Letter to the Dispossessed

I didn’t know that the smells would haunt me. Scratch that. I did.
Specifically, detergent mixed with the coconut on skin.
I think it’s my most favourite smell in the world because it is you.
It smells like home. Which is also you.

So now I am exploring the world independently, without you, and mostly it’s pretty okay.

Being busy helps. Watching TV with complete concentration, especially murder mysteries and not guessing whodunit is the best antidote to miss. No mystery there. I have discovered Ms. Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and I won’t recommend it to you anymore. I have given the Honourable Ms. Fisher three days of my life. Entirely well-spent.

And like her, like Ms. Fisher, I have sex, lots of it, so the endorphins keep swimming whether they work or not.

I think to eat sugar in defiance and in defiance shut the tin and show you, ‘Look, I am looking after myself.’

I cook for everybody out of necessity and a grudging love. Again, I am becoming my mother’s daughter and every time I look at the seasoning box, I think, I must buy this for the house there and then my breath catches because without you, there is no house there anymore.

I think I have entirely stopped black coffee and the way the steam wafts out coffee in a French press.
Too soon.

I wear clothes that are cut low and deep and skirts that are short and swirl because I won’t deny my sexuality anymore. I am mostly ill but I am also sexy. And so I won’t hide it and cloak it in the worry that I am sending out the wrong signals. I am sexy. Everything about me needn’t scream sex but if you look closely enough, you will find that I won’t deny knowledge anymore. I enjoy myself. I have stopped denying how sensual the feel of rain is on skin, and how easily I am seduced by the wind in my hair, and how walking in heels makes my hip angle just so and how I feel the movement in all the right places, and how the taste of anything good makes me moan. This enjoyment is who I am. It has nothing to do with you. It never did, I realise now. I was wrong to deny myself because of awkwardness or your imagined discomfort.

I have stopped speaking like you with the ‘mmms’ in between thoughts, and the ‘umm tasty’ for food, and the ‘beautiful’ for trees, bees, birds, people, everything that you see. The only beautiful I reserve is for the one person you refuse to see beauty in.

I have not shed a single tear.

I don’t have a real smile either. Not the sort that reaches the eyes and lights up the entire face. That’s okay. No one needs to see. And I know someday when I least expect it, it will come, and all this will be done.

I have decided I won’t define us anymore. I don’t care who you are to me anymore. I don’t care if you are anymore even. There’s no need. It is as he said to me once when he assumed I was breaking it off with him, ‘We had a good ride, so I am grateful.’ Are you my brother, my best friend, my lover, my husband, my son? I don’t need to define it. I only know one word. Everything. And if you take that away from me, why then, I will survive this too, won’t I?

And when the numbers pop in my head, I remind myself slyly that I don’t know how to count and so it’s not 10 years and it’s not 15 days and it’s not 31 days and it’s not, it’s not, it’s not. What it is, is having your breath catch and your heart still because cactus fruits showed up on Instagram; because a certain beat in a particular song is from the night we danced at a distance, like strangers, not touching, not speaking, avoiding each other, lost in the music; because the letters that make your name suddenly pop on the timeline and it’s mostly not you; because it’s 8 am and I am wondering if today you managed to wake up on time like you assured me you would; because you live without me easily, happily, successfully.

I live without you. And notice I will not say exist. I live. I run errands, I make decisions, I am rude on the phone, I grieve for other people and while reading the army stories on Humans of New York. I curse crazy drivers on the streets. I worry if I will die of cancer. See? Real life. I am living without you successfully.

It is only in dreams that I am tormented. So I try and sleep lesser than I used to because even in dreams we never speak anymore but you are always there, always lurking behind some episode, some incident, some lover, and I worry about you constantly in my dreams. I had stopped worrying about you. Now it’s back multifold, a gnawing dissatisfaction with the world because an entire part of my being that has no voice in my waking hours worries about you, thinking ‘but no one understands you like I do. You said so yourself, and what will you do now? Whom will you share how the salad turned out, how the electricity units are so high because I kept the fridge open too long, how it rained, how this guy checked you out on the train and you didn’t encourage him, and how you don’t know why…’.

