Thursday, April 28, 2022

A Good Storm

 The promised rains never came. I waited all month long, crawling along weather apps and forecast websites, searching for a glimmer of relief from the bright sunshine and high temperatures. I struggled to stay asleep at night and finally bought new sheets with the same rose print and texture of my favorite cotton blends I remember from Bombay Dyeing. This helps a little. 

Sometimes, the app promised rain, hours long, long enough for me to fall asleep. The rains, though, whenever they came, thrashed about for an hour or so and fled. They also came when I was locked in my windowless writing center, where I spend shadow-less, sky-less hours, oblivious to any changes in the endless, parched blue. By the time I emerged, the rains would have long left and the ground dry. 

We just heard some thunder a few minutes ago and looked at each other dubiously, wondering if and wishing that the rain would outlast our working hours and lull us to sleep. The rains have been promised all weekend long. 

I just shrug. Let's see. 

The hurricane season begins on June 1. I do not wish for hurricanes. I am too old to weather another one. There is no real way to feather one's nest so that one's well-being and sense of safety may be sustained through the aftermath of a hurricane. At the very least, extreme discomfort and debilitating confusion always follow such devastation. Electricity always fails and the world grinds to a stop. I wake up to some primordial landscape with the stars and satellites being the only light sources, and insects buzz and bite incessantly. 

That said, I must confess to needing a good storm. I want the storm to be strong enough to quench the unrelieved days but not strong enough to knock off the lights. I do so hate sewing and reading by candlelight. But a good storm would also give me a good night's sleep. Indeed, if it arrives on a Friday evening, I can sleep through till late Saturday. On Saturday morning, I could gulp down enough water so I am slaked for the week. 

My workday is still more than a couple of hours shy of being done. The thunder seems to have been replaced by the hum of the A/C. I am sure that all signs of moisture will have dried up by the time I walk out. 

If there are no tell-tale pawprints on my living room floor when I reach home, I will know that at least the cats enjoyed the afternoon rains by napping deeply near the open window, on cool cotton blends printed with restful promises. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Resistance is Futile

I am, yet again, trying to find appropriate, affordable means to visit my janma bhoomi, Baroda. I crawl around the internet, trying on various fares, routes, seating arrangements, and durations. Ever since Russia barged into Ukraine, gas prices and fares have sky-rocketed: almost 50% higher! Definitely highway robbery, methinks. 

Appropriately enough, I am on the latest season of Star Trek, something I have blogged about several times. This one is called Picard. I relate to the protagonist's need to escape his janma bhoomi, his scrounging around to find adequate means of travel, and his constant yearning to return to the land of his birth.  The overarching theme of this series seems to be the importance of  overcoming the human fear of technology and incorporating it in the human world so both, organic and "synthetic" life forms can co-exist peacefully and in a manner beneficial to both. Inevitably, this includes many references and plot strains that revolve around the Borg, the terrible monsters from earlier Star Trek seasons, to whom we owe the phrase, "Resistance is futile!" The Borg tend to assimilate organic species and subsume their natural bodies by implanting machinery in their bodies, so the organic self is almost completely lost and the being becomes part of a hive, with a shared consciousness.

I think of our Borg-like world with Fit Bits, smart phones, Zoom, and WhatsApp. Who can imagine or manage life without them? I just made a colleague download WhatsApp that the team may communicate more effectively, rather than relying on primitive methods, like email. Many of our team wish that we would just have a face-to-face meeting and be done with it. However, in COVID times, that is not always possible, safe, or recommended. 

Back to traveling, in a time when I do not feel safe about visiting the inside of grocery stores, the tickets I seek are ones that promise more space between me and my fellow travelers, than the much cheaper ones I used before the pandemic. These tickets used to cost twice as much; now they cost five times as much as the ones I used earlier! Moreover, I need more comfort and hand-holding this time since I will be alone on this daunting journey to and from Baroda. My severely reduced immunity is one of the most chilling factors that require me to seek out appropriately spaced out seats.

Unlike Picard, who is one of my favorite characters, I hate traveling and would be very happy ensconced in my chosen home with the cats. I hate take-offs and landings, and I feel unanchored and claustrophobic when I think or how much removed I am from the ground. Strange airports do not offer any solace to people like me; I feel as though I hover over a worm hole of sorts and that I will be catapulted into another world, another aircraft, another time, that my feet do not touch terra firma. 

