Conversing

When Mama and I sometimes talk about what I was like as a child, I am often surprised that she didn’t notice the same things that I did.

For example, it was very important to me that people followed rules and customs. For some reason, when I’m now trying to think about what that included, I can see myself in my grandparents’ house, tall enough that my entire head is above the dining table when I sit down to lunch; and for some reason, some ridiculous reason, very resolute about not letting my elbows ever rest on the table.

I’m also reminded of my seventh birthday party, and how I was so upset when I asked my then best friend, Nishaat, to tell me what she had gotten me, and she did; it was widely known and accepted that you never tell someone what their birthday present is, because it ruins the surprise. And now I had gone and asked her (a few times), and she had finally said, “Okay, but don’t tell anyone I told you – it’s a jewellery-making kit, like the one I have”.
I was horrified that she actually told me. I ran up to Mama and said, “Mama, she told me! But you’re not supposed to tell, so why did she?”

The first dream I remember having, was around the same time, when I was six or seven years old. I am standing in the middle of all the first standard classrooms, and nearby, there is a pit in the floor. People are dragging me by my arms towards it, and as I get closer, the pair of pants and the shirt I am wearing turn into a salwar kameez. In the dream, I am terrified of being converted. I used to think that this was strange, because I wasn’t brought up to be religious. When I was really young, I would sometimes go to church with my grandfather, but neither of my parents ever did, and I wasn’t expected to.

And now I’m wondering why I’m writing about customs, and perceiving a sense of a religious identity, together, but at the same time it is not surprising to me. Cause and effect, action and consequence, right and wrong, always having a clear conscience – it was all so intricately woven into my childhood. It’s only now that I’m beginning to see that it was an isolated experience that wasn’t externally encouraged more than any adult wants their child or grandchild or niece to grow up to be a decent human being.

I used to pray a lot. Every night before going to sleep, I prayed fiercely for everyone I loved. A prayer to keep someone safe was the feeling that is made when you extend your arms and touch the tip of each finger of one hand, to the corresponding finger of the other hand. I also prayed that bad things would happen to the people I didn’t like, and then I would feel uneasy. But good people were good, and bad people were bad, and I don’t think I ever prayed that bad people would turn good, because I was quite sure that that wasn’t possible, and looking back, I was also completely unapologetic about it.

God was wise. He was a he, and he was a friend, and he understood me completely, but he also knew when I had done something that wasn’t right, and made me see it in our conversations. I identified as Christian, without feeling like I was like any Christian I knew, and God definitely was like God the Father, but the few times I tried calling him “Jesus”, it would feel so wrong, and fake. Even writing that now feels wrong.

I also prayed during the day. My brother and I would usually play together when we got back from school, but I remember some afternoons, sitting on the window ledge, looking out at the corner of the next building, and just talking to God.

One day, I promised God that I would stop biting my fingernails. Like most bad habits I’ve had, this one was also purposely acquired when I saw someone do it, who would change what I had always regarded as something disgusting, into something cool. So when a few friends in school started biting their nails, I decided that I wanted to as well.

And for a while I couldn’t stop biting my nails, because, you know, a habit becomes a habit, and I would tell myself, “This is the last time, so it’s okay”. But then one day our pet squirrel died, and that day when I prayed to God, I said to him, “You didn’t have to kill our squirrel because I broke my promise”. I was heartbroken, and angry, and although I blamed myself for what had happened, I didn’t let him know that I did. This one was on him, and I wanted him to feel bad about it.

I still pray, but I pray for the people I have always prayed for. It is rare that I remember that I’ve grown up, and have new people to pray for. There are still those I’m reluctant to pray for, and those who I pray for out of convention; but a prayer for safety will always feel like the touching of the tip of each of the fingers of one hand to the corresponding fingers of the other, when I extend my arms. This is why I pray when it’s dark.

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This Story

I used to narrate this story well. The words would come to me, incoherent, excited, and my arms would spread to catch them. I collected them, and threw them back out there; as if radiating from the sides of my body, blue and yellow light would dart out suddenly, without warning.

