Friday, November 27, 2009
Because I live in Florida, everyone I sing my woes to responds with the same refrain: "It comes with living here; get used to it! I have ants too."
But, I ask you, how can one get used to it?
I have tried haldi powder some swear by; I sprinkled it on the rim of the air-tight cat food container, around feeding bowls of the cats, even underneath the paper on the parakeets' cage. Then, there were the coffee grounds, ant baits, moth balls, and granules that promised to drive the armies away within a fortnight.
Nothing worked. The ants returned in hordes, ever increasing in number, seeking out ways of seeping into cat food, garbage cans, even the water left out for the cats. I have quested after the true ant-proof feeding bowl with the faith only a grail-knight would understand. I have tried chip-and-dip platters, filling the larger part with the water, and holding food, Tantalus-like, in the middle, where the dip is meant to go. But the ants defeated me there too. I found them, invariably, in the food, and once there, they kept the cats away.
I have even thrown away shamefully large amounts of money in hopes of owning such an object. One promising bowl cost me as much as $29 a piece. It is a complicated construction, which heartened my courage and loosened my purse strings. It's a two-storey contraption that is meant to hold water on the first storey, and a detachable bowl that hangs over the water that's meant to hold the food. I thought this $29 contraption would work wonderfully in ways the chip-and-dip platters never did.
But the ants got in that too.
I must confess that at this point, the ants have won my admiration for their tenacity and sheer determination. I have seen them hanging in complex clusters so others can march over their bodies to spaces too high for a singular ant to reach. I regularly clean out ant bodies of willingly drowned martyrs whose cadavers have provided purchase for others to reach across oceans of water. If the cat knocks over the wet food and a bit remains undetected by my mop, in they march and arrange themselves in labyrinthine formations to increase efficiency.
These creatures are also the best cleaners I know. A surface visited by ants, you can be sure, is clean enough to eat off. Not a scrap, granule, or bit remain. And they eat almost all organic material. I am convinced, if I was a greater slob than I am, I'd never wipe off the stove after cooking, trusting, that given time, the ants would clean the stove better than the most abrasive bleach cleaner can.
In just a few hours, these tiny insects build apartments, streets, winding pathways, roundabouts, even two-way highways around the littlest scrap the cat spills. Every time I clean up the ants, I imagine ant-bards hiding in shadows, watching the apocalypse with unbelieving horror, as a civilization is cruelly wiped out with a poisoned shower from above. I wonder which ant-heroes fought valiantly to save the cocoons and the young, whose brave pincers rescued the queen or collapsed doing it, and what ant-verse the minstrels will use to honor the glorious past so meaninglessly erased at a whim of another being. I also wonder how long I shall carry those ant-lives on my back.
Every survivor knows to honor the worthy opponent. This entry is a pean to my worthiest opponents, the ants. I bow in admiration to their ingenuity and unfailing enterprise.
Fighting with ants also keeps things in a proper perspective for me; what the singular ant is to me, I am to the Universe. When I crush the ant, I don't stop to ask its identity and judge if the ant is good, important, or how many others of its species depend on its well-being, nor do I wiegh the consequences of its demise on ant politics. Yet, I am convinced, that the ant about to be crushed is sure of its rightful place as a prime predator of a higher intelligence.
Is that what the Universe thinks of me? And how else am I to prove my worth as a being greater than an ant, but to point to the heavy burden of dead martyrs I carry?
Thursday, November 26, 2009
I have thirsted for some time to myself, to catch up on grading, quiz-construction, lecture prep, reading, and a bit of blog-surfing. Once the Summer passes and Fall descends, my routine gets a bit hectic and I need some down time, more, I notice, as I get older and slower. So this was the time I have kept for myself, sans chores, sans car, sans a life beyond my door.
However, by the time it was afternoon, I found myself orbiting Facebook, wondering what was going on in the world beyond. As expected, most entries were about how thankful people were for various things in their lives; some entries even invited additions.
This does make me feel a little guilty since I cannot adequately, ever, articulate how grateful I am for everything and everyone I've known and felt. There are many problems with this: what can one say? How does one reduce such a complex feeling into proper words? All the words I tried out seemed trivial, trite, and a repetition of what everyone else had already said, perhaps better.
There is another problem with this formal expression of thanks: whom does one address it to? The Divine? Other people? Oneself? But no; that smacks of hubris and seems unwarranted, rather silly, even.
In the final analysis, I find myself disappointed: it seems to me that everyone thanks themselves and each other with what seems like a self-congratulatory tone, a pat on each others' backs for what a wonderful job we all are doing at being nice and selfless to each other.
I think what is lacking here is a ritual, to make this expression of thanks formal, to lend it validity. Certainly, there is the food and there are the relatives and friends, but then this day becomes very similar to any family reunion day, like Memorial Day, only indoors. Of course, there is the mad rush to the malls the next day, but the stress-driven, neurotic Black Friday is, by no stretch of imagination, an expression of any gratitude, or quality time spent with friends and family.
I don't want to seem ungrateful, or Scrooge-like with this entry, because that would be an outright lie; I lack the strength of character and fortitude such a role demands.
What is more, I AM thankful for every breath I draw as me; I am grateful I got to live this precious time as who I am; I am grateful for the people around me, of course, but I am equally grateful for being able to genuinely enjoy my solitude; I am grateful I have the means and know-how to treat myself occasionally with whatever I want to read, write, eat, and dress in; I am grateful for having seen as much of the world that I have; I am grateful for the disappointments and stumbles, not because they've made me better or stronger (I sincerely doubt that they have), but just because they are mine; as I get increasingly narcissistic here, I am most grateful for the hands and eyes I am using right now.
But most of all, I am grateful for the written word that has created such a rich world for me, enriched all levels of my realities, and made sense out of a chaos of cosmic proportions.
The best expression I have found for my gratitude remains the unchanged from my daily routine, that which I begin and end the day with: I shall light a votive in my little home-temple.
What would, do you do?
Saturday, November 21, 2009
There is no subsitute for the amazement I feel at discovering how little people's impressions have changed. I've always prided myself on being forever attuned to the passage of time, and that I have grown so far away from my 20 year self, that she no longer even speaks to me.
However, meeting family who remember that 20 year self, and address me thus, reassures me that the timeless self prevails, and what is more, is recognized more than I realize.
There are too many details to ennumerate, both large and small. For instance, there was the lunch on the day we reached, just before we got our hands decorated with henna. I don't remember what we all talked about or laughed at, but it was trivial, similar to all we've talked of and laughed at in the past, and comforting like the diurnal cycle, with the certitude that we shall, all of us, talk of and laugh at the same things until a'the seas gang dry, and the rocks will melt wi'the sun.
One thing that was missing in this wedding was the nervousness of the bride and groom, who were very comfortable with each other and their families, and genuinely enjoyed each part of their wedding: they did not seem distracted, over-extended or stressed at all. In previous weddings, the bride and groom were always separate, so isolated within their immediate families and demanding ceremonies, that the attendees were often left on the peripheries, socializing among themselves.
However, in this wedding, even though we all were unbelieving and ecstatic at meeting everyone else, all the festivities revolved around the couple, who were at the centre of all the action and excitement. They sang and danced with abandon, infecting everyone with their very obvious joy. We were all treated to a different, exuberant side of my quiet, philosophical cousin; I have captured him spinning on the axis of his friend's hands, laughing uproariously with his head thrown back, comfortable in his wedding finery. I shall keep that image as a prototype of a good wedding celebration.
I had also mentioned in my previous entry, the importance of having my daughter with me, whose excitement I was counting on to kindle the magic of weddings, and I was not disappointed. Contrary to my expectations, she chose to wrap herself in a heavy silk sari for the ceremony, and conducted herself with marvelous grace in it! She didn't mince her steps, but danced exuberantly; she didn't keep adjusting the palloo, but used the passing breeze to make it dance with her; she didn't make the sari seem cumbersome for her slight frame, but used it to reinforce her confidence in her self and feminity.
Neither did she use this occassion only to dress up. She, along with her cousins and newly made friends (whom, I am sure we are related to, just not sure how), actively participated in the festivities, even when it involved no dancing. For instance, during the actual wedding, she arranged herself in the front aisle, with various generations and branches of our family, to better witness the proceedings, bullying her cousin to take pictures of important parts she might otherwise miss. At one point, we could all hear my teen sigh audibly and follow the sigh with a long-drawn "awwww!" at the "cuteness" of it all.
