At the Elephant House

The boy with the postcards
Writes furiously to people in far flung
Places, faces the window as though reaching
For the right word, slippery on the tip of his
Tippy tongue

Outside, the gulls play their gully games
Shadow puppets on the frosted window like
A many-armed Hindu god
Tired with her pose
Took to window-cleaning for fun

A bespectacled woman orders
One chicken corn soup – (Extra corn)
Ham in a potato – (Leave the skin on, dear)
Smears butter onto the steaming tuber
(And a flowered purple sleeve)

A bouquet of French schoolchildren
Affronted by a sign:
“Sorry, no Wi-Fi – Pretend it’s 1995 and talk to each other!”
Sprout telecommunication devices to document
The indignity

By the bathroom, a young couple from a magazine
She in a Zadie Smith turban, yellow pencil
Behind his trust fund ear
Hover over a Sunday crossword
And two cups of hot coffee gone cold

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Departure Poem

It has been 61 days
Since my departure

To the cold place

Back in the warmth
For the Frosty
Season
I look at the pictures
In my telecommunication
Device

And say
Over and over to my
Self
You are not alone
In your in-
Ability
To grasp their language

Their trees struggle
To exchange
Their th’s with their
S’s
As well

And no river cares much
For what lies beyond it

Much like the people
Who live in the big houses
By it

But you think of the brown
Leaf
That fell from the unimpressive branch
To the Danube

That day

And how you
Thought
With nostalgia
Of the fairy-tales
You read as a child

Where the leaves were only
Red
Yellow

Or

White

Leopard in the Champa Tree

When my grandmother died, her house became filled with all the people she had spoken to over the phone. If one of them said, “I looked forward to my weekly conversation with Jean,” six others would appear to claim the six other days of the week. “I would usually ring her on Saturday morning,” one might say, and another would pipe up, “Oh, I must have talked to her right after you did. We always spoke at around noon on Saturdays.”

It was one of the few things that made me smile during that week of her death. It was how I remembered her – sitting in her chair by the spindly table that held our telephone. Sometimes she would flip her soft white hair the same way that Justin Bieber did, and my brother and I would tease her. Other times, she would gesture that we must go to the kitchen, her palm briefly covering the phone’s mouthpiece. “There are cutlets,” she’d say, nodding all the time, then returning to her conversation.

It drove everyone mad. There was no use asking people to call at a particular time, because the line was always busy; I remember multiple occasions when I picked up the phone to call a friend, only to hear a voice on the other end ask, “Jean? Is that you?” Every year on her birthday, my grandfather would suggest that she disconnect the phone for the one hour when the family all sat down to her birthday lunch. And every year she would pretend that she thought he was being sensible, before she ignored the suggestion. On her birthdays, my brother and I began answering the phone with, “One sec, she’s right here.” She had seventy-two birthdays.

Nana’s room was downstairs. It had two purple walls and two almost-white pink ones. I picked out the colours when we first moved into their house, and she never changed them. There are striped curtains against a long window; the walls are covered with art from all the art my aunt collects. Most of the frames hold women’s faces, and I used to think that one of them was the face of my grandmother when she was young. I was convinced that it was her and that no one else had looked at it carefully enough. The woman in the picture had the same straight, thick, jet black hair that she did, and the same expression that she has in the pictures of her and my grandfather on their honeymoon. Like she has found herself in a new place and has already become its beloved.

***

The first phone I ever owned was a Nokia flip phone. It was silver and gold and had a small screen on the outside, where you could check the time. When I received messages, a small, black envelope would appear in the corner, and I’d tell myself to be patient – the message could wait. My grandmother was always telling me to be patient. To not react to things and people, to rise above something or the other, to focus on myself, and not the world. When my phone stopped working, I panicked. There was a picture in it of the two of us on my fifteenth birthday. I’m sitting on her lap. One of my arms is around her neck. Both of her arms are around my waist. Who took the picture? I don’t know. In it, I am wearing a green and white sleeveless blouse. Did she like the top? I don’t remember. When the phone stopped working, I became convinced that it was the only picture I had of the two of us. It wasn’t, but that didn’t matter.

***

She was the first person to tell me stories. We’d lie next to each other in that downstairs room and she’d look up at the ceiling. I looked at her, my head resting on her right shoulder. This close, I could see the fine white hairs on her chin. Her nose looked different, too, as if the crests and troughs of its bridge had decided to exchange places. I wondered if my nose would also change with time. Then it struck me that noses stay the same, even more than eyes do, but when the rest of your face changes, your nose is rudely made to seem different.

