My invincible summer

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It started with 2015’s resolution that I would not have a tepid life. Big words. So, in middle of the year, I elaborately planned the trek to Sandakphu-the flight tickets, the train tickets, the trek itself. Ekla Chalo Re. December came early, 2015 whooshing past faster than I could fathom and I found myself at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station on a Sunday morning. Already way out of my comfort zone, I did another uncomfortable thing. I called a woman’s number I had noted down from the trekker’s list to ask her where she was. Introductions check.  Shaking hands check. Commenting on our matching purple bomber jackets check.  We were set.

The journey began on a rickety Tata Sumo blaring 90’s Kumar Sanu songs. To keep the conversation going when I asked why trekking, one trek veteran said, “Trek life theek karne ke liye”. I was sure that the trek wouldn’t fix anything, I would go back to the same place, take the same route to office, stoically bear all the mindless drudgeries, buy groceries at the same shop, watch re runs of the same YouTube videos and go to sleep. But now, even if for a few days, I would live a little more, be more present, not wishing I was somewhere else.

December has always been my month of nostalgia. This winter reminded me of the one exactly a decade ago, solving problems on maxima and minima in the glare of a room heater as my hands froze. I was unsure then and I am unsure now. I have moved a lifetime and the next decade beckons. Of course there is more to life than running away to the hills; there is no purpose to this restlessness. Happiness would be real only when shared. So,  I keep wandering trying to solve the puzzle called ‘Home’.

Travelling through Sukna, the cantonment area reminded me of Jabalpur. The stately military trucks with Vehicle Factory Jabalpur insignia looked comfortingly familiar.  Traversing through tea estates, I noticed the dusty and unkempt rail line to Darjeeling. Mirik glistened like Mussorie from afar and I missed home. I crossed towns from pages of Feluda and other Satyajit Ray stories- Kurseong, Sonada, Jalapahar, Ghoom, Lepchaghat, Mayenbhanj and entered the heart of Gorkha Land.

I had given my heart to the hills of Garhwal a decade ago. So my wonder at frosted meadows in Tumling, walking through snow covered pathways at Singalila National Park, the frozen lake at Kalpokhri , poking my trekking pole at frozen streams on the way seemed like acts of unfaithfulness to the mountains beyond our home in Dehradun. I didn’t understand it then that I had come searching for parts of my adolescence buried in the deep recesses of memories. All these years, I had forgotten that a glimpse of Nanda Devi on a moonlit night at Badrinath had saved me.  So I came back to the Himalayas, to pay obeisance, to let her know that I remembered, that I was grateful and I trusted her to make things all right again.

The sky was full of all the stars at Tumling. I could see outlines of various galaxies before my face almost froze from being in the open. My first glimpse of Kanchenjunga was at night, how bright it shone in the starlit sky! Then Kanchenjunga glowed like gold in the morning light. Kanchenjunga became my constant companion while I walked through meadows of wild horses and yaks. Prayer flags whirred across surreal landscapes- in impossible to reach crevices, atop hills, on Tibetan gompas and across the frozen Kalpokhri Lake.  I witnessed full moon on the way to Moley, the sky shone in surreal shades of blue, pink and purple. Walking those impossible two scores, with an inexplicable sense of déjà vu, I forgot to take pictures of the frozen stream by which wild mules grazed. Whenever you doubt presence of God, I advise a trip to the Himalayas!

Exchanging band aids and painkillers, I made friends who will last longer than the trek. Huddled together around an angeethi, people exchanged life stories. Too much familiarity in too little time is scary, the city slept and people bonded over their unrequited loves and uncaring beloveds. Walking together, we talked about topology and how bottled dopamine would be the solution to all our problems.

I walked above clouds. On vast stretches when I walked alone with only the sound of my heaving breath for company, I listened to my body. I discovered new things about me. I know now that I can endure. I tested my limits and know that my capacity is infinite. I was a better version of myself. I was more patient, smiled easily and spoke softly. One with the stars, I embraced the uncertainty the New Year would bring. I surrendered my city bred instant gratification seeking soul to the vagaries of nature and reveled in my powerlessness. Disconnected from the world, I thought I would connect with myself but here something more profound was going on. For once, I did not have to practice mindfulness, I was already present. Only that moment mattered. I walked like a Zen master, the mountains bringing out the best in me.

I was full of gratitude- for piping hot food after a long day of relentless walking, warm water to drink and wash face. Each day after the trek, I luxuriated in my tiredness, resting my feet on the hot water bag. Tired to the bones, I was thankful for an extra helping of soup, a glass of bournvita.

My Christmas morning was spent alone in contemplation, warming my frozen fingers by the kitchen fire. Walking through the jungle, I marveled at the snowflakes resting on my gloves. I will always remember the neverland that Gorkhay village was, with its numerous chickens, fluffy cats, friendly pahari dogs, funny looking goats, mules which looked like fine bred horses and beautiful children with cheeks worthy of biting into.

