Tuesday, July 7, 2009

dream sequence II

She woke up to the sound of “please… please”… Murmured, gasped, begged all together. By the time she was groggily out of her own dream, the shape that was earlier lying beside her was standing; balancing unsteadily on the cushiony bed.

Please…, he said again

There was no light. From where she lay she couldn’t even see his silhouette. But had felt his breath, and the smell of his skin, waft away from her. She could feel that the voice looming over her was ready to walk away. Where to? She reaches over and meets his ankle with her palms. Come back, it’s okay. You are dreaming.

He sinks down into the pillow almost as stealthily as he had got up and is back asleep even before her arms could coil around his neck; embraced and a kiss planted on his sweaty forehead. His breath steadies and he has crept back into that faceless noiseless place where she was not allowed. Where no whispered whimper could tell her what he was thinking. And no amount of imaginary role play could fill in the gaps.

Sometimes – when she was more awake that she was right now – she would imagine how his thoughts looked. The words, the colors, the crooks and crannies that make up these nightmares when he’s asleep. She imagined a grey brain; the kind she’s seen in glass jar filled with formaldehyde in science labs and his thoughts are balloons stemming out of it like that which comes out of the heads of comic book characters. She wonders about the twisted knots of this mind and those that probably form in the pit of his stomach when he’s very silent.

When his body slouches in sleep, it’s her turn to step off the edge. Into dreams full of curiosity. The blanks that get filled in her dreams leave more gaping holes than before. Much time has not passed between her transition from passive oblivion to teary wakefulness but, to her, it seemed all too real – and too long.

By now the sun is already rising behind the thick curtains on the windows. Outside life would kick start back to normal very soon, just like it does every day. But the eerie remains of the night that has not entirely passed remains in the crumples of the bed sheets. The shape beside her is clear now, the face lit by the blush of dawn. Thoughts of superstitions and morning dreams lull her back to early morning sleep. But this time it is she who is not aware of her lips parting; breathing in a murmured plea


Monday, July 6, 2009

Excess Baggage


My dad hates it when my sister and I make fun of Indian accents and say "it's true" to "you know you are Indian if... " email forwards. Sometimes I wonder, too, why we do it. I figure it's an awareness of how we are, and moreover, an acceptance of the fact: "yes... that's exactly how we are. so what?"

I laugh at all that because I know its true. after all, i still have to sprinkle chili flakes all over my pizza and pasta and still like my chinese food to be called "manchurian" and "chow mein". i still think of the saree when I think of formal wear. And at the end of the day I definitely want my bollywood, no matter which part of the world I am in.

What Giridhardas says(in the link pasted above) about the import of products and envies is not entirely one way. Till the last years of my stay in Thailand, each trip to India would mean loading our suitcases with incense sticks,papadam, all kinds of food,perfumes, biscuits, chocolates (yep!), maggie, audio tapes, movies, books, clothes, soaps etc. the list is endless. each time we came to visit, we wanted to take everything back with us. Just as exciting as our visits to our relatives' homes were our visits to the local grocery shop - "His Highness" - and more recently, "Varkey's". My sister and I used to load up on Liril soap while my perplexed aunt couldn't understand what about that lime and lemony soap was so great. we couldn't get enough of five stars, perks and dairy milks and used to treasure it in our fridge and have it stingyly long after we got back home to Bangkok. To this day I sometimes feel I should be careful with my supply of Maggie, a habit i'd got used to.

As kids our room was full of bollywood and cricket posters (some I am Very embarrassed of now)and audio tapes of Hindi songs that,i am sure, many children our age living in India had no idea about. We used to be experts in Antakshri, going on for hours and hours. There was hardly an instance when one group would run out of songs. To the extent that we found the game not challenging enough for our "extensive knowledge" of Hindi film music and started making up our own more difficult games.

Yes, its very easy when staying "abroad" to be convinced that the movement was one way. It was perhaps more true for our generation, or maybe just us. Maybe we were exceptions and still remained very Indian in our consumerism. I don't think kids living abroad today have a shopping list similar to ours. But that's also true because lines of Indian and foreign products are blurring.

But the changes that we see in India right now is rather an anti-thesis to the India of my parents' days and dreams. That is to say, the "price" one pays for malls and convenient stores is with that of "remembered simplicity". Perhaps its also true that at the age my parents left the country they were too young to realize what they were leaving and took with them only the parts of our country that we love best. And that is what they passed on to us. The India I grew up with was glorious, full of love and food and festivals.