My mother says, ‘Why are the sheets so tangled up? It’s like you were wrestling on the bed. Aren’t you sleeping well? What’s the matter?’
And like you, I say, ‘Don’t bug me. Don’t talk to me now. Don’t talk to me.’
And unlike me, she listens, leaves me alone, and mutters to herself.
Another conversation closed.

When I am awake, it’s easy. I remind myself of all your new friends, old lovers, the many people around the world who love you and desire you and consume you in real life and my heart hardens. My resolve strengthens. You don’t need me anymore. You admire all those people now, love all those beings, and you feel nothing good for me.
I imagine you reading this, feeling that cold clasp of death because of the intensity, what you make out as drama, and resolving again that this space, this distance, this timing now is a good thing. Yabba, I hear you say. Yabba, who needs this heaviness, this mindfuckery in life, anyway?

I need you even less. See?
I choose the tiles on my own, the colours and paints and bathware on my own. I design the rooms on my own and I don’t care to ask you for an opinion. I watch what I want to on the TV, eat when I feel like, sleep when I absolutely must, and I don’t speak to anyone. I don’t ask anyone for an opinion. I don’t share. Not a single thing. Not with anyone. There’s no need. If I lose my mother or my father, I will deal with it. If I am grieving because I lost someone like a parent, I will deal with it. I will deal with coming to terms with the exhausting responsibility of parenting old parents who refuse to acknowledge their increasing age and decreasing abilities. And I will deal with taking myself to hospitals and check ups and knowing someday all this will surely end. I will deal with my own stress about money and health, money and health, health and money, health and money. I will deal with everything that comes with being alive in this world.
On. My. Own.

So everything goes on the way it probably always has.

I have a date.
So I meticulously choose clothes that I have washed without that detergent.
I wear black everywhere. Colour, just now, is abhorrent to me.
I wear them and do my eyes, but on its own, my kajal smudges, and I decide I must darken it all around, go smokey eyes. The way you like it, the thought forms and I squash it immediately. I wear neutral lip colour – not because you like natural – but because, really, red would be too much even if I am behaving like that rare, independent woman in the 1920s and singing jazz tunes by King Oliver and His Orchestra.
You were only passing time with me.
My date asked to go steady today.
I tell him I need to think.
I will agree, I think, if only in the hope that I will feel again.
I only hope today is good.

It is. Better than I imagined.

For two seconds, I am myself, unencumbered by thoughts of you, by the burden of everyday things.
It’s glorious.

And then as I am wearing my sweater, the one piece of clothing I carelessly carried, it wafts in, assaults me with detergent that has mingled with the coconut on my skin and I come undone then. It’s a good thing he nuzzles my neck because a whimper escapes me. I become you. I am you. Full of condescension and loathing towards everything to do with me. But I am also me – misunderstood, little girl lost, bereaved wife, distraught mother, banished sister, depraved soul, dispossessed queen, friendless and fainting, but smelling richly of you.

Posted in Intoxication Induced | 1 Comment

Black

When you were lost, O krishna,
I looked for you everywhere
In the Tamil kavitheys of Bombay Jayashree
And the coconut oil milled fresh and fragrant.

When you were lost, O krishna,
I looked for you everywhere
In the curly hair of young boys
And the proud stance of tall men.

I looked for you everywhere
In the black jaggery that tasted slightly salty
And in herbal green teas at Cafe Coffee Days
When you were lost, O krishna.

I looked in the salads served cold and light
And in salmons tinged slightly pink
When you were lost, O krishna,
I looked for you everywhere.

O krishna, O krishna, I sang mindlessly
to angry beats on forgotten streets in Koramangala
Burnt cigarettes and combed Instagram for your friends
I looked for you everywhere when you were lost.

When you were lost, O krishna,
I looked for you everywhere
In memories, in books, in work
In snores and in alarm clocks.

But especially in your favourite songs and in colours
Green of the paddy fields, red of the earth, and the black-grey of the sea
O krishna, O krishna, I looked for you everywhere
And found you buried deep inside me.

Posted in Intoxication Induced | 6 Comments

Felicity in Frankfurt

I am home.

This is home.

It’s all just the same as I left it.

Of course, there is more furniture now and he has repositioned the furniture but it’s the same.