My grandmother was an artist. The last thing she ever made me was a costume for my best friend’s fifteenth birthday. I went as a witch, and for two weeks, my grandmother looked up DIY (do it yourself) witches’ hats online. The afternoon before the party, I sat quietly on a stool as she adjusted and readjusted the hat. She was a perfectionist.

I still have that hat. The black chart paper has faded, oblivious of my attempts to keep it out of the sun; the red and green beads have faithfully lost most of the members of their clan, and the gold lace from which she cut the lizard and spider shapes, is fraying. But that’s okay.

Growing up, my brother and I spent many afternoons at my grandparents’ house. It had a garden, and a large dining table, and the folds of the curtains kept the smell of the monsoon. It was the worst place to study, and the best place to imagine oneself doing extremely productive things.

My grandmother taught me biology and history. She always brought white A-4 paper to draw on. A cell was the story of an old town; history became the colour of the Great Bath, or the number of steps leading into it. Like that, we told stories.

When she knew I had an important project coming up, I knew that I could expect to find the dining table covered in old, glossy magazines, a humungous jar of Fevicol, and her old stitching box. She would always say, “Make it creative. Everyone will be doing it like that; make it different”.

We would fight. She dismissed my ideas, unworthy of the magazines, and the Fevicol, and the old stitching box, and her. But I learned how to “make it creative”, and although we still argued, it was often about how to improve something.

The words do not come to me anymore. My arms spread to catch them, and throw them back; to see the magnificent blues and yellows; but all that is left along my outline is a faint grey. I know how to make these words different, how to make them creative, but I cannot find them anymore.

My grandmother would often wake up in the middle of the night and rearrange all the things in the fridge. I wonder if she saw words; if they were blue and yellow.

Now I swallow the contours of words that do not exist when my teeth come together.

Form

I sat with the two of them today, and it felt old
The order was old, and the couch was old, and the conversation was old
And the three tissue papers have no excuse for the way they always sit like that on the table

We talked about people, and writers, and professors
And we talked about our parents
And it was freeing like you imagine it will be freeing
When you’re fourteen and you hope that the friends you make in college
Will be the ones you’re saving yourself for

 

I sat with the two of them today, and it felt old. The order was old, and the couch was old, and the conversation was old; and the three tissue papers have no excuse for the way they always sit like that on the table.

We talked about people, and writers, and professors. And we talked about our parents, and it was freeing like you imagine it will be freeing, when you’re fourteen and you hope that the friends you make in college will be the ones you’re saving yourself for.

Untitled

I was afraid of writing. It took too much from me, and I was acutely aware of how willing I was to give it all that it demanded. Too often, it became about filling a form.

To escape the perfectly sized, perfectly shaped, perfectly distanced letters and words, I bought a journal in Seattle and told myself that I would write for the sake of writing, for the sake of processing, not for the sake of being able to say that I had written; not for that full second of ecstasy when the words swell and fill and breathe, only to burst and shrivel, and lie there, crisp.

I sat down in a study room at the end of the fourth floor corridor, and lay the things I had carried in my arms, on the thin, white table. The journal, the pen, the tab, my room keys. I refused to arrange them in a way that would please the voice in my head that so often wants right angles and parallels, and swept them all to the side. When I picked up the journal and the pen, I didn’t let myself look back at what I imagined was a pile of unorganised, irresponsible things.

I got up. I walked to the window, and pulled the blinds up. Across the street, a man and a woman were talking outside The College Inn – the University’s pub. The picture was nice because it didn’t make sense. They were close to the Inn’s brick wall, but neither was leaning against it. I couldn’t tell what the brown square sticking out of his breast pocket was, and she wasn’t smoking the cigarette like most people do.

The woman kept the conversation; she kept them both standing there, he, facing her and the Inn wall, she, facing him and the street. I was too far away, and too high up, and I couldn’t hear their conversation, but I know that her tone decided how he shifted and why he looked at the ground more often than she did; and how she appeared to sink into the pavement a little, becoming a part of the building itself.