The India that my parents will come back to a few years from now will be very different from the one they left. But when they do come back, they will return bringing with them reverse importation. Those things that they took 30 years ago will come back with them in their imported suitcases. The pressure cooker with the broken lid, the steel plates with their names engraved on it, sarees, some of which are older than me and music - old, worn out cassette tapes - that is definitely older than me and already lost to many of those who have never left the country.

Often the concept of India is much bigger than our experiences with it. I've met both extremes: "I never want to go back to that country again" and "there's no place like here" but I find that everyone has their own special tie with this place. Those who never want to come back here still have India on their Ipods and tongues. No matter were you stand, whether you love it or hate it, India has a way of pulling you in and forcing you to be part of its throbbing vibrancy.

What I came to was an imagined India and the transition was smoother, than it might have been for many others, because I found that life was much the same to the one I have been living - though people are very different. But during my time here I realized that feeling at home, to a large extent, is just a matter of constant import and export. My Maggie then is my MaMa now.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

this ain't a love song

today am thinking about nationalism. rather have been for a while now, especially about two months ago with elections et al. I think its a rather taken for granted emotion and it could be quite a fiery one, sometimes flaring up at "wrong" times.

Two or three things have got me really thinking about nationalism. and what it really means to be part of a country. and if you are living in a country that is yours, can you still refuse to acknowledge it because of the things you think it stands for? i guess we might think that it is easier to take a stance when you are a citizen of a "rogue nation" (whatever that might be). But once in a while there comes a time when you have to question what you stand for when you are considered part of a group.

So there have been unfinished and not completely convincing conversations about nationalism and patriotism. however (and maybe I say this because i really don't understand the emotion) there seems to be an imbalance in that thought. for example, what does nationalism even mean in a country like ours? India is a so vast and diverse that each indian has his or her own individual little india. So then what does the Entire construct of India, in the political/geographical sense actually mean? or perhaps that's just it: each person - when it comes to any nation - should just hold on to what their idea of their country might be. if it works for them, they are a nationalist and if it doesn't they are one of those complainers who say "i hate this country". of course there's a spectrum of other stages in between these two extremes.

so yes there are some things that really disturb me about India and i don't mean potholes and powercut. yes, those are problems too but of an entirely different nature. what disturbs me most right now are individuals' own unwillingness to accept or overwillingness to reject people who are different from them.

It was great that Article 377 (a law that criminalizes homosexuality in India) got overturned by the high court (02/07/09). Much too late of course... but better late than never. but immediately there are a hundred people jumping up and saying this is against our culture. sure... it may be if you are stubbornly going to choose to look at it that way but in a country whose religious and cultural traditions have been built from listening to stories about characters like amba (the transgender in mahabharat who eventually helps kill bhishm), mohini (vishu in female form; rumored to be very beautiful and if i remember right he/she has fathered/mothered a chlld). and lets not forget the few years when Arjun was in hiding, dressed as a woman. so clearly the cultural argument really doesn't work here.

but beyond that, these people who are so quick to jump to the defense of indian culture never seem to do that where it matters. As far as I know ragging is not Indian culture but no one seems care about that. Torturing youngsters who want an education, am sure, was not part our gurukuls. The same goes for raping children and women in war zones - or anywhere. how come talk of culture comes up only when the argument is hollow? why does the entire country have to carry the weight of being narrow-minded because those in power can't think beyond themselves?

So here's my anxiety about nationalism: When I call myself Indian, am i supporting all this? Am i supporting all these unspeakable crimes against human rights? if India is one "thing" then whatever the country does, we all are part of and have to take responsibility for.

I don't want to part of these things that I can't relate to or understand - and thank God for that.

I remember the exact moment when my sense of "nationalism" crumpled. It was after hearing the news about two women who were raped in Kashmir by a whole army camp. It was not the first such instance but somehow hearing it from someone I know, instead of on the news, really shot a hole through me (no pun intended). But what shocked me more is that the nation only wants to talk about militants and bombs. but where does 'truth' in all of this go? Doesn't it matter what happens to people in our own country? And if it doesn't, then what is this great civilization that we are talking about?

Some might say I am taking this too seriously (but I know I am not)and that every country has these problems. Sure, why not? But that isn't an excuse.