Now, after a few weeks, the honeymoon is over and we are valiantly trying to get used to our mundane realities; but the pictures have just been uploaded and there are requests bordering on demands for missing moments & dvd's, and a burst of comments and exclamations over the visible ones, making us all re-live the wonderful weekend we all spent together so long ago, just a few minutes past.
What can I say? These are fragments I have shored against my ruin.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I am in the middle of packing for a weekend away, to attend a wedding. We have our finery ironed and packed, the accessories boxed and arranged, and only the trivia to touch upon before we leave on our road trip. I have planned to prep my daughter on the road, about proper, expected behaviour; I have remembered to pack back up fine clothing in case our first choices don't work out; I have also taken my entire collection of earrings and bangles in case someone else needs just the right shade of periwinkle or electric blue.
I am very excited, of course, at the prospect of meeting my family, dressing up, and celebrating not just a festival, but an official addition to our tribe! And even though I packed my outfits after much deliberation and discussion, I know I won't really care what I look like, an odd attitude towards an occasion sure to result in photographs. It's true, though! My excitement about attending this wedding is one of the gifts my present, older self does not share with my 21 year old self, with whom I am in constant comparison.
I remember hating weddings when I was younger. Instead of celebrations, these were obligations to be squeezed in a madly busy schedule; they were just so numerous that during the wedding season (after the monsoons and Diwali), we sometimes attended at least a couple in any given week. I remember I did my best to plead off, and on more than one occasion, even offered to wash all the dishes, a chore I hate to this day.
I also remember preferring to attend receptions rather than the actual ceremonies (which were slotted around noon), since the ceremonial fire made my eyes water and I invariably developed a headache in the middle of the day, what with the monotonous, incomprehensible intonations of the priests, the extra-spicy, extra-oily food, and the constant longing to be done here so I could get on with my day. The people I usually met during these day-weddings were retired, curious relatives, whom I was to bow to, and to whom individually and smilingly, I was asked to report and defend my current and past academic pursuits and interests, as well as extra-curricular activities that would reflect well on my up-bringing and family background.
The receptions were usually held in the evenings, in less crowded spaces, and there was enough time and breathing air to actually socialize against a background of instrumental music. The bride and groom were usually ignored, distant beings to be spared a glance and forgotten, worth a moment's notice of a handshake and picture, excuses, merely, to spend a few hours in a picturesque locale, to dress up but not uncomfortably so, and to indulge in a nice dinner with friends sometimes too busy to meet elsewhere, or during the day.
However, this anticipated wedding is going to be different. Since I am much older, and by that corollary, more attuned to the universe, I anticipate an awareness of a cosmic union, which the gods themselves attend to bless a human event. Also, I hope to see sheer magic since I shall get to see this wedding through the eyes of my daughter, for whom weddings are a rarity, making her immune to the boredom I felt when I was her age and told to get ready to attend one.
Like Diwali celebrations, Navratri nights, my beach twilight, and well-loved texts, then, I expect that attending this event shall anchor me, affirm my designation in a universe that constantly demands reconstruction of the self, and present a perch on a threshold of eternity as I witness a ritual older than five millenia, along with other generations of my tribe to provide a sense of continuity and rightful belonging.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
But it's only 11pm right now and the sun is a long way away. As I await the midnight hour that promises to transform the profane into sacred, I wonder about the nature of the sacred and the profane. It seems to be an assumption universally accepted that these two are diametric opposites, yet I wonder how that can be. Popular belief also indicates that the sacred is abstract while the profane is concrete; however, I am no closer to defining the exact nature of either than I was at 10, though I like to believe I'd recognize them and understand the difference, should the occasion ever arise.
Since I don't want to take chances with forces I don't really comprehend, I believe one must acknowledge the profane as an integral part of the universe, as deserving of celebration as the sacred.
In honor of the most profane evening of the year, I buy very good candy, and remember to set aside a budget for my child's costume. My daughter and I spend hours selecting the choicest chocolates, peanut butter cups, and tootsie rolls. My child cannot believe that I spend more money on the sweets for this holiday than I do on Christmas or even Valentine's Day, but she, being wise, asks no questions. I also encourage her to explore parts of her repressed self and tell her to choose "really original, interesting" costumes. So we set aside at least a couple of afternoons chasing pieces of a repressed self through the aisles of Party City and Micheals; this year, she is going as a Jabberwaukie (I am sure I've misspelled that, so a thousand apologies!); consequently, we aggressively hunted down a scarlet tutu, red gloves, white masks, and feathers amidst the curious glances who wondered at our shopping cart as much as they wondered if I, in my salwaar-kameez, was in some kind of a Bollywood costume.
On this most unholiest of nights, I do not like to leave home. I light a votive in my home temple before it is properly twilight; if I have to be out, I keep salt in a Ziploc in my purse and try to be unobtrusive as I throw pinches of it over my left shoulder any time someone gives me what I think is an odd look, and those are aplenty on this night. Understandably, then, my daughter prefers to spend her Halloween away from this strange self that surfaces only for a day!
I don't DARE not celebrate this day; after all, like I tell everyone who'd listen, one never knows who or what might come knocking when the veil between realities, dimensions, worlds is at its thinnest. And I really would not want any imps resorting to tricks in absence of treats.
In the face of the undefined, then, I prefer not to take chances. Profane might just be a matter of perspective; to our species, this could be that which threatens humanity's well-being, as a lot of our apocalypse stories and movie monsters would insist. However, I am willing to bet the book I am in the middle of, that a cockroach and a cat would hold really different views from those of the neighbor's grandchild dressed up like a nightmare.
So it would seem that the ideas of sacred and profane are not universal constants; and yes, I'll say it since the occasion seems to call for it: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in philosophies!
Regardless of its cosmic relevance, though, this day should be celebrated as an important part of being human. Halloween celebrates our darkest faces and forces us to own the uncomfortable selves we deny. It forces us to stare into the heart of darkness, reflect on the ubiquitous Mistah Kurtz, for a while refrain from paying hypocritical lip service to ideals of peace our species claims to uphold, and conquer shadow selves by embracing them.
And then there is the comfort of the idea that the profane gives in to the sacred, and that's just a matter of a midnight passing; no sacrifices need to be made, no gods appeased. The light is as inevitable as the darkness and it is all a matter of time, which continues to lumber on, unaware, uncaring of its nature.
Friday, October 16, 2009
However, now, my routine seems not so cacophonous; actually, it seems that the only noise I hear for long hours is the one I make. My days also demand that I translate everything I say to almost everyone, into English, which often exhausts me; at any rate, I crave the flowing vowels and soft consonants of, from Des, easy voices that demand no translations, musical scores as familiar to me as rickshaw horns, blaring to move complacent, lowing cattle away from traffic junctions. As the theme from the serial spills out, it rushes into my silent corners and fills them with soothing warmth, like a painful knot easing away to a hot compress. I confess I crave noise from a different world than the one I inhabit.
What has especially caught my fancy are Hindi soap shows, predictable, cliched, exotic. The sets are ostentatious; palaces are rented to shoot these episodes that depict joint families occupying spatial mansions. Sitting rooms have ten-feet fountains, sparkling algae-free, although no one ever seems to tend to them; windows are higher than chandeliers that sketch exclamation points exactly half way between winding staircases wide enough for five people to walk abreast; the room itself has split levels, with interesting alcoves and inviting sitting arrangements.
The kitchens are enviable to anyone who remembers or fantasizes about conjuring up, brewing faultless chai, sheera, and parathas. These kitchens are occupied by several women of the household, yet manage to remain uncrowded. The tasks themselves seem cleaned up for television: the fenugreek or methi never leaves smudges of black earth on characters' fingers; the cream of wheat or sooji never sticks, brown and useless, to the stirring utensil, even when the flame under the vessel can be seen merrily dancing blue and orange; not a single hair from well-coiffed heads strays as these characters stir indubitably perfect crushed rice or poha concoctions, so perfect that one can almost taste the lemon redolent with fresh coriander and crushed ginger.
