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!






Friday, March 28, 2014

The Yellowed White Coat

"They'll call when they call," M. informed me, her closed frown underlined by her streaming cold. This was unacceptable, not just because of the meaningless tautology of her non-response, but because M was the nurse sent out to attend to me. She interrupted herself and me several times to blow her nose, her belligerence rock like, a most uncompromising oncos, snarling like a Cerebus.

M. is the face of my nephrologist's office. The office has failed to file the necessary paperwork to follow the next step needed in care of my disease management. The office has been singularly deaf to my protests that I need no referrals or authorizations, that I had confirmed this with my insurance. It seems, as it was with my burnt house, I am doomed to fight for basic rights against an army of scrivening, sniffling bureaucrats, who treat me as though I am an annoying fly in their smooth ointment.

Today, M showed me forms I had filled in, which they had faxed to various people, with the word "URGENT" stamped on four drafts. However, recipients of those faxes are not concerned with what the nephrologist's office is supposed to do, and so these "URGENT" summons go unaddressed. My GP's office called me today to remind me that I hadn't seen them in months, and if I needed help with my kidney disease, I should talk to my nephrologist. Furthermore, if it was "URGENT" that a response be made, then it defies logic that the nephrologist's office refuses to follow protocol and address the urgency of the matter.

I called the nephrologist's office, but then they were closed. They are closed every week day between 12pm and 2pm, and there is no way to leave a message during those times. They do not answer the phones before 9:40am,  or after 3:30pm, so divine intervention would be needed if a caller worked from 9 to 5, even counting for the usual 12-1 lunch break. The only way to reach the office is to take time off from whatever useless profession one pursues, and just arrive, unannounced and unexpected, exhaling fire. Then there is much scurrying and a file emerges.

I asked to see the file, and the first thing that caught my eye was the name of the nephrologist attending my case; it was the wrong practitioner. I asked about it, and M covered the objectionable information with a swollen finger, stabbing at the word "URGENT" repeatedly instead in an excellent demonstration of the Red Herring Logical Fallacy that my Freshman Composition students would immediately recognize.

The doctor's office had drawn blood (after attempts on different arms, resulting in many bruises that spoke horrible lies about my tendency to addictions), but had failed to collect the results in time for my nephrologist appointment a couple of weeks later. The nephrologist is personable and interesting to talk to, and my office visit with him resulted in a rather pleasant conversation without much matter, since the relevant results were not available; it felt like a $35 tea without the tea.

Today, M condescendingly explained (as though to a rather slow four year-old in need of a nap) that without the blood work, there should have been no appointment. I asked her whose fault that was; M blew her nose noisily in response and went back to stabbing the "URGENT" on the file.

I asked, "Do you think that no one will notice if I should die or get really sick because your office did not file this? Why did your office not check if the results were received before confirming the doctor's appointment and assuring me that the results were, indeed, in?"

Her response, patient reader, deserves a concrete description. She stood with one hip jutting out to express her extreme boredom with the situation her virtues were tested in. She sighed and coughed in a single noise, blew her nose again, and cocking her head first northeast, then southwest, and finally northeast again to punctuate each word, she spat, "I don't know."

Then she escalated the voltage of belligerence in her glance and stance, and stared hard at me, pursing her lips so tightly that her lips completely disappeared and caused a little balloon to blossom underneath her flaring nostrils. Had I stayed farther, she would have been unable to stop the raspberry that was so obviously blooming.

Stress aggravates my disease, an obvious observation, considering the sudden plummeting of my health after my home burned. I regularly practice stress management techniques and common sense assures that my medical team's constant vigilance should decrease my stress. However, my dealings with my nephrologist's office might well have taken years off my life, negated many a meditation session and calm morning.

There is a vertical frown above my eyebrows. It reminds me of Shiva's third eye, the one that opens when Shiva becomes Rudra, the angry deity whose dance brings on the end of a world. However, unlike the god, I am of mortal flesh and do not have the skill to the burn a world without killing myself first. But I know the shape of that third eye too well. If I could control mine, it would burn off the consummate indifference and its attendant belligerence radiating from self-aggrandized care givers who remain convinced of the need to keep the sick from their hallowed halls, to keep the diseased fettered in reams of indefatigable bureaucracy.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Little of All

I have been amiss in updating this blog and I could offer some really good excuses; but that's not what this space is for. I asked the universe, and the universe rained down gifts on me. I did get my book contract and I am working on my book more hours than can be contained in a day. It is rewarding work, even though I am still writing and not getting anything concrete in return. Just the writing feels cathartic.

