As I See It

When extra bling on a lehenga grayed 
my face, longer sleeves reduced 
an evening, chappals ended 
a crucial conversation, and an imperfect skirt 
didn't let me dandiya, I asked myself:
Where does my identity live?
.
When my dress was short by a long inch and 
black velvet couldn't conceal tears 
like woollen could've, 
when words didn't sugarcoat my silk sari 
with glitter and when the silence terrified me, 
I told myelf:
Maybe my identity lives 
in my wardrobe and travels in images 
on car windows and restaurant doors 
that secretly show when I peek.
These reflections mock 
empty identities with shiny surfaces.
.
If you stripped my identity naked-
would you see bare, hollow
insides of a wardrobe?
if my leather suitcase of favorite outfits
caught fire, 
would I suffocate into 
ropes of charred fabric? 
maybe I am 
because I wear to conform.

Rules for Indian unboys

Their words pierced through, stood taut 
at her door, threatening 
like on a knife-thrower's board.

Short hair, short pants, but only 
an unboy who must not pore
into thick books and windows that open 
to the world.
Papa must fence unboys unless 
boy follows her name, pays 
her bills, draws her fence; her purse 
deserves no credit. Knock off 
the alphabet she prides;
where is he with more, who 
can sanction her movement, filter 
her pages, censor her wardrobe, bestow 
on her,
honor. 
Missing.
Unboy must be loose, her papa must be incapable 
if around her neck isn't a noose. 
Is it the problem that must not be named?
She is not healthy enough 
to change her name? Her scrolls curse her 
to manlessness? Pity her 
life; her schooling is wasted rupees. 
i see why father looked morose.
 
Their gaze heavy, words acidic, drooped
father's under-eyes. He stared 
at the floor as his scrawny neck 
pushed out thin words. Their morals 
pierced his closed eye lids
while taunts hung over his wooded
house in a gray cloud.
The doorbell sounded everyday
ominous - like a deep cry.
Pungent words greased her walls.
They forgot their feelings when they said bye -
it hung in the air, like toxic vapour. 

Mumma had always said:
"Beware of bad words for they travel 
faster than good words. 
Hatred knocks more doors 
than love can manage."

They announce: she must be loose 
for her virtual wall stands difiled
with rainbow words and photos with boys
who stick to her waist, scarring 
her body and her grandfather's name. 
Disgrace. 
Computers and books of impure lands
ravish our daughters. 

Unboy's tears dried on the kitchen floor. 
Father, for whom she would exchange treasures 
and breath, was slipping, 
tripping - it was her deed; 
her dreams books weighed down 
his shoulders, ideals 
killed him slow.
The architect of the life that fed 
him sips of wordy poison, impulse attacked her 
like an unanticipated torrent;
In a nod, 
a quick sentence, 
dreams were reversed. 
Her sins forgiven, she was given away 
in a red outfit, glitter, and a massive white car. 

Normalcy was bestowed 
on unboy.

Unboy endures,
hides herself.
some days when her dreams leak 
through secret words into the leather diary 
hidden behind rows of copper vessels, 
kitchen walls catch her 
crying under the old sink
and he who follows her name opens the house door.

 

Tsura’s culture

For a course named The Modern City in South Asia and its Afterlives taught by Prof. Will Grover, we were asked to build imaginary cities. About 25 of us collectively built a city named Tsura. You can find more about Tsura here: http://tsuracity.weebly.com/ . Five of us worked on developing the city ‘s culture. The following is an account of Tsura’s culture authored by an anthropologist.

Tsura is an island with a strong but rich and assorted flavour. The Roma settlers found a homeland in Tsura following years of jeopardised living as third rate citizens in countries across Europe. Their arrival in clusters to settle in their new found home after centuries of nomadic living brought to the island a variety of customs and ways of living and a common hope for a better future. These incomers built a nation from an empty, undiscovered island and a misplaced populace. My study intends to trace the evolution of this civilization starting from the first days of Romas in Tsura. During my first days at the island, I travelled intensely through the lowlands where the first Roma settlers lived. The port area of this old city is known as the most momentous in the history of Tsura. This area has a life of its own and is distinct from the rest of the city; it instantly resonated with me, for its age told me about different time periods and cultures that had met here.  I realized quite early in my research that Loannes, as the old city is known, is the reference point for Tsura’s past; the name, Loannes, meaning ‘God is gracious’, denotes the immense emotional meaning the place has in the hearts of the people. The archaic texture to the architecture recounts how the early settlers mimicked the European style of infrastructure that was familiar to them. Loannes not only has historic value, but also has nostalgia associated with it as this was where many Roma clans gave up their nomadism and settled collectively striving to work toward a collective good. All residential spaces in Loannes possess some common properties; every house almost seems like a replica of the others giving a notion that a small group of the initial settlers worked on construction projects for all clans.