The costumes and furnishings are opulent and colorful. Deep cobalts and parrot-greens, dancing oranges and sparkling reds gracefully drape characters, hiding all bodily flaws beneath fabric folds, or coyly suggesting mysteries. Often, the motifs on these sarees seem to echo the normal sarees one can actually spend days in, but these patterns, coupled with the rich textures, only serve to highlight how removed these sarees are from the recognizable, real, everyday fabrics. The accessories do not look like the paste they must be obviously constructed out of, but sway heavily, convincingly along the characters' temples, ears, throats, arms, waists, feet. As though to reinforce the incongruity between the real and fictional, these characters often sleep in these costumes, their pillows un-dented by their undisturbed, heavy and bejeweled hairdos.
What these serials channel, then, are stylized fantasies of a collective, and the nostalgia they evoke is for things that could never happen, never did happen. How, then, can they remind us of home when the world they depict is so unrealistic?
For the answer, one must re-visit the Rasa Theory and Natya Shastra, attend some folk theatre and festivals, watch old Hindi movies, and re-live the undying songs from those movies. What is evoked in these serials are feelings, values, fables, and guiding metaphors peculiar to those that belong to both, the Indian subcontinent, as well as the adopted countries they now call home. They remind us of what our languages sound like, make us feel clued in to the latest trends and slang of "back home," and provide us with navigational tools for our psyche.
When I visit India, I don't want to seem like a visitor incapable of sharing any jokes or horrors. So I watch these Hindi serials avidly, very much like the fresh immigrant watching local and national television shows to familiarize herself with her home, so she won't be left out, so she'd fit in gracefully.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Whenever some substantial time passes before I write, I am fascinated to observe myself to see if my reaction to this not-writing is any different, any more or less intense; it never wavers, however. There is a whole cycle of emotions that regularly and dutifully cross my emotional landscape, like predictible monsoon clouds.
The gamut of guilt, chagrin, humility, frustration, and finally loss follow each other with such organized motions, as though I were a choreographer and these my students that I'd taught dance moves to aeons ago, and they go through them with precision and meticulousness that my ambitious daughter would envy.
The Rasa Theory tells us that if certain gestures, colors, musical notes, harmonies, and myths are enacted during specific times, this enactment inevitably results in evocation of a mood; the audience, historical & social settings, geographical locations, even languages may change, but like a chemistry formula, the resulting Bhava is always conjured.
I wonder if all our emotions are predictible and controllable like this. If I can put myself through the same cycle of emotions just by refraining from my writing for a span, does it not imply that ultimately, I have complete control over my emotional responses, irrespective of my age and circumstances?
This might seem like the perfect solution to all that is unmanageable and chaotic in my life. However, I know I am not in control, not really. Like the Universe of Greek mythology, my inner self is the one with all power, a self that is inaccessible to my conscious mind, which, like the Olympians, remains but a manager granted intermittent, limited control for purposes it doesn't always understand or realize.
After all, I cannot keep away from writing for too long, and the cycle of my feelings is not complete until I feel the cosmic relief that comes with seeing a word on a blank page, knowing I thought it up and put it there.
I tell my students that there is no magic greater than language; I feel renewed everytime I realize this after a span of being deprived of creating in it. After such a dry spell as I've just had, I feel so rewarded at being able to just write, that I need no other reward or acknowledgement.
My very good friend has a specific imagined audience: a future graduate student reading her work; I find I have a specific audience too: a future not-writing self reading her own words with thirsty eyes, a Wasteland dull and static behind her, the harsh, clear sky above devoid of clouds.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Like me, Shivani too, is a first generation immigrant, but unlike me, she immigrated as a young child, and so describes herself as being more American Indian than Indian American, a distinction of a few but important degrees. Essentially, this means that the language she is most comfortable with is American English, though she does choose our mother tongue, Gujarati, for choice circumstances when no translations would suffice. I know she has been taking French as a second language in school for the past few years as well. Also, since Sanskrit and its derivatives are the languages of Bharatnatyam, Shivani would have imbibed the basic structure and vocabulary of these languages too, during her decade long training in the dance form. So her multi-lingual abilities are not new to me.
However, this dance form works through more than syntax and vocabulary; it appeals to the language of the very soul of a culture, thriving and alive for millenia. Its practitioners and enthusiasts, especially those young like Shivani, have learned more than a dance form brought alive from temple walls; they have learned a certain designation in the Universe to keep them from feeling lost, fragmented, displaced, or afloat; they have learned articulation of the highest kind that includes the body, the intellect, and the spirit. The language is the language of the immediate experience, described and catalogued in Natya Shastra, a language that demands absolute perfection of gesture, economy of movement, unrelenting grace from the performer, and active participation from the audience.
I must confess to reservations I had about this project before attending this evening. However, I can think of no better way to celebrate a girl's initiation into adulthood. This evening has taken at least a decade of preparation and changed everyone involved, Shivani most of all.
This experience is more meaningful in an immigrant's world, since it involves not just the particular ethnicity, but also invites the larger community, the local slice of the global village. Shivani's Arangetram enthralled audience members of several ethnicities and backgrounds. Two of Shivani's friends who spoke to the audience about her confessed they had never been to an Arangetram before, or even knew what one was! They were not alone, of course, as many of the audience members enthusiastically exclaimed to me after the performance.
Such an event, then, inevitably enriches us all by reaching across limitations of geography and chronology, by invoking the ubiquitous stories that define us and introducing our friends to them.
Undoubtedly, this 2 hour performance very clearly illustrated one of the most attractive faces of the immigrant identity; it presented a wonderful reflection of an identity that constantly and eternally re-defines, forges, discovers, and resurrects itself and I am honored and humbled to have been a part of this celebration.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
I have always been aware of my dependency on my electronics, but it was an awareness that was comfortably obscure, vague, like a balloon payment due a couple of decades in the future. In my defense, however, I do back up everything: on my computer and my flash drive, which, everyone tells me, is practically indestructible. Of course, like my present apocalypse would avouch, nothing, absolutely nothing is ague proof, and if the universe decides one is to be without back ups or blankets or roofs, no amount of pre-planning, insurance policies, savings, or technological know-how can abate destiny.
This week has been a lesson in humility and patience. I have been trying to come to terms with the fact that I shall have to re-create my universe: all my courses, all my notes, all my assignments, even all the poetry and a couple of short stories I've been writing for the past few months, all is lost.
If my father were here, he'd tell me not to worry, that the original blueprint is still intact, in my head! However, right now, my brain is so numbed it cannot approach the thought of my loss without commanding my knees to feel weak, my shoulders to melt, my extremeties to turn cold, and eyes to leak.
The question, then, is, should I go back to a pre-lapsarian age of keeping paper back-ups, every comma, every phrase securely penciled in before the day ends? I remember my student days. I had several of those huge pothis, the Books that businessmen open during Diwali, with kum kum and an invocation to Ganesh, the kind that are hard-bound in red cloth, the seams stitched firmly with strong thread.
Those tomes were my hard drives, my back ups, and they, being too heavy, lived on my bed side table.
When I immigrated, of course, I had to leave the pothis behind, along with my problematic, enviromentally unfriendly dependence on paper. Like all immigrants, I have been very proud of my adaptability to new ways of working, writing, and saving. In fact, I am afraid I might have boasted my intent of weaning myself off the need for hard copies in not too distant past.
This hubris, of course, is the reason why such a disaster has visited me and left me thus bereft.
As I sit here, at a borrowed machine, surrounded by my primary sources, re-creating presentations and notes I shall need for next week's classes, I mourn for my pothis, for an age that has long passed into memory, when nothing could be completely destroyed or lost, and my relationship with the written word was organic and real.
However, I also know that the pre-lapsarian age I mourn for was fraught with incomprehension at my hurried notes, rubbed off and otherwise illegible writing, and having to scroll through many, many heavy pages for a bit of information since those tomes had no search function.
I also know that while it might be cumbersome to re-create all my work, once re-created, it shall be more prolific, legible, organized, and accessible to me. Besides, making these presentations reminds me of how much I enjoyed making them in the first place and keeps me from being atrophied.
For my creative work that is lost irretrievably, I go back to the undying truth that all that is born has to die; losing those poems and short stories should remind me that once out of my being, they don't belong to me but to the universe, which has, rightfully, swallowed them. But the lost pieces feel to me like lost children, and even though I know I am not the first who has lost them, and that not all children who are concieved get to be born, I still rage at the injustice of having to give them up before their time.