I have been complaining about stories haunting me, itching me beneath my finger nails, fluttering beneath my closed eyelids, racing through my brain path ways, running along my veins, like plasma I cannot rid myself of. So every time I write a story or a section, I feel like I have been drained of all blood and must rest to fill myself up again, like I have poured out a part of myself. However, this pouring out is exhausting and leaves me unable for the rest of the week. Instead of these intense writing schedules, I'd love to be able to write a little each day, grade a bit, clean up the house regularly, and keep up with my reading, all as part of an unremarkable daily quotidian.

I wonder at all who write for the love of it. One of my best friends writes in the wee hours of the morning and is disciplined enough to command her pen. She, along with a lot of people whose writing habits I read about, can write for a couple of hours a day and not miss time. She can have normal appointments, meet people for lunch, attend and contribute meaningfully to meetings, and do the same thing the following day! She has amassed a formidable body of varied genres, all because she has the discipline to write a little everyday.

One of my favorite writers describes her writing routine: she tends to her family, takes a walk, meditates, and then settles down for the afternoon of writing. All that I have read about writing habits point out the importance of having a routine, the richness that comes from disciplined expression of one's passion. One should have a specific place to write, like a desk, Virginia Woolf's room of one's own to write most productively. This designated place and routine validate one's writing.

To that end, I have cleared a desk, arranged my work schedule, and given myself lots of pep-talks on the importance of establishing a writing time-table and following it through. After all, I reasoned with myself, I do submit my grades and manage the Learning Management System at work! My mortgage is never late and the cats are never hungry. So I must possess a modicum of self-discipline. Why not use that for the one thing that nourishes me the most?

Aye there's the rub! Writing is my nourishment and I have a writing-disorder!

 Last year, when my kidney disease suddenly plummeted my well-being, I began a diet that is stricter than a movie-star diet, and for the most part, have kept it up. I lost some weight and people around me exclaimed at my self-control. However, no matter how much I talk about it, I cannot fully express the ferociousness of the battles I fought to resist pizzas, to walk away from chhole-bhature, piping hot bhajias, the dhebras that used to be my staple, or the constant struggle to refuse cheese. The problem is, I can resist all that food, even get used to my salt deprived, lean bowl, mainly, I believe, because my body is more biddable than my writing habits.

I fear that my writing habits are sofa loungers that resist all discipline and refuse all commands to get up and get going. I have always felt guilty when I have given in to them: I should be cleaning up a bit, grading, updating, arranging my house, tending to the cats who share my living space. After all, I am really not the only person extraordinary enough to love writing! So on days when I give in to my unhealthy writing habits feel like wicked indulgences, though the aftermath is cathartic. I do not mean to say that the quality of writing is excellent; actually, quite the contrary. More than 90% needs to be re-written. But then there is a separate relief that comes with each draft.

The stories I am in the middle of inhabit me. I remember last week, I came home from work, got my dinner together and opened the story I had been working on. The television was on and the cats fed. I'd just meant to give the story a quick glance. When I looked up, it was 3:00 a.m. My dinner was untouched and my back hurt. I did finish that story but the next day at work was difficult, to put it mildly. I vowed and promised and threatened myself against such extravagant immoderation. I felt as though I had fallen off my diet and my stomach was paying the price of my intemperance.

I love that my stories have a purpose, a deadline, and a home. I am more than grateful for the close reading they receive; it has been  long time since anybody read anything I wrote this closely! Yes, I have problems with weaving plots, maintaining perspective, and ensuring tense consistency. However, it is a labor of love and I feel more meaningful, more like an active participant of a purposeful universe, more relevant than when I am doing anything else.

This entry is an exercise of discipline in itself. I am forcing myself to take a break from the story that owns me right now. Little by little, the gods willing, I shall tame my unruly habits. Perhaps, one day, I, too shall command a clean house and a body of writing I can show off, all because I finally will have trained myself to do a little of all everyday!

Share It