Saturday, March 28, 2009


It is incredible how much a trip to the beach can do for one's well-being. It seems to me the older I get, the more I need the sand in my toes, and the briny smell every time I open the boot of my car.

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


After a hectic day, week, millennium (I forget), I wonder if all the busy-ness that has webbed away part of my life is meaningful in any memorable way. If asked to catalog what I have been doing for the past ten days, I'd come up with a blank.

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

So my cousin, also one of my best friends, sent me a link to a brilliant animated project, Sita sings the blues by Nina Paley. This is based on Ramayana, yes, the epic. It is simply clever. My favorite element of this film are the three narrator shadow puppets, which look like Indonesian shadow puppets of the Rama Lila tradition. Paley has chosen to tell the Ramayana with Sita as the protagonist, an endearing character who bursts into the Blues in the voice of Annette Hanshaw, the Jazz singer from the 1920's.

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

Badly Begun

Lately, I have been struggling with short stories. Mine, that is. I have an entire folder that consists of nothing but beginnings; when I try to choose one, I find that the folder only thickens without any choices being made. My stories still cry, in a separate folder, like neglected, hungry children.

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

You-Who? Or the Calling Game

It was finally 9:50pm on the Wednesday of a hectic week and we were settling down, homework, for once, squared away, chores, for the present, abated. But I should have heeded the portents hinted by the red moon on the beach earlier that evening, before thanking the gods for having survived the day.
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


Today is Holi.

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

Writing with Fingers

I am so grateful to all of you who visited my blog. These, indeed, are amazing times we live in. The craft of writing has come such a long way and I only refer to my lifetime. The black slate was the first surface I scribbled on. I remember, very concretely, the scratch and squeak of the slate-stylus, or the slate-pen, as it was called. The way soft chalk felt was very different, and I thought it awkward to hold. Then, my writing world changed completely with the lead pencil and neat squiggles conjured themselves fluidly on a maleable, thin paper surface.
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

Once upon a blog

I am very new at this:
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 . . .

Arjun at the Swayamvar: Voices from Mahabharata

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

Square Watermelons

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

Street Talk

Who would choose translation
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.
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