Monday, March 27, 2006

Another world

Last night I dreamt that I was walking through my old school again. It was larger and cleaner than it had ever been. I walked through the old cycle shed behind the classrooms where we used to pile up our bikes, slanted against the wall, falling one on top of another until you couldn’t tell spinning handlebar from wheel. So I walked through the cycle shed and discovered that everything had changed. There were no cycles anymore, no dirty walls to prop them on – it was a wide field with grass high enough to skim my knees, and when I looked further, I could see a swing on which a kangaroo was swinging. His spindly legs were on the slat, well above my head, and his head was towering up in the air, bobbing side to side as the swing went up and down.

I walked past him, with my head pulled down towards the grass, gravity or fear, I could not be certain. Soon the knee high grass gave way to even taller structures that rose to my shoulder as I walked on into the African grasslands, no tear in the fabric of time, as it flowed past me. Where did this world end, and the new one begin? No line was visible, no mark of plough, no stamp of muddy feet, no trail in the sky above, no flowing water as guide. Time was indeterminate, standing still on a landscape of dry grass yellow and somber sky blue stretching to the horizon, which is the end of time.

I found a glimpse of moving ochre, a conjunction of power and audacity, a lioness, pacing the distance slowly. I was no one anymore, struggling to obliterate myself, hoping to disappear from that evil eye so powerful. I waited silently for morning, although I knew there would be no rescue. Sometimes, things are true even when they don’t seem to be.

Friday, March 17, 2006

A writer

“So what do you do, Rama?” Madan enquires politely.
“I am a writer.”
“Oh. Wow.”

Rama laughs. “Well not in the sense that you think. I do content for a few sites. Some brochures and things like that for companies who don’t want to hire a large agency. Its pretty routine stuff actually.“ She finds it hard to insert a line that she is trying hard to be that kind of a writer. She is working on a first novel, that sweetest and most tiresome of all children. Chapter one is ready, only just, but it’s a beginning after all. She is proud of it, and somewhat embarrassed by the pride.

“I think its wonderful, having your own thing to do. I mean, look at us lecturers, always being ordered around. The principal, the HOD, why, these days, my students are beginning to tell me what I should do. Its so nice to see someone who’s escaped all of that.”

But Rama can tell he doesn’t really mean it. Worse, she feels its only a thin sheath for the curiosity lying underneath, for what he really wants to know, why she doesn’t have a real job. A job made real by the solidity of office blocks and desks, the wickedness of grapevine gossip and the reminder at the end of the month, a dimunitive cheque. She doesn’t resent the curiosity though. She’s used to it by now.

She decides to volunteer the information. That way, he will not be embarrassed when he realises that she cannot understand some of what he is saying. “Well, I had a full time job before. I used to teach as well, at the WCC. But five years ago, I had a bad fall from my scooter when a truck pushed me from behind. Since then, I have some difficulty with my hearing. I mean, its not bad, though my doctors tells me that its likely to grow worse as I grow older. I manage to figure out things using the context if people talk slowly enough.”

She doesn’t tell him though that she tried to get back to work at the college and dropped it after some weeks. It was hard enough to explain, even to her own sister. It would be impossible to explain to a new person that illness morphs you into a different person. Everyone at the college had been more than extremely helpful, less than unbearably patient. In the end, her own awareness of the new limitations being imposed on her, had served to make her put in her papers. She was more comfortable now dealing with a few people on a one-on-one basis rather than a classroom full of demanding students. When she looks at him directly, even a little stridently maybe, to see how he is taking this information, it is interesting to see that he is not disconcerted at all. Only a slight parting of his lips and a leaning forward to take in her words carefully, implies that he has heard anything at all. She likes so few new people, these days. Those whom she knows, increasingly, they seem to shout their words at her, as though she is turning not just deaf, but into an idiot as well. And those whom she doesn’t know, it is becoming harder to read them, in every way. Just as well perhaps. Who knows what uncertain benefits understanding may bring!

Monday, March 13, 2006

A girl with a limp

"Heya, heya, heya," the girl with the limp hollered as she moved towards me.
"What’s with the American accent and all?", I said, “Got a second cousin who lives there?” I hadn’t quite meant this to come out so sneeringly, but it was out before I could clamp my lips and put the words back inside.

We had met at the park only two days ago, and it was early days yet for that kind of talk. But I had had a rough day, a one-of-those-days kind of a day where almost everyone had been impatient or unreasonable or both. Sometimes its tough to tell the difference. Still, on those days, I tend to spit out my words faster than a bullet train going off the rails.

The girl with the limp didn’t seem upset though. Maybe she just didn’t get the sarcasm. I used to know a guy like that when I was in school. Fatty, Fatty, we would scream at him, simply because he was so thin. He was so thin that you could sometimes miss seeing him if there were enough other people around. But he never seemed to mind when we called him fatty. He just went on smiling this beatific smile, this wide-angled smile that ranged over everyone in his orbit, whether or not they wanted to be included.

I didn’t know much about the girl yet. Not what she did, not what she liked, not why she had that peculiar limp, not even her name. Her limp wasn’t like the ones you saw on people whose parents had carelessly forgotten about the polio drops. No, it wasn’t that obvious. Infact, if you saw her from a distance, you would just think that she was walking very slowly, very very slowly, perhaps pausing to watch the poinsettias in the park or halting because of a pinching shoe. But when she came towards you, the limp was visible. It was an abstract imperfection of the legs, a straining caused by no noticeable deformity, and yet manifest in the distance of ten seconds between the contact of one leg with the ground, and then, another.

My white shirt was flecked with mud and grass from the park, leftovers from the few green spots still unpaved by concrete. She perched herself on the railing next to me, only a smile in response to my question. I wanted to ask her many things, didn’t she have anything to do with her evenings, why did she hang out at the park where nothing interesting ever happened, what did she do with her day, what was the mystery about the limp.