It smells the same. There is that hint of verbena in the air and I know every time I sniff verbena somewhere, anywhere, it will immediately teleport me to this apartment here in the heart of Frankfurt sitting high on the fourth floor of a beautiful street in the banking quarter. The apartment is perfect. White, warm, welcoming, I feel that it smiles when I enter, and I am happy to be the perfect housewife there ever was here.

We unpack and I know just where everything goes and how to organise things. This house, too, is overflowing with clothes and books as if in reassurance. It’s all so the same. It’s like I never left. As we are cleaning, we listen to the same old playlists and sing and hum and smile at each other thinking of our memories of the past year. I know this smiling together and working in perfect harmony will be another memory when I go back to my other world and my other life and my other home some seven thousand odd miles from here.

We decide to walk and buy groceries and I see the clean streets are washed by the rain. Last year, this time, the sun was harsh, white, piercing and had boiled away my face so much so that I had lost all interest in taking pictures. Later it became about not dwelling on previous baggage and showing a finger to the future and only experiencing the present, living in the moment. This year, though, I want to document our life and times together here. I want something tangible and sharable to take to the other life. Also, I think maybe someday it might explain something.

The city has not changed. I remember all the streets, their names come back to me, and the trees that had become favourites, shimmer at me as we walk past talking desultorily. It’s a beautiful, urban landscape full of lush green trees amidst towering skyscrapers. In the mild rain, like in the sun, it’s glorious and romantic. It helps that the rain is at bay now and only a whipping, cold wind reminds us that it could rain later again and we must be quick. The people too are the same. Bouncy, lithe, tall, lean, and friendly only once you get to know them. I smile at them anyway because smiling costs nothing. Yet it works.

I am wearing heels and that’s different from last time. I feel better, as if I have levelled the playing field. I feel more visible in heels amidst these tall mostly skinny people. For once, I feel rightly dressed. But the wind teases and even under the heat technology t-shirt and the billowing asymmetrical top I wear, my nipples harden. How easily this city seduces me back! That too is the same as last time. I wonder idly why I panicked about coming back again and why I stressed about the holiday so much.

I crave filter coffee now as I know we are walking close to the only good South Indian restaurant in the city, and especially because summer seems to be evading the city still. I crave heat and warmth and reassurance of knowing one’s place in the world. It’s a tall order for just a cup of coffee and he rightly laughs at me and mocks me for being fickle. I had insisted that this time we would not eat or drink at restaurants and cook at home.

The showers start and hide my sheepishness. We have eaten well – idli vada and pooris and I have had a satisfying cup of hot filter coffee. The rain plunges the city into gloom and the grey is the indifference of strangers. For a moment I panic again. Who am I? Why am I here so far away from home? And who are all these people? But just as suddenly, and just as we near the Alte Oper square, the sun shines again piercing the rain. We try in vain to capture this sexual dalliance of the sun and the rain on camera and fail. Our selfie shows us as red, tired, and happy people. The photo taking bores me again and I decide to soak in the moment and enjoy this beautiful opera we are seeing around us. We linger, laugh, plan the rest of the day.

I think just how happy I am sitting by the fountain at the square. And even as I think it, it fades and guilt and worry replaces it. Did I really need to go on a holiday now? I worry about her health and his. It’s so hard to be truly happy for long. But here, like last year, I have understood the import of the word Felicity. It’s not just a word that made sense in Jane Austen. That word describes exactly how I feel about life and the world when I live here. I stare directly at the sun and smile away the discomfort. The sun is always reassuring, even if here, the sun is hot, white, and blinding, unlike in India where it is ochre, demanding, and scorching. The sun increases the bounce in everyone’s steps and makes people smile more easily.

A stranger says hello to us. At the supermarket another stranger recommends a good wine as we stare at the wine bottles unable to decide. Is it a special occasion the stranger asks him. I smile at this exchange which is a rare occurrence he tells me later, as people in Frankfurt, especially, are not so upfront and forthcoming or even curious. I can tell why. It’s our first day together and we are being kind and solicitous towards each other. We are oozing friendliness, enjoyment, and contentment. We are shining red in this weather and our eyes are kind. We buy the recommended wine and walk home.

