Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fobbed Off

In the middle of somewhere in Southern England, there is a little town where tour buses stop not for long, only to give a tantalizing glimpse of the well-renowned charm of the English countryside. This town is sleepy and most shops are still closed at 10am. In fact, as though to underline the effect, there is a plaque hung on the wall of the only open shop, that claims that at this spot, nothing happened whatsoever. This town is supposed to be eminently forgettable, and of course, manages to be the opposite. I am thinking of that town today; that is exactly the kind of day I wanted this to be.

I have previously blogged about the joys of doing nothing, of having forgettable days, of the importance of the fallow season. Yesterday, I decided that I'd give myself this day off. I woke up earlier than usual and cleaned up the usual messes the old cat makes, anticipating a wonderfully nothing day. The other cats watched me cautiously all morning, wondering when I'd leave, since I seemed to be in a hurry. When I finally finished, I arranged myself on my usual spot on the couch; the kitten napping next to the spot jumped up and left the house, spooked at my strange break in routine.

When I sank down on my spot, I had decided against doing anything of import. However, somewhere in the middle of the day, as I checked mail and handled the recycling, I saw my car.

I knew the day would be lost in all manner of ways.

I was not wrong, more is the pity.

I have a new key fob that needs to be programmed to my car, and wikis and youtube videos had assured me it is easy work, no need to worry, none whatsoever. So I decided that since this job was not of much import (I have one working key), it would be allowed on a day like today. So armed with instructions, I clicked open the car and flicked my perfectly good nothing-day away.

The instructions wanted me to put in and remove my key fob a certain amount of times, within a certain number of seconds, and magically, the car would respond. It all felt like magic, like so much of science does: a certain action repeated in a particular configuration, like a ritual right out of The Golden Bough, and the magic would take.

Unfortunately, this spell was faulty, or I failed to follow the ritual properly, because the key fob stared back unresponsive at me and the car remained stubbornly silent and cold. Unbelieving, I tried running the car around a few blocks, thinking that perhaps she just needed to wake up a bit. Then, I let her rest for exactly a blink and a half, and began the ritual again.

Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results; perhaps he fails to understand the importance of repeating a ritual during a process of magic. Be that as it may, I stopped after four hours, since the neighbors began glancing uncomfortably in my direction, as I switched on and off the car and opened and closed the door, as though caught in some kind of inexplicable rhythm. The man walking his dog from the land behind mine guided his canine friend away, and the woman from two doors across steered the children she was supervising towards the large trees, encouraging them to move away from my stationary car, going off and on as though possessed.

I am defeated: the little black plastic box that looks like a defunct controller of a toy car remains unconquered. In deference to my neighbors, I have slunk back onto my spot on the couch, but I cannot stop glaring at the fob and beyond it, at the car. Of course, I make sure that my glaring at the car is not too baleful: it would never do to have my most important friend be angry with me.

I think I shall refrain from checking mail or handling any recycling until I can recover from today. The cats are absolutely right: one must make an effort to resist the siren call of chores and sit still until the world spins away.

A mug of saffron tea, tempered with lemon and ginger helps immensely if a day is to be successfully fobbed off. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

To Ephesus and Back

Two children play with their Ken dolls just before bedtime. They pretend that the dolls are sets of estranged twins (a very logical sort of play, considering the likeness of all Kens). The kids hear their mother and quickly throw the dolls into their toy box and the stage darkens. When it lights up again, actors emerge from the toy box and we are transported to Ephesus and to the delightful, fresh fun that Comedy of Errors remains.

Yesterday's closing performance of the play at Sol Theatre was charming in its anachronisms (like the Godfather theme for Balthazar), easily recognizable (Antipholus and Dromio are dressed like Ken dolls), and just the best time to be had of an afternoon. The dialogue retains its freshness when placed in the 21st century, and fits in marvelously with contemporary cadences, slang, and Barbie-world costumes. In fact, these underline the farcical nature of the play and I do not remember the last time I had laughed so hard. No, wait, I do remember; it was at another production of Sol, so it was the same place that I had laughed like this.

The director of the theatre is a friend so close that had it not been for her, I'd have curled up in a cave long ago and disappeared from the world; knowing me well, she mandated that I not miss this one. I have not, of late, been as regular an audience as I once was, since my child, whose home the theatre is, has already flown the coop, and going to her theatre without her seems unreal. But I am always welcomed and I know to listen to my good friend when she says I should not miss this. So I knew that I'd have a good time when I left home yesterday. But I was not prepared for the helpless, breath stealing laughter, the kind that hurts your ribs afterwards, the kind that you never ever want to live without.

