Reading

In the beginning, there was struggle; there was force, and always other things I could do. There was also the gross reality of it all; that it was just a hobby, something I took to when I had ample time, something I naturally do when I am waiting for somebody at coffee shops — one hand mindlessly yet knowingly stirring a white cup full to its brim with coffee, they say, but milk and froth actually; the other hand just so it can have something to do – a book, any book.

I will tell you the truth – there was always a part of me that thought it was too much effort. Reading is not easy. It cuts into a lot of things you could rather be doing. The first page is the hardest unless there’s sex. And then there are the devil things we call memories. And words that take you to these memories. I didn’t have the discipline and neither the self control to omit memories while reading. A sentence, and sometimes an image was enough to make me stop reading, and push me into seeing what the word represented about my past, and my life. More often than not, some are memories of things that have not happened yet but are events nonetheless because I have imagined them so much and so fiercely that they become an actual event and therefore a memory.

My eyes fall on these dead words like fingers to mouth when you are eating but don’t know what because you are watching something. So when I realise I haven’t understood a thing, I go back, reread and wonder how I managed to read and not read at the same time. This happens a dozen times before I frown at myself and make a serious attempt.

So when I struggled with reading practically all my life and began to really worry about what this meant only now, I came across the second half of Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’. And then there was Sarah Waters and Rohini Mohan and as of today, Nabokov. Three books in two weeks is too good to be true, for me. I don’t know what did the trick, maybe it’s the urgent demand from myself to become a writer immediately, if there is such a thing. Maybe it’s to see if late bloomers can do it too, maybe it’s another lameass attempt at making up for lost time in Jain and everything I didn’t learn there. Whatever it is, I can’t complain now because I am happy. It could be better though.

With On Beauty, I paused and reread words I had read, took time to live in them, to think of my own stories where her lines could be altered and borrowed. There is just as much conversation as there is silence in that book. With Pnin, it was breathless. Not the writing, my reading I mean. Sentences that begin in the first line are punctured with commas before the full stop ends the trial at the end of some 10th line. I have a Pnin way of reading books now. With Rohini Mohan, there was anxiety propelled by the story, the plot, and the characters; all of which I had to cautiously balance with my need to pay attention to metaphors and narrative. This became an exercise in itself.

The curious mix of these books and the different kinds of reading they demanded from me in the past 2 weeks have somewhat made me less impatient, if not a better reader. And I am trying to see what it has done to my writing. Next up is Madame Bovary. The rule is to finish the first 25 pages in the first sitting. And seeing as how that hasn’t happened with this one, I am guessing it’s going to be a while.

Stillness

He was the wood behind a strong table he sat by. She, the cushion she sat on. His feet clasped around the bulk of another chair, he sat reading a book with her every afternoon. Soon it would be time for her to leave. The wind was a nosy neighbour today, pressing its paws on the tightly shut windows. It would come whistling by only to be broken with a loud rupture. Now and then he would look up and smile a smile that can only come from just having read something you have thought of previously, but never had the patience nor the desire to word it the way the writer has. She would look at him and wonder if he had reached that part of the book yet. She couldn’t say. She remembered smiling her way through that book, not knowing which smile went where now.

After an hour of exchanging prolonged sighs and ignoring cramps in the small of their backs and the tightness around their necks, she would stand up urgently as if to compensate for an hour of listlessness. She would walk slowly now, all urgency forgotten and walk the length of the tall windows that appeared carved on the big wall.

Inching closer to the window, she would gently put her head on the glass, and try to measure the wind with her eyes and ears. Almost fearing the unkemptness of hair that the wind would bring, she pauses before opening the window. Bravely, she thrusts the window open lest it should come crashing back. Today, it would not. There was a guarded stillness in the air that didn’t quite match up to how it looked before the window was thrown open. It seemed as though her opening of the window had caused this sudden pause, this spiralling downwards of noise into itself, how in noisy supermarkets sometimes by co incidence, everything and everybody just quiet down. The music stops first and then the hushed cacophonies of customers and their trolleys and in a moment of decisiveness, everybody looks up to see if all is well in the world.

