Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Funeral

My house is dead and we had its funeral yesterday; it burned a few weeks ago and no one quite knows why, though I am sure I was responsible, somehow, for this devastation. On Diwali, my life irrevocably changed. I remember the morning with a forced clarity, since I've had to retrace it endlessly, both in my tortured solitude and verbally for various authorities who have tried to analyze and square this away neatly.

Like all deaths, however, this one defies all logic or sense of fairness, and really, it matters little how it happened: the fact remains that I came home from work one day to find a ruin, almost as though I'd wandered into an alternate multi-verse, in which I am less fortunate than in the one I inhabit, or that I'd wandered into a wrong fairytale (this was ME! This wasn't supposed to happen to ME!!). I usually don't sleep much any longer, and when I do, my vivid dream life tries to convince me that it was all a horrible nightmare, that of course my home is safe, exactly how I'd left it to go for work that Diwali morning, waiting for me to come and light the ritual lamps. But then I know exactly what that is: it's a defense mechanism construed by my shattered, shocked sense of self, and I confess to have wondered about the means by which I could lose myself in that dream and not wake up. With equal shame, I have chosen to wake up and tried to gather myself around me, like a shawl of ashes.

It amazes me how much of myself I'd stored within those charred walls. It is a strange feeling to realise that I own nothing: not a spoon, not a safety pin, not a needle or threader, not chairs or door knobs. A lot of my books, like my poor cat, did not make it either. On the other hand, I am sure I own some sheets, some photos, more clothes than the ones in that box next to me, but I couldn't say where they are. No matter how many times I try to remember what the Sufis, Saints and Poets have said, this realizing does not liberate me in any way. In fact, I am a lost soul whose horizon has either abandoned her or been erased. I have no compasses to steer my reality by!

Yesterday, my friends helped me remove, salvage, and discard the remains of my house. It felt like a funeral, and had it not been for so many kind hands holding me up, I would have been lost in yesterday, unable to find my way to today. As I considered the detritus of all that had made sane sense to me and recognized myself in each familiar arch, cadence, texture, and hue in that heap, the immensity, the impossibilities of my circumstance, my situation, stood out clearly, in relief, forcing me to meet their eyes with the same recognition I had saved for the Odyssey a student had given me, for the ceramic bowl my daughter had made for me.

Time behaves strangely for me now, and the very ground feels malicious, like quicksand, waiting to swallow me down. I think of Odysseus on his way home from Troy, never dreaming how much must be endured, conquered, travelled before reaching Ithaca and being recognized. I think of my Sita in this story under the Father Tree, slowly understanding the full implications of her impossible position. I think of the Ancient Mariner, who is left with only a harrowing tale that he must repeat endlessly.

I do not wish to seem ungrateful, of course; there have been many mercies: the worst, hopefully, is behind us, we have realized how many wonderful, generous, kind people we have always been surrounded by but had failed to realize it, and we have been lucky to have survived this with our fingers and toes intact. We shall, of course, build ourselves up from these fragments because, really, there is no other choice.

Kind Reader, please enjoy a glass of water in your own homes, in your own glass, and be grateful on my behalf for being able to do so. I, too, shall think of you, and take heart that Odysseus does find his way to Ithaca, after all, even if it takes decades. Please pray that the stars who have extinguished themselves from my skies have not gone out, but just changed their orbit, and shall be back soon to light my ship to familiar landscapes.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Tis Almost Fairy Time!

The days have suddenly shortened. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, I watch the dwindling light, wonder and fear as at one stride comes the dark. On days like today, even as the temperature mounts in mid day, the sky never brightens and 6pm feels like 8pm, and my cat worries that I might have forgotten to feed him. My postage stamp of a backyard is alive with night rodents that scratch and screech into the hot wee hours.

Something archetypal in me recoils at the fading lights; in the dying year, I find it difficult to trust the shifting whispers of leaves. Many friends, especially the ones who live in different geographies and landscapes, claim to love Fall of all the seasons and I admire their courage to notice beauties as all things close and end. In this season of endings, mornings feel like a gyp, misnomers for the grey mists shrouding and hiding the earth in treacherous cobwebs.

I think it might be more difficult to face the Fall for those of us who nest in the Tropics, where either the day is bright or stormy or both, but never neither. I wonder if the urbane ducks, cats, and palm trees are affected similarly, if they would confess to a discomfiture with the anomaly of Autumn in the land of eternal sunshine.

I remember a really, really black Fall, many moons ago, when I used to consider 3pm and worry about where I was to be when all light was gone from the skies. That was the Fall when I first took my small daughter fairy hunting in the streets near indifferent strip malls. We would arrange rocks of broken cement and come back the following evening to exclaim amazement if they were or weren't where we'd left them. I took to spending nap hours to eek out child verses with hackneyed meter and beaten rhymes, and hiding them in hedges for us to find later that evening; those were our fairy lamps and they brightened many evenings.

Yesterday, we attended Sol's An Afternoon with the Elves, and not surprisingly, that resonated with me. The play celebrates our need to believe in the numinous in the midst of unbelievable, heartbreaking realities we often find ourselves in. In fact, the play contends that so strong is this pull towards the numinous, that often, we find ourselves upsetting the comfortable, easy status quo of the familiar and recognizable, as we race after the flickering, winking glimmers we imagine on the borders beyond our peripheral ken.

