24 days

In 24 days, I will be 30. If I was younger, I’d have said I am looking forward to my birthday. Today I only want to say I am looking forward to the days before and after my 30th birthday, just as much as I am looking forward to my 30th birthday. Maybe I really am growing up if I am more excited by 24 days than by the 24th day this month.

If I was younger I’d have the energy & the shamelessness to make a bullet journal for my birthday month & do one thing that excites me for 24 days. I’d sit at the dining table, smiling like a child opening crayon boxes, and giant handmade books. I’d have told myself to write every day for 24 days. I’d have told myself to wake up early and watch the sunrise every day for 24 days.

Maybe I really am growing up because I still want to do all those things but the heart is still full from reading Mary Oliver and that seems enough.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Even so, I wish that for as long as I am alive, I am as shameless as I was when I was 16, 22, 24, 28.

Also today, reading poems by Dorianne Laux seems enough. Maybe that’s why we should read poetry more often, to fill ourselves with it only to realize that we were thirsty all this while.

Family Stories

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
to decorate the sidewalk below. In mine
it was fists and direct hits to the solar plexus,
and nobody ever forgave anyone. But I believed
the people in his stories really loved one another,
even when they yelled and shoved their feet
through cabinet doors, or held a chair like a bottle
of cheap champagne, christening the wall,
rungs exploding from their holes.
I said it sounded harmless, the pomp and fury
of the passionate. He said it was a curse
being born Italian and Catholic and when he
looked from that window what he saw was the moment
rudely crushed. But all I could see was a gorgeous
three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship
down the sidewalk, the smoking candles broken, sunk
deep in the icing, a few still burning.

 

Have a nice day!

Homes, Smells, and Red Oxide floors

I’m not sure that any of the homes I have ever lived in had a distinct smell. Or if they did, I don’t remember them now. What I am sure of is that other homes certainly had smells. These were either relatives’ homes or more peculiarly what I can only call tuition homes. But they were each different and very memorable.

My sister and I went to the same tuition till the 7th Standard. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one’s sibling is a rank student then you will be jealous all your life. And my sister has always been a good student – did her homework, did extra credit, corrected people’s spellings, stayed back and helped teachers carry books, and topped the bloody class year after year. But mother still made her go to tuition so that I wouldn’t die of inferiority complex. But I think having her in tuition didn’t actually work in my favour because she was better than me even there. It just gave her another space in which to be really good at.

I knew of friends who did badly at school but they would always do well in tuitions. I saw no such thing happen with me. I was equally bad everywhere. And teachers made no qualms about hiding it. ‘Born gift’, ‘knack’, ‘natural talent’ were words that were thrown around when they talked about my sister.

Mother couldn’t control what other people said but she developed her own ways to curb my growing competitiveness. She celebrated both our births even if it was only my sister’s birthday. As far as I can remember, there were always two birthday frocks, two birthday cakes and two birthday presents. This often led people to assume that we are twins.

In Mangalore where we went to Lady hill convent, an old lady would take tuitions for us after school. She was tall, pulled her grey hair into a bun, wore gold-rimmed glasses and was only seen in nightgowns at home. My mother and aunts wore the same –only they called them nighties or maxis.

This old lady was fair and had kind eyes. I don’t know if it’s because of her but I continued for a long time after that to believe that all Christians were fair and had kind eyes. She was soft-spoken but very stern. Like one of those people who are very nice to you but you don’t want to piss them off because their meanness is already implied in the way they have been kind to you.

Her home always smelled of meat and wood. And for a long time after that, I continued to believe that Christian homes always smelled of good food and nice furniture. My father had warned us to not accept food if offered because ‘they will give you dhana mamsa’ (cow meat)

This got me more curious. But she never offered us food. I never even stepped beyond the living room. Although I tried very hard to peek into the bedroom on various occasions — she would look at me quietly and I would go back to reading.