However, sooner or later, one must rejoin the rest of the active civilizations, teeming with movement, demanding movement from perfectly content still bodies.  I drive every week day, spend over 8 hours a day at work, and talk to others of my species. Yet I yearn towards my home and cats, where the only traveling I do is through the TV screen. When I try to make rather limp excuses for staying home, I get the same undeniable truth as a refrain from everyone: "You are fine! You must come!

Let me return to my creeping and crawling in search of a better fare, a better seat, a better duration for the journey I must make.

Like the Borg say, Resistance is Futile. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

My Heart Goes Mmm

 Usually, I don't enjoy conferences, meetings, townhalls, or much of what goes in the name of professional development. I participate and attend because I must, to prove that I seek self-improvement and therefore continue being worthy of being employed. Most of these events are pointless, unspeakably boring, and smack of self-congratulation and self-celebration. 

However, last Friday was an exception. Actually a couple of events were a pleasant surprise. I apologize to my patient reader for the length of this entry since I plan to include a couple of poems that emerged from a writing workshop. These poems resulted from two workshops, both part of a writing conference hosted by my college, for my college. It was a great way to get to know the very active writing community this place harbors. The members of this community sometimes publish, sometimes not and they are extremely diverse, their writing as varied as it is evocative. 

The first session I attended was on the multilingual nature of writing when one writes for oneself, not an imagined audience or publisher. A University professor who teaches creative writing facilitated this session. She used Ciserno's "You Bring Out the Mexican in Me" as a starter and suggested we each write a You Bring Out the _____ in Me poem. We had around ten minutes. We were to use at least some native language or phrases and present at least one verse to the group. I share mine below. I will hopefully re-visit it to revise and tinker with it, but here is the first draft:

You Bring Out the __ In Me

You bring out the bureaucrat in me.

My verse replaced by Excel columns,

Multicolored, swirling scarves tamed into pantyhose

My stories translated

Into skillsets,

 Appropriated to fit

The glass walls of my assigned office

 

You bring out the vanquished in me

Smothering batting onto my worn cotton sheet

“It will be much improved if you

Stitch on these words over what you just said. Use

Embroidery floss, not your cotton threads,”

You say.  I always listen

 

You bring out the wanderer in me

I wash up alone on craggy shores, hazy landscapes

Scowling, dark with bruise-purples and greens and yellows

Sunrises spill across indifferent skies

I squint myopically to recognize

Alien accents, slippery consonants, nasal vowels

But I get it. Sort of

 

You bring out the Gujjuben in me

Dal-Bhaat-Rotli-Shaak for lunch

Mung for dinner. Elaichi cha and thepla

For noon-headaches when the day heaves and slows.

Please-please, Lounge

On my swing, I bring you some, quick-quick

 

You bring out the Gujjuben in me

When the festivals loom

I scream the harder. I dance the louder

You do not listen.


Another session in the writing conference was about mining one's childhood memories for generating ideas. We were given various ideas about which we listed memories (the more sensory the better, of course!). This session was facilitated by one of our local creative writing faculty who regularly publishes children's books. Again, we were encouraged to use the phrases & languages we experienced the memories in. The next stage was to create a character, what this character sought to achieve through the plot, and what lay at stake. Of course, my character was a kite, who sought to fly with a lantern. This exercise ultimately led us to nailing the framework for a Where I Am From poem. I may flesh out the fiction piece (told from the kite's perspective) one day. However, here is my first draft of the poem:

Where I’m From

I am from Chhipwad, from its

rough roads and cows lowing and the smell

of daal dhokli in the afternoon.

 

I am from the shout of game-invites at 6 pm

Homework done, dinner too far

The clink of a thrown can

Begins the game

Of Chor-Police continued from

Summer vacations and last night

 

I am from the stink of burnt ghee

Left too long

A desperate rush to the kitchen

As the radio swirls remembered lyrics

In the sandalwood air

Cut by the hiss and slash of flour in the pan

 

I am from clanging temple bells and the Mullah’s Call

I am from Jack-and-Jill and the Saraswati Mantra

I am from sandalwood and marigolds and cow dung

 

I know this.