It is this very need that makes the lengthening nights sparkle with festive votive and lanterns,as the darkness is shawled in clothes of brightest hues; firecrackers and joyful music mingle with twinkling, tinkling jewelry to drown out the dusk hush; the greenest of evergreens grace lintels and mantels; the once tightly shut doors smile open in welcome, their thresholds sporting Rangoli.

Tropics do change their seasons after all, and fairies do light up the path markers of Fall. As I watch the long shadows dancing in my backyard and through my window, I am aware of a deep gratitude for the incredible, extraordinary capacity of our species to take arms against the very mantle of the sky, and by opposing, end the smothering dark.





Sunday, September 18, 2011

Never-ending Story

I read a facebook post from someone who confesses to her incurable addiction to German soap operas. I can so relate: I, too, confess to this addiction and have blogged about it previously; however, besides the opulent sets, familiar cadences, and use of folklore that I've addressed in earlier blog entries, there is the matter of the story, the plot itself that beggars justice.

I am truly amazed and humbled at these contemporary epics. The plots of these serials make mazes seem tame. There are numerous subplots, an inevitability, really, considering that the typical saga begins with a rather large joint family. These plots are very wise: they know that no story is meaningful if the characters don't mean enough. So of course, there are several episodes devoted to character establishment.

The story uses an intricate embroidery of colors, costume accessories, phrases, melody strains, and amazingly, a background chorus for effective characterization. For example, if a villainous, scheming vamp archetype is being introduced to the newly married bride (our protagonist), the background music associated with the vamp would include a phrase, like her first name whispered ominously, repeatedly; or if the neighbor's good-hearted son (our clown) is about to tell a lie, the background music is woven around a phrase like "Jhoot bola!" (Jhoot= lie; bola=he spoke). And then the story begins; the central conflict is introduced, and variations on the same theme form subplots for characters that are only slightly ancillary.

The plots are convoluted, unlikely series of events that rely on their very improbability for verisimilitude! They seem to rest on the truism that truth is stranger than fiction: after all, the individuals who make the audience examine their own lives and circumstances, and think back to an earlier decade when all that has come to pass since, would have boggled their imagination then. And reality itself is such a shifty thing! One cannot rely one's senses to verify it, and human understanding is so fraught with pre-conceptions, mis-interpretations, mis-calculations and a myriad of patinas, that it seems useless to commit to a limited version.

Moreover, the characters and situations are ever so easily recognizable, so easy to relate to, that the improbability of the opulent settings and costumes becomes just an acccesory to the permutations and combinations of events, and helps in construction of archetypes.

Fiction imitates reality, like a stick figure imitates a human being: this is the first lesson to all who choose to Read Literature. The soaps, like all fiction, then, channel this truth, the truth that transcends facts; the truth of humanity made recognizable in a stick figure has an appeal that is more universal than an individual's face reflected in a mirror.

So it is with these stories. Characters die and come back to life in a different place, with a different name, among new characters, often with different faces, but they become palimpsests of their previous stories which continue with their absence at the center. These parallel plots build up to a climax when the past and present are made to co-exist, acknowledge, and recognize each other, often in presence of the future, so the story can go on once one climax  has been resolved.

I heard of a knife a family has; it's been in the family for many, many generations. Of course, sometimes, the handle has had be changed, and sometimes, the blade has had to be replaced, but the knife is still the same. This post is dedicated to unending stories that continually re-invent, re-tell, re-configure, adapt, to refract the variegated colors of the kaleidoscope that is reality.



Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Glass Windows and Long Stories

There is something cosmic about staring out of the glass, on level with the clouds and tree tops, looking down on parking lots and roofs. Today, I am more aware of this feeling for various reasons. The most obvious of these is, of course, that it is a clear day, with unlimited visibility, the sun spilling gold all around the world, so the sky feels like another landscape. If I wasn't so afraid of situating myself in precarious places, like high glass towers which would often be at the mercy of the frequent storms, I'd be a megalomaniac, intoxicated by this sight.

However, there is another reason for being more aware of the cosmos: some new potentially habitable planets have just been discovered. The informed ponderers postulate about the existence of water on these planets, which could host life.

This worries me; I feel like I am perched at the edge of a high, fragile glass window in the middle of an indifferent storm. How is life an accident? We assume that we are unique; doesn't that scare everyone? This assumption seems illogical at best and egoistical at worst!

My reaction, of course, like always, is to seek out stories that examine other alternatives. The ones I have been drawn to lately have been fantastical universes, even multi-verses that are not anthropocentric. I find these stories about dimensions of other lives, life-forms, realities co-existing with us, fascinating. These have been the stories that have kept me up at night (work schedules notwithstanding).

An excellent example, of course, is the Harry Potter series; I revisited the first book since it was what my book club was reading, and again, I find myself hooked. I have blogged about this elsewhere, so I shall save my patient reader the repetition. Then, Shannara kept me up till the wee hours. And now, Stroud's London, told partially from a Djinni's perspective, holds me captive.