A friend comes by for a drink and we talk wistfully about Berlin and other cities. The recommended wine is a hit. Talking comes easily here, and here wanting and getting great conversation is easy. But as we are chatting, I slink lower into the covers; the bed is familiar, unchanged, and shapes itself to my body welcoming me in. Warm, exhausted, even the endorphins I am swimming in aren’t enough to keep me awake. We are listening to the best techno music I have ever heard, coming to us straight from Berlin; Germany has just won a football match against Italy and there are celebrations on the street below. The music is intense but cathartic in a way that’s hard to explain. It lulls me into a meditative state. It’s the best homecoming ever. I am home. This is home.

Posted in Happy Days | 8 Comments

Parvati’s Grief

You lose a baby.

The weight of that sentence is so heavy and thick with grief that the world tilts on its axis, and everything shifts.

You can’t shift away from that numbing loss that makes you lose interest in everything now that the baby is lost.

Babies can be lost once they are created in the womb. Babies are not those hopes you pin the rest of your life on. For that, the world has another word. That word is dreams.

Dreams are worthy only if you remember them and you do. You remember that the baby with its hair softly curled, skin a rich, foamy chocolate, eyes small and twinkling, and a smile that slowed the whole universe, saved your life and that of your mother’s and father’s and the whole damn family on both sides of the gene pool, hell, the entire bloody cosmos; but no one knew about all that now because the baby was apparently not born like the way a baby was supposed to be born.

The theme of birth keeps recurring in your grief and stems the tears, because how can you – even if you already are the mother of baby, even if your breasts feel heavy with unconsumed milk, even if your womb twitches when you sit – cry over something that doesn’t exist?

The world values only what does exist. So you stop the welling eyes and think that since the baby doesn’t exist now, even the father and mother have nothing in common, nothing to share, and nothing that will make them a unit anymore. Nothing exists.

In this universe only if you create something does it exist. Yet, in this same universe where you had created the baby in your thoughts, in those playful and tender conversations with its father, in those tense moments of hope and longing, the baby doesn’t exist because the baby was apparently not born like the way a baby was supposed to be born, and now you have lost the ability to mother a child.

So when you lost the baby, it was not the actual flesh and blood that meant home, that meant roots, that meant family, that you lost. You lost the baby’s father and the nebulous connection between two loving souls. You lost the thought of ever having a baby, ever being a mother, ever creating a new world, and ever adding to the cycle of birth and death. You lost your ability to pay back your debt to the universe. You lost your power to be a goddess and became instead a hapless, helpless woman at the mercy of the universe and its cruel sense of humour. You lost yourself.

Posted in Blue Funk | 4 Comments

Relief

It’s round and innocuous at first. She says it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t do anything. She laughs and acts embarrassed if someone asks her about it. She is dismissive when anyone worries. She won’t see a doctor.

There are more important things in life to focus on. The lump on her throat isn’t one of them.

‘What about dinner? Shall I quickly make something and pack it for you?’

She is preoccupied with food because that is how she shows how much she loves you.

My ex didn’t even merit a cup of tea or coffee the only time he visited.

Her brother expressed a faint craving for akki shavige so she ignored the carpal tunnel syndrome, her bent, misshapen arthritic fingers, and steamed rice powder and rolled it and turned it into thin, fine, spaghetti strips, and fed her brothers. And just in case someone argued about it being merely ‘thindi’, she made rice, rasam, and vegetables.
After, she served coffee for the brothers and tea for the husband.

That day she told me uncharacteristically, “For as long as I am around, I will cook all these things for you.”

Was that when the fear took root?

The next day, I took her to the doctor because it’s ridiculous to live in ignorance.

The dreaded C word was mentioned.

Her face changed. Shrank. She looked more like a bird than usual. I filled up the car with practical lists. ‘We’ll go first thing in the morning. Let’s order breakfast. Don’t waste time cooking. Don’t worry about the tests. And don’t worry about food, we’ll eat outside. We’ll be in hospital all day tomorrow.”

She reached home and worked like a dervish.
‘I need to make all the powders – sambar, rasam, bisibelebaath, vaangibaath.’
By the next evening, in spite of the long hours we spent at the hospital running tests, chillies had been dried, the pulses roasted, the spices added, and the powders ground. There was enough idli and dosa batter for the entire street to feed on.

‘Come, see how I make these.’