I begged for boarding school stories. So she told me about how a leopard crept into the school grounds one day, and I remember seeing the leopard sitting in the branches of a champa tree in my grandparents’ house. She smoked, she said. They all did. When they once suspected that they had been found out, they bribed a school maid to say that it was she who had been smoking in the bathrooms. What did you bribe her with? A box of imported cigarettes.

When she told me these stories, she also told me not to believe that boarding school was a nice place. There were nuns who made you kneel down, she said, and told me of how she was once humiliated in this way. Did she give me other reasons to hate boarding school? I don’t think so. And I didn’t take her word for it, either. In my mind, I saw how I would avoid all the nuns who would make me kneel down. I saw a great hall where I would sit with other girls of my age and eat breakfast and lunch and dinner. Our uniforms were very pretty and on Sundays we had to attend mass, after which we were allowed to go into the town. Sometimes we had midnight feasts, and lined the door of the common room with pillows, so that neither light nor sound would travel. Only later did we realise that the rabbits in the garden were the same ones we had in our stew. We didn’t really mind, though.

***

She came to us in our dreams, when she died. Ana, the lady who has worked in my grandparents’ house since my brother was born, said that for an entire week she dreamt that my grandmother was holding counsel in a forest clearing. There were wise old monkeys in the trees, she said, and then she laughed. She was convinced that my grandmother was playing a trick on her. My aunt said that she kept dreaming about, too. Mama said the same. And in their dreams, she was always in new places. In mine, I was convinced that I had imagined her death, and she seemed annoyed with me for believing that she was gone. How could you be so silly, she seemed to be saying, distractedly.

The week that she died played itself out like one of Marquez’ novellas. Four days after her death, my grandfather’s brother passed away. The person who called said that he had had a heart attack in a rickshaw. He’d just gotten back from a conference in Madras, and his suitcase was with him. We were still seated at the dining table in my grandparents’ house when we received the news, and I remember that no one was solemn. We looked at each other amusedly, our heavy eyes blinking with bewilderment. It didn’t seem like news at all, and we reacted to it like it was gossip. Do you remember Mr and Mrs Faria, our upstairs neighbours in Bombay? Their daughter was in today’s newspaper. It seems she has won Miss Earth. One of those beauty pageants, you know.

I rummaged through my cupboard at home, picking out appropriately mournful clothes. I chose the things I liked least, because I knew I would never wear them again. On the day of the funeral, as I was making my way down the stairs, Aunty L remarked that my hair looked lovely. Aunty L always wanted to have daughters, but had two sons instead. That’s what happens when you want only boys or only girls, my mother told me. You get just the opposite. So I scrunched up my face and closed my eyes, and said to myself: When I grow up I want to have three sons, three sons, three sons. Little boys with hair all parted from the right to the left. They will wear denim shorts with blue and white and green t-shirts, and they won’t only like the things that boys are meant to like. They will like playing House-House, and will look uninterested when I buy them Hotwheels. They will run around and drive me mad, but I will love them. You see, my grandmother used to say that attention to detail was everything.

That week, other people said other things to me. A lady in a red dress who sat on one of the kitchen stools took my hands in hers and closed her eyes. “Do you know,” she said, “That for new tomatoes to grow, the old ones need to be plucked?” I looked at her. I looked at her red dress that was getting under people’s shoes, and imagined that she had plucked all the tomatoes in the world, and coloured her dress with them. “No,” I said, and then someone rescued me from her.

I remember being angry. Why was Jack crying, I wanted to know. He didn’t even know her, and now he was weeping. And why was Papa not crying? How could Papa not cry after thirty-seven years? Papa needed to stop greeting people and start crying right now, or I would tell him exactly what I thought. Everyone grieves differently, my mother half-told half-scolded me, but her words made no sense on that day. I found a corner of the kitchen to cry in, and various people found me. R’s mother held me against herself, refusing to let go even when I couldn’t breathe. She had known my grandmother. My grandmother had liked her.

In the nights we went back to our own home. My aunt and Ana stayed with Papa, who finally cried while the rosary was being said. My hand went automatically to the back of his neck, where my fingers scratched his pepper-and-salt hair. I don’t know why I did that. I had never done it before, and haven’t done it since. I think in that moment he seemed like a child to me, and that is how I remember comforting the three boys I never wanted to have. Papa has become a different person since Nana died, and I’m grateful that I get to know him like this. He has grown into the spaces she spilled into. When I call him from college now, we have whole conversations. Nana isn’t here to do it for him anymore.

***

At home, I play Gounod’s Ave Maria on my piano, over and over and over, till my fingers aren’t mine anymore, and every note is the same note. My mother knocks on my door in the early hours of the morning. She has come to comfort me, although it is her mother who has died, and it is I who should be comforting her. After she leaves, I play again.

