She’s like a crowded Indian city-road up!
A million alleys crawling to the skies
and decks of leaves like those houses,
where you window-watch neighbour’s TV shows
while caressing the baby in their arms.
There are flowers too one here, one
there – temporary pools of sanity.
the barbets don’t sing and the owls wake at night,
the eagles eat meat and the parrots love colour
the crows work hard and the pigeons need an asylum.
On my raintree of uncountable houses,
they live wing to wing like brothers -
shaming the road they live on.
If I were a talker
I know what I’ll do
I’ll talk my way through dinner
To end wars and poverty too.
The morning after – a beggar
Totters up to my car
But I am flying high like a kite
Because I solved poverty last night.
That feeling is back
The one I purged
By loving and letting him in.
Sharing, caring and daring
Not in the Primetime sense.
No needles shared, no hospital care and
definitely no sky diving to a new life.
But in my sterile Bell Jar world
He was that infectious spring
A breathtaking change to grim.
This flux made me forget-
Scorching summers follow sprightly springs.
And in me rose again
that feeling of dread,
Of weight, of disquiet
like a dust storm from hell.
Like a cannibal butterfly
Born in your chest,
In little mouthfuls, eat it will
Till tickling wings your skin feels
I have everything I want in life
Still no respite the butterfly gives
In birthdays and movies
And road trips and shopping sprees
My stomach becomes a butterfly park.
I wish it would come out
That feeling-deep and endless
Through my mouth and hands
Bleeding in brilliant colours
What my words fail to express.
When my time-traveller stopped responding one fine Sunday morning, much jet fuel was burnt to get me home. My giant carbon footprint seemed to be stuck in my throat. On the ride home I prepared myself to console my marshmallow matriarch, the time traveller’s better half, who stood to be dulled by the death of her beloved. He was the breadwinner, she the breadmaker. They had been for 61 years. I was their bread-eater, have been for 28.
What was it like to lose the one you shared your life’s journey with? Without him would her memories fade? They had always stepped out with a purpose. A walk was to the temple, a taxi ride to visit her sister, a train journey to complete the circle of life. Their stories of travel, never little escapades, never a holiday, filled my ears for years; they still do.
It was soon after my parents got married that the duo went to Kashi. A town along the banks of the Ganges, a visit to Kashi is said to bring life full circle — a sacred pilgrimage for Hindus. In my bedtime tales, following the homemaker avatar of grihasthashrama, sanyasa always saw people denounce their families and go to Kashi to find God.
My grandparents just took the guided tour. They called it a pilgrimage, came right back home and it’s been 30 years since. A trip to be taken and thought of in utter piety, always and only reminds my marshmallow matriarch of the filthy narrow roads of the temple town and its omnipresent cows. How the betel-stained mouths of priests accosted them at the railway station making deals to perform the last rites of our ancestors!
They brought back Gangajal, holy water of the Ganges. I’d say Gangajal has a tough life, even in a bottle — nothing short of salvation is expected from it! My time-traveller was duly administered the same. She jokes that one could die solely of drinking that dirty water because of how polluted the Ganges is these days.
She was the memory collector, if he were the time-traveller. She grounded him. He’d go to her when he couldn’t remember and she would recollect till he caught on.
If you didn’t go anywhere and the world travelled to meet you, would you be well-travelled?
It’s been 68 years since her younger brother, at the age of five, had one of his kidneys removed. World War II had incapacitated even the far-away world they lived in. Without reservations available on the train, their father had held him in his arms all the 600 kms to Madras. The ‘Madras to be bombed’ rumour loomed large over them and they returned – after 45 days of blank noise- in a bullock cart from the railway station because their home wasn’t on any bus route. Operation successful. She never mentions that he went on to become a renowned cardiac surgeon. His life, all of it, as she experienced it, through hand-me-down details, is incredible and its destination was never the point.
If your experiences are only as good as your memories, and you are a memory-collector, could you be well-travelled?
Catalogued under his experience but with full retelling rights resting safely with her, the story of her nephew’s Rajasthani wedding is a marvel. The groom’s wedding party consisted all of 11 members which included my time-traveller and my marshmallow matriarch’s sister. Rajasthani weddings are all about sweetmeats. The story goes that after seven days of sweetened food, my marshmallow matriarch’s sister’s daughter, who was four at the time, finally pleaded with her uncle, “Please get me some good old rice and curd, please don’t make me eat another sweet, please!”. Our heroine wasn’t at this wedding. However, her sister who attended retells this story with these exact details; and that’s how memories travel – through storytellers.