They say Fall is the season when curtains between various worlds and states of being are at their thinnest. The falling year does bring to mind the long story told over many nights, the longer twilights and small days, when humanity holds the largest number of festivals, celebrating beings we don't really understand but are acutely aware of.  I think of this season as the least anthropocentric, when people are naturally drawn out of their shelters at night, to gaze at the large moon and sharp stars, and wonder.

So in a couple of hours, when the evening begins, I, too, shall fold up the day and settle down with the unending story that reminds me to be afraid of high glass windows. After all, I am not Sisyphus and my world is not as predictable  or  as anthropocentric as his: I do not inhabit a deserted universe, nor do I have the strength to roll this rock, or believe myself to be the only upright life form.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Against the Rains

The monsoon has definitely settled in, and the horizon has all but disappeared. Do not ask me the time; it means nothing and those numbers won't anchor the day. Summer in the flat lands is always uneasy, not because it doesn't fit well, but because once settled, it refuses to lift or shift. My colleagues and students, like me, freeze through the work week in air conditioned buildings with sealed windows and heavy doors that resist opening. Our window overlooks the bridge over the Intra-coastal Waterway and the cars crawling up and down seem unreal, somehow insubstantial and pointless through the veil of heavy rain, loud with many complaints and opinions. In fact, the rain outside the misted over window seems to be the most important personality in the room.

One of the oldest fears of the human psyche is that the sky should fall down on the earth, and there are as many versions of the World Tree as there are storytellers, and just as many devices to keep the opposites apart. Forget death, pain, becoming food; the greatest fear we all share seems to be that all shall blend indiscriminately into a primal soup,the virtuous with the ugly and common, that our belief in the absolute value of our worth, the validity of our individuality, the confidence in our undeniable cosmic relevance and ability to affect universal effects, all shall be erased, rendered irrelevant.

In the center of the year, the air begins to emanate a wet fragrance that is unlike any other smell, at the same time, feels like part of every earth-bound smell. The monsoon in des has a particularly inimitable flavor. When I miss the sights and sounds of my birth-land, thankfully, I now have the television that speaks to  me in familiar cadences I don't need to translate. However, nothing really fills in the emptiness when I miss the monsoon-fragrance. My house, like a lot of desi houses, smells of turmeric powder simmering with mustard seed cackled in vegetable oil and asafetida. So often, as I stand on the threshold of my kitchen and little backyard, I forget, and I wait for the koel's complaint when I smell the damp soil; of course, it never comes. My tongue yearns for the tang of raw mangoes marinated in salt water; but the mangoes, like the watermelon and carrots, taste different here.

Our species has evolved so that I don't really need to notice the seasons, except to nod a glance outside my window, or to ensure that my tires and wipers are adequate. The monsoon,  however, clouds over my horizon  underlined with many forgotten melodies, strains of taste, music, sounds, smells, and an indescribable anticipation as the rains arrive with the season of festivals, all culminating in Diwali.

I sit here, watching what looks like an apocalyptic, cosmic downpour that threatens to flood, swirl, and dissolve the individual thing-ness from everything beneath it, the very air trembling and booming, till the thunder seems to arise from the belly of things and the lightening illuminates nothing but the gray rain. I can see nothing outside my window, not even the palm trees, the roads, the stores I know to be there.

The Tree, then, does more than keep the opposites separate, more than keeping the earth and sky in their places; it shelters and hides creatures, offers a safe-house of sorts as the elements battle it out and the world re-arranges itself around it. For me, that Tree is crowded with remembered fragrances, tastes, rooted in the belief that the world I cannot see shall survive this rearrangement of elements, so the year may continue its festive march towards yet another battle against torrential erasure.



Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tangled Weave

This one began speaking as I was driving to work. The story watched me as I followed the curve of the off ramp, watched me watching it, and leisurely lifted itself from the bole of a gulmohar where it had been perched, and I knew I'd been taken.

And now I am haunted. There is no other word for it. There is familiarity in moving shadows, an almost recognition in the pattern the unmoving leaves sketch on my desk, the scuttling just outside my vision that falls silent when concentrated upon. If I ignore it, or at least pretend to, it'll intensify, and then there'll be chills around my knuckles, numbness just beneath the left hand ring finger, the muscle under the thumb drumming to an unheard beat. That's when I shall have to do something about it. I know this of old.

This time, it is a tangled loom of a story that has stumbled upon me. I can't see the end of it and feel its unwieldy mass pouring in the pit of my stomach. I am really uncomfortable with this one because, like always, being haunted does not assure a good story at the end of exorcism. And the heaviness of this one is frightening.

The thing about largely woven patterns is that they tend to stretch so wide and far that they often get lost somewhere on the horizon. If one is lucky, they carry their creator on their roaring wave and by the time she is washed up on the shore, the project is finished, races off on an ever undulating ocean. However, I am not so fortunate. I am haunted by snippets, images, silvery strands of plot-ghosts as I chase chores, drive, grade, and wonder. I don't yet know what, if they can, will ever crystallize in a coherent tale, but judging by the increased hauntings, the prospects seem promising.

Be that as it may, I can tell that these are going to be a difficult couple of hours, several months, two years, however long the birthing might take.