The living mountain gives lessons I learnt that things happen when you are ready. There is no need to rush. I couldn’t have managed the Kedarkanta trek last December or the Roopkund trek in June from Delhi. It had to be Sandakphu and from Bangalore. We can only look backwards and marvel at how things fall in place. So, I focus on now. The future can take care of itself.  I don’t need a trekking pole to find my balance; I know things will fall in place sooner than later.

Throughout the trek, I kept on saying Edmund Hillary’s quote like an incantation, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. So, here I am – a little sun burnt, a little scruffy on the edges but a little wiser with the realisation that I am immensely capable, my own hero and star.  Indeed in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

Where is home?

Home is not where you are from, it is where you belong. Some of us travel the world to find it; others find it in a person.
Beau Taplin

I inherited not belonging from Baba. Even after thirty years of traversing through an unfamiliar country, mastering unfamiliar tongues, perhaps he still doesn’t belong where he thought he would. I haven’t lived anywhere for four years continuously since I was twelve. I met Ma in seven different places in the last one and half years.  Home has ceased to be a place long back. For now, I dodge questions of home. I leave the answer blank; give vague responses, pretend that I didn’t understand the question. Still, it doesn’t hurt sometimes to remember where you came from.

There are some homes I never knew like the house with five cats in Khamaria. I felt acute sense of helplessness when I had to ask the security where my parents lived.  There was another, with Gulmohar tree at the entrance. I couldn’t get enough of counting parakeets from the verandah there. A home in Chennai witnessed my beautifully breaking down at the dining table. Sitting at the long verandah of another home, I discussed politics with Ma. With some homes like the one at the hill, I have unfinished business, not having said a proper good bye. The home in Calcutta was not the same when I went back eagerly only to run away in less than a year. About the homes in Medak, I am afraid to speak, lest I reveal too much about me. Medak is sacred. Medak is personal. My longing for Medak is not to be shared. I ache for homes I left behind and yet I do not wish to go back to them, the memories playing dirty tricks all the time. I am at home in Medak, Calcutta, Chennai, Dehradun, Jabalpur, Kharagpur, Delhi and Bangalore yet I don’t belong anywhere.

Home has no name now.  Home is just where I come back deliriously happy thinking what to cook. Home is where I hang my Christmas decorations and light diyas on Diwali, draw alpana on Lokkhi Puja. At home, I treat myself to sugary black tea, cheesy omelettes and sometimes when I am in the mood to kalakand, payesh and anjeer ka halwa.  I fall into easy banter with the neighbourhood kirana shop owner’s daughter, pet the beauty parlour lady’s cat and refuse to take toffee as change at the Nandini milk depot. At home, I learnt how to peel muskmelon, make whisky toddy, hot chocolate rum and Ghee!  I royally messed up trying to bake bread in my ramshackle pressure cooker. My pound cake was a disaster of epic proportions.

Home is where no one is watching. Home is sometimes too quiet for comfort, the silence brings out the beast in me. Sometimes, when alone in the room, I keep humming just to keep myself from thinking.

To walk through life without being haunted by past memories is impossible. I can’t forget how the night sky looked from RLB Hall’s terrace or how the air felt different as soon I entered the campus in Chennai or perhaps how Mussorie shimmered at night. It takes a toll, carrying so many homes within me.  So for now, home is where I decide to sit, feast on my life. My acceptance is a small quiet room on the terrace where I let all the problems fester. Wrapping myself in the comfort of my pillow, I sleep dreamlessly.

At home, I give up trying to make sense of the accumulated loss, the wrongdoings, the ‘could have been’ and ‘should have been’ and say a prayer of heartfelt gratitude. A thank you for the food in the fridge, the winter clothes in the suitcase, good internet connection, the green tomatoes in a pot on the terrace, the view of the moon from my bed on a full moon night. With a prayer to live a little more every day, I pick my battles.

As I grow old, I am dangerously turning like Ma. In autumn, I gathered Sheuli flowers and got excited at the sight of lau creepers just like her. At home, I have a homemaker’s possessiveness- mindless pride of red pressure cooker and the fridge with the magnets. I laze around mostly- ignoring the fan and the fridge that needs cleaning, the bathroom floors that needs mopping and the closet that needs rearranging. I notice the squirrels that gather on the terrace, nibbling leftovers from trash. Pigeons coo on the window sill at morning. The landlady’s dog wags its tail and licks my feet. Chickens in the coop on the terrace makes me think of giving up eating non vegetarian food altogether. It’s harder to make yourself into a noun in the span of a day. Days are about verbs. Mundane things. Not many stories worth telling. Not many moments I remember. At home, days just pass by.