Could the well-travelled bring back from faraway lands only perceptions that reinforce their beliefs?
On a visit to Chandigarh, they stayed over with a relative. The morning they were to leave, she offered to make them Upma, an easy semolina dish, for breakfast. Chandigarh is one of India’s only planned cities. From this hub of town planning, she chooses to remember this: that the lady realised there was no semolina at home when she got to the end of preparation and the water began to boil; that she sent her husband scurrying through the well-planned roads of Chandigarh that Sunday dawn, in search of semolina; that they had toast for breakfast.
If yes is the answer, if the world could travel to meet you, if travel is a collection of memories and if your perceptions rarely change, then it all makes sense. ‘They’ is no more. It’s been a month since my time-traveller left her to curate their memories.
I remember, it was a Saturday. What should have been my day off the clockwork city was wasting away in that most crowded mall; one that I would have easily mistaken for CST or Grand Central or some such-not that I’ve been to either. By then, I was used to waiting for her; her time was never linear. It was more like a sheet of paper-fold it and put it in your pocket and it disappears.
Her pocketed time left me staring blankly at the maddening crowd wondering how quiet my toilet was; after all it’s truly the only place in the world where one could be alone in peace. When the 2nd coffee drained my wallet and in fear of my contents tipping the scale further, I chanced upon a couple at the far end of the room. They sat directly ahead of me but behind a wall which made them curiously inconspicuous. And they were engaged in the most unusual activity that nobody seemed to notice.
Planned by someone in love with the time-wasting tactics of an open-office floor, this coffee shop was just a space cornered against a wall with nowhere to go. While they were lucky to have the coffee counter guard the other free side, the last side was what I came to believe was the “view”; of hundreds of people buying random things they will never use simply because there seemed to be so many of them for one paise cheaper. That’s to make you appreciate better that overpriced coffee you just downed.
There were children, the annoying sorts, crying from exhaustion, grumpiness or purely bad upbringing; tech-savvy iphoners trying to “catch” range with their voices in this basement floor; families whose decibel levels were not monitored by anyone, others who just spoke loudly because they were kindred spirits and to top it off announcements that everybody heard but no one understood.
Amidst all this, the couple sat at that low table on cushions facing each other and between them was a red notebook. One would write something and pass it on to the other. Then the other would read, think, scribble and pass it back.
Siblings. I was sure they were brother and sister whose mother was a force to reckon with. She liked her home best when it was quiet. And she liked her home best, always. These two DNA mutations, like all of us, had their share of quibbles but didn’t dare make a sound. They had taken to writing utter filth to each other. And after their ferocious pen fights they refused to talk to each other; in that silent house indifference had easily gone unnoticed. As children they fought a lot because no one had intervened. But they had been silent for so long that they forgot they could speak to each other. They grew up but never shunned that habit. All their conversations were written. And it was a joy to watch.
This week’s writing exercise, the trainer at the workshop had spoken in his animated ecstatic voice. You will pair with the person to your right, go to a crowded place and write a descriptive narrative of the scene. You will write in different coloured inks and each of you will write one line. During the course of this exercise you will refrain from talking to each other or lingering too long over the scenario. This is partly a word association test.
They really like each other’s company. But he or she was being childishly ridiculous. They knew each other since high school. She had befriended him because they both loved cycling. The real reason was that he looked friendless and she was friendless too. They had clicked instantly; they watched Dexter’s Laboratory, hated oats for breakfast and resented the PT master. She was the one he called in panic after he had slept with a friend in college; he was inconsolable. She had called him and bawled incoherently when a friend she had avoided had died in an accident. And now after all these years, here they were sorting out this insurmountable hurdle. They were both as stubborn as a mule. They had hung up on each other and she had texted to meet here. Bringing the book was his idea and they wrote endlessly about how the other was a moron for being blind to the alternative. The swelling crowd, it seemed, helped circulate the air around their heads, for otherwise, they surely would have exploded.
