Monday, March 7, 2016

Quest for Purgatory

My friend has been caught up in visions of Purgatory, a concept I've always had a hard time with. My patient reader knows that I am a practicing Hindu and even though we have layers of heavens and infernos, we do not have a purgatory; the very idea seems pointless from the perspective of a system of belief that revolves around reincarnation. After all, purging suggests subtraction of sorts and energy cannot be subtracted. The very thought of all souls leaning towards a singular direction makes me uncomfortable. The universe must be balanced, after all!

I have Read Literature and I am familiar with Dante and other stories of Purgatory. I understand the concept if I consider a monotheistic world; it would make sense that ALL souls have the propensity for being all good in that world. I have seen people inducing suffering on their flesh to "burn" away their indulgences and become worthy of Purgatory. In extreme cases, I have heard and read of people choosing a violent, unnatural death to directly attain Paradise, by-passing Purgatory by burning off all sins in a final conflagration of unimaginable pain that devours the very living body.

I am not convinced. I still have to squint to glimpse Purgatory. What makes most sense to me is that life itself is a place of learning and catharsis. After all, all the burning and punishments I have read about seem to be of a physical nature. People burdened by stones, people busily running around nowhere, people walking through fire, all of these seem to punish the physical body. Surely perils of the soul are different? If the soul is being purged of the faults it has paid for in hell, then surely, the purging should involve the spirit? Perhaps the prayers at the end of each circle of Purgatory are enough?

I do not have a Virgil to guide me, Also, I am not sure that I want to travel that rocky way.

However one believes, all of us are fascinated with the afterlife, sometimes more so than we are in love with being alive. My friend is not alone in her preoccupation about the afterlife. What bothers me the most about these visions, whether it is the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Greek Underworld, or Dante's song, is that they all seem to be built on the terrain of misgiving. A lot of one's moral compass, then, is driven by fear of afterlife than by an unclouded awareness of right and wrong. How can those choices, impelled as they are by apprehension of punishment or expectation of reward, be proper or clear?

If I leave Dante behind and fast forward to the 20th century and its love affair with the apocalyptic and the post-apocalyptic, I have Sartre, who suggests a completely different kind of terror and hell: of a flower speaking and of other people!

 Perhaps Camus' Sisyphus presents the most comforting of all landscapes of afterlife.

I prefer my forests of between eye-blinks, of confused gods and wise demons, arrogant demons and graceful gods, of jatiswaram animals, who remember their past lives and clueless, ambitious humans, a world in which trees and stones are worthy of worship and evil is a matter of perspective, and all the time knowing that it is all part of someone else's dream. Even though there are several layers of infernos where souls that choose malice and harm are punished, they are punished only until their horde of faults is exhausted. After that, they do earn their time in one of the layers of heavens, depending on their horde of merit. There is no in-between land of purging as the premise is that the soul itself needs no purification; it IS pure energy. The only real sin is connected with self-awareness of the living; it is ignorance and the soul fixes that by exploring life from a variety of perspectives through lifetimes. At the end of each lifetime, the hollow body is the entity that is burned without suffering. The ashes immersed in water help with the further journey of the soul.

I guess what I, my friend, and the rest of humanity search for in stories of afterlife is some sort of comfort. Mine, I find, lies in the prospect of chances varied enough to learn all I need to by delving into Life itself. Perhaps it will not bring me any closer to the divine; but then perhaps that is not the point at all.

Perhaps the divine is not to be sought without or after, but like the monstrous, It too resides within and now.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Long Story, Short Nights

The nights have turned dark, wet, and cold. Appropriately enough, I have been going through a few Dickens, in keeping with the bleak season. However, unlike expected, I have been enjoying myself immensely. I had forgotten the familiar joys of texts connected with my youth.

I began with A Tale of Two Cities, and I remembered how half our class was half in love with Sydney Carton, the Byronic non-hero of the tale. I loved revisiting the shadows of the London streets, shuddered deliciously at the clacking needles of Mme. Defarge, and despaired over the macabre Carmagnole. I remembered that I loved Dickens for the very reason that he is hated: the extra words. I enjoy those words because of the wealth of detail and humor that reside in them, and this time around, I was in no hurry to finish the book and begin analyzing themes. At the same time, the story remembered me as a young girl. A most wonderful mirror!

The other two, Great Expectations and Hard Times, seem like a reflection of all that is broken in the world of education. Mr. Gradgrind of Hard Times insists on FACTS and children today are taught to the acronym of that very idea, standardized tests. I, too, too often find myself rushing through material because of time constraints, and too often, the enormity of all that needs to be taught just defeats me and I wonder if there is anything wrong with teaching just facts.