Good reader, pray that the birthing be easy; light a votive in the gathering the twilight, chew a gulmohar petal for luck, and begin reading or telling a long tale tonight, to ease the season's night passage.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Winguardian Leviosa!

I just watched the last movie of the Harry Potter saga in honor of the passing of an age. I feel as though I am older for having lived this story. As I look back on what I like to call the Harry Potter decade, I am astounded at how much this story has reflected our world and how much it has helped me live it.

The world I find myself in the second decade of the new millennium has changed drastically and suddenly from the previous decades; I've had to re-define some very basic concepts, like the idea of safety, travel, friendship, communication, education, and segregation. It has been, for me, a decade of upheavals on a very basic, psychic level that has mandated that I replace my internal compass with a GPS.

I remember telling my friends scattered across the country that  get-togethers should be no problems, since no place is farther than the nearest airport; but that was before 9/11, which completely changed air travel. I remember being able to count my friends on my fingers; but that was before facebook told me that I'd need many arms and many, many fingers to count my friends. I remember always being on the look out for reliable, reasonably priced calling cards and long distance plans; but that was before oovoo and 3G phones. The list goes on.

In a world that changes so fast, where tomorrow strides and barges in before today is done, I've held on to stories that distill these complex issues into familiar archetypes, told in a way that reminds me of the familiar way of life, at the same time shows characters trying to adjust to a completely new world, having to learn very similar lessons. This story resonates with me for many reasons, but I believe my ability to relate to the characters' choices, lessons, terrors, joys, and crossroads is the main one.

I am not alone in this, of course; my child, who is putting together her college applications, was very impressed to know that one of her dream schools has a very active Quidditch team; we visited "Harry Potter Houses" on our last trip to London and Oxford; no one today is a stranger to a strange word like "muggle."

Today, the entire theatre was completely full and the whole experience to watching this movie on the opening weekend was a treat, like watching a Bollywood blockbuster on opening night. The audience actively participated in the watching: there were boos, clucks, giggles, snickers, guffaws, and outright laughter, as though we were all at a live performance, not a movie. As the light faded out on the characters we'd all come to know so well, the audience burst into a resounding applause.

This was a heartening experience. When I read bleak projections for the future, dire consequences promised for irresponsible choices made by earlier decades, I am more patient. After all, there can be no way to predict what gems of imagination await during troubled, troubling times to remind us of the richness, sweetness, and sheer beauty that is the human experience.

Like audiences emerging out of a tragedy many millennia ago, we, the audience emerging from the theatre today were definitely proud of being human, of the same ilk as the characters whom we admire, then pity and fear for, and ultimately own, so that, like the wish-figures reflected in the mirror of Erised, they keep us company when we look into our solitary looking glasses.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Un-anchored

I seem to have stumbled upon a pair of Cinderella shoes: they keep falling off my feet. My feet, in fact, have sent me on a quest for the perfect pair of shoes; but alas, like the perfect handbag, perfect footwear eludes me.
The world is full of shoes: some promise to place clouds beneath one's tread; some promise a complete metamorphosis; yet others pose in mall shops, like portals to alternate selves, selves more sophisticated than imagination could conceive, who seem serious about having fun and making bold statements about this fun.

Some months ago, my 16 year old NEEDED (capitals are deliberate) shoes and so off we went on our Odyssey. As I regarded the fare, I balked at the precariously high heels, the punishing straps strung with hard beads, the uncompromising brilliance staring me down. My child tried on many of these, exclaiming over the unimaginable comfort the shoes afforded, prancing around the store in her borrowed gait.

I crept surreptitiously out of her prancing orbit, afraid of being swooshed off and trampled upon, and found myself being stared at by a row of the improbable sandals, at the ready, seemingly awaiting orders to begin some combat, buckles glinting like weapons.

Undeniably, feet clad in dusty, stringy, un-heeled, loose sandals, feet like mine, did not belong.

Please do not misunderstand me, reader; I do not wish to appear un-groomed and grungy. However, my disagreeable feet are very particular about the kind of material that may clothe them, and they will not countenance the toes being enclosed. They cannot be made to perch any higher than the ground.

Today, I sit here, looking at my faithful sandals, worn out with fitting in, blending, trampling, all in service of my feet. I shall miss them, but like a sad Bluebeard, recognize the need for new ones to destroy.

When I was a child, I was thought of as a rather strange being, one who ran off from street play to hide in libraries, who learned to climb trees in search for an uninterrupted space to read in, who could not manage to keep herself grounded. Now, I know the real problem: I just did not have the right shoe that could convince and assure my feet of the solidness of the ground. I am still on the prowl for a good shoe, one that will not bite my feet in its arrogance and anger, one that will not squeeze my feet and spray blisters on them, one that will not feel compelled to change me into an unrecognizable self, which, instead, would make an effort to blend in with what exists, like an ideal daughter-in-law from a Hindi serial.

After all, not all feet are Cinderella feet, equally comfortable in clogs and gold slippers, and unless the shoe fits, one remains afloat, somehow unconnected to all that everyone is convinced is real, un-centered, even, like Yeats' falcon who cannot hear the falconer.