It was in this moment of an overstretched yawn, of the pulse not coming back to its milder other half, of an echo, eerie than death itself that she saw a grey dog biting into the calm and running for its dear life. A second later, the land exploded, pulling everything down to dust.

Detachment

It’s like peeling wet jeans off your legs. You can’t do it standing anymore so you lie down on the floor and heave your thighs up and pull your pants down. It’s scraping off your butt and you can feel your panties sliding down with them. You aren’t in the mood to see your genitals so keep your panties back. The jeans now knot themselves up and about your ankles and you manage to extricate your legs back to your body. Dump the wet jeans in the bucket and get into the shower. Hot hot shower. Sigh and let your body soak its coldness in the steam. Put your face under the patter of scalding hot water and think of everything you want out of your life. All those disgusting little moments you made an ass of yourself in front of people you dress up for in the morning. Turn around slowly and watch clouds of steam rising up. Open your eyes to new promises and newer anxieties. The speech you made in your head about telling people to screw themselves and die isn’t worth it anymore. Nothing is. At the end of any bad day, you know you can always count on a hot shower to unhook yourself from yourself.  And like the wet pair of jeans you dumped in the bucket, the bad days go there.

Let’s

Let’s be independent, she said.

I said ok and jumped right in.

We cannot let other people define our happiness.

Ok

We must travel, see places, see people, eat shit, and drink crap.

Ok

We cannot let one part of our life to define us in anyway.

We shouldn’t change to accommodate love.

Yes, let’s do that. Let’s do that first.

Let’s not fall in love at all this year.

Everytime it happens it takes a big chunk from me.

I agree.

Let’s make love and not love

Let’s respect people and not demand things from them

Let’s teach ourselves to love us.

I said ok, like I say ok to everything.

Let’s learn how to swim and drive and to eat with chopsticks

Let’s learn a language and write shit poetry in that language

Let’s write without going crazy about who reads it and what they may think

Let’s give ourselves to freedom and learning

Let’s read more and let’s live more

Let’s just breathe, for a change.

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests

I finished reading The Paying Guests today. Sarah Waters is a delight. I am afraid of saying very much now because I finished reading it only minutes ago and I don’t know how much of what I say is going to be out of pure admiration for the writing and how much, out of my own fascination with what the book took from me: Time, thoughts, energy, conversations. When we claim to like a book, isn’t it odd to separate the liking from our closeness to ourselves?

Before I start talking out of my ass, I must quickly get to why I liked reading Sarah Waters. It’s how she wove the house from scratch. Its importance to the plot may have been central, grotesque even. But I was carried away by how much the house was like Frances herself. Her movements in the house, her chores and eventually having to watch her endlessly prop one wall after the other to keep the house from falling. Her nightmares were real. And she showed me that.

My back straightened with caution everytime I read her descriptions about the abortion. It was far more exciting to read than the sex bits. Not that I didn’t change postures while reading the sex bits. I remember a time when reading took a lot of effort. I had to tell myself repeatedly that I must make an effort or I will never be able to finish it. I was nasty with some of this book’s predecessors, impatient and shifting maniacally from laptop to phone to book and then eventually to sleep itself. I think this book taught me how to read, in its own limited way along with everything else it did. I am patient with prose now, in a way that welcomes constant shuffling back of pages to mark a word, a metaphor, the yellow ink leaving its trail on sentences that I know I will not go back to but I marked, nevertheless.

But so much of reading is also rereading but I doubt I’ll get to that any time soon. Having learnt to read only now, it’s an ugly ambition to think of rereading. I don’t know if I have it in me. I am still warming up to the idea of reading closely.

What I remember also is how I managed to get irritated with Lilian more than I want to admit now. But maybe because the ending was happy, I think I have forgiven her.

Things that I thought unreal were made real. Like spaces growing with tension and producing distance between people who want to touch each other and hold each other. And when the spaces are overcome, this is said: ‘The space between them was alive and wanted to ease itself closed’. ‘The kiss unfurled, unfolded like a bolt of rippling silk’.

