.

I couldn’t understand it. They were total strangers and I was perfectly alright the next moment and before it but I still blame them for leaving me alone when I was still only half- done with my prawns.

I should have known then that Katherine Hepburn had a solution. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson deals with the silence of an empty chair as if it were not an empty chair – but an ‘extra’ chair. She puts it to sleep by making it lean on the table uselessly. This may have been done out of desperation to not feel alone, yes. Still, what we see is a woman fiercely straddling between alone-ness and companionship – not knowing how to ask for either.

One particularly lonely afternoon, she finds the courage to ask a young married couple if she could join them for drinks – the man declines. She’s heartbroken but takes herself out to lunch where she sees this couple strolling with another couple. At this point, she puts the ‘extra’ chair next to her asleep.

When the man who has been waiting to woo her shows up, she is happy but he sees the sleeping chair, thinks maybe she wants to be left alone, and excuses himself. Hepburn’s hand reaches out to stop him but it’s too late. She can’t reach him and neither can her hand. When she breaks down, we are humiliated on her behalf. But we don’t know if she is.

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Two is good number, she says somewhere else in the film. But when she becomes two, she just wants to be one again.

Why? Because despite it all, and despite herself – she is the first to say ‘I love you’ to him, after resisting-letting go-resisting his kisses. She doesn’t know what she wants, which is perhaps the one thing that independent women are wholeheartedly compassionate about. We root for her when she’s in love, we root for her when she doesn’t want to be in love and we root/hoot for her when love pushes her into a canal.

It is charming to watch Hepburn resist love. She does it unwillingly and we watch it willingly. She tells the man a story from her past – the only story he and we know so far. And it takes us a while to realise that we actually know nothing about her – except that she’s from Ohio and that she’s a ‘fancy secretary’.

The only other story we are allowed is that she always wanted to wear gardenias. Later in the film, she gets a gardenia if only for a while before it falls into the canal, and when he rushes down to catch it – it is obviously out of reach, just like he was a few scenes ago. I was left wondering and then knowing that had she gone after the gardenia instead of he – she would have got it.

But that perhaps is the beauty of finding and not keeping the romance that one stumbles upon in strange cities. This idea of them being just as out-of-reach as you are. Jane Hudson never gets to keep the gardenias that men buy for her. Either they are too late or she loses them and they become unreachable. The only things that remain hers are the things that she buys – shoes, a dress, a glass, a somewhat sisterly affection for a small boy (not bought but given)

In the middle of a passionate kiss with the man, I worry that she will drop her shoe (which she is holding in her hand) The shoe is frighteningly close to the balcony and just when the kiss climaxes, it falls gently inside the balcony. I needn’t have worried. It was a shoe – not gardenia. She bought it with love while in love. It is hers to keep.

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She loves looking at birds that fly over the buildings in the city. She likes to see the bells ringing, she won’t just be having the sounds, no thank you. She will see them. She will carry cigarettes but won’t smoke them, she will down a glass of bourbon mixed with something else. She will cry when she wants to. She will ask for company when she wants to.

There is something spectacularly ordinary about Hudson when she tells the man why she’s leaving.

All my life I’ve stayed at parties too long because I don’t know when to go. Now with you, I’ve grown up, I think I know when to.

I know that in the years to come, I will come back to this moment again and again because it’s the most extraordinary lesson you can learn on your own. No one can teach you and we get to witness this as she learns to recognize it.

Twelve years later, Joan Didion will say something similar about New York in this essay. 

***

I was grateful that he comes to say bye to her (despite her request) — when she’s leaving – leaving forever – on the train. I was grateful if only because she was expecting him. I was even more grateful when their hands never meet.

And again, the final gardenia that he brings for her –  she cannot touch, because it is still, after all this time out of reach. But that’s alright – I write this bearing in mind that all the things she bought in Venice are neatly packed in her many blue suitcases.

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Foot in Tree

Last night I dreamt that I poured a glass of beer on my left foot – the nasty foot that broke last year. It was beer because it was the color of heavy brown that would later swim in my stomach in big laps. I poured it and watched as a line of big bubbles erupted from the knee all the way down to my ankle. The bubbles squeezed uncomfortably next to each other. Friends next to me burst it with something sharp and the bubbles heaved and extinguished but regrew with more force and vigour. Now they were a garden, they had life and they bloomed fiercely, with flora and fauna.

I had a tree growing out of my foot. I walked with it.

It is morning now and I am still walking with its memory. I don’t know which is worse.

Because of Joan Didion

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I mentioned Joan Didion for the first time in Seattle today. I must have said her name in my mind plenty of times but for the first time today, in Seattle (I cannot say this enough) I said her name out loud to my roommate.

My roommate is from Lebanon. Her name is Maha. She took a blue post it from her purse and wrote Joan Didion’s name down in small letters:

J-o-a-n  D-i-d-i-o-n

and I felt the quiet smile I always feel when I see Didion’s name in print.

At the visa interview in Chennai, when the white man behind the glass door had asked me what my SOP was about, I had said Joan Didion. And when he asked me who she was, I had felt incredibly stupid saying ‘She is an American writer’

***

Maha and I were saying how excited we are that they are going to take us on a study tour to Washington DC at the end of this month. I told her, ‘It’d would be tragic to be so close to New York and still not see it’

Ah! New York! You want to see because of Friends?

Yaaa, I said and then with a calm that took even me by surprise I said, ‘Because of Joan Didion’

It will always be Joan Didion’s New York for me now. In the way that it will always be Parodevi’s Bombay, and Adichie’s Nigeria. Cities are built to keep women away. Women may never belong to a city in the way that men do but cities always only belong to women.

Esra, who is from Turkey and now a student here like me, said that Orhan Pamuk is a psycho and we both giggled like children. She said – “Back home we don’t like his writing in Turkish very much. If we want to make fun of someone, we say you are talking like Pamuk writes”

Then she told me that he once put his phone on the balcony and took pictures of the city. “Same time each day and he saw different things it seems – such a crazy that man”

And now it is Esra’s Turkey. Like it is Elif Batuman’s Turkey (but it will never be Pamuk’s)

***

Here I must add because after years of not knowing, and then knowing, I am not going to suddenly unknow who I am – How do Dalit men and women figure here? Can cities ever belong to us? I don’t know. Maybe other cities can belong to us – perhaps even more than ours ever will. Then again – not all of us can afford to walk into strange, new cities and make them ours. But because of some odd luck that I am here now – I want to try.

Seattle is empty without my Basavanagudi cows and their dung, without the trees and their rains. But it is still mine. Today I woke at 5:30 and made it mine. I made it mine as I made hot water and drank it from a red mug. I made it mine as I walked on the same street up and down, effortlessly avoiding Starbucks. I made it mine when I was so distracted by the houses, I missed a turn. I made it mine when I saw a huge Ferrari showroom, said bah, and took a picture. I made it mine when I walked into Ba Bar last night and ordered Garlic Crab Noodles with a glass of wine.

I sat by the bar eating my food, drinking my drink and watched as the young bartender in front of me (grey dress with a slit down the side) climbed up the ladder in her black Nike shoes, and gently picked a bottle of scotch. I watched as she smoothly came down, her right hand clutching the bottle, her left holding-not holding the ladder.

This city is hers more than mine. But because she is now locked forever in a moment that I am writing about and because the next time I eat crab noodles, I’ll be in Bangalore, I will think about how she brought the bottle of scotch down and just like that – the city will be mine again. I sat today and put all my things in this city, so it is not empty anymore. That’s why I am sitting here writing this at 3 in the morning. It could be jet lag also, but lol.