Going back to the drawing board is both necessary and inevitable, and I do understand that. However, every time I have to make that journey, I get a little more lost on the way.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
I consume them all, beginning with when Captain Kirk was in captain, on to the Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space 9, and now, Enterprise. I know most characters well enough to provide a personality analysis without much notice; I know what makes their space ships go, and what a big deal it would be if they were to be forced to eject their warp cores. I think it quaint that the characters are trying to break the warp 5 barrier with Enterprise NX in the sub-series set in the 22nd century, when Enterprise NCC 1701-D of the 24th century is easily capable of warp 9! The various quadrants of Universe are also familiar to me, and I have a very clear understanding of the space-time continuum, the laws that govern it, as well as the ways of The Continuum and its inhabitants, a realm beyond space and time.
What I don't understand is my friends' and family's amazement at my obsession. My obsession has always been, and continues to be a story well told, a truthful depiction of the human condition, and themes that all epics address: the nature and exploration of the self, idea of a journey that changes the universe, grappling with varying concepts of possible and immediate realities, the uncomfortable inevitability of death and its meaning, the grey, fluid areas of ideals and morality, and constitutions of the sacred and the monstrous.
I remain intrigued with the race of humanoids Captain Picard meets, whose language is purely metaphoric, so the universal translator falls short, only able to translate vocabulary and basic syntax. At the conclusion of this episode, the protagonist feels compelled to turn to neglected and all-but-forgotten epics, with corner-stone archetypes and metaphors.
It is easy to empathize with the Voyager and its crew, lost in the Delta quadrant with no way of finding their way back home to the Alpha quadrant. An accidental moment condemns the crew to a seemingly endless quest for home in a journey that is precarious and existential at the same time. Throughout that series, there is an unmistakable strain of loss, longing, and nostalgia that all travelers and immigrants feel, the very strain that resonates with us when we try to map the oceans with Odysseus and his crew, or wander through the Dandaka Vana with Rama, Sita and Laxman.
The very delicate balance between dignified, sensible tolerance and unseemly interference needed to maintain some order on Deep Space 9 is very relevant in the contemporary world. The station, perched on edge of a wormhole, rare because it is stable in both, Alpha and Gamma quadrants that it connects, bubbles with activity and strife, a melting pot of races, species, and life-forms that pass through it constantly. What happens here is an external, crystallized, symbolic version of the conflicts that have haunted our race since before recorded history.
Our deep set fears of being reduced to non-humanized automatons whose individual consciousness is stripped away, who are assimilated to fit into comfortable cubby holes, can be recognized in the Borg that hunt all the species, a common enemy. The idea of the Borg explores one of the most contemporary issues, a theme that seems to have displaced divine weaponry in present day tales, the relationship between humanity and technology. On the one hand, there is the obscene assimilation of the Borg, who countenance no differences, and on the other hand, we are presented with the ideal of such a relationship in the character of Data, a figure which forces us to closely re-examine what exactly it is that makes us human, or even organic!
I dedicate this entry to the same idea I have dedicated my blog to: the story that tells of us, that outlasts our little lives and helps define us in relation to the ever-expanding world that we find ourselves in.
In a nutshell, then, Star Trek embodies two quintessential, timeless, unchanging wishes we all have: to boldly explore the new, and to live long and prosper.
Friday, July 3, 2009
I usually have time off from work, and during the hectic, mad days just before this break, I have plans, concrete, substantial plans about what should be accomplished during the break. My father used to say that a holiday is not necessarily time off, but time to change the nature of work for a short while. So dutifully, I prioritize projects, categorize chores, even establish a time table. I also imagine the rest of my colleagues and students doing the same. By the end of this week, I had thought to be able to have a definite body of finished work, precipitated pearls that would vouch for my industrious nature and self-motivation.
But inevitably, like every Summer, I have nothing. Literally, the past week, I have measured out my life in coffee spoons and cat feedings.
I find I have lost the week to day dreaming, missing my child until I thought my entrails would spill out if I got up, sleeping very little, chatting online, reading, and watching episodes of Star Trek checked out from the public library. I didn't leave the house and forgot dates and days. I don't even remember the passage from 8:30am to 2pm. It has also been raining constantly, so the light outside has only heightened this atmosphere.
I went to the beach, once, during the week, hoping to catch the moon rise. But everything was a singular non-color, and the dimensions were all wrong. I couldn't see the horizon: the heavy, iron of the ocean had blended perfectly with the low swamp of the sky. There were no waves crashing against the sand; instead, the water lapped lethargically against itself. I didn't stay for long, since I can take a cosmic hint: it wasn't a good week for the beach.
I read that some of my friends have been doing yard work, catching up on syllabi, fixing up their house, visiting exotic locales, meeting each other for coffee and lunches, while I have beamed off the planet, orbiting Facebook like a lost asteroid.
However, I also know I need this staring-into-space time. Too often, I think, we forget to just be, get swallowed up in the intense busyness of finding work to justify our existence, to earn our keep. This blog belongs to one of those islands of liminal time, where nothing happens, because nothing is allowed to happen. This week, I don't believe is wasted time, since meaningful time wouldn't be exist if there were no time without meaning.
In an ideal world meaning and its opposite would be perfectly balanced. In other words, people would work only for half their waking hours. I sincerely believe that a deliberate denial of constant work is essential for meaningful, productive schedules.
There needs to be a non-definition to one's days, designations, even self-hood. I fantasize that's what vacations and break times were constructed for. However, sometimes, even on vacations, I find myself trying to cram in as much sight-seeing, things-to-do as I possibly can, which exhausts the spirit more than the body. So much of me gets used up, I am surprised I can spill out of the bed the following mornings, and mercury-like, run sporadically through another day, viscous and undefinable. This kind of vacation fails to do its work, and I find myself snatching my staring-into-space time while at my desk at work, or at the stove, cooking.
The week has been a chthonic time, twilight terrain, liminal space. It has been pregnant with possibilities: every hour, I had a wide array of choices, and I chose nothing, leaving the hour intact and unbroken. After a time of stasis like this, a time of hectic schedules follows, beginning with the end of 4th of July, and I know I won't get another break until next Summer.
The very mention of a specific day, date, and number signifies the end of my Dream. I am afraid it might be time to notice that the rains have stopped, the sun is high, the horizon very clear. I shall dislodge the cat and light a votive in my little temple-shrine; the day has begun.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
I am not thinking of him particularly because of the day. Actually, I don't consciously think of my father, really. I think parents form a background to one's experience so they are never really absent or blatantly present. I feel my father's being in me in seemingly disjointed images: his kind, brown, smiling eyes when he looked at me (I am told I was his favorite being); his palm encircling my wrist to calm me down after a traumatic exam; his silent, helpless laughter as he read Richard Armor and Jyotindra Dave; the indescribably timeless, sweet, comforting sound of his violin; the earnestness of his tone as he explained the anomalous expansion of water to me. There are many others, of course.
When he passed away, one of my best friends told me never to hope to recover from it: that would never happen. I'd have to, instead, acquire survival skills, and learn to live without him, as though his absence was like a psychic amputation of sorts. This manner of dealing with my father's absence has helped me weave him into my experience of being alive without having to feel survivor's guilt. I have, since, shared beautiful sunsets with my father, laughed a bit more in his name, savored his favorite dishes with new appreciation, wondered at the endless universe beyond the stars he first helped me name, even learned to be grateful for the richness of solitude he so loved.
I join the world today, as it celebrates Fathers, past, present, even future! The gifts they give us are as undefinable and undeniable as the myriad avatars they take as they guide us through difficult cross-roads. Sometimes, we have to conquer them to answer Sphinx's riddle and understand our nature; sometimes, we blame their autocratic stereotype and use them as symbols to rebel against; sometimes, we accuse them for being too distant with us, for not compromising with their idealistic expectations of us. But despite it all, our very sense of self emerges around their presence and absence, and we forever belong to them in equally undefinable, undeniable ways.
I dedicate this to the joyful, ageless twinkle in my father's eye as he looks down on his infant daughter in a worn out black-and-white photograph, as she clutches his forefinger above her temple and stares confindently, directly at the world.
My father had a daughter;
Today, like all days, she is grateful to him for taking upon with her, the mystery of things, as if we were the gods' spies.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
However, upon reflection, I have to say, my best friends are my non-human cohabitants, beings other humans often mistakenly refer to as "pets."