Years ago, when I was preparing for a Trinity exam, my piano teacher and I were both convinced that I would fail the scales portion of the test. I hated practicing my scales. I knew that every time I played the piano, I ought to begin with scales, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A few days before the exam, Nana decided that it was up to her to make sure that I knew them. And after some protestation on my part, we settled down at the piano, me at the bench, she in a chair to my right.

If you can play it five times, without a mistake, you can go on to the next scale, she said. If not, you have to play it ten times, and then five more times without a single mistake.

By the end of that evening I knew my scales. I couldn’t hear the notes anymore. We were having a conversation about something, and my fingers had become independent of me. I could hear only our voices.

Sometimes, when I am playing, I can still hear them.

Taking Pictures

C, S, and I are on a winding staircase. It is the staircase from hostel that I have taken a picture of earlier in the day. When I look at the picture after editing and posting it to Instagram, it reminds me of the staircase to Trelawney’s Divination classroom, and I don’t know how long I stare at it. In the dream, we are making our way down the staircase. S and I are confused in that way that we become when we’re together. It is a proud confusion that lends itself to loud voices which declare we don’t know something. I think we only do this when we sense that the other will join in. C knows what is going on, and she skips down the stairs, her hair falling over her shoulders as she walks in happily.

The windows against the staircase let in a purple moonlight that floods the entrance to underground area we’re in. When our eyes have adjusted, I see the reds and greys of little fires all over the room. A man has noticed us walking in, and smiles at us from behind a coal pit. He has large, flat knives in his each of his hands, and my eyes move from his sweaty face to a shape that resembles a small deer. It is hung from the depths of the dark ceiling. There is meat everywhere. No drums are being beaten, but there is an excitement in the air as if they were.

We walk a little further into the room. On the left, the room is an endless stream of metres of dark. To the right, it halts under an open sky. I notice the main college gate. The man is still watching us, still smiling. As if from behind him, a voice says, “In the course of a revolution, you must have a place to gather, and eat, and drink.” It is like being in a market. This place is full of people, but I cannot see them. I see only what I want to see. Only a fraction, a fragment of what it contains. Everything else is just beyond that wall, that tree, that bench. But this space is full, and we have discovered it later than many. Their indifference is their warmest welcome. You took long enough, they are saying.

S and I look around, in that way we both sometimes look at a new place, like we have already conquered it. C has disappeared down a corridor. I don’t worry about her. She has been here before.

B began blogging in her last year of college. Three times she blogged about Daily Outfits. She has been writing about other things ever since.

The box P has given me on my birthday is red. It is made of a material that feels like jute, and is shaped like a treasure chest. Its smaller sides are thin slices of wood, and I wonder what I will keep in it. When I go back to hostel the next day, I put it in the small patch of sunlight that has thudded its way onto my desk. In it, I keep the only earrings I wear. They are made of a blue that was skimmed from the surface of the ocean on a dull afternoon. In the picture, I make everything brighter, but only the earrings catch the light.

The spine of Joe Sacco’s Journalism lies along one side of the picture. I only notice later.

I am afraid that I do not miss anything. That I do not remember names, dates, places; things that made me feel something on some day; that nothing makes me feel anything. The people I know have the same face when they ask (but really, they are saying, trying to understand), “You really don’t remember?” It made you laugh so much. We talked about it for days. How can you not remember.

It is a look of confusion, a retraction of some trust that is so intricately woven into a single memory that it cannot exist without it. Without it, there is no proof of something forged, so the only conclusion is that it cannot have been. I have learned to quickly change the subject.

When R and I talked after years, I couldn’t remember the name of a rap song that he says he called comforting. He refers to it a few times, and each time I am a little more convinced that I am not the person he is thinking of. I think of his room, with its white walls that cannot be warm because no one has taught them how to be. Of his cupboard near the room door, and the many Axe deodorants that he must have kept in his drawer on the right. I think of how his stepmother looks when she walks into the room. She is always wearing a skirt and blouse, and if she is wearing pants they don’t suit her, but she doesn’t know it.

I will never be able to think of him without thinking of those walls, that cupboard, his stepmother’s pants. I have taken his tones and his pauses, his eyes and his lips, the lengths of his laugh and his name, and constructed a world for him. He has never told me these things, but I know that I am not wrong about them.

“I think I remember the song,” I say, and it makes him happy. I can’t ask whether he remembers what I do. These are not memories that are shared.

On the second day, I take a picture of a painting of Marjane Satrapi. The canvas is a bright orange, but I make it grey. If you look carefully, you can see the pencil markings on her eyelids from the first sketch.

I like the picture when I take it. But over the next two weeks, the images I take fall over the Satrapi picture, and I want to delete it, pretend it never existed. She looks uncomfortable. Her image is not saying anything. I have taken Satrapi and made her silent. The picture does not belong to any story I have to tell.