settlementsAfter my time in Loannes, I proceeded to Fonza, the modern centre of the city. The road connecting Fonza and Loannes cuts through the forest like the grooves of a never ending serpent. The forest has provided great economic benefit to the the community. I learned that even in their initial days, while clearing forest patches to make space for the settlement, the Romas stumbled upon herbs of high medicinal value. Owing to their nomadic lifestyle and closeness with nature, they were quick to grasp the significance of this finding. They soon established an organized culture around the production and business of these medicinal herbs.

When I reached the University at Fonza, where I spent most of my stay, I was welcomed and accommodated with warmth and hospitality. On a local holiday, I took a keke (a tri-wheeled car) and asked to be dropped at Runia, an area inhabited by one of the most populous clans in the city. A man I had met at the university, Lel, was going to show me around the community area. Historically, bands of Romas, each being an extended family, which arrived at the island later, are known to have populated wards of the city’s primary settlement in Fonza. The keke dropped me off at a typical residential area — a neatly laid out lattice of compact one or two storeyed houses connected by narrow lanes. I saw at the crossroads, a colossal statue of Saint Sarah, the primary Roma deity and a mythical embodiment of the sea. One often comes across religious symbolism embedded in the structural design; statues of multifarious Roma Gods and legendary chieftains of Tsura’s first settlers are common. These serve to celebrate the Roma identity and act as reminders of their ethnic solidarity. This deeply revered value of collectivism is also manifested in their way of living. The houses in front of me had either no separating walls or only low-set wooden fences. Neighbours in Fonza are usually connected by blood, even if indirectly and they intermingle frequently. People were huddled in groups conversing and performing routine tasks together. Some children ran around freely, even into others’ courtyards. I rented a cycle, the easiest way to traverse these wards.

I was visiting Lel with the objective of understanding the functioning of a family, the principal unit of Roma life. His house looked just like all others I’d seen on the way: a small two-storeyed building with a veranda overlooking the street. At the porch, sat the womenfolk dressed in ankle-length skirts and loose blouses, teaching children mathematics and logic. They smiled nervously at me as I entered and asked their sons to play music to entertain me. They offered me a specially cooked meal of grilled salmon with beans and pogacha (Romahouse bread); sea food constitutes the Roma staple diet. At the heart of the house, in a rocking chair made of cane, sat an elder woman. Veneration of elders is a cultural norm and consequently, the oldest generation in a family heads the household. The family head, regardless of gender, usually occupies the house’s centre-space. Surrounding this enclosure are doors to various rooms. Lel’s house had a washroom inside and one outside the room which is particularly for menstruating women. The Romas emphasise cleanliness, literally and figuratively. They have retained some beliefs based on purity and impurity in their everyday norms. Insistence on virginity before marriage and fidelity after it especially for women is another such method to prevent spiritual pollution. Women are also seen as keepers of the family’s honour; they are to dress modestly in front of elders. These disproportionate gender-based standards may suggest a slight patriarchal tendency, but they stand in contrast to the progressive gender dynamic prevalent in the community. The importance given to women’s education, career and perspective ascertains this.