My non-human cohabitants offer me company, should I tire of my own, and demand I make no more effort than to ensure mass-produced, processed, store-bought food be available in their feeding spaces.
My relationship with the cats, for instance, is extremely intuitive. They sense when my back hurts more than can be soothed with Tylenol: between sleep cycles, I inevitably find warm, purring bodies nestled exactly at the epicenter from where the pain radiates. More mornings than I can count, I have woken up with the realisation that the back of my knee and calf is curved deliberately just so, that a feline body may fit perfectly there.
The cats, too, have trained me well. I do not need them to use words to know when they are in mood for a snack, in need of solitude, or consumed by wander-lust. I know the precise angle to move so that the cat is more comfortable on the cushion. I've computed, to the last inch, the amount of unfinished quilt a sleepy cat needs draped on the floor so her slumber may remain undisturbed by my needle.
My daughter is growing up faster than I ever thought possible, and I know my house will be too small for her soon. With every parent, I share the horrific, nightmarish prospect of a house without my child, compounded with the added isolation of being a single parent. I find myself trying to listen to what such silence would feel like, but my birds ensure that every moment within and immediately surrounding my living space is filled with their busy chatter, their whistles, their opinions. I do not need television: their daily dramas, fights, and wooing suffice. It also reassures and comforts me, somehow, that they recognize and greet me as one would an alien visitor: essentially benign, if vague and incomprehensible.
Of course, as is my wont, this relationship on my side is fraught with immense guilt at the despicable, unspeakable cruelties my species regularly visits upon theirs, not the least being my robbing them, namely the cats, of the most natural right of any living being: to procreate, because they are "fixed" since I am a "responsible pet owner." But then, like my daughter likes to remind me, I am subject to my nature, and would feel guilty even if they were the dominant species in my household, which, she again points out, they are!
I don't know if my life is enriched because I live with felines and birds because I can't conceive of an alternate existence. But I will concede to this: my roommates do root me, anchor me with the absolute conviction of belonging within my house.
As I stood in the kitchen of my mother's house in Baroda (India) on my last visit there, I saw a cat being offered a saucer by a little girl who lived in the house behind ours. This is one of the images of my personal collage of what Home means to me.
Friday, June 5, 2009
This past Wednesday was one such day.
We had an emergency at work that forced us to cancel our classes. Unfortunately for me, it happened on the day of my Fairytales class, which being an elective, happens to be one of my favorites. Our classes are three hours long, and I was especially looking forward to this week's, since it would have been the last instructional session before the exams and assignments descend upon us, to remind us to somehow quantify our experience that often defies brackets and descriptors.
As if on cue, our emergency hit exactly the moment before my first phrase could breathe. For the next that couple of hours we were out, I felt cheated, my two special hours stolen, never to be replaced. I discovered I was actually angry enough to nurse a headache, something I haven't felt in at least a couple of years. At the end of two hours, everyone told me to forget about my class and just go home. Being unreasonably angry, though, I didn't listen. I marched up to the classroom, planning to leave a regret-note on the board before leaving.
I was pleasantly surprised to see students waiting for me! They told me of others who had just checked in and missed me. We had but 45 minutes before class ended, but those minutes, to me, felt like a gift, benevolent rain to appease my unbecoming rage.
These minutes helped me realise that beyond grades, beyond paychecks, beyond competition, beyond degrees, there lies a brilliant, undying, thirsty spirit that impels our species' need to forever discover and reinvent.
It is to my students' awareness of this consciousness that I dedicate this entry. I can never quantify this awareness, or my gratitude for it, in terms of faculty development points or survey statistics, but this awareness is what qualifies me, more than my documented credentials.
Now, I am better prepared, I find: I have a list of specific cafes and ice-cream shops, where I shall suggest my class meet me, should another emergency try to steal hours from us.
Monday, May 25, 2009
I spend a large part of my waiting time trying to find spaces that would let us share an experience, spaces that are free from other worlds and lingering moods that hang over us when she emerges from them.
Yesterday, I found one of these spaces. My temple hosted a lecture / demonstration of Bharatnatyam. My child and I had spent the morning trying to be civil to each other, trying to be patient, she, perhaps more than I. I was also afraid that once we reach the temple, she'd again lose herself among a horde of friends, as is her wont.
But we were just late enough to have to sit by ourselves in the back of the hall, and most of her friends were participating in the event, and so unavailable.
It was one of the best couple of hours we've spent in the last few weeks. As is our wont, we spent the time whispering comments to each other, comparing dancers, costumes, color combinations. But most of all, we shared the undying tales being spun before us. She'd tap me to tell me she recognized the stories being depicted, or that she remembered the basic hand gestures, or to confirm a deity being invoked. I'd lean over to her to tell her unfamiliar stories, or explain the lyrics, or point out various gestures representative of specific characters and events.
Even though we had cell phones with us, we forgot about them. Even though she had a project due, I didn't worry her about it. Even though I'd not let her sleep over at a friend's the previous night, she didn't sulk over it.
It was the love of the Story that brought us together. There is no substitute for a good tale, and even though yesterday's story tellers ranged from very good to confusing, from seven year olds to twenty-somethings, the tales themselves transcended all those details, reached across millenia, languages, geography, generations, and enthralled us so we are more aware of who and what we are, not so much bound by where and when we are.
For now, we have buried our hatchets, and hopefully, the demanding pace of our routines will ensure those hatchets stay buried, full fathom five!
Sometimes, when the number of trivial resentments pile up, the best cure is an hour stolen out of time, to live together an endless tale, so that the harmonies are restored.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
But I cannot complain today: I just had one of the best days I've had in a long, long time. I dragged my very good friend to Miami because I wanted to attend a reading by one of my favorite authors, Chitra Divakaruni, whose work resonates with me to the extent that I wonder if she writes solely to express my response to the universe, with the graceful articulation I do not possess.
One of the major reasons she caught my attention is I stumbled upon the reason she says she feels compelled to write: to try to preserve a world that is fast disappearing, may already be gone. Her characters, who often leave their own worlds behind, usually end up trying to fit, acknowledge, belong to the realities they are left with. One of the most fascinating treatments I find in this author's work is the way her characters feel about the spaces they inhabit, wish to inhabit, or don't inhabit any longer.
I have just realised that all the houses I grew up in, or I felt a belonging to, do not physically exist anymore. Where they stood, now squat shopping mall, office complexes, and apartment buildings. It amazes me that the spaces that haunt my dreamscapes, tower over the cities behind my sleep, are now officially figments of my imagination, scraps of memory I don't really remember very well. Yet all the spaces I now live in, my living space, my desk at home and at work, my car, the streets I drive on, all seem extensions of the ones that don't exist anymore.
So reading Divakaruni's work, about characters who are driven by the spaces in their mind, feels like a validation of my own experience, since it examines the myriad stories that emerge out of the way one changes homes, discards old ones, adapts to new ones, misplaces parts of oneself in forgotten places, displaces oneself in an insistence to own, and ultimately, in isolation, one is forced to face a mirror that refuses to lie.
My friend, who is a first generation immigrant battling similar issues, agrees with me and confesses to being one of the newest fans of Divakaruni's already extensive fan list.
I can truthfully say that attending this reading has been one of those experiences that have helped me further crystallize the self I am right now. I have folded this away and shall re-examine it when I stand at the edge of the beach, the terrain that separates and joins land and no-land, one of the timeless spaces that allows me to look into the nature of things.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Now I must confess, there are days I want to be graceful and efficiently feminine the way my friends are, in spite of repeatedly telling myself it doesn't matter what I, or my purse, look like.
My sack is an excellent example.
No matter what color, texture, material, or dimension of the purse is when I first purchase it, by the time a week has lapsed, it inevitably becomes The Sack. This is filled with things I can't use, like grocery store receipts from last month, orphan pen lids, defunct pencils, broken paperclips, single staples, and a couple of flash drives that have died and turned turtle.
When I look for a perfect purse, I look for something large enough to hold a book, even though I resist weighing down my shoulder with books. The next thing I look for is many compartments, mistakenly thinking that compartmentalizing my objects is going to make my purse more organized. Of course, this never happens; these objects aspire towards, and quickly achieve a homogenized identity and consciousness, much like indigenious peoples settling on the banks of a river come to be known by the river's name rather than their particular tribes and origins.