I will come back to Sarah Waters, I’m sure. Meanwhile I should try out what I learnt about reading on other books to see if it works.

The Parisian Cafe – III

It stands quietly at the end of a street, the way small town coffee shops sometimes do in big cities. Unafraid, yet unwelcoming because of its smallness. Everybody can see everybody and everybody seems to know everybody. You wonder how the chairs fit themselves into their tables on days that you are not here. You wonder if yellow cars parked neatly in front of apartments have that much character on days that you are not here. Who sits in your spot next to the dustbin and eavesdrops on conversations when you are not here?

A house is broken down and its ghosts collect themselves in heaps of sand and stone while behind, a building grows and how slowly. Little people move about on random floors like thin candles on three tiered cakes.

Relief

It’s the relief that conversations sometimes bring to us. It’s how your face curves into its own ends with big smiles, when clouds of grey are moved aside and you begin afresh. You hope it’s not long before something triggers you into going back to the dull ghetto that your mind becomes. Tracing finger with finger, exchanging stories of shame and insecurity you draw each other into a comfort that can only come from knowing that the other is fighting a similar, if not, harder battle. In your head, you are punishing yourself for all the things you got used to believing about the world and its meanness and how if you don’t equip yourself with a tough solitude, you are going to be broken. Solitude may be you friend, your savior but it is also what sometimes pushes you into believing that you don’t need conversations and maybe you don’t, but you do.

Jogging

I have decided that nobody hates running. We may dislike it because we think we cannot run but we can. I have hated running with all my might all these years. As a child, whenever I would start running, I would fall on my face. My father’s theory was that because my head is bigger than my body, running would send my head crashing down to earth. I ignored it but it’s true. I did fall whenever I ran. Sometimes deliberately, because I thought I was going to fall anyway, why not just do it prematurely instead of having it happen to me without my knowledge.

I don’t want to jinx it but I am going to say this anyway. I have been waking up fairly early every morning since last Saturday so I can go jogging. It’s a good way to watch my thoughts and because all my thoughts are about me – the victim, in ALL scenarios, it becomes easier to ignore tear ducts when all your blood is threatening to fall out of your lungs and face. I took it slow the first two days, watching my breath as I slowly began to run out of it, feeling my face growing warmer, my armpits collecting moist, my inner thighs burning with itch, my forehead bubbling with hot blood, and now slowly I am beginning to pick speed. It’s just 2 minutes of jogging and 18 minutes of recovering from it. So far, so good.

Waffles and Holige

When Richard Gilmore instructs Lorelai to start her day with half a grape fruit in Gilmore Girls, I was disturbed. I thought a grape fruit was grape and couldn’t understand why somebody sensible would tell people to begin their day with some peanut sized fruit. Months later somebody told me that grape fruits are what we call mosambis. I couldn’t tell if I felt more amused or stupid. I had had a Secret Seven flashback. In one of their adventures, The Secret Seven come across a cave that they decide, will be their meeting place. They start decorating the cave with all manner of food and drinks. There are cookies and marmalade and ginger buns and croissants and lemonade. The closest I came to tasting a cousin of the lemonade was Rasna. I was not happy. When I sent mother out to bring me cookies, she got me Good day biscuits and said that all the shops that she went to gave her biscuits when she asked for cookies.

I came across the word waffles in an american TV show. I tasted a domestic version of it years ago and disliked it immediately. The waiter brought to my table what looked like holige/obattu with maple syrup. A month ago, I saw a packet of giant cookies smiling at me from the table. Dad’s friends from Belgium had paid us a visit. I smiled and felt great affection for my dad because he socializes and everything. I took a bite and cried. Call me crazy, I have never tasted waffles, but deep in my mouth, I knew that this is what waffles taste like. I am not a big fan of sharing food, especially when I love what I am eating. I gobbled my way to 30 waffles in 2 straight days and looked like the constipated cow in Tom & Jerry for the rest of the week.