My question is if my country Also stands for atrocities and injustice, how can I label myself an Indian without saying that I agree and am part of this?

Which brings me back to the concept of a scattered India. An individual India. A developing or enriching or shining India. Each one of us in our cozy corners can choose what we want to believe about here and anywhere else. It might be a convenient escape rather than facing the demons out there. But there has to be some compromise. And this one seems to be the best way out.

Having said that though, separate from the concept of nationhood (in fact a step Ahead of nationhood), some things are wrong no matter where it happens and who it happens to. So the injustices here and everywhere else, as a human being, I can't wash my hands off by saying "this is not my problem".

Friday, July 3, 2009

dream sequence

She knew because she saw. Twirling whirling colors. Perfume in the cleft behind knees. Stilettos.

And she knew what she was going to see much before she walked into the theatre. She scanned the almost full auditorium till she found her. Shiny shouldered. She found a seat a couple of rows behind her, diagonally.

She smiled and semi-greeted the strangers who came to sit beside her.
“Is this seat taken?” someone asked.

No, come sit next to me. “No… Go ahead”. She smiled.

This was going to be good. The lights dimmed and the emcee walked onto the stage. She noticed the way his hands held the mic. He flashed his perfect white teeth at the audience and started his soliloquy. Phones off. No eating. Applause.

As the lights changed – dimmed and darkened – she watched as the lights fell on her hands. She moved her hands off the arm rest and the lights sunk into the cushiony soft velvetness of the seats. The same seats that stain so fast. Have been stained. She was sure of that.

As she watched the young girl in front of her watch the play, things seemed to fall into place. She preferred it when she let her imagination take over rather than having to grapple with reality. Who was this random girl watching some really badly made play all alone (seemingly)? But it is so much easier to put a face to the thought and get this agony over with. So her. So what?

The next day at some shopping mall she’ll find someone else to haunt. Even girls with beady eyes and plain faces. She was ready to slap a mask on anyone she found. She just needed a face to crush beneath her feet.

At night she would dream of white dresses and shadows dancing around a musical fountain. Light that splayed out of the fountain became paint and made swishes of green yellow blue pink orange on her white dress. She scoops water out of the fountain to wash off her painted speckled fingers. The water is chilly.

Once again she has a gaudy mask in her hands. The kind used in parades with feathers and glitter painted all over it. She placed it on her face, ready to walk on to the stage. The fountain gushed on, spraying more colors on to her now iridescent dress.


Cameras were whirling and the dance was on. The mask meant she saw everybody and no one saw her. It was a myth she was fooled into believing much too early in her life. Sometimes, as she dances, she cannot feel her feet; instead she is moving on sponge. As she whirls in and out of the spotlight she can hear the cheers around her. She is impressed at her impressiveness.

She looks down at the audience and the girl in the white dress is clapping for her. Admiration flickering in her eyes. Her neatly manicured fingers touch her glistening lips and she extends her hands towards the stage as she watches the dancer move – a kiss; a sign of affection. She is mesmerized.

The dancer looks at the audience once again. There they are applauding. A silhouette stands against the bright lights. It walks out the EXIT.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

sunday morning feeling

Most of my other (very few) blogs have been about realizations or venting or learnings. But this one is just purely to state that I am at this moment completely and utterly happy.

Its early sunday morning and I am in Dehradun sitting in Shruti's apartment with a hot cup of tea with creamer (creamer always makes tea so much more fun) with kishore kumar and lata mangeshkar crooning tum aa gaye ho noor aa gaya hai lightly on the laptop.

travel, music, good food and friends snorning away in the next room... does one need much mmore? :)

recently someone mentioned that being able to appericate the beauty of early mornings is a gift... one that you carry with you for the rest of your life. I would tweek that philosopy a little bit and say the ability to appreicate these moments - any moment - morning noon or night - is the bigger picture. "The smaller things in life" is an overused statement, one that has almost lost all real meaning. but its true... those who say it and, more importantly, mean it know what they are talking about.

so juat stopping for a moment and etching out on to this virtual space of confessions and ramblings that this moment (as delhites would say lightly) "sahi hai"

disclaimer: they are not actually snoring... just a figure of speech

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

reading woes

standing in front of shri kalyanji temple in Diggi (a few hours away from Jaipur) I realized I am indeed illiterate. Carved into the stone wall of the temple was the history of the temple. The person who accompanied me to the place waved his hand affectionately towards the writing and said "everything you want to know about the temple is written here".