These cold days rob me of the wherewithal to do much and I find my sleep rhythms out of sync. My disease bloats me too full at nights so I can barely breathe and I dream through the days, not always sure if I am awake. Through this chthonic time, the old texts of my youth keep anchor and compass, and even if I cannot always remember the state of my wakefulness, I remember the part of the story  that holds me.

I have always known that the written word would save me. Here, in this cold season, I find yet another way to light up my darkened path with it. I shall trust the well-told tales; after all, they are older and wiser.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Her Chariot on the Horizon

Tomorrow, Navratri begins: nine nights of celebrating the Goddess. It has always been my favorite of all festivals. Nothing gets my Gujarati blood going like a velvet full moon night, bright with promise of garba, and when the first dhol sounds, my feet fly away from my will. I love going for garba, sought it out wherever the roundel formed and only the dying music would stop my whirling.

Of course, the past couple of years has seen my body giving way to my kidney disease and even though I did not miss any more nights of garba than I absolutely had to, I could not dance a lot. I had to sit on the sidelines, watching people more fit give in to the music. I loved that too. There is no feeling better than being at garba.

This year, however, I will not be able to attend for more than a night or two, at the most. My dialysis needs 8 to 10 hours and if I have to reach work the following morning on time, I have to start my treatments before the garbas begin. I plan to go to the temple earlier in the evening and just bow to the Goddess, tell her that I would miss Her and that I'd be thinking of Her.

I can't stop thinking of Her, actually. All year, I would do enough cardio exercises, just so I could dance the garba. I went through Navratri days as though someone had switched on a light deep within me; I glowed and people thought I was in love.  My name for my daughter is no accident: I named her for the Goddess. There are times when I believe that the Goddess did descend within my daughter, especially when I see her insisting on her rights, fighting for what she thinks is fair. My child loved Navratri too. I would buy the pass to go for the large garba sponsored by IRCC, and loved every minute of it. One year, my child, who was in highschool, gathered her few friends and I bundled them into my car and took them dancing till dinner was served after aarti, after 2am. It remains one of my fondest memories of Navratri.

Tonight, I am working on calming myself: after all, I cannot attend the festivities this year, so I should not feel excited at the prospect. However, I cannot help it. I went through the day today, smelling sugar; I almost bought some incense; I stopped myself from a mental inventory of my chanya choli, the odhni scarves that might need ironing, my favorite earrings and bindis waiting since last year in the drawer. But then, I see the dialysis machine waiting on top of the drawer, patiently waiting for me to remember it, and I have to laugh.

I have had so many wonderful Navratri memories that I do not resent having to sit out a year or so. I wish that my child would find a roundel to whirl in during these magical nights, to unleash the Gujju that lurks in her. I know that she is very far and I can no longer see her whirling with unconscious grace, with her unique steps and dips.

Tomorrow, when I go to the Goddess, I will remember to ask her blessing for my child and grant her a roundel all her own, so that years from now, if her body cannot whirl any more, she remembers this year's magic and it warms her darkening year. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Three Mahabharat Poems

Once, I had a book contract: six stories that followed perspective of six women characters from Hindu Mythology (Sita, Radha, Shikhandi / Amba, Anasuya, Shakuntala, and Satyavati). This contract was triggered by my story, "I, Sita," which was published with Freedom Fiction Journal. I worked, re-worked, and revised all six stories, tried to meet expectations of editors across oceans. My efforts, however, fell short: the editors dropped my project, claiming that they did not have the editorial support my stories needed. It took me months to acknowledge that my work of over two years has come to naught.

I now have six well-dressed characters, waiting; I watch them sitting around on my desktop, adjusting their clothing, glancing questioningly around, and I wish I could apologize. They no longer have anywhere to go. How do I tell them? These six characters are very strong women: diplomats, queens, warriors, lovers, yogis, all ferocious, two attained apotheosis, one even re-born as a man to exact her revenge. I, their messenger of ill-tidings, would not be allowed to exist in the same room as any of them. Whatever will they say? What will they do to me when they hear? Do I even have language to phrase what I must tell them?

Well-wishers and friends keep asking after the book contract; how far has it gone? When is the book being released? My head hangs even lower at these inquiries. A lot of  people had promised to be the first to buy a book such as the one I was working on. How do I bring them to where my characters await?

I do not resent the work, of course. I'd do it all over again, and gladly. It was a labor of love. I learned a great deal, both about the myths and the way I write. I am not the same. Perhaps that is enough. After all, in the final analysis, I wrote mainly for myself. The one person who truly enjoyed the stories has been me; I wonder at my whining!

