Saturday, May 16, 2009

The L-boards had been on these cars forever, from the day of registration through every premium of insurance renewal and the expired learners' licences. I walk past dust scrawls of graffiti on windshields that have neither been wind whipped nor water-wiped in its long days that are as motionless as itself. These walks save me becoming that stationary and I'm grateful.

I wonder why the black emergency water tank weeps at night. All those leaking tears of water, left over from Sunday carwashes, snubbed crow beaks and feet muddy from barefoot play flow in invisible sheets over white letters that glow sintex in the telltale glow of streetlamps. It takes the angle of my view from the stone bench to see the water for it is as inconspicuous as it would be if tears fell through ears. But if tears could be meditative, these were, streaming out serenely, unconvulsed by sobs and sorrowful thoughts.
Is it the ghosts of children's play, abandoned to obey maternal cries of meal time, that makes this place so eerie, with empty swings swaying deliriously with its own weight.

Event Ants tread warily, sniffing their way around fallen blackberries past laid to waste by a summer that takes back all the life it gives. Brambles litter the ground, broken free by hands that reach higher and higher into the tree with every passing month. If I should have an unobscured view of the starless sky from beneath the tree these hands should grow faster than the trees.

Who has raked these leaves? Why sweep them together into vacuum-pumped piles only to leave hollow echoes for bats to graze between. The stand there sentinel-like, bonfire-expectant.

But when a breeze ruffles its head, a solitary twig lifts itself upright against the chidings of stem and flutters in delight, like a mastless flag frozen in a disobedient moment before sinking black to horizontal sleep. Suddenly I hear his laugh, that surprised laugh that was the only recognition I was allowed whenever I returned to him, unfailingly, predictably. His delight never did escape the clutches of levity into the civil clothing of words. His laugh was an incomplete sentence that has left me a lifetime of strained guesswork and unsatisfactory fill-in-the-blank answers.

And when I walk back through l-boards wearing thin with every loan instalment paid, the black tank isn’t the only one watering sleepless seconds with tears that cause the past to sprout to life in places where the present dies unfulfilled.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"This document reproduces the elements of a visual presentation. It is incomplete without oral comments that accompany it." is an elegant disclaimer that I often encounter in my work, which chiefly involves making PowerPoint presentations that will be delivered by and to strangers across the seven seas.

What struck me as elegant about the phrasing of these words is the way they emphasize the inevitability of the spoken word. It is an admission of insufficiency from the very first slide of a communication tool, which, like all communication tools of today strives to do away with conversation altogether. It reinforces one of my fondest beliefs that in spite of all the twittering and instant messaging (which will always be an impostor, albeit n impostor humoured in our midst, but one who will never successfully impersonate face to face conversation), this creature inside us will put up a fight for life. It may have been weaned off a nourishing attention span and placed on a starvation diet of brief virtual exchanges, may have been made to train on the circuits of online dialogues under the merciless whip cracks of touch screen phones and mouse clicks, yet it will be alive enough to hunger for that occasional Vitamin pill of good conversation.

I wish we had better things ( a weed, like other weeds of inanity sprung from modern soils, refuses to be exterminated from my vocabulary) to say to each other. things that wouldn't be flushed clean from our minds in the daily deluges of web pages we subject our minds to, things that would sprout to life and flower in the silences of our nights and awaken us with the floral smells of truth the morning.

I don't know if people will be so conversation-impaired in the future as to sit across each other laptop in hand, listening to the voices of each other's keyboards. Perhaps we, as a species, have said all that there is to say. Our collective military history, our record of repetitive political rhetoric, that drying dying stream of literature, and the fact that we are running out of ideas for reality television shows are all testament to that. There is nothing more to say after all. And our whole-hearted embrace of these newly fashioned idioms of social networking and online communication takes us away, if only for a moment from the uncomfortable realization that these are only self-taught lip reading lessons for the blinded.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Silentium. Fyodor Tyutchev (translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.

How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.

Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard...
take in their song and speak no word.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Only at night

Its backyard beach was all that drew us both to that temple those days, when her mother was alive. Through each of the thirty four years of our marriage she had nagged us into fully attired piety and yet the silkiest of my veshtis and the heaviest of Padmasini’s paavadais had posed no guilty encumbrances to our enjoyment of the sea. Half-built sandcastles and muddy waves strayed into gold zari margins and slipped away stealthily when the combined drone of our washing machine and my wife’s muttered chastisements began.

It was never a noisy temple. In the lull between a reckless rendition of “Maha Ganapthim” by the drunk nadaswaram prayer and the din of the temple drum we would hear nothing but insinuating whispers of the sea that would beckon us as a neglected mistress.