Lel invited me to join his family at the public grounds to celebrate the annual Camargue festival on the 11th of October. Crowds were larger than any I had seen through my six months in the island. Thousands of Romas dressed elaborately carried a well-adorned statue of Saint Sarah to the grounds and then toward the sea, where she is known to have come from, in a procession. I joined the parade of dance, music and merriment. They blessed the statue with the waters and brought her back to her abode at the temple. Following this, ceremonial animal sacrifices were officiated by the temple’s religious pastor and the entire Senate presided over the function. Legend goes that Saint Sarah arrived on earth to kill a monster named Ahiura who had been terrorising the Roma people. Some draw a parallel to the worship of Hindu Goddess Durga who killed the evil Mahishasura. Roma life is filled with celebrations and totems of gypsy identity, culture and pride. The Rali festival is an agrarian one and is celebrated with huge splendour to exult the season of crop abundance. People pray to the soil and follow it with dance and music. Traditional music encompasses percussion instruments like kuru, udukila, firu, thozha, santoor and bamboo flutes. Some people carry a wooden structure mounted on their heads while performing dances in multiple semi-circles. Marriage ceremonies are equally festive; a carnival with an extravagant feast is usually arranged in open spaces. Open spaces for communal gatherings and festivities are common and included in the city’s design. Further, men celebrate the city’s historic warriors by ornamenting themselves, carrying heavy drums and shouting slogans in praise of the clan. Roma practices also carry an influence of their European associations, as seen in the mass prayers done to celebrate the virtuousness of Virgin Mary. As Romas came into Tsura in multiple waves, each group brought with it a distinct flavour of gypsy culture and a dialect of the common language. This diversity is demonstrated on many counts; for instance, some clans pray to specific ancestral Gods; some impart religious and cultural meanings to handmade material objects and pray to these talismans periodically; some worship pagan Gods. The openness provides freedom for people to practice their own rituals. This heterogeneous culture is knit together by rich threads of collective gypsy tradition. These events unite the Romas by promulgating cordiality between clans and a single collective gypsy identity.

On a serendipitous event through my endeavour to map the political situation and governance of the community, I got an appointment with a senator who was once a professor at the University himself. The Senate house is symbolically located on a plateau in the highland settlement, with only the nearby temple of Saint Sarah, the city’s main religious site, at a higher altitude. The elevation of the Senate House is representative of the importance and the power standing it holds in Tsura. The grand architecture of the structure seems like a design intended to glorify the Gypsy culture. The courtyard has statues of the founders of the Tsura, and other ancestral philosophers. The walls inside the Senate House don inscriptions of different teachings which guide the societal values and spiritual beliefs of Tsura. The senator pointed out to me that nine paintings in his office, from different pegs of time, narrated the story of the inception and history of the political system. The first three paintings depict the evolution of the Senate over the years. One of the paintings is of the chieftains of the first seven immigrant clans, worshipping Saint Sarah after laying the foundation stone of Senate House. Over the years, the senate has grown from seven to fifteen members, now consisting of ten men and five women. Senators are essentially elders of different groups/clans, who collectively act as guiding philosophers of the land of the Romas. Five seats of the senate have been reserved for the representation of minorities or smaller groups/clans. The senate has two auxiliaries: the Executive Council which administers the policy implementation and grassroots functioning of various departments; and the Army which takes care of law and order, and local justice. Juxtaposing snapshots of the political and social situation of different time periods, it is evident that Romas respect and trust their elders immensely and vice-versa.  Though senates in most political systems have perished, Tsura’s senate has thrived as its members take on responsibilities with utmost sincerity, leading to a sturdy and efficient government.

I found out from a construction worker I conversed with that Tsura’s inhabitants are not limited to the Romani community; African immigrants, who are mostly construction labourers, live in slum-like settlements in fringe areas of the island. Romas, after years of threats of forcible extinction, developed an intense xenophobia that has diluted, but persisted to the modern day. My inquiries disclosed that in order to protect Roma’s territorial ownership, the law strictly disallows foreigners from owning land or property. Consequently, African settlers live on rented land in the island’s periphery in shacks erected using makeshift resources. The area is congested with cramped constructions to house the overflowing immigrant population. The structures are unstable and easily affected by weather changes. These are mostly one roomed shelter arrangements with limited sanitation and electricity facilities. The design is intended to take least space but contain maximum people. Nevertheless, this spatial divide is only an outcome of a self-defensive survival instinct of the Romas, not one of a power hierarchy. Romas treat immigrants in a humane and indiscriminate manner. State run organizations like the schools, university and hospitals are equally accessible to immigrants. In an otherwise undivided society, this ethnic difference has led to the conception of the self and the other, and in a way strengthening the island’s foremost value: Roma unity and equality. The discrimination and marginalization they were subject to has led to solidification of Roma togetherness. They stand united against any potential threat to their community. They however strive to differ from their European dominators by accepting and tolerating minorities and foreigners while defending themselves. The life that people of Tsura have built over these years after being ostracised and ousted by various societies is a stark example of the strength of collectiveness and humanity. Their value system remains grounded despite their tragic experiences and their serene and colourful culture is stimulating and endearing. Roma life has sustained their traditional values and culture in the home they have built in this once-upon-a-time forsaken island.