The table we all sat at was their dining table. It was faded brown and long. There were two long benches on either side for all of us. There were nine students and we all went to Ladyhill. I did a stupid thing here, like I have done stupid things everywhere else. We were writing our finals and our third standard timetable was out – I gave this to my tuition teacher. The next day, the timetable was cancelled and we were told to wait for the new one. My tuition teacher was anxious when I told her about this. She said to let her know when the new timetable is announced. I forgot about it but she called twice that week to find out. The third time she called; I felt bad so I made up a fake timetable and dictated it to her over the phone. I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps because I didn’t want her to be upset or because I was tired of saying no.

Next morning, things got very unpleasant. I was mugging multiplication table for twelve when Miss Rose, my class teacher dragged me by the ear to meet Madam Principal. Apparently they frown upon things like leaking fake timetables.

At tuition the same day, my teacher pretended like nothing had happened, like my parents weren’t called to be questioned, like I wasn’t hauled out of class and yelled at. I was determined to look angry – here I was trying to protect her happiness and she goes around calling the school to confirm the timetable I had given her.

I don’t know what happened to her after we left Mangalore for good. But everytime I think of her, I remember the smell of her home and her eyes. The skin around her eyes was loose and white and wrinkly. I would often wonder what it would be like to poke it. But I was so convinced that the skin would just stick to my finger, like hot wax.

The other tuition class I remember very well was in Belgaum. This one was a stone’s throw away from home and the lady here was rather old. She had a small head full of white hair and she had wise eyebrows that would disappear under the creases every now and then. I looked only at her eyebrows when she taught. I like to think all her wisdom came from the eyebrows.

She wore cotton nighties with lacework down the front. The home had red-oxide floors and we would sit in the veranda on a bamboo mat.  I had a spot I liked to sit on – it was in the corner, and a window opened right above my head. I had marked my corner on the mat – I would dig holes with my pen to open up the bamboo lining. I don’t think she noticed it and if she did, she never mentioned it. Her home had a musty -old lady smell to it. After a point, I couldn’t tell if it was her smell or the home’s. Either way it wasn’t a pleasant one. I would take a deep breath before I entered and would hold it in for as long as I could. And when I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I would exhale and take all the smell in one quick swoop.

Near the gate was a small pond with a moss green spread on top. My sister and I would sit here sometimes after tuitions. There were a couple of frogs with creepy eyes. Barring that, I didn’t see anybody else living with the old lady. I heard very often about a son who left her but I never saw him or her husband. She lived alone. Sometimes when we were leaving, I would turn back to see her standing by the gate, waving at us. I wondered what she would go back home to. She had no TV and nobody to talk to.

I think my father made us stop going to her tuition because he saw no improvement in our marks. He made mother go tell her we won’t be coming anymore. I felt a little bad but got over it quickly because mother decided she would teach us so we didn’t have to go to tuition anymore.

Much later when we moved to Bangalore and started our tuition, I found it strange to go to homes that didn’t have old ladies. The first one that I went to had a middle-aged lady and sometimes her husband and their daughters. The oldest one I saw very rarely. But from what I could gather, she had an interesting life. She had male friends who would drop her home and hang out later. This made my father be very cross with her.She went off to the US after a while.

H – The lady’s niece was my age. She had been living with them after her father passed away. She was a quiet girl who would walk to school and back. Her uniform was a brown skirt and a white shirt. Her hair was combed tightly into the neatest partition I have ever seen. She wore two ponytails and let them hang by the shoulders. From the edge of my terrace, I would watch her walk down the street in the evenings. She would walk with her head bent down, carrying a water bottle with a big white cap. And every day I saw her empty the bottle into a plant near the gate. When I started tuition, I noticed how quieter she seemed. They all spoke Marathi and I found myself growing amused with words like zhaale and haal. Often I would see H – all cried out and red-eyed. P, her cousin would say ‘She is missing her father’

The next home I went to was interesting. An old couple lived right behind our house with their two children. The boy was in senior year, degree and the girl had just started college. I don’t know how but my sister got out of tuitions here and it was only my brother and I. The lady taught us from 4:30 to 6:00. At 6:00, her husband would wake from his nap, sit in the hall, his legs folded up on the chair and ask for tea. Occasionally, my brother and I were given snacks.This home too, had a red oxide floor with green borders.