But I can’t find my glasses to see where I am

(Would you text or tweet if you find them?)


To say that I enjoyed this day a great deal would be an understatement. I even stayed back for the "happy hour," during which we got a beverage of our choice and read what we had come up with on that day to each other. Because the event was on Zoom, I did not have to leave my comfort zones or worry about the thousand ills that flesh is heir to. 

The wonderful day was preceded by the wRites of Spring festival the English department at my campus (North Campus) puts on every year. This year, the theme was Fantasy Tales and Why We wRite Them. Fascinating! The author featured was Kij Johnson, whom it was a pleasure to discover and Zoom-meet. One of our faculty encouraged his classes (and the attendees) to come up with 2 to 4 syllable words and phrases we were never going to be mature enough for. Pantyhose and self-improvement were some of my contributions, of course. Then our instructor converted them into poems and songs. Immense fun! However, one of my favorite sessions was the nature of fantasy tales on TV and in movies. This, too, was facilitated by one of our local professors. She examined shots from shows like True Blood and movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to point out mythemes, settings, themes, and other stock elements that constitute fantasy tales and that one must look for. 

Kij Johnson also discussed the differences between fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. Her stories can be found on her website. It was quite the experience to see these genres from a craft person's perspective.

It is such a treat to be afforded these shining days and evenings! They provide an oasis in my daily drudgery of juggling schedules, finding and hiring staff, supporting the existing staff, and conducting workshops. I do not go on retreats and have a very generous amount of vacation time accrued, having gone almost nowhere since I started in this position. These events promised professional development credit to me. However, I cannot see how I can use any of what I learned and realized to enhance my professional performance. In fact, the vagaries of my imagination are now confined to managing my staff, colleagues, and students, garnering traffic to my writing center, and balancing schedules. 

I shall not examine these "credits" too closely. As it is, I seem to have wandered too far, not just from my janma bhoomi, but also from all that makes my heart go mmm (to paraphrase the song). 

It serves me best if I just take these events as a sort of an apology offered to me by my fortune (or misfortune) for all the compromises I make daily by genuinely trying to do my job well. I remain grateful for such apologies. 

I wonder if I can mine ideas that would frequent and multiply these apologies. Mmm . . .


Monday, March 21, 2022

Silence

 Last Wednesday, the unthinkable happened to me. No, I do not mean the COVID or Ukraine news. This is much more trivial and in the larger scheme of things, irrelevant and of no import whatsoever. 

However, to me, it felt horrible. My tv refused to work. 

I know. Some people call the tv the idiot box. Some people call it mindless corrupting of a sharp mind. Some people call it an addiction. To me, however, it is a portal to a world I remember, dream of, and in the most essential of ways, inhabit. 

When I am home, I need everything underlined with the noise of people talking, if not in Gujarati, at least in Hindi. I rarely watch television in English. When I leave home, I leave live tv on on one of the Star, Utsav, or Zee channels for the cats. The cats and I have become accustomed to this noise. When the tv is on, the cats perch on two sides of the sofa and nap or relax. But in the silent house, the cats did not know what to do with themselves and roamed around meaninglessly, sometimes through the house, sometimes outside. They felt abandoned in the silence. 

I felt abandoned in the most inexcusable manner as well! I need constant stories being told to me, even if I am not always attentive to them. I love the familiar tropes, the recognizable places, the ease of the idiom, and the comforting cadence of the language. I need the remembered tastes on my tongue and the fragrance of camphor and sandalwood of the festivals. And I am not ashamed to say that I also missed the laughably improbable plots and the outlandish caricatures.

When my tv died, I felt as though one of my anchors, indeed, the very axis of who I am were silenced. Without the familiar syntax and idiom, all that they evoked disappeared as well. Because of my work schedule, I was not able to go out and get one with haste, like I knew I needed to. On a regular week day, I barely get an hour to watch tv. But I need those minutes to re-align all my worlds so everything makes sense before I go to bed. 

My entire universe remained plunged in this dark silence for two days and two nights. 

Finally, Friday dawned and by the time I was done with work, I knew exactly the kind of tv I wanted, the amount I was ready to spend, and all the know-how I needed so I would get my life back in Eastman Technicolor instead of making do with survival in the shadow world of silence. 