He and I work together as associates. I hate his fucking guts. Like I care that he hates me too. The trouble began when our animosity came to a head at a meeting with our boss. I don’t remember what really went down; I was red with rage. He had made a condescending comment at my work. As if she were the only one who worked on it. It was my project too. We were supposed to work on it together. I hate her fucking guts. The meltdown had cost them their ego. The Boss had put them up to this task. Take the Saturday off, go to the nearest mall and finish writing that newsletter copy. You needn’t speak to each other if you can’t mind your language. You could write it, yes, only write it. These minions of marketing had no choice but to act out this charade. They didn’t stand a chance to hoodwink the Boss. Had they tried, the other would most definitely tell on them. Also a Saturday off was an impossible privilege for these twenty-four-seveners. They were in a fix.
Is that invisible ink they are writing with? Are those UV glasses that read invisible ink? They had to be with the Intel services. No wonder they had found that spot behind the wall; out in the open but away from the cameras. Of course they were writing in a book. It was the most low-tech technique in their skillset. Yes, right next to chopping vegetables in morse code. They were discussing the government’s underground bioweapon trials. Yes, it was true. A country as battered by epidemics as ours was indeed testing Chikunguniya on its unsuspecting slum dwellers. They were scientists and lovers. They wanted out of this maddening research that took innocent lives every day. But there was no safe house where they could talk. Talking was out of the question. They had briefly written on steamed up mirrors and cubicles in their bathroom. But that was mighty dangerous with the security arrangements. This was a spot far away from their canopied university, writing in a book wouldn’t alarm civilians and they could easily destroy evidence.
As I stared at the couple, I imagined it was him and me. There in that crowded madhouse, submerged in a sea of voices that smelled of coffee. We were writing to each other what we could never say better. I had the annoying habit of repeatedly asking the same questions. We were trying to capture the essence of these questions on paper before he grew tired of answering them. I wrote the first question and passed it on. He answered it diligently in half a sentence. Then he stalled, thinking. I will never forget that smile he smiled. His smile continued to fill that almost-fresh page with his thoughts. I knew he saw the joy he had anticipated on my face. The written word was an incredible high for me. Then he wrote a question. And it was my turn. But I love reading better than writing. At one point, I made him draw. I imagined and he drew. Then we both drew on the same page, facing away from each other’s halves. It was a banyan tree with our dreams etched on every leaf.
Right then, enters friend running; her curls laughing wildly and uncontrollably; a private joke perhaps. As she hugged me tight I forgot about the couple, their space I had invaded to create my own and that my time was folded in her pocket. She was just what the doctor had ordered; a ball of energy.
I am content.
When my demand for a real job is not met by the industry,
my contention is that spamming inboxes of content people with
my content specialist cv is contentment in itself.
Before the flash fiction bug grew tired of my antics, I managed to squeeze in a couple more.
TheOne, there by the jackfruit tree, is eloping. HisBeloved waits at the next stop. Squirrel gnaws through a jackfruit, loses a chunk to a wrong bite. TheOne haemorrhages to death. HisBeloved returns home, marries SomeoneElse.
She flew over mountains and rivers. He was mesmerised by the sky. They met when she gave up flying and became his new horizon.
At 90, he ate a pillow just like his father had. His son would too. But Realisation lost patience with that mocking idiot and left him in the dark; called it a cosmic joke.
“Obedience was my middle name”, she reminisced. Through marriage and motherhood, I was nicknamed Docile. “Perfect woman”, everyone said. Now Life, passing by, calls out,”Spineless” and I answer!
Wrote out a wordy post. Deleted it. The point is to keep it short, they say. Been put off flash fiction by this Guardian article.
But was inspired by Hemingway’s Six:
For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.
My debut flash fiction effort:
I didn’t think we’d last forever. Now, we say, “I do”. Here on, every new day ought to be shorter than forever.
Please rate it: 1-10
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
I don’t remember the first time I came across this poem. But it made me sit up and take notice. Then, that first time around, I remember saving it as drafts in my mailbox (an ancient and anti-tech savvy thing to do, I know!). I even remember sending it to friends or at least putting it down as a to-do. Interesting as this is, I am 200% sure, I googled it and lapped up it’s wiki. There was an interesting story, badly retold by me here: the poetess wrote it to console someone who had lost their someone. She wrote it randomly on some brown paper bag and that was it. She was never a poet and was “discovered” by one of those perky little people going around looking for origins. You should just google this for a more accurate version.
Anyway, since then, this poem has come back to me so many times, through so many different media that I am beginning to find it creepy. I need someone to know that I’ve seen this and that it keeps coming back to me, repeatedly. There, it’s out of my system!
That’s all, really.