Let me remind myself: I do have a few poems published. Here are a couple of poems. They are included in Swaranrekha, an anthology of poets from the Indian Subcontinent. Perhaps these voices will give heart to me and my muted characters.

Gandhari Explains
My sons number in hundreds, like iron fillings
Almost indistinguishable, black and hard like my chosen darkness
The birthing was difficult; I prayed for death and release
Posterity wishes I had died, rather than birth what I did
I don’t, of course. I understand their necessity;
This black age needed them to prick itself with, to corrode from within, rust, disintegrate
This knowledge brings no hope, no comfort, no wisdom, no divine insight
I find the false light intolerable, like a transparent, insincere promise
Of a maybe-paradise-after-life if certain cosmic forces are benign
If I can embody ideal of good-wife, good-mother, good-queen
But these good-women cancel each other out, contradict each other,
Pop and blink each other out of existence when they try to be
I prefer denial, the softness of the blindfold, a chosen lack
To keep the balanced universe on its toes, force some boon,
The heavy price already paid in advance, like a flexible spending account
For I have known of my sons’ nature from the time they were a glint,
A splinter of shining metal, glowing darkly in their blind father’s eyes
Which only see his lot shortened, cheated, overlooked
No deity, demon, being can force me to watch in 3-D Kodak color
The slow destruction of an era dying in my sons’ faults,
Their thousand-and-one trespasses on divine patience
All their juvenile assassination attempts laughed off as boys-being-boys
Their malicious tricks and sneers they thought I was too blind to see, shards in my breast
They were indulged when they should have been slapped silly: an expense to be paid by
This world, the golden city my oldest rules justly, if not wisely
Do you wonder why I chose this blindness now? With a
Brother like mine, Husband like mine, Sons like mine,
Would you have chosen differently?
Yet do not call me cursed! I have that
Which Kunti, even, could not coax of the gods:
My dismissed daughter that you forgot, who did not forget me
Stoic and iron-willed, surviving father, uncles, brothers, cousins, husband
After the bloody apocalypse of eighteen days, I need only her touch to bless
My forfeit of illusory sight. The divine nephew, charioteer of victors and kin-killers knows
She is the kindness the cosmos was forced to surrender to my stubborn blindness.

Ganga, Unable
The light confuses me, twisting colors, weaving hues
I keep squinting, unable to focus on a single dimension
Seeing too many tenses at once, unable to hold moments singly
Unable to dwell on a penumbra to tell if it’s dawn or dusk 
I should never have left my heavenly streams
There is such peace, such uniformity in darkness beyond space
This tellurian world demands I assume a safe domesticity,
Properly befitting my gender, scholarship, ancestry, origin
I try, tried modulating gracefully in sweet tones of wifehood, queen-ship
But these cloths, though silken and pliant like my waters,
Do not fit.
They keep slithering about, like the king’s promises,
Get stuck and break apart, like dark suspicions,
Whisper severe doubts along deserted palace halls,
Remain opaque and unyielding so my fluid self is cloaked
 I sit here, at the window seat, my hands idle
The mynah on the mango tree screeches sweetly as she despoils the fruit
I must leave soon; I see the forbidden question squatting on the sunset
Unspoken as yet, but imminent, inevitable, like you, my newly conceived son 
             I only want to keep you formless within me, my taintless child, spun of waves and swords,
Like this ageless song snatched from the tenuous plundering bird;
You don’t agree and insistence on proper whittling distresses me
I am relieved when the bird flies off to desecrate other unripe fruit 
A lucid glance at my husband shocks as I rise in greeting and recognition:
For when I see the king through my variegated veil, I am unable to un-see
                               The obsequious timeworn son behind the temerarious impulsive father.

Finally, here is one of my favorites. It was posted on this page some years ago and is included in my book.

Arjun at the Swayamvar
Being best friends with the divine doesn’t help
The same old intrigue and desperations led me to this contest and fire
My arrow, though true to its mark, is fueled by mortal sinew and blood
The eye it snags spits out tissue and nerve
The whole exercise feels like a hoax, a bad deal with too-tiny small print
But the Fire Princess seems oblivious to any cosmic conspiracy
Seeing only the promise and comfort of my muscled shoulder, my twinkling glance
Admiring only the sensuous garland entwining my bronzed epithelium. 

I lower my eyes (she is shorter by a full head) to hint at my noble humility
She exchanges a quick glance with her brothers, one divine, one fiery
Seeking assurance for the rightness of her choice, the propriety of what is happening

I too look around, but my brothers have forgotten me in the moment
They all are busy blinking tears, of victory, of gratitude
You’d think I’d blinded them when my arrow targeted the fish eye.