By Friday evening, I had  my worlds back. The cats heard and returned to their sofa. I had found, traveled to, bought, hefted, assembled, and reconnected, all in the space of 3 hours. My family remains amazed at my prowess, especially the hefting around. 

There were times when I wondered if my life would have been easier had I a partner. The very next second, I discarded this idea with an involuntary shudder: who guarantees that a partner would help instead of commenting, faulting, taunting, sighing at my ineptitude, irritating, and generally getting in the way? Perhaps it would have taken much longer to get my tv, had I a partner. I imagine endless arguments about the merits of a certain kind of tv, a continuous sniggering at my dependence on it, a condescending dismissal of my whims, even repeated admonishments to "Get a Real Life!"  

At any rate, the absolutely wrong kind of noise. 

I have defeated this cosmic silence on my own. Besides, it always gives me a considerable boost of joy, knowing that I can make myself happy. When I talked to my family over the weekend, I casually remarked that I'd bought a new tv. Only some of the closest of my tribe understood the apocalyptic silence, the terror, the displacement, and the immense distress involved in the casual remark. They just said, "Oh. Good." The pause that followed this was pregnant with acknowledgement. 

My patient reader must excuse me now; I have a great deal of catching up to do. It will take a week to recover from this turbulence. But soon enough, my feline room mates and I will finally believe in the music, sounds, colors, and cadences of a well-loved, well-remembered universe behind the tv screen.  



Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Machu Picchu and Myth-Tenses

 I have been unable to return to this space for a month. Of course, as they do, many things happened that I have wanted to write about. 

For instance, my visit to the Machu Picchu exhibit remains most memorable. The ubiquitous gold was impressive but fails to leave a lasting impression; I have seen a lot of it, especially dazzling from behind untouchable cases of museums and palaces. The Machu Picchu exhibit has left a lasting impression of the epic story of Ai Apaec, the Andean hero who travels all three realms, fighting animal monsters and gaining their powers, even as he loses parts of himself. I found the idea of the fertile dead fascinating. Finally, of course, the architecture is breathtakingly innovative, symmetrical, and beautiful. 

I wished for a refresher to Incan mythology, a course a colleague teaches his middle school class. 

Again, I wish for my dream job, being part of a research team that excavates the myths of the world to create present day movies for kids or TV serials. Being a part of a plot-writers' team working on Hindi serials is a close second, of course. 

However, since I see no path, crooked or otherwise that could lead me to these destinies, it might be better to stick to the present continuous and the present perfect continuous tenses. Obsessing over using the past perfect to fuel future modals of low probabilities seems a pointless exercise. 

Yes, patient reader. The most that I have done is figured out different ways of reviewing the 12 tenses of English. I also taught a few weeks of basic Word & Power Point, much to the delight of students and amusement of my staff. 

I used to teach 6 hours of Magic in my courses (a lot of it based on The Golden Bough, Jung, and many others, of course). I miss that like a wound. In the present tenses (all 4 of them), watching the glitter in a student's eyes as she changes the design of her power point presentation is the nearest I get to the magic I used to teach. The magic of spell-casting has been replaced with the rules of spelling. The Machu Picchu exhibit, with its myths of spirals, animal hierarchies, and the many connections between spiritual realities and the transient physical world humans inhabited reminded me of the magic of the land that defines Arthuriana, in which two realities occupy and fight over a single geography.

Experiencing the Andean myths was like being suddenly aware of the subdued text that shines through a palimpsest, insisting on being read. 

Has this exhibit changed something in me? I don't know. It has, however and definitely, added to my thirsts and yearnings. Now, I yearn for more stories from a different people. 

Again, I ask myself, what use are the stories? Maybe I can use them, somehow, to teach the perfect and perfect continuous past tenses and past modals? 

Then again, facing the continuous tense of myths is like facing the ocean. And of what use can an ocean be?  

 


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Unutterable Loss for the Silent Nightingale

 This Sunday, the world woke up to an unimaginable world, especially the world of South Asia and its wandering heirs, the unimaginable loss of Lata Mangeshkar.

I will not bore my patient reader with details and achievements of Lataji's life; those are easily googled. 

This news came to me on Monday, as I was getting dressed and checking on the world on my phone. I remain shocked. I could not believe it on Monday, and I don't believe it now. How can we endure a world with her singing? 