He would walk away. She would stand there, like she knew the street was deserted; like the dark had wrapped her up in its folds some time ago, and told her that it would protect her from the many people that never walk out of it; she knew more, enough, to keep her standing there if she wished to stand there.

But after an inconclusive conversation, one devoid of accents or any sign that might have indicated to what extent they knew each other, or why they were standing there, talking, she walked back into the pub, and he walked down the street, against the white flowerbeds and the green chalk markings on the road. For a second I could have heard the noise of cheering because the world cup was on.

I walked back to the table, and acknowledged how it upset me to see everything like that. Then I checked messenger, and replied, and closed the tab; face-down it was forgotten as I ranted.

The pen was pleasant. It wrote smoothly, and I liked how I didn’t have to adjust it between my fingers a few times, before I was happy with the grip.

I wrote about how writing was no longer something I liked to do. Writing assignments announced in class are six turns of a clock; the bed-sheet tucked in perfectly, the dictionary and the laptop in line with each other. Writing is a full water bottle; each pencil sharpened to a point, the emptying of the waste paper basket; wires that fall properly down the side of the desk, staple pins that hold cards firmly and flatly to the soft board; neatly folded clothes in the cupboard, evenly spaced hangers.

Writing is me lounging on my bed, exhausted; opening the laptop and falling asleep to Gilmore Girls or Friends; making a mental note that tomorrow will be the day the writing happens, because today everything was put in place, and tomorrow is all ready for the event. But tomorrow became falling asleep to Gilmore Girls or Friends, and the circle that held sleep lent its slices to the circle that wanted to write well. I fed it, and it grew. And it became disgusting, and all the more appealing, and I began to wonder how I would ever tackle it.

In the midst of this menacing procrastination, I knew that for me, writing has also always been about loss. Even now, as I write this, I am sad that the next time I write about it, everything will be sparser. The words will have already been written, and the ideas already thought, and as much as writing is about creating, it is also about creating from what already exists; the first draft is already a revision, a new edition.

There is a distance between my words and I, now. There is only so far –or so close— I am willing to venture. Any closer, and we both burn a bright red; a beautiful, magnificent, scorching red, that reaches up to lick the skies.

 

Symbols and Signs – Responding to Nabokov

The first thing I noticed were the pronouns. ‘They’ were a unit, a couple, a team. Their tragedies, like their lives, were shared, as they leave the world alone to deal with them together. ‘She’ slips into a world that she never acknowledges is hers, and yet, cannot be anything but, for he exists only in it. ‘He’ is a role –as we suspect she is, too- but he is unaware of the role he has become in her eyes, as she is unaware that he was born this role, while she will always play hers. Willingly, unsuccessfully –how else?-, earnestly.

Each pronoun has a different story and history. I was reminded of Bleak House. Dickens introduces us to Lady Dedlock. First, we learn that she is at ‘the new place’. Later, we learn that the new place is her town home. Finally, we are told that she is with her husband, at the new place, which is their town home. The details are weaved into the narrative in a way that forces the reader to question the assumptions that they bring to the story. The contours of Lady Dedlock’s character are shaded with every detail that is revealed. The details only work because of the assumptions they are carved from.

What Dickens does with place, and situation, Nabokov appears to do with pronoun. The many contours of the (nameless) wife are shaped by the pronouns she inhabits. ‘They’ is a joint decision that she has made alone.

Everything is possible in Nabokov’s story; all is believable. The twitching bird is real because everyone notices it, but for a second it is as if only she does, and then they walk away. ‘Symbols and Signs’ might have well been called ‘Snapshots of a Day’. Nabokov collects the details that are so easily discarded, or forgotten; the existence we deny, the textures we ignore, or deem insignificant, are the ones he writes his characters with. It was like he was saying, “Look here. We all know you think you see the world a certain way. But remember this?”

His words unnerve, but they soothe, as well. I remember a time when I was a child, when I measured the air I breathed in and out. I saw it in its volume, as it entered my mouth and rounded itself to fill the form, becoming moister the longer I held it. I calculated a certain amount, a particular mass of it that was just wholesome enough – in how perfect the ratio of air to space was; how well-utilised. Nothing was wasted. When I breathed out, I watched it rise and diffuse, disappearing into the nothingness of everything else. Nabokov writes, “The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away”.