She was a bright eyed lady of shalott, her face glowing in the borrowed light of the setting sun. Her smile was slow and subtle, pulling me in too fast, too soon. I was overset by a peculiar attraction, made more attractive by its very strangeness. The limp seemed the key to it, a perverse addition to the appeal.

I stopped analyzing, for a moment, letting myself enjoy the beauty, of a moment that would pass by too soon.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Shanti ki dukaan

I am a South Indian who grew up learning Hindi as a second language; The logic was that my dad working at a transferable job, it would be easier to move schools across the country with a good knowledge of Hindi. As a result, I never learnt my own language Tamil, beyond what my mother taught me at home and a smattering of reading that came from Ananda Vikatan jokes. Not the best way to become familiar with any of the great literature that Tamil has to offer.

What is worse is that neither did I become really really proficient in Hindi. I mean, I can speak fluently, but I am never going to talk like a native speaker. Nor have I developed any intimacy with Hindi literature, despite 12-odd years of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala and Harivansh Rai Bachchan being drilled into my head. Or perhaps because of it. I mean, it would be hard to find more uninspiring, dull and incorrect Hindi teaching than I had. Many Hindi teachers in the South (where I ultimately landed up) had awful pronunciation, sometimes even incorrect grammar, in those days. I am not sure how different the situation is now.

Its only years later when I read Nirmala on my own and not as mandatory course material that I realized that I could enjoy reading Hindi. Still, I’ve ended up as sort of one-language reader primarily, which is sad considering the number of languages I had access to. I am not labeling it sad, just because that one language happens to be English, supposedly a non-English language. I believe that today English has become as Indian a language as any other, yet, access to and familiarity with many languages, I believe, broadens ones horizons. Yes, there is translation, but not everything can match up to the quality of the original. Also, the beauty of the language itself, how do you capture that? Last year, I read the entire Ponniyin Selvan series, in English, and something told me that while the translation sounded smooth, without the awkwardness that sometimes comes from literal rendering, something told me, that I was still missing out on part of the experience.

Infact, these days, I hardly read anything in any language other than English. Scary thought – Am I seeing a gradual lessening of myself, or the self that I could be? Two days ago though, I read some beautiful poetry, courtesy the
Poetry International Site by a poet I haven’t read before: Kunwar Narain.

There was this one poem which particularly appealed to me, called Shanti ki dukaan (A shop that sells peace). I am reproducing it here in English script, since I don’t have devanagari facility. It goes like this:

Mohalle me wah shanti bechta hai
Loudspeakeron ki
Ek dukan hai uski
Mere ghar se bilkul lagi hui

Subeh subeh munhandhere do ghante
Loudspeaker na bajaane ke
Wah mujhse sau rupye maheene leta hai

Wah jaanta hai ki mein
Un abhaagon me se hoon
Jo shanti ke bina
Jeevit nahin reh sakte!

Wah jaanta hai ki aanewale wakton me
Saaf paani aur saaf hawa se bhi jyada
Shanti ki killat rahegi
Wah jaanta hai
Ki kranti ke zamane ab lad chuke:
Ab use apna pet paalne ke liye
Shanti ka dhandha apnaana hai

Mein uska aabhari hoon
Bharat jaise desh me
Jahan keemten aasmaan choo rahi
Sau rupye mahine ki dar se
Agar do ghanta roz bhi shanti mil sake
To mehngi nahin!

Courtesy Poetry International

For those who don’t follow Hindi, the translation is here. I liked the poem though for the way it compiles the simple and the profound. Who hasn’t heard those damn loudspeakers blaring away? Who hasn’t wished for a little peace? At that moment, and at every other moment. Saaf hawa aur saaf pani se bhi jyada shanti ki killat rahegi. In that one line, he captures everything!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

After all that time

Its been some time now since I've been away, and I missed this blog more than I thought I would! When I say I missed this blog, I mean the writing, a certain focus that came in because of it, not quite pressure but close to it, the interaction with people I would never have "met" otherwise....I missed all of it. I hope to resume posting regularly now, although the frequency may be a little lower until I get my own computer at home...Office machines don't really make for great posts methinks.

I wanted to share a little bit though about some of the things I've been upto. For starters, I made my first visit to the 'North-East' of India. I say north-east in quotes, because the visit really threw in my face what I had till then only been reading about : There is no single homogenous entity called the North East that we can plug together for the sake of our convenience. I went to Manipur, and within that one state itself, I realised that there are different kinds of people, sometimes divided on ethnic lines, with conflicts among themselves...It seems too convenient then to club all seven states into one catch-all phrase.

The other thing I wanted to mention was that for the first time probably in my life, I really understood what it was to be the 'Other'. Visiting my husband's family there, everywhere I met with kindness, courtesy and thoughtfulness - yet, my own knowledge about the place, people and customs were so low that often I felt like I was in a foreign land, a foreign land where I was a foreigner. It is interesting to note how within the boundaries of this place called India, there can be such diversity.

Ofcourse this cultural diversity, combined with a whole lot of political and economic issues which I am not getting into, has set the stage for this state practically moving even further away from the rest of India than its geographical distance would suggest! I was intrigued to read newspaper headlines such as 'India negotiates with Nagas' as though talking about a third country. It is amazing how little we get to hear in mainstream media about anything that happens in these parts. And believe me, there is plenty happening, some of which, if not addressed, could lead to a chaotic war-like situation that will affect a lot of us, regardless of where we happen to be.

Before I end this comeback post, I want to just lead you to this story although it is unrelated to the rest of my post. But then, without a little Murakami, where would the Wind-up Bird Chronicle be?