They do not smell the fog of envy that clouds the Hall
It stings my eyes as it rises to the canopy and darkens the skies 

 I wonder what sightlessness descended when my arrow pierced that eye
The contest feels weighed, like loaded dice, a veneer covering a warning
A clanging prothalmion sung as prelude to apocalypse
My shoulders sag under the heaviness of flowers as I lift the bridal garland with sure hands
And hang my head to accept the burdensome future of a dying age.

It is my hope that these three voices will remind me how much I loved the project, the stories, and the characters that emerged and began speaking. I am very fortunate that I was allowed to hear. Telling is complicated and could take long. After all, it took my characters all of my life time to reach me! But if they can reach me across the oceans of myths and millennia, I am hopeful that my telling may yet reach out those who await it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Today is supposed to be a spectacular lunar eclipse of a red, harvest moon. But there is a heavy cloud cover so this can only be enjoyed online. Facebook is busy with many pictures of a clear,velvet sky and an improbably large moon; NASA's site has many "like" hits. Today is also Ganesh Visarjan, the day when Ganesh, who had arrived in homes, on streets and in pandals is ceremoniously paraded through the city to be immersed in a river, an ocean, a lake, with loud reminders of a speedy return. It would be a holiday, since the streets would be non-navigable. The TV proclaims Dushera and Diwali celebrations through the country.

Thanks to FaceTime, I celebrated too. However, this year's holiday season makes me very nervous. I have been on dialysis for six months and I am still juggling the process, along with all its accompanying complications. Some days, I feel like a bloated watermelon because the procedure and my body refuse to let go of extra fluid; some days, I wake up exhausted, having lost 6 lbs. overnight. Exhaustion grips me so firmly that I often have no control over the sleep that overtakes me in the middle of a sentence, when I am stitching, even in the middle of a Dr. Who episode! Throwing out the garbage tires me out, so I need a nap right after. There are days on which I am amazed that I do finish my grading and lecturing. May the gods continue this situation for long!

So this holiday season makes me wonder if I can celebrate my favorite festival, Navratri, the way I have been, for over a decade now. If I have to go to work, I need to begin my dialysis rather early and that would preclude my attending the garbas at my temple. On the weekends, I might be under weather, or I might have my clinic the following morning, or perhaps a delivery of dialysis supplies, or my blood appointment. As the year dims, I fear the advancing darkness without the holidays lighting up the long evenings. So I am thinking of alternate ways of celebrating the holidays; not celebrating might cost me part of my very humanity!

Perhaps I can go to the temple on a few nights that would be followed by free mornings. I have stocked up on Tylenol in case of the melting joints thing my body sometimes does. Perhaps I can move my clinic and doctors' appointments for later in the day. I might get an iron infusion that could address the exhaustion. Even if I cannot stay for the entire night's festivities, a little light might be all I need.And I am fortunate enough to live in a time with FaceTime, Facebook, and WhatsApp so that I am always connected to those who have lighted my holidays forever.

These are the ways in which all holidays, rituals, traditions, myths, and faiths remain immortal. I know I am not alone in having to change the way I observe and celebrate. For some, these new ways become the norm and this is wonderful, a new glow in an enduring flame.

Of course, I hope that this change for me is temporary and soon, with a successful transplant, I can return to the way the holidays were. It would be a gift better than renewed youth and beauty.

Let me end this hope-note with genuine gratitude; I know I am immeasurably fortunate in living during a time that allows me to write this even though my kidneys have failed, a sure death sentence just a few decades ago. The holidays are coming and even if I am unable to light up my world with celebrations, I hope that a sure gleam guides me through this year's dimming.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Non-days and Fairy Tales

The rains began early, started as tentative pre-dawn dripping and before a few minutes had ticked, the rains pelted, the skies lit up, all kinds of cosmic drama unleashed on my sleeping town. I have been sick since then. I can't seem to get my wellness scales quite properly balanced, and the daily thunderstorms do not help. So today, I am taking the day off from the grading, from the cleaning, from the cooking, and I am giving in to the pain, the exhaustion, the sofa, and the insistence of the cat for my lap.

And to the Doctor.

Of course, today, the sun beats down and the skies are blue. It feels like a gift to look out of the window and my little back door. I make sure that the blue skies get great, grateful smiles even as I tumble through the time vortex with the TARDIS and battle the Dalek.

Years ago, a student had suggested that I watch at least one season of Dr.Who, and thankfully, I heeded the suggestion. This was a good thing because now that I have run out of Star Trek episodes the library owns, I need some more fairy tales to heal me when I feel any of a thousand ills my flesh is heir to. Yes, I could use Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and a myriad other sites that will feed me endless, current episodes from any show, but I do not have the skill or the wherewithal to learn it when my shoulders and knees are doing their melting down thing they do when they protest, I am not quite sure what. In fact, I do not have the wherewithal to do some basic dusting and laundry.