But then the alternative to Cinderella, of course, are Cinderella's sisters, with their bleeding, sliced up feet and blind eyes, stumbling cluelessly through a graceful wedding, all owing to the perverse insistence of their feet unwilling to fit the right shoe.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Easy Dreams

The last couple of months have been fraught with much to do, much that seemed important to do at the time, much that I can remember nothing about. I spent weeks chasing chores that never ended, tried to meet schedules that seemed downright perverse and mercurial, and often sighed that the hours should be so short and unreasonable. This ado of daily routines pervaded over my waking hours and clouded my dream times. There have been times in the past weeks, when even as I knew I slept, I thought about tired solutions, worried knots that tangled my waking worlds, and even in sleep, reached nothing, knew no answers, only longed and waited.

Finally, it is all over: my quarter is squared away, my child is off on her summer adventure, the thunderstorm has passed, and the dishwasher is humming. I've also enjoyed almost a week filled with family, friends, and food, and the cats' contented napping is the very concrete image of my internal landscape.

I know I shall not remember today, just like I don't remember all the times when I have realized that I was happy. So I hope that this post shall remind me in my less contented moods, that I have known this wonderfully perfect, wet afternoon, which passed, and so shall my discontent. It feels important, then, to examine to what I owe this sense of well-being.

After all, it is Father's Day, and I should be missing my father. But I've just spent two days acutely aware of his absence as we celebrated his oldest grand child's graduation, an occasion woven with much joy and pride. So even though I am thinking of and paying homage to my father, I am not missing him: how can I, when I am surrounded with the poetry he loved, the stories he told me, and many of the books he treasured?

I should also be missing my child whom I won't see for days yet. But I missed her more at her cousin's graduation than now: every one I met, I wanted my child to meet; every step her cousin took towards her diploma, I wanted my child to savor; every picture I took with her cousin, I wanted my child to feature in. But today, I do not miss her: she is in one of my favorite cities in the world and she has promised to sprinkle thoughts of me all over its stones, museums, pillars, cross roads, and street corners. Hopefully, this city, then, shall dream of me tonight.

It would seem that I have my niece's graduation to thank for this ease I feel today. It has been a catharsis of sorts, but unlike other necessary, painful catharsis, this one has been a joyful one. In fact, I have found myself smiling as I remember the coffees we shared, the new and old conversational dances we partook of, and smile wider as I go over, yet again, the pictures from the day I spent with the clan. Of course, my niece's graduation has not been my first graduation by any means, even though I didn't attend any of mine. But I was struck anew at the significance of the ritual connected with this rite of passage, as every bit of that pomp and circumstance seemed to ring with fresh promise and all things bright.

Today, it seems my cup has exhausted itself with overflowing and is content to lie on its side, unable to hold much within. My television talks at me in familiar, lilting cadences of the many Hindis the serials and programs use, demanding nothing from me, not even attention. Maybe later today, I shall catch an old Hindi movie and my dreams will weave the well-known characters, music, plots, colors into their terrains and fabrics, until the very world of sleeping, like a city I have loved for long decades, shall dream of me.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Stories and Clay: Reflections on Motherhood

Being a mother, I write this at a risk of being the more harshly judged. Tomorrow, however, is Mothers' Day and having celebrated Fathers earlier on this blog, it seems right to reflect on the relationship we all take so much for granted, unless it has somehow been snatched from us.

Motherhood, I tell my students, is not for the faint of heart; the parents among my students nod their sage agreement to this. I am awed, for example, at how the existence of an ugly, squirming new born (face it; new borns are beautiful only to their families and remain indifferent to those who love them beyond reason or proportion!) can change the very personality of the nourisher. It is the most illogical of relationships: as a parent, one begins this relationship with full awareness that there shall be no returns on this investment, that there CAN be no returns on an investment this huge.

Logically, motherhood makes no sense; it demands, to a large degree, erasure of the self. We are told that in exchange, we are to give up our firm, youthful bodies, to become willing houses for lives more important than ours, even sometimes be willing to go through really scary, painful, unforgettable physical procedures that will forever change us into unrecognizable beings. Even those of us who do not go through a physical motherhood are made to go through procedures just as exacting and harrowing that often make us question our sanity. This metamorphosis to being a mother is terribly expensive, shall curtail our personal freedoms in a variety of small and large ways, and impose a role that we shall have no respite from, sleeping or awake, as long as we shall live, and sometimes, even beyond that.

I am, then, understandably mystified at this need we have to nourish. It would seem more logical to enhance our own lives, strive to increase our life-spans, live more fully, rather than to choose decades of half-lives, to accept fatigue the likes of which even the sleepless nights and agonies of grad school can hold no candle to.  So it doesn't make sense that motherhood would somehow stand for all we hold sacred!

But we often worship what we feel too strongly to understand. I remember the first time I held my daughter: a feeling so fierce seized me so suddenly, so strongly, it felt like a growl from a deep, old being that wept in fear, joy, fulfillment, and maniac laughter that bounces & echoes through thunder clouds. The nurses and attendants, well-trained and well-informed about the growl, gave me a wide berth until I could breathe properly again. I remember poking my infant in her crib, in the middle of many a night, until she shuddered a breath, so I could believe that I'd still have her upon awakening, if I gave in to sleep for a while. Of course, death, in any form would be more acceptable to me than the thought of losing her in any way, or of her being in helpless, uneased pain. I am a selfish woman that way.