I ache to belong to places and finally realise that it is always people who make us belong. Home is just people now. I understood it late so I owe it to myself to continue not to settle till a person feels like home. After years of being vagabond, I too will have a home.

Dateless in Delhi

There is very little in common between Bangalore and Delhi. Delhi is on your face, the brat you don’t want to mess with while Bangalore is the refined, unassuming son of a neighbor you never noticed. If Delhi is ‘Chaar bottle vodka’ then Bangalore is Jonnie Walker on the rocks, just the way you like. If Delhi is Yo Yo Honey Singh, Bangalore is Anupam Roy singing his Bangalore Ballad before he became famous. The swag of Def Col was never for me while leafy Defence Colony is already home. Yet, sitting in my room on the roof, I long for the city I didn’t think twice before leaving so abruptly.

I was never an outsider in Delhi. Delhi was always mine.  I found my Delhi in the cry of Choley Kulche waala at dusk, beating his ladle against the brass handi. I found Delhi in the roads that oozed power- Lodhi, Safdarjung and Aurangzeb, in funny sounding localities- Adchini and Ghitorni and in abbreviations- HKV, Def Col, GK2. I found my Delhi tucked away playing Vishnusahatranamam Strotram in R.K. Puram temple and in tranquility of Ram Krishna Mission on RK Ashram Marg.

Delhi is Shakarkand made just right in the back alleys of Bhogal in winter evenings. Delhi is Rewri , groundnut chikki and popcorn sold before Lohri. Delhi is divine Jalebis dripping in Ghee from that ancient shop in Chandni Chowk. Delhi is familiarity of litti chokha sellers of Baba Kharak Singh Marg. Delhi is the frenzy to buy big boxes of dry fruits in red and silver during Diwali.

Delhi is loud Punjabi music emanating from cars stuck in narrow lanes of Shahpur Jat. Delhi is Bangaliana of CR Park where I felt more of an outsider having made the very Punjabi Lajpat Nagar my home. Delhi is the hustler selling fake Ray Ban glasses and smuggled chapsticks at Sarojini. Delhi is the frenzy for buying Nehru jackets at Khadi Gram Udyog, Connaught Place. Delhi is the swag of a lawyer who flashes his Bar Council ID at the traffic police. Delhi is swords wielded by Sardars in middle of the road on lazy afternoons. Delhi is also gun shots or sound of crackers in Bhogal. I am not sure! Delhi is eye shattering bling of the wedding season, grown up women dressed as Cinderellas. Delhi is season’s Honey Singh songs playing on full blast at the neighbourhood DJ Party. Delhi is also Jazz concerts at Nehru Park where Audis and Jaguars jostle for parking.

Delhi is cry of the sabjiwalla selling sarson, palak, bathua and mooli . Delhi is the neighbourhood dairy selling the best paneer and fresh cream. Delhi is the declaration- ‘Don’t park here, tires would be deflated’ and ‘Jat boyz rulzzz’. Delhi is unobtrusive bellowing of gurbani every morning. Delhi is all night long jagratas where fat aunties blare tunelessly on microphones.

Delhi is an invincible summer that can’t be tamed by chaach from Mother Dairy and endless glasses of ice tea. Delhi is also earthen ‘pyaus ’covered with a red cloth offering respite. Delhi is a brutal, cold winter night when no matter what you do, your feet don’t warm up! Delhi is also beautiful winter mornings at Jangpura where sunlight streams through leaves.

Delhi is earthiness of May Day café. Delhi is a winter afternoon spent at Café Lota where suited lawyers don’t receive any special treatment. Delhi is pretentiousness of Cha Bar at Oxford Bookstore. Delhi is almost forgotten Midlands bookshop tucked away in a corner amidst the glitter of South Extension.

Delhi is a woman on yellow line who never fails to make me self conscious, that I should dress better, stop wearing those sandals and maybe  comb my hair !Delhi is also a lone woman sitting on grass, reading her dog eared copy of Harry Potter at Lodhi Garden unaware of the world passing by. Delhi is hipster crowd of HKV women wearing crop tops and high heels. My Delhi is a lawyer in crushed white shirt after a long grueling day at the court, who while carrying a bag of vegetables, hums a tune to himself. Delhi is also bright eyed salwar kameez wearing school kids of Shadi Khanpur and Kotla Mubarakpur.

Delhi is vast ocean of humanity at Rajiv Chowk and the relief of finding familiar faces near Nirula’s. Delhi is smell of baked pieces of magic from Wengers and that Elixir from Keventers.  Delhi is Kabutar Baazi on Sunday mornings overlooking Jama Masjid. Delhi is Hanuman ji of Jhandewalan, proud and standing tall. Delhi is the knot in my stomach at ISBT even when I had three male friends accompanying me.

I once had an indelible mark on my finger to prove that Delhi was mine. With that mark long gone, now I carry my Delhi with me.