I ignored her call with a sinking stomach and refused to budge away from my laptop where all the windows merged into something blurry and shimmering. She is a workaholic. She won’t sleep till everything in the kitchen is set right, till all the preparations for the next meal have been made. She’s also a perfectionist. In all these years, there have been few dishes that haven’t tasted like heaven. And she has a fierce sense of responsibility. She will cook and clean even if she’s unwell because that’s her duty.

So if I don’t see, if I don’t learn, she would be fine because she would have to be. Who else would cook for me?

The fear lodged in the throat.

At the hospital, we turned strangers before the operation. Not for us any sentimental talk. It was my turn to be dismissive of the surgery, to mock her very real fears – will I lose my voice? Will I live past this? – that she hadn’t articulated.

‘Don’t be silly. It’s a small surgery. What’s there to worry? You will have permanent wrinkles at this rate.’

As long as she lives through this, everything is fine. Please. I have to be her strength.

She is my strength. How can I be strong when my strength is weakened? I fear getting into a kitchen that smells of her powders in a world where she doesn’t exist except as a whiff in the memories of all of us who have sampled her cooking.

In that moment, I resent deeply her powders, her culinary wizardry, how she told me that someday I will love to cook because it is an art form. How she is proud that even when I don’t like it, I cook just like her. If she will leave me before I am ready, and I will never be ready, I don’t want her skill or the taste of her food or the cravings for her gojju or sambar or rasam. In that instance, I recognise the futility of my life if something happened to her. I bury these fears and fall asleep taking pills because I can’t even pray when I am mostly godless.

I dream of walls that are barren, white, and uninviting even as I sense that it is home. It doesn’t feel like anything. I am looking for her, hungry, trying to smell food, but there’s nothing.

I wake up hungry on a strange cot in the hospital. I wake to see that she has finally slept. I want to wake her and tell her how she’s the only home I recognise, the only reason the world makes sense, how even my father is a stranger without her defining our relationship, how much I love her, how indispensable she is in my life.

But I don’t.

We are not sentimental. We have never spoken to each other that way. We wouldn’t know where to start and how to say it. Besides, we never state the obvious.

We have bought time instead.

So when we come home healed, even as the threat of the C word hangs over us, innocuous and relatively harmless now that her entire gland is removed, I show love the way she has taught me.

In sheer relief, I cook.

I cook.

Posted in Blue Funk, In Sickness and In Health | 4 Comments

Ajji was born in 1929

Ajji was born in 1929
and so she doesn’t care that she was born on International Women’s Day.
She begins her day with strong filter coffee brewed almost black with just a hint of milk.
She no longer prays at the altar in the house.
Nor does she talk of dying anymore.
When we moved to the villa, ajji got her own room with a TV and a cable connection.
Ajji also got a break from running the house and discovered daily soaps and Bollywood.
At 85, it’s as if Ajji has finally discovered what makes her truly happy.
Even last year she talked about dying and becoming one with God.
She cooked and fed everyone until last year.
No one made shavige and obattu like ajji did.
So she had to make more of them each time.
This year, she wonders if she likes Deepika or Priyanka more.
She’s unembarrassed about saying how much she likes Shah Rukh Khan, especially with Madhuri.
Or why Pakistani serials are better than the Indian ones.
She has even learnt about Facebook, vegan diets, and dating sites.
We repeat that her birthday is celebrated throughout the universe.
“What do they do on Women’s Day?
Will they give women chocolates and red roses like they do on that love day?”
She says none of that matters if the women have to cook again for the whole house.
“I lost my life in the kitchen, you know?
Only once your grandfather took me to Ahmedabad
and I didn’t have to cook that entire week.
But I didn’t get to drink coffee either, so I was not very happy.
And those Gujjus put sugar in everything.
The girls these days don’t cook if they don’t want to.
Maybe that’s why they can have a day to celebrate womanhood.”

Posted in Idle Thoughts | 12 Comments

Ambition

This year, the fish washed ashore on International Women’s Day.
Dead, inedible, and entirely an eyesore.
Naturally, we blamed the fish.
We realised that it was asking for it.
The reports confirmed it.
The fish wanted oxygen.
Imagine that kind of overreaching!
Happiness lay in being content with what you had.
Ask any good, virtuous woman
who has learnt to toe the line.

Posted in Idle Thoughts | 2 Comments