My wife used to claim that you could hear prayers being answered in your head if you listened close enough but we never found out. We were content to dissipate out godlessness in clinks of five-ruppee coins at every hundial and by meeting each others impatient eyes through slit-eyed glances when my wife’s eyes were safely shut in prayer.

We would stand apart from my wife as she squeezed her pious girth that grew wider with every post-menopausal year, past narrow passageways between wall and the sanishwar sanctum.
“Appa why are the navagrahas lined up so haphazardly?” Padmasini never tired of this question.
“They are not supposed to look at each other, if they do they start fighting over our fates and our solar system will collapse. But Sanishwar, that sly villain is the real star as far as your mother is concenrned.”
“No. she’s bent on appeasing all of them… that’s why she insists on 9 suthus…you need one full round to see each face clearly.” And both of us would burst out into blasphemous laughter, laughter that would linger in the glint of her irregular teeth paavadai zari till we reached the temple hall.
Family jokes are never allowed to stale, unlike familial love. Perhaps repetitive humour, recurring conversations and time-warped outings are much easier to preserve.

Keshavaperumal, the reigning deity of that temple had every inch of granite skin clothed in grayish brown with a robe of countless folded cockroach wings. They clung to silver strands and held wilted garlands together and sometimes they fell into sacred plates perhaps aiming for the camphor-fed fire, only to be brushed away by priestly fingers inured to their crawling colleagues.
Local temple legends that imbued the cockroach-affinity of the idol with all manner of divine powers, encouraged the infestation.

Padmasini, whose anti-animal cruelty stances gave away into pest-extermination tirades in the presence of anything that wasn’t wallpaper-puppy dog material, who would stop breathing whenever we unloaded chests of gollu dolls from lizard-inhabited lofts, who would shriek during current cuts at buzzing shadows of tiny moths, blown up to monstrous proportions in candle light, would clutch her stomach and attempt to deliver dire warnings to her between retching noises.
“Ayyo, don’t threaten to puke. It’s inauspicious. What’s the point of coming all the way if you don’t even present yourself to perumal for a few minutes?”

“I never sought an acquaintance with his filthy cockroaches in the bargain.” Padmasini would mutter. “What’s the use of getting us to come here all clean and dressed up when the temple is grossly unclean?” Whether this grumbling stream of words had been cut short by the danger of cascaded vomiting or by her mother’s glares I never got to know. When her mother would deem that we had spent a sufficient amount of time in the divine presence braving flying dangers and nauseating sensations, we would retreat to the beach past the reach of maternal reproaches and the wrath of cockroach gods.

Today Padmasini and I have settled down in our usual place amidst piles of disused fishing nets, slipping past the temple sans a courtesy visit. But there is no mother to cut our seaside idling short, no archanai plate to pounce at and no chakkara pongal to feast upon in the convenient post-traumatic forgetfulness of its distasteful origins.

“Do you want to get prasadam?” I ask her, groping for a trigger that will prod her memory awake. But it’s as futile as setting your alarm clock to ring on a dawn that has already passed you by.

It was a face that had gone straight from looking sharp at sixteen to a careworn thirty three without displaying any signs of having been in its twenties. Why did her the first specks of grey furtively from her temples sadden me much more than mine ever did?
“It’s hard, Padmasini. Are you sure you want to live me with me? Widowed father. Single daughter. Watching each other grey, grow haggard and age.”
She smiled. “At least I’m spared wrinkles and a paunch.” She added with a rather obvious poke in the vicinity of my abdomen.
“We’ll be fine, dad. You will cook everyday and I will stick up post-it notes every night on your medicine cabinet and get your dosages right. We’ll walk here every week and stare down couples away from the beach….dad, you know, Harsh and I have never gone to beach together ever?”
I hadn’t expected this casual reference to the ex-husband, having assumed that this was a topic that I should tread with anaesthetics at hand.
“He hated the smell violently. Just like him. Mr.Finicky-I-want-breakfast at eight-dinner at seven-and a dark quiet bedroom by nine. Would be sensitive to anything that wasn’t wiped down with Dettol ”
“Come on. He lived all his life in Bombay. I would imagine that the smells of Bombay beaches would have gotten to him.”
“Nobody gets so morbidly disgusted with something like a fishy smell.”
“Nobody develops morbid even a debilitating disgust for cockroaches either.” I retorted, surprising myself by taking his side.
She smiled. “It’s something like amma dragging us to that temple every week despite knowing that we hated it.”