28

You are 27 or 28 right? It is very tough to live at that age. When nothing is sure. I have sympathy with you.

Haruki Murakami

Twenty eight is not tough. After years of weariness with same boring flaws and anxieties that gnawed me for as long as I can remember, I made peace. This is it. This is the best that could be. The moment I stopped wrestling with the universe, I was rewarded. I felt welcome in a new city with a familiar smile, I found a room on the roof by chance, it never started raining before I reached home, the landlady’s dog became my friend, I found a kind auto driver who asked me how I was managing in a new city, the not so long journey on a hot summer afternoon carrying my life’s possessions was made easy with shared anecdotes, a chance ride on the same train from a nondescript town for few more hours of conversation-all are gifts. For years, I meticulously planned and then spent time moping tears when they went awry-the job that didn’t materialize, the fellowship that never fell through, the grand plans of moving seven seas and thirteen rivers away to escape, the trip that I never took even though I could, the experiments that never showed results in a laboratory two hour train ride away from home, a relationship that took a heavy toll on an unworldly twenty one year old, a reluctantly chosen career path just to run away from the mountains that seemed to close in on me, trying to make sense of statics and dynamics, vectors and scalars, spatial arrangements of molecules when I should’ve been reading aloud poetry by Dushyant Kumar and Dinkar!

It has not been easy, to let go, to not have the faintest inkling of what’s next. When I wasn’t looking, I found a new escape where the language is comfortingly familiar, where women sell malli puvu and kanakamram at street corners and freshly washed streets are adorned with kollam which I am careful not to step on in the morning. The avenue leading up to my room on the roof is lined with Gulmohar and Jacarandas. Pudina, tulsi and curry leaves on the terrace listen to my off key renditions of ‘Yellow’. When I wasn’t looking, I found a distraction over date and cheeku smoothie and little too much old fashioned- ephemeral encounters that I am grateful for, not mistaking to read too much in to them. When I wasn’t looking, I stumbled into Julia’s kitchen with six burner stoves and skillet to cook filet mignon. When I wasn’t looking, I fell for the familiar mannerisms and was surprisingly relieved when the affections were not returned. When I wasn’t looking, I found succor in that Neverland hidden in the mountains, strewn with pine cones. When I wasn’t looking, I found solace in clichéd Tagore, ‘Majhe majhe tobo dekha pai, chiro din keno paai na’. When I wasn’t looking I grew up from the gawky child-woman to someone who gets things done- the gas connection, the electricity bill, the rent on time,  the countless airline, train and bus tickets, the trip itineraries that couldn’t be better, the timely phone calls, the perfect coffee cake and malai methi paneer. When I wasn’t looking, the frail shoulders became stronger than I ever imagined, not afraid to have the last word, always the chin up.

Twenty eight is solid. I am past the 27 Club; there is nothing to fear anymore. I pulled out the lone grey hair defiantly standing out, baked my own birthday cake, slept alone on a fluffy bed surrounded by way too many pillows, played Kanye West on full blast when the silence got little too deafening, ate meals and drank coffee not hiding under a book or smart phone, smiled at strangers, winked at all the kids, unashamedly eyed the men who read Gore Vidal and Percy Jackson at airports and metro stations, nursed a stiff drink on a very cold Delhi winter night without drowning in sorrows-real and imagined.

Twenty eight is like deep exhalation after holding my breath for years, holding on to blame games I played endlessly in my mind. Now I know that every little thing counts- the kindnesses, the words that should’ve been said when there was time, the untimely cruel and unnecessary laugh, every denial and evasion. Knowing that no one will have my back, I tread softly, forgive easily, and judge a little less as I would never walk a mile in their shoes.

Eighteen till I die never made sense, but twenty eight could be permanent. As they say in my favourite village, twenty eight is peace.

No names, please.

Let us give it no name please as I am not sure. Meanwhile, for sake of ease let’s call it love. When I was nine, love wore the whitest PT whites. Now he plays ultimate sport and has legs like Rafael Nadal. Yes, I sometimes snoop on people on Facebook when I am bored! Love wore ‘Live In’ trousers to school and my eyes searched only for him during Morning Prayers. I worried about my uncombed hair whenever I crossed his department building because Love looked like Jesus Christ, played in the Church choir and did not know that I exist. Love exchanged terms of endearment in jest. Love wanted to know all about me, forgetting that we are like onions; there is always another layer to peel. To the love I couldn’t return, I had a halo around. Love had beautiful long fingers and that’s all I noticed. I couldn’t bear that I was love’s safety school. Love typed lik dis, I cringed but still loved. Love looked at me every time he laughed to whether I laughed too. Love found me in my one midnight rant, in one emphatic nod, in some long forgotten anecdote. Love flattered and I swooned but in the end words can do only so much.