Around the same time, I became convinced of the importance of saying a number of phrases in even numbers. I would say goodnight to my mother. She would say goodnight to me. I would say goodnight to her, again; softer, this time, afraid of suspicion, but nevertheless firm in my resolution to stick to a structure of twos, praying as I finished the words that she would not respond again, because then I would have to, and that would make it three. And four times is just asking to be found out, but if it came to it, I would have said a fourth goodnight.

It was also customary for us to say “sleep well”, after wishing each other goodnight. One day, I had said it twice when she asked, “Why did you say it again?” When I was quiet, she gently said, “Sleep well”, and I walked to my room, where I said it to myself twice more.

Over the last year I’ve grown more and more convinced that writing is a process of creation, not representation. But ‘Symbols and Signs’ welcomed me into Mr and Mrs Nameless’ apartment, where such a notion seemed almost blasphemous. The streets and subways, sanatorium receptions and stairways that Nabokov talks off are perfectly, adequately real. He writes as Mrs Nameless sees, and she sees her husband close the umbrella, then open it; she sees the swollen veins of his hand as it holds it, she feels the beating of her heart, only to notice the rustling of newspapers a second later. Almost as if in response to what is created to remember, Nabokov seems to write what so often exists, but is forgotten.

The reader detects what can only be described as a feeling of defiance in his writing. The referential mania that he describes seemed to me the most elegantly-delivered criticism of the nature of writing. Whose writing, when writing, I do not know. “The clouds in the sky which transmit to each other incredibly detailed information regarding him”, say far less than the picture which was “badly out of focus”, or the weight with which the photograph of “her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album”. That the writer strives to create a form that the reader may inhabit is what I believe Nabokov is quick to call hogwash – there already exists a world that they are so far removed from; reintroduce them to it, remind them of its colours and shapes; its sounds and movements; show them what they already see.

We are never told anything about the wife, but we become acquainted with how she sees places, and people, and details, and we begin to believe that that is the best, most authentic description of a character. However, when “she put the receiver down gently, and her hand went to her heart”, and she says, “It frightened me”, one can only wonder whether Nabokov’s idea of the most honest story-telling can come from only a certain kind of character, and thus, a certain kind of writer – a character who is removed enough, ignored enough, insignificant enough, that she sees everything. A character who would be frightened by the ringing of the phone, by having to speak, to say words which were simple, clear; words which were in response to something she was asked, words which had to be said, not thought of, like Mrs Sol, Isaac, Rebecca Borisovna, or Aunt Rosa.

There is only one way to read this story; there is only way to inhabit this world, and I am soon acutely aware of the fact that I have dressed myself in the pronouns she has so carefully amassed.

In the small, two-bedroom apartment, I become the wife on the couch. I hold the pictures between softly wrinkled palms, watching my son grow up, seeing, as I had seen years before, what I was told by the world years later. Mine is an anticipated existence that time long ago washed its hands off. There is no beginning, middle, or end to this story, because they only exist when they can say that they have caught their character off-guard.

Read the piece here – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/05/15/symbols-and-signs

Traffic Sounds

When you are sitting three storeys from the ground
The sounds of traffic are the colours of a picture you once saw
Because someone decided to make a movie
Where they moved the cars fast enough that they became
A painting exercise

The squeak of a bark held back in the throat of the street dog
Is the push of paw into concrete
The arch of a thin back into thinner air
The raised hand, heavy vehicle, other dog
That must approach

The bikes, like drunken passengers
Loose tongues licking hot roads
Wheels to tar, wheels to air

Its whiz is a light blue buzz
A lighter picture

Than the dark grey weight
Of a truck turning a corner
When the road, the lamp post,
The crumbling footpath

All stop to watch
As it curves to hug the bend

Why does the small car honk its whimsy horn?
Freeth. Freeth. Freeth freeth.