I stare blankly at the wall... pretending to read what looked like gibberish to me.

This experience of not being able to read is not new to me. In fact, I've spent the majority of my life in a country where I couldn't read the local language. But I had never felt that to be a handicap. Or more so, a fact about me that I was embarrassed to admit to someone else.

Later we sat at restaurant and a menu in Hindi was placed in front of me. My colleagues insisted that I decide what we'll have for lunch. Once again i started at the menu. Thankfully, my numerous visits to restaurants like these had given me a good idea of the kind of names that should appear on a menu.

"anything is fine" I squeaked out sheepishly. What must have seemed like shyness or some sort of politeness was actually just inability to read the menu. I was surprised at my own hesitation to just tell them things as they are... after all its not just a big deal. right?

Later on, i realized it was not so much admitting that I do not read Hindi rather than the assumption that I do read it that made it so difficult speak up. One might say, and i do so believe often enough, that i have enough excuse for not reading Hindi. At least I read my own mother tongue. Yes, I smatter through it... but at least...

Perhaps thats where nationhood comes in. Not knowing Thai never bothered me but I can't seem to hold the same perspective towards Hindi. It's all the more ironic considering the nature of my work and many inferences during all these trips to education and literacy.

Of course the space between realization and action still remains. Two books lie dustily on some shelf somewhere around the house. Both promise to make me proficient in Hindi.

The change has been that in the past few days I've remembered that those books exist and have in some way been convinced that its time i put them into use. Maybe thats the blessing Kalyanji's bestowed on me: a flicker of who I should be, now that I am here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Human Face

I just came back from the Tri-continental Film Festival. “Human Rights in Frames” is what it is all about. Of the two days out of the four during which I managed to catch a few films, I was left with this deep sense of disgust. The films, naturally, captured gross human rights violations all around the world in a sincere effort to tell the stories of some very brave people. Most of these people are tired of being depicted as victims and just want their voices heard and want the world to realize that only collective efforts can bring about some kind of change. Many of the films that I watched just left me shuddering within – how can people be so inexplicably cruel? These stories stretched from India to Tibet to South Africa to Burma to America. At some level you like to believe that people turn cruel under strange circumstances – desperation, provocation, poverty… something. But these stories left me completely baffled – what one earth could the problem be? What can possibly make an individual so coldhearted that he/she inflicts such imaginable pain on others? Worse still, is this ‘tradition’ of cruelty being passed on from one generation to another?

The last film I watched today was one by Hana Makhmalbaf titled “Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame”. It is the heart wrenching story of a girl trying to find her way to school and all the obstacles that stand in her way. The brilliance of Iranian films, I feel at many times, is the way they use the simplest of situations and characters to tell the most amazing human stories. This one, like many other Iranian films I’ve loved, uses children to convey some very grim facts of our world. As a bunch of boys surround her on her way to school and start “playing war”, you can’t help wondering how in the first place these boys thought of a game like this. They ask her to raise her hands and stand within a designated circle as they dig a grave for her and prepare to stone her to death. The most chilling thing is that you never find out throughout the film if they really mean to stone her to death or if it’s just a game of pretentions.

As the end credits roll, I couldn’t help wondering if this is a bleak prediction of where our world is headed. Yes there are a lot of efforts around the world to change the way people think about each other but there are still children being born into hatred and unthinkable horrors. And the sad thing is, can you expect a child who has been born into unfair treatment to grow up and treat others differently?

What I realize is that there is such a huge task in front of us to be as human as possible. I know I am miles away from these horrific stories but I also see behavior around me that is disappointing enough; acts of disregard, selfishness, humiliation and prejudices that really make me wonder if we are headed in the right direction.
I know you cannot blame humankind for atrocities that are happening in certain parts of the world but then the fact that these things are happening and there are powerful people who are not doing anything about it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. So what needs to be done before governments and other agencies really stand up and say “we won’t let this happen”? I know at individual levels we can do our own best with whatever it is that we can do, but what else? How do we change fanatical minds that have no regard for human life?

I guess films like these is one starting point. Awareness of what is happening is so essential. At least it makes one feel that when the time comes one will stand up and fight against cruelty.

At least I pray I will.

Crab apples, Cornflakes and Questions of Homesickness

My mother picked crab apples
off the Glasgow apple tree
and pounded them with chillies
to change
her homesickness
into green chutney.