My first day in each of the tuition homes has been very scary. It took a while to get used to the people who lived in these homes, the mosaic floors, the red-oxide floors and the smells. The tuition homes also meant that the children who grew up here had to have been rank students. They were doing something right in these homes that I wasn’t doing in mine. They woke up at the right time, drank milk without throwing any down the sink, they did their homework at the same time every day, they went out to play at the same time every day. In so many ways, these homes reminded me of what a perfect student’s life must be like. It never occurred to me to look into my sister’s. I was fascinated with these homes just as much as I was afraid.

I couldn’t imagine living in these homes after 6:00 pm. It made me very depressed to look at red-oxide floors in the night. It is strange how I don’t remember the men in these tuition homes at all. I don’t remember what they looked like or what they said.

Stranger still is the fact that even after all these years, I have forgotten what the homes looked like but their smells have never left me.

Breathing in

I over think in ways that are always in circles– from point A to point B, going through the same details over and over again with different people. Remember when I was 16 and my mother made me hate myself for falling in love that early? There aren’t many languages free of ego that I can say this in, but she was right. Maybe the only thing she will ever be right about. It’s only now I can see how love cripples me more than anything. Even when I seem to have a fair idea about how it’s going to end; the restlessness is always gnawing, filling the chest with an incessant heaviness. I wonder if my chest was ever lighter, ever capable of deep breaths that are rare as yellow cars these days.

It’s like filling a balloon with water. You know there’s room for more water but for some reason the balloon will only take less than half of what it can, spilling out the rest. Where does the rest go? I think it floats above my lungs for a little while before disintegrating into itself.

Then I have to lunge across my desk, hands canoodling its edges while sitting on my chair; bend forward and stick my butt out while walking so I can inhale a long snake of air before it wriggles around my nose and refuses to go further down. So I eat pomegranate and almonds after slurping my way through rice and rasam these days.That’s my life now. Low Hemoglobin ante, thoo.

In other news, I wake up like an alarm clock these days. At 5:46 am, my ears grow sharp and my brain sends fan noises to whatever it is that I am dreaming about. I rarely feel the urge to slip my covers all the way up to my head these days, thanks to that godforsaken Europe trip; I am still somewhat beautifully hung over by it.

Speaking of which, I promise my next post is going to be about Europe. Just that it means I have to look at my own writing for the next couple of minutes, stew in its filth and its ugly fucking metaphors and emerge hours later, having accomplished nothing, cursing and sweating.

In other words, I take back my promise.

I am growing really fond of my home self these days.I like the slow train speed of Sundays mornings and the airport rush that follows after.I haven’t thought about competing with anybody for months now. My Jain College past has made sure that the only bitter enemy I need to worry about is me. Chopping carrots. Enough said.

My writing yawns at me so painfully that I have at least 7 miserable draft pieces saved in a folder I have ambitiously called ‘Writing’. Although where the writing is happening is a question that even my pillow is not going to answer. I have a gazillion assignments to read, my Sarah Waters to finish, two writing deadlines to meet, and all I can think of during my early morning wakefulness is whether I should go jogging or do yoga.

I tried both last Saturday. Best day ever.

I love this semester, though.The classes all have something to do with writing, every one of them. My reading hasn’t slipped back to its bookshelves either and the fact that I am also teaching Kannada this semester has made my Saturday mornings seriously endearing. I am also teaching Optional English this time so my dying poetry foundation app has found meaning in life. And so has my morning bathroom time. I sit on the commode and read a poem every day.

Don’t say thoo, it is very uplifting. I feel uplifted every morning.

It happened to me

When he told me to sit on his lap, I should have said no. There were empty seats in the van. I should have been clear about why I didn’t want to sit on his lap, especially today, of all days. Maybe this incident had to have happened just so I could learn how to say no. So I made my way over to my uncle and sat as lightly as I could on his lap. No amount of polite concerns for the health of his lap would have allowed him to let go of me. What’s worse than your family’s impoliteness is also a grand amount of politeness.

‘Could he have felt it?’ I wondered, through the 40 longest minutes of my life. I had no way of checking if I even needed to worry. At every tentative stop the van made, I grew hopeful of an excuse I could use to escape from him and his lap.