However, when I look at all the mothers around me, they do not seem selfish at all. They patiently tolerate tantrums in malls and backseats of cars, wear out cookie cutters making endless peanut-butter sandwiches more alluring, gladly put their careers on hold for the privilege of greeting their pre-schoolers in the middle of the day for the nap, read one more story in their special Mommy Voice at the end of an exhausting day of juggling their many roles. These mothers sit, awake and still, at their children's bedside in the dark and breathe in the milk-and-soap fragrance of the children's dreams long after the story is done and the children unaware of their presence. They consider themselves fortunate, just for living this moment.

When she was six, my daughter made a baked clay bowl for me. It is a small fruit bowl that dreams of being a goblet. It is not exactly even or balanced, though it needs no support. Though glazed, the bowl's surface is not smooth: it bears thumb prints of a girl who used her hands for someone other than herself. That roughly made bowl holds countless moments and their leftovers in form of shells, pins, especially good erasers, and lately, a card reader for my sixteen year old's newest, proudest possession, the camera her uncle gave her.

To me, that bowl is the image of motherhood. It is a vessel that is too uncommon to be used in the common way vessels are used; it is too common to be put away behind a glass door as a curio or an object to be idolized and never used. Usually, we ignore it even though it occupies a prominent place on our furniture. But we cannot imagine it not being there. It is sturdy enough to hold momentoes of our life; yet we fear it might be fragile.

I look at that bowl now and wonder at its infinite capacity for holding little things that remind us of the stuff we are made of. I am afraid I lack the courage to clean it out and catalogue its contents to make it more manageable.

My sincere homage and salutations go out to all mothers, whatever their shape, provenance, or glaze, and to their infinite capacity for holding the entire Creation within their very fragile, very strudy arms of clay.





Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trumpet Sound

I began Monday with Tutankhamun's stolen trumpet, and the sound resonated and echoed throughout the day. I must confess to being worried: it has been known to herald disasters (the World War began shortly after its first sounding). I have since agonized over it: should I have heard it? Should I have refrained? Was there a cosmic message in the trumpet being stolen during the recent unrest in Egypt, a message that I was missing?

This is a common agony for me. I write a story or a poem, which sometimes is accepted or published, and once it is out there, I worry that it constantly misrepresents me, that I shouldn't have said that in this way, that maybe it was too personal or too impersonal or too sappy or too cynical. I feel like chasing my words, netting them, and somehow controlling what they say about me. Of course, I know this is as pointless as tying a brick to my child's head to prevent her from growing.

I think everyone who dabbles with the pen and keyboard would agree that the minute one decides to create a fictional landscape or, even just voices, a part of the self gets split. There is the writer, whose horizons include the reader, and there is the real person, who often refuses to acknowlege the writer in public, even sometimes is unable to recognize the split part of herself.  One of the most rewarding experiences can be when these two selves meet, are introduced, and smile.

Last weekend, on Friday, I had a reward like that, one of those gem-evenings, beautiful, perfect, when all the universe smiled down on me. My book club had chosen my book for its discussion and I remain humbled and honored that so many of my friends came for the discussion. I learned more about my work than I could ever have imagined learning, and it has defnitely affected the way I have written since.

Of course, often, this smile at the split self sketches itself in fear at the recognition. How much does the writer reveal? In a world where the idea of privacy is so treasured because it is getting to be so rare, how much of the real person has the writer self laid bare for all to see?

One of the messages from that evening tells me that through my poems, I have revealed much of the way I mother, the way I respond to the world. However, I remember, while constructing the poems, I agonized endlessly over being too intensly personal, and labored over making them more universal, more impersonal. I look at them now, and maybe because I see the poems through the lens of my soul-searing revisions, I still think they are really not about ME, per say. Maybe my friends know me very well, and if this is the reason they see me so clearly in my written voices, then there is a great deal of comfort in that: at least I have not misrepresented essential truths to my friends!

One of my stories has just been accepted for an online journal's anthology, and it is a story I spent months over. This story follows the first person perspective of Sita, from the epic, Ramayana, a story I grew up with. I find myself worrying over my story: have I offended? Have I misrepresented her completely? What shall this story say about me?

I have also been working on a short story and I am trying very, very hard to make it more universal and less personal. But somehow, Oedipus-like, the faster I try to run from the real person, the more the writer self seems to run into it.

And it is boring to show what already exists and is so easily knowable. I like to write because it gives me the chance to explore alternate selves and realities, the heady, addictive world of "what if?". I strive to be that enigmatic writer whom people look at and say, "I can't believe SHE wrote this . . .", but alas! All these alternate selves seem to be nothing more than reflections of the same image, multiplied exponentially, as though through a couple of parallel mirrors.

I wish I had and had not heard Tutankhamun's trumpet. How different would I have been? How different my agonies? How would it feel to straddle both possiblities of hearing and not hearing?