I had always said that I would write if I had two minutes to rub together. But of late, my stories break my heart. The joy of creating characters and killing them off, or marrying them off, or sending them off, or receiving them back home, seems to have dimmed. Today, I fear that my fingers might melt if I began writing, so this blog goes out as a challenge to that inevitable melting.

Today, I fear I have morphed into Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Today, I fear that I have been reading too many fairy tales.

Today, I wish for more time to read more fairy tales.

The irresistible thing about fairy tales is precisely that they are NOT escapist stories: "I am not running away from things, I am running to them before they flare and fade for all time," the Doctor claims. How can anyone resist such an Odyssey, especially when one may leave behind one's ornery, grumpy, disagreeable body? Today, I use the body of a 900 year old young man with two hearts to travel through infinite time and space, while my singular human heart jumps with worry that I might not be able to travel a few hundred miles to my child's graduation or visit my birthplace for years. These fairy tales give me hope that in a few days or hours, my melting, aching joints will ease and begin working; I will travel wherever and whenever I wish. After all, everything does end in happily ever after!

The cats' Buddha-like sleep faces bespeak of similar cat-tales. However, the cats are wiser than their dormant forms suggest. Even though the skies have been blue all day long, they are now crowded with mountains of black, belying any existence of the gold the sun had spilled everywhere a few minutes ago. I had wondered why the cats had chosen to nap indoors today; now I know! The doctor is right: things are never what they appear.

Once the parallax is adjusted, though, it all ends quite happily, all things considered. So one might say that today is a non-day, a day I invest in adjusting perception to balance parallax.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Loudly Celebrated

It is the 4th of July again, and again, it is cloudy, hot, and smokey. I do not look forward to this day. Yes, the day off is definitely welcome, but other than that, there are few things that redeem this holiday.

We finish groceries and chores early in the week to avoid leaving the house on this day. The beach is overly over-crowded, as are the few stores that are open. People descend on the beaches and parks armed with chairs and gigantic coolers with lots of beer. Things get really loud after that, and this is just late morning. By the time the 4th dawns, even, the air crackles with extra static and fumes; people have been fire cracking away for days. The little showers that are so much a part of this land and this season, do little but add steam and damp.

One of the extraordinary things about this part of the world, unlike India, is that festivals are all the business of individuals, not the entire community; these are controlled events, contained within designated areas and there is no joy or celebration that spills over to the streets. If one were to find oneself driving around town on festival days, there is little evidence of anything being celebrated.

In India, I remember pandals, exhibits at every street corner, music, people in festive garb, extra hawkers, extra beggars, colored lights and flags stringed all over streets, and no one would be confused about what victory, god, beginning or end is being celebrated. Fresh flowers and colored sand would be in great demand for days before the day, as people plan decorations for their businesses, streets, houses, temples,even public buildings in their neighborhood. There was a particular smell of festivals: the air smelled of marigolds, incense,and laddoos. Freshly cleaned and decorated houses stood invitingly open, the family in newly stitched clothes milling around with neighbors and visitors, sharing sweetmeats with all, acquaintances and strangers alike. Even if one did not share the ideals or the faith being celebrated, one didn't have a choice but to get swept in the celebrations. I loved it all except the firecrackers during Diwali.

Here, I do not have much family in town. So today is truly a day off. No music blares so I cannot work; no fragrances distract; indeed, this could be any Saturday, a sunny morning with rain later on silent streets and quiet houses.

This post may sound unpatriotic or snooty. However, as we move towards a more globalized entity, I wonder how many Independence Days one should celebrate, and what exactly we celebrate. These days celebrate our victories over each other and often, become the flint that spark riots in some parts of the world. I shudder and fear that instead of celebrating end of atrocities, these days open up scabs and force old wounds to bleed and weep anew. They remind us, most of all, of our differences, our separations.

For these reasons, I AM glad that the 4th of July is quieter here than the 15th of August is, in India. After all, freedom-day is a serious thought, a quiet contemplation about the price it demands, an examination of its various hues, a continuous re-adjustment of its definition, and it is a sad day that forces survivors to reflect on the heavy losses incurred.

I wish we had an anthem for the planet, a day that marks end of global atrocities, a song that arouses an upsurge of patriotic feeling for the land, the oceans, and the air above, without imaginary, artificial boundaries that apply only to human beings.

On such a day, perhaps, I will not mind the fire works.
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