This production is dedicated to the director who, tragically, never got to see this product in its finished stage. I cannot think of a more fitting celebration of life. The actors sang her favorite song, played their parts with such passion that I will forever think of them as those characters, and celebrated the one they missed, thanking her at the end of the play, amidst a well-deserved standing ovation.

I came away refreshed and renewed, with a smile that refuses to leave me, even now. The production was sparkling with brilliance, and that is an understatement. I have always enjoyed my Shakespeare when played in a park or in a black box theatre, so it WAS the perfect Shakespeare for me. There are, of course, extra perks attendant to every Shakespeare and yesterday provided those as well: I met a fellow Bard-o-phile, and re-met an extremely talented actor whose work I have always, always admired, after a decade.

There are certain outings I always look forward to, even though I am going alone, and yesterday was one of them. Yesterday's outing has enriched me immeasurably. My world feels connected, somehow, as though the words written five centuries ago have reached out to heal me, to set cogs in motion in my internal machine so that now, everything fits.

What can I say? I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Salt to Taste

There is something missing. I cannot quite put my finger on it; I can actually taste the bitterness of turmeric and it mixes awkwardly with the sweetness of peas. The bland under-taste of eggplants weighs down my dish. I consider adding a teaspoon of coconut water but desist; this pot does not need more sweet. I chop up some more onions and sauté them with ground ginger and green peppers. But even this condiment, though it has a delicious bouquet, fails to bring coherence to the pot. I cannot believe the eggplant-and-peas sabji, a staple to my plate for over 45 years, a dish I can whip together without much thought at all, this vegetable pot which is almost second nature to me is causing such anguish.

Actually, I do know what the problem is: salt. My patient reader will remember that I've have to forgo all salt in what I cook. I have been following this diet for over a year now and usually, I do not miss the salt. Natural salt content of foods is enough. In fact, I have been grateful for the noticeable reduction in salt, as salt often tends to overwhelm the food and drowns a lot of subtle flavors. I have been learning to notice and appreciate those. When my family watches me eat my salt-less food, I know that they believe that I am braving my way through the portion. However, that has not been the case. So I am amazed at my missing the salt today.

If one were to assume that the intake and enjoyment of food are connected to the consumer's internal emotional landscape, then my missing salt today explains itself. The stretched out twilights, the endless, still afternoons, the mornings that often creep by, and the unmoving nights might very well reflect gaping holes in my suddenly empty house. My house gets filled during Summer and empties out just when Fall is beginning. When Eid comes around, my visiting family is getting their material together; Rakshabandhan brings packed bags and wound up rooms; by the time Janmashtmi and Ganesh Chaturthi roll around, my house is empty. Suddenly, my meager shelves of my fridge and larder seem well-stocked; the cats wander in and out of the house as though lost; the 4pm tea time becomes fluid and I often have 2-3 cups of tea a day, not to mark part of day or prahar, but because all my work gets done faster than I expect.

Of course, this is all part of my annual ritual and all is well and predictable. Like water that always seeks its own level, so does my house. I know that beginning tomorrow, I will have no time to sit and sip the bottomless mug of tea; in fact, I will wonder how I had the time to have visitors in the Summer! Actually, this balance is already righting itself, finding itself. My quarter is fast concluding, with its hectic grading and a thousand little and large i's to be dotted and t's crossed. And we all know power of a hectic routine to establish equilibriums of all sorts.

When I called my child today, she sounded harried and when asked, she claimed that she is very busy settling down. I had to smile; her phrase describes exactly what my house seems to be doing all year long: busy settling down, and settle down my house will. I have packed the week's portions of the sabji in manageable boxes. I know that when I gobble it down at lunch tomorrow, I will not miss the salt. But tonight, I want to remember the taste of salt, the taste of sabjis my tongue does not forget. I want to savor the bitterness of turmeric, the gravid blandness of the eggplant, the unreasonable sweetness of peas; my taste buds can add salt to taste from memory.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The God of Monsoons and Peacocks!

The afternoon is dim with clouds. I cannot hear the TV because of the rolling thunder. The cats just burst into the kitchen, glaring accusingly at me, holding me accountable for the wet, rumbling day. It is a perfect Janmashtmi! Today celebrates the birth of Krishna, the god whose skin is the inimitable hue of rain clouds.