My stay at Tsura ended with my research. I had never thought that this small island will change my life or even my perspective. Today is my last day and I am going to miss this beautiful place until I return. The small and yet profound things of this community will remain with me and my diary not just as another tale, but as a meaningful experience in life.

Coffee and yellow lights

Sometimes in small cafes that stay tucked in-between arrays of square buildings lined on busy gray roads with moving yellow lights, I find little images of me peeking at me from under my coffee mug. In these cafes that open up to the sky from hidden rooftops, just when it gets dark and the fairy lights begin to glimmer, when my backpack stares at me expressionlessly from across the table, I find myself.

Can it be that I leave little crumbs of myself in discreet spots of cafés that hide me from life?

Maybe with every sip I slurp, seated on high wooden chairs, I leave at the rim of the mug, a little bit of the madness in my mind.

Maybe the tissue paper I used last Sunday, to wipe some lonesomeness off my eyes, maybe it let some of itself vaporize into the air which now remembers me.

Maybe when the café swayed to the speakers, to Alanis Morisette’s What if God was one of us, when I sang along mindlessly, the words chose to remain still in the air. Maybe the tune knows me like I know it and dances to me like I do to it.

Maybe the little notes I scribble on tattered pages, in between quick bites, unfold themselves from my jar of tales and doodle the evening air with weird shapes to remind me of something that’s my own.

Or maybe, the distorted yellow reflections on the glass jar lamp tell me a little about me, the little bits that I constantly forget. That I have to be retold to believe.

Maybe as I sip the warmth of the coffee, I drown in it. Maybe just in that second when I lose myself, I find myself.

Or maybe, maybe it’s merely that lonely tables have seen me bare, stripped off the shiny coats of pretense, deep inside the layers where my fears dwell. And when the chill hits my unclothed skin and I wrap my olive green patterned shawl tighter in an intimate self-embrace, maybe it is the cafe that envelops me, comforts me. That second, the yellow lights sparkle for me, like kisses directed to me. And that instant, I find home, while in hiding. Each time, the find is revelatory, the excitement is fresh.

Sometimes, just sometimes like these, I find home when I run away, when I hurry into unfamiliar corners where no one’s watching. Where there is the wooden floor and the hazel sky above and just cold air in between. Where suddenly life is just about coffee, yellow lights and soft music. Where all around, I see unknown human beings stir tales into coffee with three spoons of sugar and swallow worries sweetened with doughnut icing.

Probing questions of ethics in writing: a critical response to The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi by Amitav Ghosh

I was asked to write a critical analysis of Amitav Ghosh’s essay in my writing class. I did not do a great job of that, but I put this up anyway because I read his essay at a time when I was in an ethical dilemma about the exaggeration and dramatization in my writing. This exercise meant more to me than a graded assignment.

I could not put away this piece when I started to read it; I had to run along the words as they raced to the end. Amitav Ghosh does have a way of keeping one engaged, hooked to the essay, reading faster to get sooner to what happens next. Ghosh’s style has a semblance to verbal narration of stories, where the narrator creates a mood of suspense. It is perhaps the pauses that Ghosh cleverly places  in between the essay, so perfectly, while describing what must have been a continuous, unbroken day, that cause one’s mind to dash around to pick up every emotion that the moment on that fateful day must have held. Ghosh demonstrates to the reader the feeling of emptiness and helplessness he experienced as he witnessed the mob’s frenzy and hunger. Ghosh does not forget the minute details of the day in an essay that talks predominantly about events of incomparable magnitude of effect. He details the weather, the mood contained in New Delhi’s air that day, the quiet of the unaware morning and the normalcy of a day that was ignorant of the notorious fame that awaited it. He recreates the day and the keeps the reader suspecting and tense, for the silence is too loud for it to be meaningless.

In Ghosh’s narration, I saw a parallel tale – two worlds. I saw, on one side, an image of Delhi screaming out loud, gritting its teeth in vengeance with cold eyes that saw no wrong in horror inflicted on pleading eyes. People were fidgeting, Ghosh was restless, and some turned still for it was the easiest to do.  It was a Delhi bathed in red, in violence and terror. Simultaneously, lay another picture – where there was exchange of promises in the tinkle of porcelain and saving of lives in the assuring hisses of Hindi and in circles of defying women. In this tale, boys huddled together, families helped each other and nothing else mattered when humanity was at stake.