Sushi, like the far away cousin one has always been curious about came to me only recently. But all the wait seems to have been worth it because my best days have sushi in them, or the kimbabs that I am especially fond of. I seem to enjoy eating Korean food now. I like that I can eat most of it with sticky rice, I like that the kimbabs aren’t hot, I like that the food is mostly dry, I like that I can eat it real slow and nothing is going to get colder.

I need to come out of my Spaghetti- fiasco and start trying to cook again. I miss it.

Homecoming

There is a strange melancholy that hangs around my neck these days and I feel it most strongly when I am riding back home, when what needs to be proven hasn’t been proven, when the day has ended and the city is hurrying its people back into homes and its long arms of wait. I feel it in the wind speeding by my ears, I feel it in the red light that’s bouncing off from surface to surface, I feel it when I pass by buildings that have no business looking the same as they did 9 years ago, I feel it in my throat before I feel it in my eyes. It’s a heavy lump that I find hard to swallow but when I do, it drops down to my stomach in a whisper and then my eyes are wet. Before long, I am trying to disengage with whatever it is that has made me cry but I don’t seem to have the resolve it takes to say no to pain.

Hands from my past put their weight on my shoulders and urge me to look back; his hands left bitterly in my hair are no longer part of my face, but they are there until I learn to disown my smell from me. As a child, I clung to objects, to things more than to people. I liked making memories so I could keep them, save them, to be recalled later. A perfume bottle that I really liked on him is there somewhere in my cupboard now. Ticket stubs from movies stolen between classes are tucked away neatly in a box. Old journals recounting how and why I felt betrayed by people, why I liked somebody, why I hated myself — all pressed onto paper, sealed into a past that I see now and then in the rear view mirror of passing cars and their noises.

There is sand in a small bottle, there is a big stone, the sort of perfect stone that catches your eye during imperfect visits to beaches and all you can think about is how lucky you are to find a perfect stone. It’s perfect because it looks like the way stones are supposed to in your head, where there is a perfect shape for every word heard. There are sea shells, there are umbrella sticks in a pen stand, there are all my notebooks from MA classes and chocolate wrappers in between these notebooks.

I spend a lot of time in making sure these memories seem real to me at a later time when perhaps I have forgotten to look where I most looked. I have always been afraid of things coming to an end, goodbyes and departure and all. It’s crazy but they are what make memories possible. In my head, the memories are curves inked with trees I have seen in my childhood. Mostly big ones you see on your way to City B which your mother deceived you into believing, was only an hour away. There are also fields which come and go like the sound of slow moving vehicles. A truck or lorry on the highway. That is what I usually come home to and what I miss the most about childhood — sounds and smells.

Memory is that far away truck, its headlights casting distorted shadows on the road ahead, a game I am trying to win that nobody is aware of, not even the truck driver, not even my parents in the back seat who are talking about relatives, some of whom I don’t even know. Memory is also a craving I feel in my gut to go back to those godawful ambassador cars from my childhood and sit between silence and boredom, listening to the quiet language of trees outside.

At the end of one such long journey, by which time I had forgiven my mother, I remember a basket of chocolates waiting for us by the bed. For two days after that I was left with a disgusting after taste of chocolate, the kind that you think will make you hate chocolate forever, finally christening you into adulthood where chocolates aren’t eaten. But then days later, somebody gives you Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and you don’t want to be adult anymore.

My shoe size has always been 4. And I notice it thrice a year when I am buying new shoes. They look weirdly at me in the store but that’s maybe the only thing about myself that I like to admit I am proud of – that I have tiny feet, that when I put them on a stool at my desk, I like seeing that they don’t take that much space.

There’s a white shirt with unreadable memorabilia scribbled in marker pens. When I think of it, I think of how the dean was upset because we had touched each other’s backs and written how much we would miss each other. So upset that he made a big guy take his shirt off in front of us. I remember feeling frightened that day. He said he was going to call our parents and tell on us.

So much of homecoming is also standing in the ugly kitchen and telling my mother that I failed math again and she is looking at me, murder in her eyes, her lips, quivering in grave silence, her nose ring becoming bigger and bigger with everything she is not saying to me. So much of homecoming today is also never having to tell parents that you failed or passed.