There are many celebrations scheduled all over the world, in temples, in homes, on streets. Agile youngsters will crawl over each other to make human pyramids high enough to reach a pot filled with yogurt and curds, tempered with honey and basil, hung high above traffic lights, swinging at unimaginable altitudes. The crowd will cheer as the smallest child reaches the pot and breaks it open, spilling sweetened yogurt over everyone, scattering marigold petals around the world. Loudspeakers perched high on street corners will blare filmi music, for there is plenty of that which revolves around the child god. Babies will be dressed in Krishna costumes and fed treats, much to their alarm and delight. Complete strangers will color each other in gulal, erasing separations in a singular joy that celebrates life, recognizable as it is ubiquitous.

I remember this day every year, though I have stopped celebrating it ritualistically since my child is all grown up and not in town any more. But this was a day I used to look forward to as a child. The preparations would begin days, even weeks before. Our Guruji, the Kathak teacher, would assemble todas and thaats constructed around the exploits of the young Krishna, as he stole freshly churned butter from pots, saris and clothes from bathing gopis, and hearts from the entire population of Brij land. We would learn permutations of rhythms, and as we owned those new combinations, we felt the joy of anticipating the festival. The children of the street would put together a show of dances to be performed on the day. Families would create elaborate, colorful jhupadi or hut exhibitions, depicting scenes from Krishna's childhood, and these would be displayed for a week.

Our street was also the playground for the children of the families that lived along its banks. On nights leading up to Janmashtmi, children would gather after supper and play would continue deep into the night, long after the living rooms were converted into bed rooms, lights blinked off in apartments, and women emerged on front porches with grain to pick through and vegetables to chop for the next day's meals. Stories would be told about Krishna's life, tales of enormous trees who were really monsters; mouths that opened to show a view of the entire cosmos; poisonous, many-hooded serpents who could be conquered with a dance and a bargain; and, of course, the eternal raas lila, the roundel that accompanies Krishna stories everywhere. Mothers deliberately left out freshly butter, along with other treats, so that their children could "steal" these when they returned from school, and when the household smiled indulgently at the child, they were really worshipping a god.

I remember looking forward to outings, especially, since clothing, ornaments, and peacock feathers created specially to fit the divine infant would be sold on city streets, along with Janmashtmi treats, and each street corner boasted its own jhupadi. During recess at school, talk revolved around the most decorated jhupadis and where they might be found, and the peculiar delicacy each family cooked during this festival. Even the curriculum at schools did not remain untouched. We had quizzes based on the Krishna Lila sections of the Mahabharata in General Knowledge classes; Krishna-poems abounded in Hindi classes; a bhajan, a devotional song by Narsinh Mehta would be included in our usually secular prayer halls that began the school day. Our school, too, had its own cultural program to celebrate this festival, and a special students' council would be established to oversee the jhupadi our school sponsored.

As I consider the wet afternoon thundering with elephantine roars, I ponder on the fact that every year, on this day, it rains like this, at least once. Of course, it is quite possible that this is no coincidence or divine design, just the usual weather pattern the year follows. However, as I raise my cup of tea to the God of Joy; I am grateful for the memories his birthday has granted me. These memories remind me of a world gone by, of times that have revolved away with the earth's circumambulations, leaving behind an aftertaste of sweetened yogurt I am no longer allowed.

I watch a yellowed leaf drift lazily through the drizzle and imagine it a marigold petal. I believe the joy I take in my tea this afternoon is as true as any I have felt during midnight street games, the newly owned thaats, and the inimitable taste of white, soft, freshly churned butter. If I concentrate hard enough, I am sure to inhale the fragrance of sandalwood my grandmother used to smear on the idol of the infant god of monsoons and peacocks.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Flickering Lights

The Summer is almost done and Fall knocks on window panes, broods in the trees that shade my little home, her eyes glazed as she counts her breaths, inhaling the still hot air, biding her time to exhale the cold when my house is empty once more, my family gone on to join the busyness of their own regular seasons. As I read late into the night, I, too, inhale and exhale with deliberation, trying to still my center that I may tolerate the unmoving air and thunderstorms of this season with equanimity. Now that I stand almost at the outer threshold of Summer, I need to look back to take stock of the passing season.