Once upon a time love was all consuming, sapping away lifeblood.  Love gave me a box full of darkness, I didn’t realize back then that it was a gift too. How impossible were things that he asked of me. Love was joy and then was not.

Besotted, it intrigued me that love found me interesting. Love looked at me with prying, insistent, probing eyes. Love wondered if I deserved more than he could give. I in turn claimed the honesty he couldn’t provide. Love never showed too much and then didn’t show at all. The three words made him recoil. I held things inside for so long that when said, it sounded rusted and insincere. Love was fleeting when all I looked for was permanence.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to fall in love but I couldn’t stop falling in hope. I fell in love with the silliest aspects of your being. You would have dismissed me as a weirdo if you knew how much I noticed. Love allowed me to look beyond your current unsure self, to see the potential which even you were scared to say exist.  I looked for every glint of goodness that was possible- sloshing, twisting, and turning back and forth in my mind until everything that was black, white or grey fell away leaving behind only stardust. For you, I would have forsaken all- slept on a board and washed dishes. If only. I prided myself on my intuition but when it came to you, I was unable to distinguish politeness from affection.

I fall in and out of love more easily than I care to admit. Some loves last an instant, some only for a season but that doesn’t mean I loved less.  I have forgotten names and faces of some and for some loves, the half-life is forever.

I continue to love, the hardest choice possible where I do not understand it in its entirety. Love made me kinder, calmer, and gentler. Love made me come out of the shell for once. Love made me vulnerable, breaking down fortress of ‘I don’t give a damn’.

I am scared to use the word ‘Love’ but I know that Love is important as it breaks down the delusion that I am enough. Love is important because as I grow older, I count on so few people to go all the way with me. Love is important because I too need a witness.

Love will wait outside parlour in the car while I get my eyebrows done as I would never learn to drive. Love will be called by the passel of kids at night when they would need to go to bathroom because I would continue sleeping. I would book and plan all our trips as I am too much of a control freak when it comes to that. Wearing your mother’s silks with jasmine in my hair, I would stand behind while you soak the limelight. Love will understand that I am neurotic and cranky most of the times. Love will know that I might not have my career together anytime soon and sometimes I talk way too loudly. Love won’t make fun of me for crying while watching movies.  With you, for once I will feel rooted, have a home. Love will have my back. Always.

Love goes way beyond, so much so that that physical presence ceases to be of importance. I am not even sure if having you would make me happy but in that one moment between yes and no, I imagined infinite.

I marvel how easily I fall into the stereotype. I plant my garden; decorate my home instead of waiting for you to bring daisies. Love you should know, after all these years of being afraid, I am ready. I am scared to promise more. All I can say is that I do not need to know all the exits anymore.

I drink. I burn. I wait. And sometimes, I tell a story.

Hiareth

I am homesick for a home to which I can’t return, a home that maybe never was. Home was a sprawling kitchen garden where I measured myself against the jackfruit tree and picked sheuli flowers for Ma’s puja. Home was lanes of Belvedre Estate where I cycled amongst trees which witnessed Warren Hastings duel for love. Home was sound of Dulhani gushing past in mad rainy months. Home was Shivalik overlooking the terrace that enclosed me in its arm in a warm hug that is reserved for weary travelers after a long journey. Home was cool floor of my hostel room, sprawled where I finished reading Atlas Shrugged and liked it. In my defence, I was a foolish teenager then. Home was a huge verandah in Avadi hidden by thick mango and cheeku trees which couldn’t be penetrated by harsh Chennai sun. Home was the sight of Insti building from afar- every single time! Home was a little room in a corner in Rani Lakshmi Bai Hall where I drank Darjeeling and marveled at how beautiful Gnan Ghosh looked lighted up at night. Home was that narrow bed where I listened to ‘Wish you were here’ on a loop while the lull of ancient trams put me to sleep. Home was a room without windows where I made peace and stopped trying to wrestle with the universe. Home now is a room full of sky brightened by diwali lights. Here, I watch fireworks in the night sky from my bed. Prayer flags and paper lanterns whisper to the wind every time the noisy whirring ceiling fan gives them a little nudge.

I gather knick knacks- pine cones from Binsar and Fagu, a paper weight from Delwara, a lamp from Nathdwara, Christmas decorations from Bombay to adorn my room. I spend hours on deciding the right bookcase with my books gathering dust at the corner. Unable to recreate Ma’s tastes, I build my own repotaire – Potato Leek Soup, Spinach soup with lentils, Carrot Soup with chicken stalk and ginger. I wonder if I will ever cook pui datar chorchori, chalkumror chechki, mochar ghonto or macher matha diye moonger dal. I make do with alu’r bora and arhar er dal which on days when I am lucky taste faintly like Ma and Baba’s. Most of the time I am just trying to get by in the adult world and then there are in betweens- where my palak panner looks and tastes better than Ma’s.