But then I think of Odysseus, tied to masts, the Siren Song resounding through him. Does he agonize over the Song's influence? Does he wish he had chosen the safety of wax for his ears? We all are subject to our single natures, and our stories, then, are bound to tell of our real selves, the ones we often refuse to recognize, the selves we leave behind on retinas once our ships pass, and these selves speak a universal language, true and recognizable, and this song resounds precisely because the story is personal.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ease Over

A quarter of the year is past and with it, the break between quarters. I had so many plans for this week; most of those are still waiting for some more time off. It could be that my refrigerator died, demanding immediate attention and time. Maybe the unexpected exhaustion that swallowed up an afternoon was the reason. Maybe the projects I had chosen were too ambitious for a couple of days the break allowed. I don't know exactly what it was, but I see tomorrow morning striding too fast across to me and I do wish heartily for it to come a little slower.

I had wanted to watch the sun rise on the ocean, with my child, both of us sweetening the morning with muffins, something we haven't had time to do since she was in elementary school. Then I dreamed of twilights spent on the sand. I planned to begin the month dedicated to poetry, with a bang, two poems a day as long as the break lasted; I haven't written a line. I had promised myself a bribe of an entire season of Star Trek; I had to be content with one episode. This break had been the deadline for a quilt; I got in less than 20 stitches and it still awaits closure.

So here I stand, Janus-like, on the threshold of another quarter and I am afraid that this one will also stride away before I have a chance to glance back and take stock. This evening, then, warrants such a glance before I dismiss it as a loss.

This break did concede a few allowances. I have a clean, efficient refrigerator with no left-overs. I didn't have to forgo any of my yoga sessions, or my Friday morning garlands at the temple. I got to genuinely enjoy Holi this year, and so I am more attuned to the changing seasons and the year does not feel so bare or meaningless anymore. All the laundry is clean, even the daunting comforters and quilts. The evening spent at Relay for Life always feels like a gift and the march of the cancer survivors and their caretakers always shifts perspectives and I remain grateful for my life. Also, rare and unexpected was the evening I spent with my very, very good friend and my daughter, as we went for a play and really nice dinner.

So even though I didn't get to most projects, need a few more days to just catch my breath, and still have all this laundry to put away, the bell  has summoned and it is time to refresh the screens and fill up the gas tank. I shall remember the next break waiting at the end of the new quarter when I bow to the sun in the morning, as I pause atop the on-ramp, to ease into the busy lanes that lead to I-595.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Under the Green Wood Tree . . .

I have been watching television, I confess, when I should be doing worthier things, like grading or updating this blog! I apologize, but not too sincerely. You see, I have been watching a specific kind of television: the Indian channels, redolent with recognizable characters, lush landscapes, and colorful sets. But there is one other aspect of these serials that has me enthralled, their roots in folklore, tales and archetypes that one cannot dismiss as accidents flashing on peripheral vision.

I have found just the threads I've been looking for, to maybe embroider my stories with: vegetation. Like all other lore peculair to our species, Gujarati lore is rich with references to trees, flowers, creepers, grasses, leaves, twigs, bark, trunks, roots of trees. I find myself contemplating on those.

Street corners are defined by the all-too familiar Banyan, Peepul and Neem, with the coolest, kindest shades for the weary. Now close your eyes a bit, reader, to see the well in the shade, with its creaking pulley and fraying rope, fragrant with many tales; careful with those always-damp steps, though. No shaded well is complete without the serenly masticating bovine population, and the lazy buzz of meandering flies.

Now, reader, let your half-gaze wander up into the branches; that's where the stories live. Surely, it is the sigh of those dead lovers that moves the still afternoon air and worries those heart-shaped Peepul leaves, she the beloved daughter of the widow, he the traveling minstrel. That Neem bough is never still, as the spirit of the pot maker's youngest daughter-in-law laughs maliciously on it, and no wonder: her body was fished from the well's depths and no one quite knows what hour of the moonless night pounced on her. These aerial roots of Grandfather Banyan sway in memory of those childhood lovers, still alive, but flung afar from their monsoon swings, neither capable of contentment or joy anymore.

These are silent, arborial songs of the history of our collective experiences. It seems logical, then, that they should find their way into the stories we tell of who we are, what shades define and shelter us, what trees gave us dreams of far-off places.

So I shall explore some ways of weaving these elements into my stories.

After all, it is important to keep one's wells freshened with cool water, in case some way farer from a distant land may taste it and warble out a familiar, forgotten tune to stir lost hearts and spirits.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Catharsis

This weekend has brought with it a relief that feels like a long dry season quenched with the coolest rain: I finished a short story.

This particular story has taken an extraordinarily long time to finish, even for me. The protagonist is a character from an epic and I have been struggling to figure out where and how to end it, how to begin it, and how to tell it. This is the common problem when the epics call out to be told, because the story governs the teller in a unique way.

First, the pre-made character comes with all the responses and attitudes of centuries. Then, the plot is sacrosanct, which can largely restrict character development. At the same time, the re-telling has to provide a perspective not included in the popular renditions of the epic, yet has to resonate with the reader.

I was worried about these issues when I realized that I'd have to write this story. I haven't been happy with this telling for many months now. I struggled with many issues: what parts of the plot to tell? How to tell without repeating the story that everyone knows so well? And most difficult: how to develop the character without changing her? Besides the fact that my character embodies too many archetypes to change her, I didn't WANT to change her in any essential way.