Lata Mangeshkar's voice was among the first I heard with the cacophonies that drown us at birth. We all grew up trying to emulate that sustained pitch, those true notes, that clear, clear voice and predictably, failed. That pure voice formed the background music for our lives, our moods, and expressed the way we felt the only way our feelings could be expressed. We have no greater language for who we are. 

Lataji lent her voice to the poetries of patriotism, of intense and self-erasing devotions, of the playful nature of the cosmos and its solemn rhythms, of clear nights and stormy seasons, of dreams, of apocalypse and heartbreak. Language was no barrier: Lataji sang in over 30 languages. Her voice is ubiquitous throughout the Indian subcontinent. She sang late into her life, beyond natural expectation, her voice untiring and true through decades. Hers is one of the first names children learn to lisp as they chant names. Her name needs no compacting into cute diminutives; if anything, one adds the honorific -ji to her first name to render her recognizable. 

Today, I look around me and know that I need all those poetries to anchor my world. Lataji's voice is the axis. I mourn that when I hear that voice now, it will be an echo from the past. Our life-giving nightingale is silent forever and, like the grieving emperor in the tale, we yearn for the lost voice as we yearn for life. 

This is no tale and so, unlike the emperor in the tale, we trudge on, deprived, searching the heavens, beseeching them to return the lost voice, and weeping at their stubborn silence. Our unspeakable grief is fed by the fact that the only expressions we can use remain the songs of immense loss that lost voices breathed life into. 

For the world left behind, there is to be no relief, no solace from this impoverishment.     

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Willing Gods, Gods Willing!

 "Let Kanha-ji answer that!" one of my favorite Hindi serial protagonists exclaims, as the episode fades out to a prequel. 

Will the invoked divinity oblige? 

Knowing the terrain of these plots, there is little doubt that he most definitely will and without undue delay, lest the audience forget the invocation. 

Now, even the gods of all faiths seem to have found the very lucrative terrain of Hindi serials. They are the newest immigrants to this land. Previously, if a divinity were to directly affect the plot of the story, it would be in a serial specially dedicated to that deity or one with a mythological theme. The god's partiality for the protagonist and willingness to play Deus Ex Machina would be no surprise. 

Since these gods are often stock characters, it would also be easy to predict their reactions and extend of involvement. Krishna would discuss the issue with his consort in Vaikunth, his particular paradise and trace plot events to the evil intentions of a seemingly-unrelated character. Shiv could be manipulated, though his anger is to be avoided at all costs. Brahma would grant anything to almost anyone, provided they performed adequate yoga. Vishnu is the problem solver, fixing what the others mess up. Narad is the ultimate trickster, who teaches through his jests and taunts. Indra is the coward, forever afraid of his throne being usurped. The list goes on. 

Now, the gods have expanded their prowess to include the daily life of characters. No longer do we see Kanha (Krishna's diminutive name) playing the divine roundel with his milkmaids when a character invokes him. We only see what the character sees: the idol in a home temple, perhaps with a spotlight shining from behind the screen, to hint at halos. Of course, the audience sometimes needs more than just a hint and we hear temple bells clanging, an inexplicable wind hinting at apocalypse, strewing dead leaves around, circular rainbows flashing with glitter within, even the idol's eyes and face flashing and zooming large. It really depends on the desperation of the story-teller and the budget allocated to that section of the tale.

It is enough for me to invoke the gods, mimicking the characters, on the off-chance that some of this mercy and attention might spill over into my world. Of course, what I seek is nothing like what is necessary for the characters, no matter how closely I relate to them. It is the ease that solves all problems that has me glued to these plots and characters.

I can hardly wait to reach home. I am sure Kanha-ji would have answered by now and my character would have assigned another task to her favorite deity. How wonderful! No yoga needed; no horde of merit to be accumulated; no sacrifices, no pujas, no yagnas, no oblations, no offerings required. Merely the premise of being a "good" person suffices to have the world arranged according to one's preferences. 

Who wouldn't long for a world wherein gods wait upon people convinced of their "goodness," and one need only assign frequent tasks to a particular deity to show favoritism? 

I, too, shall invoke a god or perhaps a goddess and assign the task of ensuring that all feline beings be safe and well fed for the night. Let the gods prove their merit to me!