I was foolish not to understand that home is just an idea which I will continue building painstakingly piece by piece all my life like a work of art in progress. Home is where I won’t have to pretend that work will set me free and wear my pile of failures like a badge of honour without a hint of pretension that I have things under control. Even an errant cat can come and unsettle the delicate balance on which everything hangs. Home is where I am shielded from that bottomless feeling of emptiness a house packed in packing boxes ready for shipping in truck brings. It led to a lifetime of anxiety- what if the truck gets lost in the jungles of Satpura?  What if I never see my bags after I’ve checked in at the Airport? I am extra cautious now, say a small prayer, tie a ribbon. I stare intently at the baggage carousel and imagine the worst. Uprooted so many times, I have carved my name in every place that mattered.  Home is where I plan to nurse hot toddy in winter, re reading my favorite Mantos. Home is where I make my own rituals- alpana on diwali, Lokkhi and Kali can visit together. Home is where I look up at the ceiling, ignore the fan blades that need cleaning, breathe in deeply and remind myself not to worry because all is exactly as it was meant to be- terrifying, unfair and heaving. Home is a promise of deliverance and I wait.

I do not have lofty ideas anymore. Half a decade ago, home was an old British bungalow in the hills with its four poster beds where a kind gentleman would leave his books by Jim Corbett for me. Now home could be that small hut on the edge of the road on the hill overlooking the cabbage and pumpkin patches. I have the mountains in my blood and now there is no escape.  I could build canals to water the banana plants and in the evenings sit near the stream and hum to myself. Home would be where neighbourhood kids would wave me in recognition and smile their toothless grins as I would be their storyteller, reliving the magical world created by Ray family, Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carrol. Home would be smell of freshly baked bread. Home would be where I would build a bonfire and have ‘how-far-my-orange-pip-land-contests’ in winters. Home would be a wall to wall bookshelf stacked with overflowing books like the iron lady’s house.

Home is where I would find what I seek for it’s here that things we lose find a way of coming back to us in the end.

Decennium

 

Ten years ago I fervently hoped that the shop owner of Natraj bookstore on Rajpur Road would let me work as a shop assistant there. I would never know for I never asked him. Charmed by his salt and pepper hair, I only wished Ma would leave me there while she bought sweets at Ganesh’s.  Those were the days when Irodov exasperated me and I sought solace in Harry Potter. The snow covered peaks of Mussorie visible from our terrace stirred no emotion other than a strong urge to flee. I have been running away ever since and now it’s already a decade.

Running away is not an option anymore. I have finally realized that it’s a bloody marathon and the second wind might be just around the corner. It’s not a hundred meter dash but a cross country across mountains, valleys and deserts. I waited patiently for being ready, biding my time, stretching and flexing at the sidelines but I would never be ready. It is always going to be like my first dive in the Medak swimming pool, gasping for air. I tried finding escapes all this while, searching for softer landings and cheat codes but striving to find meaning in this jamboree is a lost cause.  Now I concentrate on getting the halo dirty.

A sense of calmness has engulfed me and I refuse to be rushed into anything.  With the courage to listen to the voice that refuses to quieten, I am pleasantly surprised that I always had the answers. I am more comfortable with who I am and I hope that it shows. I am able to confront my demons head on and quite content to leave them out to dry for everyone to see. I realized that reaching a state of grace no matter what the circumstances is an end in itself and that’s all I strive for now.

It is already September and I am tired of being brave. Constantly blaming myself for not having enough courage, at last I realized that courage is just another muscle which needs to be exercised. Now that I know the secret, I take a deep breath and a leap every time. The beauty lies in that fact that I will always need a little more courage.

It’s a decade since I am an adult but feel like one only now.  There is no one coming along to fix things. There is no promise at the end of the road and when works needs to be done, you better not put your trust in a prince charming, always route for the witch. As I strain to look for signs, I tell myself this is enough. My quintessential future self is never going to show up. I will always remain the gawky out of place kid from seventh grade in the Calcutta school shoved into glare of life when it was too late to realize that already the second act was going on.

Memory slowly eliminates the bad from the decade and magnifies the good. It’s soothing to know that I am not as unique as I pretended. I try to turn my little inconsequential personal tragedies to art in vain while so many have made it into poetry and so much better. This is nodul tollens, but when was it supposed to make sense anyway?

At an apple orchard in Harsil, I told myself that I was too young to imagine death. A decade later, at an apple orchard in a nondescript village near Fagu, I smiled thinking if this isn’t nice then what is? Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, there is one thing for certain. I won’t spend the next decade making amends.

Letter to my daughter

Inspired by Maya Angelou, Ben Okri and Sarah Kay

I wouldn’t name you after the river that bound Ma Baba together even before they met. Bunu says girls named after rivers have a lot to cry about. You girl would have a glorious laugh,unabashed in nonchalance.