The story ended up being, cut, uncut, re-phrased, re-tried until I was ready to just forget about it. Characters were made ancillary, rounded, flattened, waltzed in and out of the first person perspective the story follows. I got quite dizzy and realised that this waltzing distracted from the intensity the narration mandated.Ultimately, things came together in the most natural manner, and the magic of the epic manifested itself with very little interference on my part.

I still got up last night out of sheer habit, trying to remember if I replaced a word with a better one, or if that comma belonged after a problematic phrase, or if an allusion should be removed.

I remember a similar condition from many years ago, when my child was an infant, and I found sleep more elusive than it was in graduate school! Last night, I kissed my story as it left my care to try out its luck in the world, and it frightens me as I realize that my child shall soon be ready to do the same, much sooner than I shall be ready for it.

I dedicate this entry to all stories that give us sleepless nights and take their own time over maturing, all stories that refuse the insistence on a predetermined time line and fight all fetters that would smother them with too much worrying, all stories that grant us so much relief and pride when they finally grow up, in spite of, or maybe because of all the mistakes, stumbling, and agonies.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bubbles

It is a normal, predictable Thursday. The same plots are being re-enacted on the television; the cat is napping in the same posture as yesterday; the same kids rocket by the window on various wheels; the mail carrier greets me in the same way; my back hurts in the same place; and the same star shines first in the west.

But something IS different today: I have, in my hand, the final copy of my first book of poetry.
It has been a long Odyssey, and even though I have been expecting the shipment, nothing comes near the actual feeling of holding the copy in my hands.

I am not ecstatic and I don't expect my life to change in any way. This is not some kind of pinnacle or a point of no return. This is one of the clogs ticking and clanging in place, a recognition. There is a comfort when a part of the self gets affirmed, like when one confirms a part of how the world works. For instance, I'd never seen an entire row of blue jelly fish being washed on the sand like I did last weekend. But the sight reaffirmed what I should have known: of course, that's what it's supposed to look like!

We watched the jellyfish rolling in with the waves, trailing their laces behind them, quivering as they burrowed deeper in the sand, the ink swilling like a little ocean contained in a balloon. A little unsuspecting bubble is all that can be seen once they are settled. One would have to consider one's next step very carefully.

Today my joy feels like the bubble scattered on a sandy shore, one among many, constantly being worked on by the motions of the waves, sand, the busy rocking of the very earth as the cosmos scuttles around in the important business of living. I send my feelers out towards the horizon, the line that defines our very realities but doesn't need to exist. I try to catch a wave that has passed over me: a time when I first realised that holding my book would be a part of who I wanted to be.

I dedicate this entry to that moment when I lay on that swing in a house called Horizon, watched the clouds swilling across the sky, and as the swing swept the winds over the pages of the book on my lap, I wished and vowed that one day, I'd hold a book of my own in my hands.

The house called Horizon, along with its swing, is gone and cannot return.

So I stand at the edge of the ocean, my book in my hand, and fling my image onto the horizon, to reach that house, that swing, that girl, that sky.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Strain

I wasn't looking forward to going back to work today, even though I genuinely enjoy my job. It has been amazingly easy to lose days and hours, like misplaced erasers that no one misses. As I was walking to my Greek mythology class this morning, I remember shuddering inwardly at the prospect of ungraded work yawning at the mouth of the quarter, like Scylla's maw. The main reason for this unexplainable ennui is, of course, that my mind hasn't quite recovered from the fevers that had haunted my afternoons during the holiday season. Even on days I didn't have any demands, my rest hours would be spoiled with apprehension at the afternoon fevers; today, I was absolutely dreading the afternoon, even though the fevers are quite gone.

I was not excited, merely exhausted, a condition very unfamiliar for the beginning of the quarter, of the year.

As I clutched my pencil with renewed determination before stepping out of the elevator, a sudden music startled me. A student, who was sharing the elevator with me, had a cell phone and it had just gone off, trilling the forgotten strains from the old Star Trek, a mythology that invariably hovers over all my Greek myth classes with amazing frequency.

This, alone, is proof that the Universe is not a messy heap of unconnected masses, yoked together with violence (to borrow from Dr. Johnson) and accident; it is a wonderfully balanced entity, meticulous in arrangements and detailed designs.

The Star Trek strain righted the world on its axis: I was on my way to meeting an entire room full of people who loved the things I did, who are moved by the same stories that resonate with me, who, truth to tell, understand a part of me not available to my family (close as they are to me, closer than a heartbeat, even), and to very few friends, if any. In the classroom, time encloses us all in a bubble, from which we observe the milling humanity, like a species under a microscope, unconscious of our study, indifferent to our temporary removal from their midst. The concerns of leaking roofs, sick children, and gas prices await outside the doors. My students stared at me, enthralled by Orpheus' need to look behind, the secrets of what makes us human contained in that one restrained glance.

What are a few hours of grading to such magic?

The story is old and hackneyed, boring to tell and hear. But the miracle lies in recognizing the strains of the keys creaking to make puppets dance exuberantly, delightedly, to the twitches and whims of Universal strings.
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