Nobody could have helped me. Not my mother, who sat in the corner of the bus, laughing at something dad was saying, not my sister who sat by the window, earphones plugged into her whole existence and definitely not me who was glued to her uncle’s lap and shivered everytime the vehicle ran over speed bumps.

Now I could feel it, the wetness, the thickness, the weird trickle between thighs, like urine dreaming its way out when you bed wet, you can feel it but are simply too paralyzed to stop it. I decided to sit mum and not do anything or say anything because I was sure the damage was done. There was no point in bringing everybody’s attention to the most embarrassing moment of my life, not prematurely. I wasn’t dreading it anymore because now all my attention was focused on delaying it. I wanted 40 more minutes, hell, I wanted the 40 minutes to not end, to never end. I wanted the daylight sucked from outside so he wouldn’t notice what had happened to his pants, on his lap. I wanted night, I wanted my mother, I wanted to lock myself somewhere and cry.

The van stopped eventually and I saw with wild fear, my mother, sister and cousins getting off the van, one by bloody one. My uncle had no way of getting up without budging me off his lap so I continued to sit until he summoned to get up.

As I stood up unhurriedly and scared, I turned to look at what I had left behind, and saw it. The most disgusting little three drops of bright red blood on my uncle’s pants. What followed must have been bad because I went temporarily deaf after a stupid boy cousin opened his mouth and screamed ‘Blood! Blood! Blood on uncle’s pants’.  As kind aunts shushed him to a full stop, I ran tearing out of the van and into the bathroom. When I came out, I had transformed into a firm believer of using 2 napkins on the first day of period.

Nothing here

I gruelingly remember my undergraduate years at Jain College. Blow after blow, bully after bully, fight after fight.  A lot of my time was invested in either escaping said bullies or trying to confront them in my head, making speeches. I made terrible friends, wasted all my time in a college that was as aimless as its students. I didn’t know what I wanted from my career. Too much time was spent worrying about potential love failure. Too much more time was wasted in romance that didn’t blossom when it had to.

Being in love can be very exhausting. At 16, the exhaustion seemed weightless.  Also, I was too young to notice that I was exhausted. All my decisions were based on him.  Where we would eat, where we would go for the vacation, where we would make out next, which movie to watch, what lies should I tell at home, what excuses aren’t already taken. Not far behind was also the lurking, overwhelming sense of whether or not all of this was worth it.

I hate to admit, but maybe falling in love at 16 wasn’t really an achievement as I hoped it would be. I must be the bigger person here and also say that mother was probably right. I can never be so sure about this because back then, this wasn’t a house that encouraged a career in the humanities. Marriage proposals from men two decades older than me were considered and pursued with much enthusiasm just because I was anyway a B.A English student.

But my misdirected rage against them was no excuse for having exploited 3 prime years of my life, chasing nothing, but they didn’t seem like nothings then. They were what caused me dark circles – prolonged wait and hope for calls that never came, for text messages that were never returned, for love that remained unrequited long after I was his, and he, mine.

I don’t know how we’ve made it this far; maybe because for a good seven years of my life I gave it all of myself.  With every promise, every wound, every funny story, every fight, every touch. I did write now and then but they were all a bunch of things I could never tell him out loud. Like how much I hurt because of the sudden intense moments of love I often felt.

It doesn’t hurt now because the pain is all too familiar. The love remains and so do struggles of memory and hurt and fear.  I pass by that college every day on my way to work. On bad days, I cringe when I pass by those demon gates, on better days I laugh and feel secretly relieved about the disconnection I have managed with the college and its people.

It’s not as if I have outgrown the girl I was behind those gates. I still run after love in more or less the same ways. Except that my capacity for exhaustion seems to have plummeted down to obscene levels.

Nabokov

And then there are days when you read a short story by Nabokov and wonder why you haven’t yet read just about everything this man has written so far. It is my lightest day at work, Wednesday. Around 9 in the morning I click open a document called ‘Signs and symbols’, I read it and suddenly it is very clear to me that my day is not going to be ordinary. I smiled sheepishly to myself after I decided to take it to class. It wasn’t an easy choice. I had to brave terrible flashbacks about taking a piece that I really liked to a class, only to have the monsters butcher it in front my eyes while I look at them with menace and helplessness.