This poem by Imtiaz Dharker and Ashima (in The Namesake by Jumpa Lehari) adding chillies to cornflakes to have something that tastes like home are perhaps the two most touching moments of homesickness that I have come across.

It would be too simplistic to say that homesickness is about geographical boundaries. Having grown up almost entirely in a country that is not ‘mine’, I know that it is possible to transform ‘home’ and its subsets of culture, traditions, languages, emotions, values etc into cassette tapes, satellite television, cans, flight tickets, celebrations, concerts and tea parties. Believe it or not, I grew up playing gulli cricket in a country that has no idea that a game like this exists.
So let’s shed away this concept of countries and nationality when we speak of homesickness. But then what’does it really mean? I agree that the physical area that you are most comfortable in is a huge portion that makes up home. But I am pretty sure that this space can be moved around, perhaps not in entirety, but more or less. (Am not sure, I’d have to wait and watch if that statement really means anything)
Part of me wonders if homesickness is a human tendency to live in the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. I know many people who crave for a place they have left behind but I am sure when they do return they might not be as happy as they expect to be. (Again, let’s wait and watch)

Another thing I feel about homesickness (and this might be more of an individual case) is the element of guilt that comes along with admitting that you find another space more comfortable that the one you are in right now. But what I remind myself of is that (and this is a reason, not a justification) it takes time to get used to a place. And the concept of ‘home’ is not built overnight.

There has been a lot of discussions (mainstream media, academicians, individuals) about diasporas and their feeling of (un)belonging. Would it be too arrogant to say that those who have not experienced homelessness cannot understand the extent of this emotion? And again, if it was as simple as geographical boundaries, then it becomes as simple (though time consuming and expensive) as visas, permanent residencies and citizenships.

I worry if this is just a block in our heads. If we were more open about things, people and changes around us, would we feel ourselves to be less out of place? (I don’t know why I find myself speaking for ‘the collective’; I presume people other than me also feel this way). But another reality that stares blankly into my face is that acceptance of this new place is one thing but others acceptance of you is quite another. The unfortunate fact is that all of us, to some extent or another, have set parameters of how others should be and when an outsider comes in and doesn’t fit into that (I don’t want to say mould) notion, it is difficult to be non-judgmental about that.

So the idea of homesickness comes also from the fact that ‘home’ is a place where you were accepted for how you are, for the most part. Of maybe our definition of home is the place where we feel that we can be ourselves without sticking out like a sour thumb or without having to make to make efforts that are not natural.

Ah… this thought goes on. There is no end. And sometimes I feel all this really doesn’t mean anything at all. And sometimes I feel it’s the most essential thing. For now, I feel there is nowhere else to go with this though right now.

Good night.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

love in the time of romance

On our way back from watching “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”, we had a conversation about how believable the surinder/raj angle is. Those who have watched the film know that its got nothing to do with multiple personality or any other explanation, surinder simply decides to become raj to impress his wife.Convincing? Maybe… maybe not.

So the argument was: how can someone as shy and meek as surinder, transform overnight into boisterous raj? Does that mean surinder is only pretending to be this meek person? Though the do-ability of something like that (in real life) is questionable, isn’t it true that most romantic films come to us packaged in a set of “un-doable in real life”? Be it jai in “jaane tu ya jaane na” running into the airport or stealing a bike to impress the girl next door in ‘oye lucky, lucky oye’. Even going back to aditya chopra’s own film, “dilwale dulhaniya le jaayenge” where raj impresses simran’s whole family and by the climax convinces everyone about their love.

If its love that makes our world go round then it’s definitely these ‘un-do-ables’ that make us love our romantic films.And i think the only reason most of us tend to continue watching love stories on celluloid, even though we know exactly how it is going to end, is to see these unthinkables and impossibilities. to, perhaps, see these things that "can't" really happen to us.

but rab ne takes its anticipatory bail very cheekily. First through its title and then with the constant motif of the the golden temple and 'rab' overlooking everything these characters are doing . both, surinder and bobby constantly saying that everything that's happening is god's doing won't let you forget that you have to believe anything and everything thats coming next.

All of us might want surinder to get the girl without resorting to raj's gimmickry or like to believe that that is even possible. (and that may be, too). but that won't be a romantic story anymore. that would just be love. and of course one is more fun to watch than another.