I remember, some time ago, I'd found a purse that fit me exactly. It was the right size to hold a small hard cover or a paperback; it had just the right length of straps which could not be adjusted, thus saving me hours of agonized choosing and adjusting; it had the exact texture, not too rough, not slippery, being made of the perfect blend of canvas and recycled plastic; it held enough leftovers from the week so I didn't have to upend it daily, yet was not large enough to go without being cleansed, purged, for much more than a week. This purse had felt so perfect, I'd even forgiven it its lime yellow and white, hues that went with nothing, not my clothes, skin tone, cell phone, car, or any part of my external being.
Of course, this was too good to last and this purse got stolen before the month was out.
This was a sure sign from the Universe, beyond reasonable doubt, that I was NOT to have a fitting purse in this life time; that my being tied to The Sack was a existential gesture on part of the Cosmos to ensure that the world may be balanced. Sisyphus-like, I pull my sack around with what I hope is dignified resignation; Ixion-like, I am tied to my heavy hold-all that I shall never be able to put down for a rest; Tantalus-like, I gaze at windows festooned with the most perfect of purses, wallets, and carry-alls, knowing they are out of my reach.
I don't doubt that somewhere, my doppelganger is enjoying her perfect purse, confident in the knowledge that no matter what sack she purchases, within the week, it shall be miraculously transformed into the most ideal of purses.
After all, the Universe must be balanced.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Do I lose those pieces? Can they be picked up by anyone who wants, assuming someone wants?
Should I be flattered that someone wants to own them?
Should I be more grateful that a piece was chosen and worry less about it being credited to me?
I realise we live in the world of many blogs, in which a great deal of the written word is migrating to a brave new world to stand on its own merit. Does this suggest, then, that my concern is invalid and quixotic? I have been regularly contributing to a local South Asian magazine; the latest issue has my article in its entireity, but nowhere is my name mentioned. Even though I was told that I'd be given a letter head confirming that article as mine, there was a strong underlying tone of indulgent tolerance at my quaint disappointment, which, of course, makes me feel sheepish.
As the days have progressed, I have been feeling increasingly foolish, even though I am hurt enough to not want to contribute to that magazine again (knowing me, however, I probably shall).
I have been trying to come to terms with this situation. Library of Congress claims that I don't HAVE to slap copywrights on my work, right, left, and center, that the fact that I wrote it protects it enough. But I am still struggling: do I take my writing too seriously? Should I just post everything up and wean myself off the need to claim it as mine?
Maybe I should split up my writing into two kinds: the kind that's important for me to remain connected to, and the other to be offered up to the Universe because it is not serious enough. The former category would contain my almost-done book and poetry (that I have no idea how to market and publish, so they remain with me, like overgrown children).
The latter category would have my non-fiction articles and pieces like the short love-story I finished last night for a lark because my daughter always says I don't have a romantic bone in me and I wanted to prove her wrong (you may well ask who the adolescent is, here, but I won't wait around for the answer). I'd offer up this non-serious-for-a-lark writing up to the world and see if it spices up my blog, causes more hits, compels people to leave comments, etc.
Does writing then, need to outgrow its parent and break umbilical cords to be meaningful? If so, like children, can't it at least carry on its lineage? After all, what other insurance do I have against erasure?
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Every now and then, to ensure a balanced diet, I treat myself to reading non-substantial lit, and in this junk read category, I had everything, rural mysteries, cat mysteries, urban tales, fantasy, cop series, everything that even obliquely refers to India, Star Wars books, best selling thrillers, kid lit, teen lit, and more.
I remember my forays into the new releases' shelves. I could boast that there were less than 5 authors in that section that I hadn't read. I also remember actually enjoying picking and choosing, much like the way an epicurean would choose her chocolate, tasting a bite here, abandoning it for something more delectable, deliberating before committing . I would emerge with a bursting bag after browsing for hours.
Today, however, I found myself actually hunting down a singular book my book club is reading, something that's not even due to be finished until June. I found myself moving towards the check out desk with a book in my hand, my bag awkward and empty on my shoulder.
Worried, I made myself go to the new release section and browse. To my alarm, it was full of authors I had not read. Worse, no impulse directed me to reach out, even to read jackets!
I have come to the painful, crushing conclusion that I am older, because I am getting choosy about what I read.
I shall miss my old self, who devoured the written word in all its incarnations and forms, whose genuine enjoyment of it was not marred by discrimination. This person was truly free because she did not care what others thought of what she read. Her freedom opened her to inhabiting many, many simultaneous universes and she had a quixotic nobility peculiar to people like Walter Mitty, who refuse to be constricted by one lifetime.
Monday, April 20, 2009
As a girl, of course, I pretended very well and professed false admiration for the Good Girl Archetype (please note the capitals; they are deliberate). Secretly, I wondered if there was anything wrong with me, because I seemed incapable of admiring true goodness. I worried about the myriad set of connected character deficits this one would mean, especially in regard to my acceptance factor among my friends. While my girlfriends secreted and devoured romances or Mills & Boon (as they were called), I exhibited my Mills & Boon trying to convince everyone around me how Normal I was, and secretly admired Jo and Amy March, Draupadi, Elizabeth Bennet, Portia, Beatrice (as in As You Like It, NOT Dante's Galatea-like figure), Kunti, even Hidimba and Amba.
I wonder if I have carried over these deficits into my life and this has influenced the female characters I create. Here is a sample, one of my characters, the Old Woman, who has haunted me for many years now:
The Old Woman stepped off the falling twilight, from the top of Her hill, directly on to leaves of the old tamarind tree. The ancient clock of the Tower started its chimes, announcing the end of the final afternoon of peace before the festival season. As She descended from the tree, She took care not to touch the earth with her backward feet, the toes facing behind Her. So heavy were Her backward facing feet, one touch and there would be no telling what apocalypse might descend.
Her eyes were red burning coals. But they’d burn out and She knew She’d have to find new coals to replace the ashes in the sockets. Her gaze stopped at Her feet; She considered them while the world around Her held its breath.
When She exhaled through Her red, sharp mouth, centuries might have passed, for the leaves, roads, roofs, windows were now covered with a patina of dust and smoke from Her rattled, fleshless ribs. She flexed Her fingers which faced Her elbow, and unclenched Her palms from which a mixture of kum-kum and ashes forever drizzled. The coal shigri on Her head gleamed orange and black for a moment. Her sari, the sole garment She wore, the color and texture of clouds, settled around Her wrinkled up breasts and pointed shoulder blades.
Finally, the Old Woman turned towards the singing street. The Tower clock finished its chimes and the world exhaled behind Her.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
I wonder how much my need to write is connected to my feeling safe and comfortable. This begs the question: Is my writing, then, a luxury, not the necessity I've been thinking it is? If it is a luxury, how justified am I in indulging it?
Obviously, my thinking gets increasingly convoluted, self-defeating, claustrophobic, narcissistic, essentially useless. This strain only feeds the lethargy, and often, external forces are needed to extricate my faculties from such bogs.
Of course, this coma doesn't last longer than a few hours, thankfully for my household, after which I commence my usual being, beginning with reading.
Amazingly enough, this never fails to restore.
For instance, I am just beginning to thaw out, and fairy tales, predictably enough, rescued. Since I am doing my Elective for the course that begins next week, I am justified in reading those.
These tales reassure me that Stasis is temporary, even though it may seem to last for a century, can be mistaken for a death, and trap a person in a tower with no doors. Every pain is accompanied with a reward, and even though one can't choose the pain, the reward is what one needs most desperately.
And since I am not out of the bog yet, here is my question: is this healthy application of wisdom of ages or senseless pathos and an inexcusable fallacy of interpretation?
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
However, when I visited it, I didn't like anything I could salvage. One of my very good friends tells me I am too happy with the delete button, and that the work is not bad.
I've always have problems with beginnings, as anyone who reads this blog can tell. But now, it is the wrapping up that won't come easily.
I find reasons not to work on my writing: I have syllabi to construct, a quilt to finish, reading to do, an Elective to re-examine. I also feel as though I've fed my resident monster as long as I write something, anything, syllabi, assignments, reviews, and to a large extent, I am content. My demon is too exhausted to wake me up in the middle of the night, with itching fingers.
But I stay awake anyways and worry if I shall die without anyone knowing my story, stories; they need to be told.