Last night, an unexplained plate smashed, stirring up dreams of the sleeping house. I remember waking up to cool air and the rain complaining softly outside my window. This has been the kind of season it has been: unexpected freshness of utter, complete kindnesses from the very atmosphere, breezing consistently through the frightening nightmare my kidney disease is fast becoming. The enormity of what I must journey through defeats me. If I sit down to analyze and understand this, I wonder if I could emerge from it with any of my self intact, and what parts I would have to let go, just to survive it. The daunting nature of this process has just been brought to fore lately, as I prepare to get my name on a list of people waiting for a kidney.

This process takes weeks, even months, and every time I smile and respond in complete sentences to the personnel testing my body through various apparatus, they look at me in surprise, as though they had never thought to find a person, a consciousness willing to communicate within the body they test. They are extra gentle with their needles and remind me to breathe in and out with kind, smiling eyes. I am very grateful to them. As I am told unsavory, but very real tales my blood tells, I hold on to the frankness of gazes, the pacific expressions, the clarity of phrase as proof of confidence these personnel possess, not just in the necessity of the process they are describing to me, but also in their ability to lead me through it.

I have felt like a lost Dante in the exact center of the woods (I turned 50 this year), who suddenly finds herself surrounded by many Virgils bearing glowing boughs with strong grips.

I tend to take my family and friends for granted; they've always been around so I have no reason to imagine an hour without. This year, though, their generosity and regard are warmer. I do not have words to acknowledge any of those. So I will place my friends and family in the same drawer with my book, the best part of this year, deserved or otherwise, the gifts I will take from the Universe as my due.

The year from this August to next is going to be difficult and I put this mildly. I have no idea how I am going to handle it. This is not to say that there is nothing but dark dreams on my mind: there are a couple of movies I am looking forward to, a few outings with friends that I think of with nothing but joy, even a trip (hopefully) to India so I can hold my brand new nephew. It remains my hope that if I can just concentrate on the minutiae of living: as long as I continue to complain about grading, exclaim at my regular TV shows, ply my needle through fabric, sip at my tea, I will love my living, however long it may last.

The year will begin to die soon. The two trees that guard my house will sigh in relief as summer storms finally leave and the skies get too steely for the drama that heat conjures. As evening hurries in, faster and sooner, I will continue to call and cajole the grey cat who left her house when it burned. Hopefully, she will reclaim her abandoned home and heal it, forgive it for falling apart and spooking her so, just when she was settling down in it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Writing about Ugly Daffodils

This is my first true day off in a very long time: my stories are all with my listeners, speaking for themselves, I have managed the Hydra of grading (though not conquered the monster), and the cats are fed. It seems meet, then, to just catch my breath and take stock as I work my way through my daily allotment of caffeine.

Writing the stories that I have been working on for the past few months has completely transformed my inner landscape. Before I sat down with this project, I was confident of what I referred to as my writing style. I was sure of my ability to reflect internal realities of my characters in a believable way. I didn't care much for including dialogue, didn't trust my characters when they opened their mouths. Most of my writing revolved around recognition of the familiar in a strange world and I built epiphanies, peripeteia, and happily-ever-after's around these. I had thought that two of my major challenges had been tense consistency and avoiding purple prose. Every time I used to revise my work, I would pay meticulous attention to each verb, try to sort out the diction, and endlessly revise syntax. A lot of times, I would re-read a story and fail to find the pivot around which I had thought I had written, and discard that story. I flirted with magical realism, usually unsuccessfully.

I should have known better. I should have read less Virginia Woolf. I should have loved Dickens less.

One of my University professors often said that it was better to write about the pattern on the carpet one stood on, than to write about daffodils. He meant that good writing emerged from being true to one's experience, rather than a conscious or unconscious emulation of admired writers. At that time, all those decades ago, my writing was largely narcissistic (yes, Reader, I kept a journal), and even the fiction and poetry I wrote derived from a very personal perspective. I had a blank book, shaped like a peacock in which I kept my most treasured poetry and this, if anything does, reflects the relationship I had with the process. I had interpreted my professor's words rather too literally and written exclusively about how events and people affected me: that, then, was my pattern on the carpet, my way of avoiding the daffodils. If I were to read any of it now, I would find it claustrophobic and unforgivably abstract. I would burn it all, if it wasn't already lost. I wish I could deny all kinship with it.

I should have stuck to the daffodils, even though I had never seen a daffodil then. My professor claimed that they were rather ugly, as flowers go, Wordsworth notwithstanding. I should have written about ugly daffodils.