I will build you a home which you would be able to carry around wherever you go, lingering just below your skin. You’ll never be a wanderer like me. We are all refugees from our childhood trying to recreate in bits and pieces all through our lives. You wouldn’t have to search hard to reclaim parts as I would save your Lego empires, mud creations, water colour experiments and wax crayon works with the precision of curators of the best museums. Your paintings wouldn’t just ceremoniously adorn the refrigerator, I’ll frame them all.

I will leave you at art galleries to let the colours seep deep in your marrow and take you to music recitals till they become part of your sinew.I wouldn’t buy you a Barbie doll; you’ll have a ‘buchi putul’ whose hair you would be able to braid in pleats like Rapunzel’s. I wouldn’t read you fairy tales where princesses wait for a prince charming, instead,I would read you stories of man eaters of Kumaon, Pagla Dashu and Bilbo Baggins and tell you that you could be all of them and more. You could be Bob in Bob the Builder and Tintin in Tintin’s adventures. Who would stop you from becoming Sherlock Holmes?Why become Olive Oyl when you could be Popeye himself? And yes, you could be Cinderella too.

I’ll paint the solar system on the back of your hand so that you can’t say, “Oh I know that like the back of my hand”. The universe doesn’t owe it to you, so don’t try to wrestle with the universe. But then don’t forget that you are made of stardust.

When some unsuspecting boy falls for your toothy grin, don’t shy away from giving him your all or maybe he wouldn’t notice your toothy grin at all when you wished he did. If that’s the case, remember that there is always ice-cream. There is no heartbreak a big tub of ice cream can’t mend. Then we would sing along loud and dance to Tammi Terrel’s ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough’ and things wouldn’t seem so bad anymore.Sweetheart, never give up on love.There are all kinds of love in the universe but never the same love twice. I am not saying that, Fitzgerald said so. Yes, you would have to read Fitzgerald too.

Don’t have your nose up in the air. After all these years, I realized that trick doesn’t work. You don’t need to be so defensive.Be permeable, not malleable and ductile. When your eyes twinkle at the sight of squirrels skittering about or when you get scared that the pigeons might attack you, say thank you for finding pleasures in small things. You better do because I won’t buy you baubles anyway.  More than beauty, more than intelligence,you will have courage. You will be brave, little one. Our resident cockroach annihilator and when the need arises, you will move with grace, sometimes like water, sometimes like fire but always like the earth.

You’ll wear flowers in your hair. I’ll weave malli puvu in your braid and crown you with Greek laurel wreaths.All I wish for you is that you always stay innocent and shy as magnolias and look bright and cheerful and be full of naïve hope and optimism like  sunflower because when day to day living wears me out, your gurgling laughter would balm me.

When the ways of the world grind you down, remember to be kind to yourself. Give yourself second chances as broken things can be mended with gold and then they look more beautiful because thosescars.

When I finally dare to have you, I wouldn’t name you after the river that means so much to Ma and Baba. I’ll name you Sukoon, for you will bring peace.

27 Club

Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse. The 27 Club. They all achieved immortality by dying by 27. At 27 they had it all- fame, adulation, family, children, money. Yet it was not enough.  I am almost there. I used to think I would’ve, pardon my language, got my shit together by this time but that’s far from it. When they talk of twenty somethings, they are not talking about me. I do not even figure in the youth bracket anymore, that’s for people only in the 15-25 age group.

Unfortunately, 30 is not the new 20. My bones creak and make funny noises. A few stretches tire me. Slowly my brain is turning to mush. I smile more at people as I can’t remember their names. I worry about things like Health Insurance and whom to appoint as my nominee.I’ve become wary of meeting new people, finding solace in the familiarity of known faces.  I find reading about passive investing more interesting than Jennifer Lawrence’s bloopers.I can’t say what the chartbusters are anymore. For the first time in years, I haven’t seen most of theOscar winning movies to form my own winners list. I tell myself that ghee is bad, olive oil would taste as good; resolutely buy brown bread, have milk after consistently avoiding it for all these years fearing osteoporosis and seriously weigh the idea if I should move from sugar to honey altogether. Gmail plays dirty tricks. I get mails to ‘arrange my love marriage’ and buy property in Chennai and Bangalore.

At almost 27, I’ve become a project for friends. As for me, I don’t think ahead much. I am happy when I figure out what to cook for tomorrow’s lunch and a good breakfast idea is a bonus. I have found good topic changes too, at the prospect of an unpleasant conversation, I gently steer towards how to cook Moong dal er kichuri and balance is restored in the universe again.

Drunk and heady with the idea that only love could heal, I think that being naïve and not cynical in midst of all this is courage. 27 is too old to be afraid like 24 was a few years ago. I ask myself what I would do if I wasn’t afraid. What would my twenty seconds of insane courage lead to? All these years I abstained and now I’ll devour without guilt. That will be some art.