Unkindness had been it, I sensed. What else would happen if two people decide to build their personal deities out of the other’s revulsions? But that’s what we all do to each other. Making my gods from their cockroaches, wringing my ecstasy out of their agony, my truths pouring out their untruths. And then we glare each other, say “Pay obeseiance to that, never?” and turn away. To be unkind, is almost as easy to learn as

“Will you go to bed now?” was the first sentence I’d ventured after our silent trudge back to my yellowing idlis.
“Don’t act like amma now.” She sneered. I suppose it will be two by the time she falls asleep, Or three. I can almost hear her adolescent tantrums that would resound though the house when her mother would make the inexplicable choice of offering resistance to Padmasini’s perennially haywire sleep cycles. I suppose Padmasini never noticed the absence of a timepiece in her room. Her mother (who would poke her head through the doorway to deliver a hourly reminder of “Aren’t you going to bed now? The time is….” would have been quite sufficient.
“How does the light in my room keep you awake? You don’t have to wait for me to go to bed.” And my wife would never be too sleepy for her monologue on sleep habits and the virtues of a disciplined life.
My wife wasn’t alone in waiting for the Beatles to stop singing in Padmasini’s room. I never slept either till I made sure that she was fast asleep. When she was younger she would wake me up every time she had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night when she discovered that her slender wrists were helpless against a tap that I would have locked tightly against the escape of unruly drops.

“There.” I would say, showing off with a quick anticlockwise twist and the water would gush out. And I would shut it tight again after tucking her into bed. Sometimes we’d eat a biscuit or two sneaking past her mother to raid the out-of-bounds biscuit dabbas of the top kitchen shelf.
Tonight the bathroom tap doesn’t need my fists to set it free, she has used it three times already. It isn’t the Beatles but something else that is keeping her awake in her favourite insomniac refuge- an endless wakefulness cycling through her between gulps of water and visits to the bathroom.

Why does she take so much pride in her silence? And guard it so jealously? It reminds me of the way she used to adjust volume settings o her walkman- with her headphones off her ears. “Sometimes it’s so loud that others can hear it in spite of the headphone.” She’d say. “You can’t hear anything right?” she’d check between songs.
Though she thinks through her headphone to tune me out of her thoughts, I can still hear snatches of the song that’s playing.
I can’t ask her whether she misses Harsh for her smirk of denial will be my only reward. I suffer speculation instead. Is she happy? Does she think of him? Miss him? Sometimes? Everyday? All the time? And having endured every “You’re a divorcee you poor thing” sympathy session to its end, she’d say of her friends “Why does everyone imagine me broken hearted when my only trouble is that it’s burning with late evening coffee and conversation?”
What enraged me the most was Harsh’s persistence in wounding her up to keep time with domestic routines. I wonder whether it escaped him in the glow of first love, my daughter’s bohemian disdain for domesticity and the impossibility of whipping her into a housewifely shape.
Whereas my wife had willingly shackled herself to the minute hand and unsuccessfully tried to drag our home along in Sisyphean circles of chores. I suppose all her Friday fasting and weekly archanais got her what she wanted. An indecently early departure.
That was the phrase they all used when Harsh and Padmasini’s divorce fell through. Indecently early. Six months of marriage had given them enough time to decide against living together. But it wasn’t enough for me. What was I supposed to do in the interim period between mourning her marriage and mourning her divorce?

I fall asleep to the lull of my insomniac ramblings, too late as usual. But tonight I’m awoken almost psychically as I used all those years by the knowledge that Padmasini is crying.
Was it a lizard this time or a cockroach? Or will I rush there empty handed, as I used to twenty years ago, with a HIT-armed wife in tow, only to find a sole baby cockroach squashed flat under an abandoned pink bathroom slipper, like a guillotine hacked down by a guilt-stricken executioner. And then as my wife dealt with the unsightly remains of brown on gleaming tiles of white, I would ease my puffy eyed (with tears and burgled sleep) daughter into bed.

“They won’t return Padmasini. Not to your room. Nor to the bathroom.”
“They won’t come tomorrow?” she would protest bleary-eyed
“Not in the day. Only at night” I would reply, somewhat honestly.
“Only at night huh? Like bad dreams. And tears.” She would complete with a yawn.

I switch on the lights and I see her surrounded by that moat of tears again and unchanged by her adult years that have passed, she whimpers, probably at the sight of a cockroach climbing up the crevices of the toilet bowl. Certain that it would scurry towards the safety of the drain on being discovered I lift my right foot in readiness over the drain. And then I turn around at a sob that has escaped her and realize that there aren’t any cockroaches here. Not a single one.