But they seem to have chosen a rather incompetent teller.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
I suspect that sitting at the edge between worlds, perched on a flimsy umbrella chair displaces me from all designations, elevates me from who I am, have to be. I am erased from the corporeal world and reminded that the horizon I think I can see so clearly is an illusion of the most dangerous kind.
I grew up in a house with three stories, and the middle story had a swing, the central swing, the veranda around it cleared so it may be free. I am a Gujarati, and like a good cliche of one, I believe in benefits of swinging when the day stops climbing and begins descent. I remember swinging on it, watching clouds, kites, roof-tops, sparrows, pigeons, and tree-tops, and when I got up, it would be time for the afternoon tea.
Appropriately, this house was "Kshitij", or Horizon.
This loosening from the dream of life, as Jarrell calls it, is what the beach and my umbrella chair afford me.
I like to be reminded of the illusion of the horizon to keep things in a manageable perspective, and I'd like this reminding to be an ordinary thing, not the extra-ordinary, apolcalyptic "loosening" the poet talks of.
I place my chair just so, at the very edge of the incoming tide, where the sand is not yet blatantly wet, but remembers being so. The hooves of my chair dig firmly into the sand for proper purchase, and I bury one foot in the sand so it disappears. As the tide advances, my foot un-buries itself so it is not in the way.
By the time the moon rises, the water has been flowing under my chair for some time. The gulls and sandpipers are mostly done with their dinner and the breeze worrying the palm fronds smells definitely of the night.
I have a lot of places and actions that help me touch the timeless universe I inhabit, but I fear these beach moon-rises have brought too many harmonies, for me to be able to live away from the ocean.
Monday, March 23, 2009
There have been even busier times before, and I do remember months flying off like Marvel's sun, blending sunrises and sunsets, rolling into a ball and off the horizon.
The most concrete memory I have of these busy times is the sight of my right eyebrow in my car's rear view mirror, glanced at accidentally in shocked recognition in mid sentence.
Or should I invoke Prufrock and apologize for measuring out my life in syllabi outlines?
It must be the tax season, Spring, that has me thus discombobulated. Chronicling, documenting the past year, achievements, losses, developments, regressions, somehow only serves to reduce me to sheets of paper, controlled, classified, filed properly.
The more drawers or folders one can split oneself into, the more versatile one's personality is supposed to be. I should boast equal and respectable thickness in my "daughter-sister-aunt-niece" folder, my "mother" folder, my "house-holder" folder, my "instructor" folder, my "PTO member" folder, and my "quilter" folder, among others.
What I wonder is, where is my master folder? Do I need one?
What if the only concrete memory I can retain at the time of documenting, chronicling, is an accidental glimpse of my peeling cuticle as I tap the keyboard?
Saturday, March 14, 2009
I tell everyone that my favorite epic of all time is the Mahabharat, but lately, it seems Ramayana is speaking a bit too loudly to ignore. The themes it explores are just as valid, morally complex, and contemporary as the ones the Mahabharat addresses, and the characters just as unapologetic about their choices and contradictions. In fact, sometimes I think that Rama, the protagonist, evokes strong, mixed responses from his audience; he gets a great deal of criticism about his treatment of his wife, and this treatment raises interesting questions about gender politics. And Sita? I remember my friends getting angry with her: is she for real?
Paley's film reminds me of those responses.
So I guess it is time to visit the epics again; like going into the woods, one has to do this every so often or one loses touch with all that makes reality tolerable and beautiful.
Friday, March 13, 2009
It could be because I teach the genre and have been inhabiting students’ stories for the past few weeks, an exercise that will culminate into a finished product of sorts next week. Maybe this has heightened my sensitivity and intolerance of badly begun tales.
It could be the short novels I’ve been reading lately, that feel so unified and perfect that they must have been birthed full-grown, like Athena, from a singular painful headache, all in one sitting. Between last weekend and today, I read Morrison’s A Mercy, revisited Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, and just a few hours ago, finished Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. I found myself marveling at wonderful beginnings, like Trumbo’s introduction: “World War I began like a summer festival.” How perfect is that?
I do not aspire towards such perfection, of course. I’d be grateful for a much used, hackneyed, will-do-for-now band aid of a beginning.
After clacking away dejectedly, I usually close everything and watch a Hindi movie; maybe not thinking about my characters and their foolishness or wisdom would sweep off the cobwebs in my head. But I find myself noticing the ways of these movies.
So here I am, thinking of beginnings, this time, Bollywood style. I ask myself why these movies fascinate me. Why do I find myself glued to the tale even when I know it many times over?
It is the beginning, I know, that keeps me hooked, that promises the familiar resolutions I am so comfortable with. I wonder in my quest for a good beginning, I should venture into the clichés proposed by these movies and have paraphrased the five I found most repeated:
1. Some relationships cannot be named.
2. This is the story of _____ Mansion.
3. This story is about three brothers.
4. This is ____ city.
5. The story is ancient.
All of the above are abrupt announcements of purpose, a bad thing, we are told as students and practitioners of the craft. They only work because they are spoken, not written.
Maybe my problem is that I am trying to write tales that are best told.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
For just then the phone rang, startlingly, suddenly. I saw a number that I did not exactly recognize, but that felt familiar, like a dream encountered while awake, or a phrase on the edge of the tongue, refusing to fall. I exchanged an uneasy glance with the cat and my daughter as I pressed the “talk” button; both, the cat and the daughter left the room for more comfortable spots. I had received a Call and this would take time.
A vaguely well-known voice boomed, “Hello! Who am I? Did you recognize? Who can it be? Guess!”
Okay, I thought to myself. The caller knew me by the childhood diminutive of my first name. There, was I happy: It wasn’t the city cemetery seeking to sell me my burial plot, or a collect call from a lonely inmate of the city penitentiary.
But now came the difficult part; I couldn’t hang up; I was obliged to play. The Caller continued chortling, chuckling, and shouting all at once, in a rather accusatory tone, “What? You forgot ME? How come you haven’t guessed as yet? You don’t RECOGNIZE my voice anymore? Well, that’s what happens when you never call! It is your punishment! Hahahaha!”
I was still racking the inbuilt file-o-fax inside my head, riffling through chits of stickies, memos I’d forgotten, all the inevitable paraphernalia around the home phone. Yet, the name, the face of the caller eluded me.
After a few minutes, I saw no recourse and surrendered.
“I am so sorry! I am afraid I . . . Please, can you . . .? I am sorry, so sorry!” I pleaded, to no avail, of course.
It seems an endearing characteristic of the South Asian psyche, that every so often, the muse strikes and we Call someone we haven’t called in, oh, say, a dozen years, and have them guess who we are. Usually, this urge hits us right around the festivals (this IS the Holi week), and one expects to be tagged by or precipitate something not-so-ordinary, something miraculously fun.
I call it the “you-who” game and like any self-respecting game, this one has its rules. The point of this game, like Vyaapaar or Monopoly, is to outsmart the opponent, in this case, the Caller or the Called. If the Called guesses the identity of the Caller before 5 minutes are up, then the Called wins, but if . . . You get the idea.
But no cheating: the Called must have absolutely no idea when the Call is going to suddenly burst upon a quiet horizon. There should be no prior emails, no hints on Myspace, no pokes on Facebook.
The Called cannot have met the Caller for at least a decade. The ideal time for the Called and Caller to have last met would be at either one’s wedding, or weddings of tangentially connected relatives of a particularly labyrinthine, thriving family tree. Then, the Call should be placed once the kids are getting ready for College.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. It is acceptable for the Caller and Called to meet occasionally before the Call, amidst large crowds, say, for an evening meal attended by at least 50 other people, wherein both parties may exclaim over the number, growth charts, and academic accomplishments of their offspring, and how much weight has been gained by each. However, during these meetings, only inane, meaningless exchanges are allowed.
There are a few more rules to this complex game. The Caller and Called must have known each other very well in early stages of their lives, and as a result, be very well acquainted with the other’s most embarrassing moments. The Caller, especially, should maintain a log of at least 3 such episodes, which can be recalled loudly, graphically, in most colorful detail at the time of the Call.
This narration serves to further discomfit the Called and distracts from fast memory recall, thus awarding the Caller extra points.