I let it be.

My cupboard in hostel is divided into two halves, one for shelves, the other for hangers. On the top, there is a large shelf where I keep the books I have finished reading and the shorts that I have come to not wear in Bangalore. My cupboard has been making me think of how I will have to move out soon. The piles of folded clothes will be pulled off of shelves and fall into waiting boxes, and the room will look as it did on the first day I fell asleep in it, after setting my alarm for five the next morning. I didn’t know how long it would take to reach college. Nor did I know how long I would take to wake up. I woke up before the alarm went off, and got ready for my first day as a college student.

I have not been able to take a picture of it yet.

Reading Alice Munro

I’ve been reading Alice Munro’s short stories, and I’ve been crying.

I don’t know why I picked up Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You – if I’m going to be honest, I choose the books I read because of the colours on the cover. They must not be startling, and if they are, they must be startling in a way that packages startling neatly (but it is rare that I enjoy reading these books more than looking at them). The colours must designate a calmness to the image of me reading the book; if this calm is not promised, there is not much else that can be.

I liked different things about Alice Munro’s books. I liked how they were stacked between the shelves like a sighing testament to where stories come from, how they pass through you, and where they lie still. I liked that they were all of approximately the same length, because their uniformity said that she was never jarred when she wrote – that there was a sameness in everything she saw that let her make stories of stories of nothing of everything of stories.

When I was younger, I was excited about phenomenon, and the possibility of writing about strange, unique things. I have come to realise that the best things to write about are ordinary things. The best words to use are common words, sentences rarely peppered with one word I don’t usually use, consecutive stories doused with one word that is suddenly tender for reasons I don’t know, and don’t want to know.

I read Alice Munro and cry now. I read her because the colours of her book covers promised a calmness that she delivers. Words sometimes tell you a story, and sometimes require you to perceive a story, and her words lie in place where both of these things happen. A review on the back suggested that I read only one story a day, because they stay with you, and haunt you. I did this for the first few days, and then I fell. I fell in, into stories about children who built boats, and women who ran away; stories about professors and book shop owners, and tricks that are played by no one, that change one person’s life in retrospect.

I do not regret falling in. Falling is forgetting the words, forgetting the faces – walking through words to a place where there are none, when the room you are in begins to fade out, and a different kind of light from a different place lets you read the markings on a page. Alice Munro took me from her writing to the place that I begin writing from. This is a place where you must not contemplate writing in, because it is hopeless. But you must breathe its air, you must be here, because this is the place where the words become independent from you once again, and you can write when you realise that you can only borrow, and return.

Sustaining

I’m writing differently now. When I first got to college, I remember how I would agonise over the first sentence of any piece. It had to make an impact, it had to be different than anyone else’s first sentence, it had to make whoever was reading it remember that I had written it.

For a long time, much of my writing would ramble. It would be flowing, then it would bubble and gurgle, and suddenly it was spilling all over itself. I was excited about writing; I was excited about explaining everything that I was thinking, every process of thought, every connection had to be written down. If anything was remaining or left behind in my mind, I hadn’t written authentically; I hadn’t been honest.

So when I went to college and was a part of serious writing classes for the first time, I couldn’t ramble. I had to contain myself, I had to contain the words that struggled to burst onto the screen through my fingertips – I had to structure, and acknowledge a reader other than myself, someone who cared about what was on the paper, not what was left behind.

I wasn’t unhappy doing this, but it also meant that writing was now difficult for the first time – it did not flow anymore, and I knew that a writing assignment announced in class meant that I would go back to hostel and sit at my desk for an hour, figuring out the best way to begin a piece. When I did find that beginning, the agonising was always worth it.

But I also began doing something else. Instead of coming to a piece with the intention of opening something, I was now coming to it with the intention of closing it – of structuring it perfectly, of feeling around for its paragraphs, of tying the piece up so that I could put it away, and disengage.

Over the last few months, I’ve tried to undo that. It takes consciously telling myself not to decide what the writing will be, before it is, letting it go where it wants to go. This is not easy in the beginning. I hated the things I wrote, and was sometimes embarrassed about posting them on the blog. I kept at it, because I had to find a way to open with writing, again.

To some extent, I think it has worked. When I open MS Word, I am not terrified anymore. The whiteness is not intimidating, and does not demand that I fill it, then leave it alone. I’m starting to see each piece as a part of a process, not a part of a place that will keep it. My stories are beginning to leak into each other, and some days, I actually stop writing before I have finished all that I want to say.

I don’t know how this is going to work. But my writing is stretching, spreading its arms and yawning and laughing. It is not crouching somewhere, hugging its knees; it is not compact anymore, and I am less scared than I used to be. It is learning how to sustain itself.