These past few months have changed my understanding about carpet patterns and daffodils. This is a good thing. This project has given my characters gumption enough to speak up. Now, if a character does not speak often, I tend to revise the story, coax the silence, and I try to encourage that character to open up a bit. I try to see if the narrator's voice is not too intrusive. I try to contain the narrator's voice to strictly external descriptions. Instead of anchoring the entire plot on a single moment of recognition or realization, I try to sustain a mood of a scene. I now see that my plots had proven too heavy for those single moments to carry, and the forced silence of my characters loomed large, adding to the gravid nature of the stories. I wonder that my readers did not complain of headaches as they ploughed through them! I am learning to recognize and avoid what my wonderfully patient publisher calls "the dreaded inner voice."

Now, I do not revise as much for tense and syntax; using dialogue has done wonders for that! Instead, I try to establish a Rasa or a general emotional atmosphere through a scene or section. I try to understand the many transient emotions that constitute this stable Rasa. I try to ensure that the nature of the characters who inhabit that scene are believable, elastic enough to feel what the scene needs them to feel, and convincing enough to operate within its parameters. I am trying to work on my listening skills, so when these characters begin to speak, I can understand the scene better.

I do not know if this makes my writing any better or worse than it was a few months ago. However, this process has brought me a clearer understanding of my relationship with the writing process. It is my ardent and genuine hope that one day, I finally learn how to write well about the pattern of the carpet I stand on, and find that it is not that different from writing about ugliness of daffodils.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Mythos and Logos

Kristin tagged me to do this in a post. I cannot resist this tag, just as I cannot resist meeting Kristin over a bowl of coffee or soup as we read and comment on each others' stories. I remain grateful for her patience, as, of late, my stories have been woven around Indian mythology, a universe as alien to her as the world of the deep ocean is to me. She continues to inspire me to do better with every word I write. I also tag Marissa, a talented writer who shares our love of mythology and folklore.

What am I working on?

My book: An anthology for which I have a contract with a publisher takes up most of my waking hours when I am not working. These stories examine mythological characters Indian Mythology, who face issues and problems that are surprisingly contemporary. My hope is to enable today's readers to recognize themselves in these characters.

Assorted short stories: These are not based on mythology and they do not have a specific publisher or purpose that drives them. The immigrant identity fascinates me and I see shining vignettes or moments around me, around which I quilt and embroider a story. These stories feel like parts of my own psyche, detaching themselves, metamorphosing, and flying out of the window. I do send them out and some are picked up for publication; and so I lose them.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I think that my stories have a unique place, straddling as they do, continents, ages, and present a moment in the ever-changing ethos of the consciousness of an Indian American immigrant, operating from the particular canvas of experiences and responses that are personal and individual. My work is unique in narratology and treatment of the subject, yet it is informed by a rich heritage and it is not lonely. I have many writers (both, past and contemporary) whom I continue to enjoy and admire even as I resist emulating them and work on developing my own narrative voice.

Why do I write what I do?

I write because I don't have a choice. My stories, I sometimes fear, express some kind of a wild, untamed, un-tame-able wildness that is both within me as well as in the world around. At the same time, writing stories is my therapy, my cure against all manner of madness and chaos that are so much a part of one's every day life.

Usually, the story chooses the teller, so I suppose I don't really choose what I write much. The book I am writing is about Indian myths. I find epics, folklore, and mythology very easy to relate to. These stories provide a continuation of the human experience, at the same time, resonate with my internal realities. A lot of my work derives from these genres.

The stories in folklore and myths are ancient, yet I find that they are renewed within me. I try to tell them in their renewed form. For example, when my house burned and I could not go home for a while, I recognized my unwilling banishment in Sita's imprisonment. That is where my writing lives, between this world and the one of the myths.

I write because I have no other way of telling these stories that insist that they must be told.

I  write because I know of no greater magic than that of the written word.

How does my writing process work?

I just blogged about this: I don't have a process, per say, or a part of my day or week I reserve for my writing. Sometimes, I get up in the night with an itch beneath my fingers and a slight nausea and the only way to get normal is to write it out; this usually is out in a few hours. But then, I have entire weeks when I don't do anything but write, weeks when I have planned to work on certain aspects of stories, aspects that need revision or re-writing.  

I fear I might have a writing disorder. I do not particularly enjoy the writing, and it is really hard work.

It is frustrating because what I write is not brilliant, beautiful stuff; most of it needs to be revised, re-revised, and re-visited yet again in order to be just acceptable.  It feels like a narcissistic indulgence, accompanied with guilt at indulging in it. But I love it so much that I cannot imagine doing anything else.

May the gods never visit such horrible fates on anyone I know!






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