The most effective defense of this move requires quick thinking on part of the Called. Feats of youthful heroism (factual or fictional) executed before an admiring, wide audience are safest to recount. If the Caller reacts, that could narrow down the possible suspects.
Sometimes, the Caller can be foiled by handing the phone over to a female relative from an earlier generation, if one is available at hand. At this point, the Caller has effectively lost, because no Mashi, Foi/Bua, Kaki/Chachi, or Baa/Maaji /Biji worth her water has ever mistaken the identity of the Caller, or forgotten any episodes relating to the Caller’s embarrassing youth. However, these are grey areas, since in this case, the Called has not foiled the Caller.
A good game of “you-who” can be carried on for the better part of 15 minutes. Once recognition has occurred, only then can the usual inquiries of health, local weather, names of children, and present occupations of spouses may follow.
These proprieties must be most diligently observed. If well-played, “you-who” can provide centre-pieces for many online posts (like this one) and weekend family phone conversations, which can be liberally sprinkled with numerous nods and exclamation marks galore.
There are, inevitably, cynics, who seek to spoil the fun. Some of my friends actually express frustration and condemn the Callers as being presumptuous:
“Just tell me who you are! I mean, I got a life here!” These cynics scream. “For crying out loud! If YOU don’t know who you are, I sure don’t!”
The cynics always like to end their diatribe with such rapier wit.
I beg to differ from them. I grew up in a world that views intimacy as a privilege. Introductions are divulged only to strangers. “Our people” recognize us, even if we are quarter of a century older and 20 kilos heavier. Time is not strictly compartmentalized so the past is erased when the future arrives, and the identity of the people one grew up with does not necessarily reside in their names. Conversations left incomplete decades ago can be resumed with ease and grace, because like in fairytales, once recognition is achieved, the Cosmos is balanced and everything is in its perfect place. A thousand years passed feel like only yesterday and we feel our youth restored.
I find it immeasurably heartening that I shall never age in perception of the Callers, and nor shall the Called age in mine. When I receive a Call, I feel as though I have been, yet again, through no effort or merit, included in the inner circle of “our people.” I am reassured that my memories of who-I-was are not just boring, repetitive stories of a glamorized, improbable utopia, like my daughter sometimes suspects. There WAS a real person, and those ARE real events, like the Battle of Panipat or the Vietnam War.
This quaint, confounding game of “you-who” reaffirms who we are and reminds us of forgotten selves we might have left behind or packed away.
By Shefali Shah Choksi.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
I reminded my child of this festival and like an automated toy, she regurgitated the story of Prahlad, Hiranakashyapu, and his demon sister after whom the festival is named.
My child knows me so well, and remembers all the stories I gave her, I thought in congratulation.
In the next breath, she reminded me that she also has her FCAT's today.
So much for reinforcing ethnic heritage, I resignedly thought.
However, Holi, like Navratri and Diwali, feels exceptional: nothing can dampen my spirits today. Not my desk groaning under titanic loads of ungraded student papers, not my full inbox demanding urgent acknowledgements and replies, not the broken A/C in my classrooms, and definitely not my child's insistence that I inhabit the physical, geographical space I have chosen as my home and deny galaxies of times past spinning constantly in my head.
A couple of weeks from today, the local South Asian community is having one of its get-togethers to celebrate Holi and then, my child might feel a bit of the magic connected to this day that welcomes the Spring. I shall always be grateful for such melas: they reinforce my ethnic heritage to my child more than I ever can hope to with my isolated voice telling stories.
Since today is also a work day, there is little chance of my visiting the local temple to offer the gods tokens of gratitude for colors and Spring, or for a much-needed visit to the beach to watch the indescribably beautiful Spring full moon rise.
These words shall have to suffice for today: I remember and know, therefore I am.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Whether scribbling wordless shapes on the pavement for street games, computing and figuring out math problems and verb conjugations on slates, or laboring delicately with a fountain pen to keep the paper blot-free, writing has been one of the most meaningful acts I remember from time before chronololgical memory.
Today, as I write this in a format and medium that is light years from the pavement and the slate, I ask myself if my fingers miss actually feeling the words as they emerged, it seemed to me then, from my blood, skin, and nerves. After all, it seems like cheating, almost, that my fingers don't sieze up with painful exhaustion and need very little flexing.
So who is the one really writing, if my fingers feel so detached that only the tips tap gently on keys and fly away? How close am I to the words if I don't feel them being painfully concieved and sharpen beneath my skin?
Even though I've been using this form of physical writing for more than a decade, closer to two, it still feels strange, this strange distance from the very sensuous act of touching my thoughts. I fear it might add a dimension of alienation, since I connect my use of the computer key board with my immigration to the US. The only keyed writing implement I'd used before was the old fashioned type writer, which demanded my fingers pound the requisite keys with proper determination and insistence. So there was labor there.
I do, I find, have answers to my earlier questions. The ideas that are splashed out today need no labor, which makes this world a Utopia of sorts. We now have the luxury of expression without pain, truly free. Now, fingers do not need to get involved so intimately with thoughts and their labor can be saved for the needle.
One of the proudest memories I now hold is the sight of my daughter owning the keyboard with enviable familiarity when she was 3 and wielding pencils with equal grace on paper taped to the living room wall.
These, indeed, are amazing times.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Isn't this the way a lot of blogs begin?
I can relate. Beginnings usually confound me; I prefer to broach them once I am done saying all. It is very fortunate, then, that my world affords such luxury of choice to me, for a rain forest would have to be sacrificed to my quest for the perfect potato chip of a beginning, using crunch and salt to whet tastebuds.
It might also make sense to begin with a fear, so I confess this: I am afraid my blogging might end up as a useless exercise in claustrophobic narcissism. I am also afraid no matter how loudly I speak, in however many languages, I shall remain unheard.
However, I do hope that my fears are my usual neurosis which will melt in clear light of logic. And we all know that naming a fear averts such a disaster.
Disasters squared away and fears conquered, now, then, would be a good time to start.
So I shall resort to the traditional, and hope that instead of a potato chip, this beginning shall serve as nothing more or less than a threshold.
Once Upon A Blog . . .
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.
Shefali Shah Choksi
Blame the air flowing on distant river banks, whispering whorls to us
Punish the soft land that cushions and bubbles us forth
Trained by millennia and DNA, we still think the small round ones cute
We sing to them to inhale and expand from within their souls
Tendrils on our heads and arms dance and twist to show them how,
First in tight corkscrews and then unfurling out to modest curves
We venerate the gibbous moon and worship the oval earth
This rotundity is our adulation, our paean, so we may fit widely
Even forgiving the hothouses, greedy knife, lost seeds,
Here hold one of us: see how we curve snugly into your arm and waist
Why force this unnatural angularity on to us? For what fault
Would you peg us into a cube we don’t trust?
We only seek to be, not conquer, convert, or consume!
Our universe is unbalanced, as we squat ungracefully on market stalls
No longer feeling our browned, tinseled tendrils pulled and tied into perfect bows
Envious of the round eyes and wide mouths of those who gawk at us
When the moon visits and you have forgotten us, we dream of spheres,
Shell-shocked in the freak section with bonsai
And tiny women’s shoes with very high heels
Shefali Shah Choksi
As a brand new home?
Wander in other people’s streets
Utter well-mouthed phrases only to
Tell ours we don’t belong anymore
But who can forget streets?
They show up unannounced behind closed eyes
Their names unbidden fall from tired tongues
Pavestones beckon to absent sighs
Weep piteously promise to behave if only
If only the footfalls stay familiar
The curving arches must be resisted
The dusty square forced into oblivion
Games and battles smirked away
Like insisting invisibility of rusty spots on the back of a girl’s dress
Embarrassing only if acknowledged
The streets darken for us at dusk, no lamp luminous
Aarti at their temples now clang with Others’ fervors
Flowers of offering have chosen fresh fragrances
We sneeze in reaction to unaccustomed incense
We laugh, encouragingly apologetically it is not enough
Once abandoned, these streets refuse guilty reunions
Erase our faces from old walls that hold memories of our grandfathers
Cobblestones remain hard unyielding Our weeping cannot confuse
Rains to evoke remembered aromas from redolent dusts
These streets moved away and misplaced us
Left us in a forgotten attic rusty metal trunk with broken hatch
We carry on our backs, strapped on with gods and syntax
We are no longer allowed to use.
Shefali Shah Choksi.