There are so many things to do. I want to write, but produce only dirt. So many places to go, my Google drafts overflow with trip ideas that never materialized. I still make up things in my head, daydreaming being a favourite pastime. Ma would say, ‘Kothao amar hariye jawar nei mana’. She doesn’t know I took it seriously.

At times I think that I refuse to grow up, a child-woman trying to make sense of it all with snobbery and fake poise as defences. I am not sure if my gaucherie is still funny but I have clots in weird places stumbling against furniture. Yes, I still cross fingers while crossing busy roads and when planes take off. The accumulation of years shows now, so much so that I am ecstatic if someone mistakes me for a college kid. My weirdness has no bounds; I smiled coyly when the plug in meant to help me concentrate on work called me beautiful. Just to clarify, it became boring after fifteen minutes.

People have ‘life events’ on Facebook. Things gain validity with public broadcast.  Why wouldn’t my eating Akuri and Mawa Cake at the hundred year old Parsi establishment after walk early morning at Marine drive as the toothless kids zoomed past on their roller skates, realization that Mumbai skyline looks like New York’s at night or relishing Darjeeling on a Saturday evening as the sun sets in the background be considered as ‘life event’? At almost 27, I have realized that the trick lies in never to simplify what is complicated or to complicate what is simple. Also, Wittgeinstein said the most important things can’t be said.

Maybe there is no one waiting there. Dumbledore ingrained in me that it is our choices more than our abilities that show what we truly are. What if there was no reason for anything? So much for my choices, what if things were just purely random? What if after all there was no higher power taking care of things? I might die today and find out at the end of the tunnel that God is just a big chicken! Maybe nothing will happen after all. With Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor playing in background, on a slow afternoon, I would take a deep breath and say, so this is it? I wonder what the rush was for all this while.

There is certain ecstasy in uncertainty. It is an uncomfortable position but wouldn’t certainty be absurd?

 

Another letter to the Sweetheart

Sweetheart it’s that time of the year again. Last year, tired after yet another mindless day at work, cold to the bones, I walked into the corner shop selling momos. Chicken soup for my weary soul. Completely oblivious of the date, I was wearing a bright red sweater. The server asked, “Table for two”?  I said no. The couple in the corner kept staring at me. I know those looks now.  I did not have a smart phone to pretend I was busy, so I stared back at them. Year before last, when the hall PA system announced hourly arrival of cakes, parcels and bouquets, my room number was announced too. No love poems of Neruda by mail; D’Souza’s pleadings couldn’t find a better time to arrive. Damn you Flipkart! You couldn’t have timed it better. I should have known how to lie. More than St. Valentine’s, I need blessings of St. Jude.

It is funny that three years since my last letter, I still have to write to you here. I would’ve preferred handmade parchment with the crooked V insignia. I am good at penmanship. They say I am old fashioned. But honestly, wouldn’t you prefer the anticipation of a letter’s arrival than instant gratification of Whatsapp emoticons?

They say to look for you at the Bazaar. Sweetheart, I’ve been cooking lately. The sight of fresh, green vegetables warms me up. But is looking for you same as picking Aloo- pyaaj? I am not good at that too, the vegetable seller short charges me every day as I fumble with the bags. How can I have you if you came on a platter? How can I find you through ticking checkboxes? I am not convinced.I am scared you would be filtered out. Learning python, writing code to hack that online monstrosity seems easier. They say it’s time for me to settle.  I was kuri te buri six and a half years ago. I am not the kind of a person who settles. We accept the love we deserve and how could I have picked you if I had to chose you from half a dozen?

It would be nice to have you around. I can take care of myself.But for the love of God, I can’t open tight jars or fix a tube light or lift the suitcase to the top cupboard!I can deal with my existential crises; it’s only the jars, jammed doors and heavy furniture that give me trouble. They say I am too comfortable in my status quo, I know you are there somewhere outside my comfort zone. While He works overtime in background, you laugh at my naiveté that I believe that Bashert exists but if everything could be explained by reason, all possibilities would be destroyed.

I try out your last name on my tongue. Imagine what kind of father you might be. Happiness is a choice, and it is so easy to be happy. The Hebrew mystic, Hillel the elder said,“If I am not there for myself, who will be for me”?I understand what that the author meant when she said, “I exist too much”.  It’s only recently that I realized that the weight of the world is not on my shoulders and now I breathe easy. Aware  that this is enough, I have a skip in my beat as I walk to office in the morning.I told myself all this while that this wasn’t meant to be so difficult. I laugh now as I know it is not difficult after all.

You would have understood by now that I am not in a hurry. If you rushed, I would have totally missed you with my head high above the clouds.The uncertainty is not unbearable yet, there is certain charm in not knowing.

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindness there is at least one which makes the heart run over. So does love.

To everything there is a season.

Meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to burn because I chose my own way to burn.