But I took it to class and had fun talking about the piece and the man. I was pleased to see that they were just as thrilled and confused as I had been. We talked about the story, the details and the sheer pleasure that is his narrative. He takes seemingly ordinary things in the world and weaves magic around them. It is not what he writes about as much as it is about the amount of detail he gives them, like they are his to write about. By evening I was so much in love with him and the world around me that it tired me to be so happy for so long. It wasn’t familiar.

The day continued to surprise me because I was on a Nabokov spree. After crying over ‘Signs and Symbols’, I read ‘Terror’ and ‘Razor’.

Some lines from the ‘Razor’ I wish I had the head to think of and write about:

‘One very hot, bluish summer morning, taking advantage of the nearly total absence of customers during those workaday hours, both of Ivanov’s colleagues took an hour off. Their employer, dying from the heat and from long-ripening desire, had silently escorted the pale, unresisting little manicurist to a back room. Left alone in the sun-drenched shop, Ivanov glanced through one newspaper, then lit a cigarette and, all in white, stepped outside the doorway and started watching the passersby.

People flashed past, accompanied by their blue shadows, which broke over the edge of the sidewalk and glided fearlessly underneath the glittering wheels of cars that left ribbonlike imprints on the heat-softened asphalt, resembling the ornate lacework of snakes’.

I have seen shadows, I am familiar with the concept, I am quite sure. I just never would have looked at one ‘gliding fearlessly’ even though that is what shadows do all the time. It’s as though he breathes life into things that I have seen before but will only notice after he writes about it. How much must this man have truly lived his life, in moments and in details, to write about it just the way they appear to us?

Furthermore –

‘Then the following happened. The little eyes darted about, then suddenly shut tight, eyelids compressed like those of the savage who thought closing his eyes made him invisible’

Note here – he isn’t saying ‘a’ savage. He doesn’t know this savage. It’s the savage we are all only familiar with through pictures and stories. But look how Nabokov remembers the savage and does not forget the eyes and what they could mean when they are shut.

I read ‘Terror’ at The Parisian café amidst conversations about petrol prices and Sonia Gandhi and the BJP. I was amused at the spectacle that was before me but soon, I was reading these lines and Nabokov took me in his palm and placed me in front of this:

‘During the time I had been deep at work, I had grown disacquainted with myself, a sensation akin to what one may experience when meeting a close friend after years of separation: for a few empty, lucid, but numb moments you see him in an entirely different light even though you realize that the frost of this mysterious anaesthesia will presently wear off, and the person you are looking at will revive, glow with warmth, resume his old place, becoming again so familiar that no effort of the will could possibly make you recapture that fleeting sensation of estrangedness.

Yet next morning, while shaving, it would never occur to me to question the reality of my image’.

I’m not done yet.

‘I looked at houses and they had lost their usual meaning – that is, all that we think when looking at a house: a certain architectural style, the sort of rooms inside, ugly house, comfortable house- all this had evaporated, leaving nothing but an absurd shell, the same way an absurd sound is left after one has repeated sufficiently long the commonest word without heeding its meaning: house, howss, whowss. It was the same with trees, the same with people’.

Long before Ted Mosby finds the word ‘bowl’ absurd in ‘How I met your mother’, I discovered the numbness that such absurdity leaves one with long after the meaning has left the word. I did that with ‘pants’ and ‘green’. But to take a concept that is familiar to words and meaning and to be able to see the same familiarity with vision and thought is genius!

This craze for Nabokov is animated in part by my inability to write the way he does and to see the world in the way he does and also, in part, by hope that someday somebody sitting and smoking at a café will discover me the way I discovered Nabokov.

I have decided to read a bit of Nabokov everyday simply because the world seems lovable and liveable after a short story by Nabokov. And this has absolutely nothing to do with the love for humanity, which I think; fortunately, Nabokov doesn’t give a damn about. But just the exuberance of living amidst details and not noticing them until somebody holds your face gently with the roughest hands and steers it towards these details, beckoning you to look at them and listen to them and live in them.