What caught my attention most is when Ghosh talks about his two ways of viewing the event – as a writer and a citizen. Ghosh confesses a writer s desire and tendency to dramatize events. In literature, tragedy is glamorous and a writer unconsciously sees a need to feed the world with what he/she thinks the world wants to read. In the process, the described event gets distorted – the goodness in it dissolves with every new narration leaving a residual sad story. Ghosh recognizes this and takes a turn from his initially dramatic emphasis on the gloominess and horror of the day and he goes on to talk about the other forgotten side: the humanity that persisted despite all that the day saw. My faith in humanity felt a sense of affirmation as I read this part of the narrative. There is a Hindu family that is willing to risk it all to protect its neighbors. They even sit in the comfort of the living room and talk about the world beyond the violence in the neighborhood, to keep the threatened neighbours courageous. The guard, even at gunpoint, lies to protect his employers. Through this shift, he highlights the aesthetic of indifference that writing tends to create. It was, for me, this audacious confession as a writer that immediately caused me to respect the author and his essay.

Amitav Ghosh is undoubtedly a master story-teller.  He is also a genuine one that tells you all of it; not just what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear.

revealing hidden neuroticism

Securely,
I put away my best earrings in the shelf-
a little box in the inner-most corner, hidden from you
They glimmer even against the grubby, woody insides

Neatly I layer racks of pressed clothes over,
worn modestly.
make-up so thick, you’d never see past

I pile books over, my screens of intellect
hard bound,
smelling of days you’ve never seen.

you wouldn’t know what lies under
in my corner,
down the cracks and wooden deeps
I keep that for me
only me to see

I stuff in them those times,
tales that bear my real,
which even now coerce
me to cringe, hide my face.
which shame me like when
my skirt flew up,
in class three.
My corner where only I
can dig them up the grave before
I bury them again.
The key to my corner remains
as shrouded as what it maintains.
hangs around my neck
my shirt’s embroided too heavy,
it conceals
more than most of its kind.

I crush and stab this crazy
damned fucking madness.
for it is foolish;
it asks to hand you
the key, dig up my relics,
lay them for you.
for you to see, inspect, judge and decide.
I couldn’t take,
I know, that definite embrace
when you’d intendingly look away;
for you’d know: if you looked, I’d know it’s the last.

I choose to keep my corner dark
where only spiders lurk and monsters crawl.
they thrive in my darkness, they don’t leave.

September 11, 2011

“You stride into the day with fiery drive, swelter it through long distances and as you droop your way home, I await you quietly with diamond-studded blue velvet to tuck you in, precious. I kiss the heat away and drape you with a soothing warmth that’d ward off the chill. I whisper a lullaby but the wind floats away with it, leaving a tingly hum lingering still, all along its way home. I kiss your closed eyes and watch you from a distance. I hide before you rise, for my love for you, you should never know about, lest the beauty be lost. This veiled love is so certain, stubborn, I couldn’t leave if I tried. But you and I can together never be; for you’re the Sun and I’m the Moon and this love is hidden in the blackness of the night you’ll never see.” I say it aloud, but Andre cannot hear me. Every time I say anything to him, somewhere deep inside me, something beats hard hoping rationale would fail the world for a second and my words would reach him, caress him. But logic always beats the crap out of everything else. Today he’s sound asleep; and the impossibility doubles. I wonder if impossibility has magnitude but immediately drive out the useless thought. I watch him sleep; his breath is soft, his hair, messy just like I remember it. He looks peaceful, like’s he’s smiling at something far away. Is he dreaming about me? I’d never know. Either way, he looks gorgeous. I could watch him forever, but I look at him one last time and I glide away softly, thinking to myself – Andre’d never know that my nights have been no different than the ones before that day that arrived too soon for many, much before its time. Thinking this, I vanish… out of the room… into someplace far away beyond space and time…into the abstract.

Catching up with time 2

I contain within:
a lusting desire abound
to monsterously consume, down
every syllable, nuance and detail,
in the wide world's tale,
till I'm replete, surfeit
when I can't but inhale an
inspiration to crush, subdue
and make area at the fore
for more.
There's much I know naught about.
Do I possess time tho'?
I could create a bottle, I'm told.
But what when the evanescing daylight
takes over the psyche
and the desire darkens 
as the sun sets?
Do I deny my eye lids their download
sole time of union,
when I see a want so amorous?
I give up my desire for another. 
The curtains close;
caressing me into oblivion
and the eye lids into a conjugation .
Till the night rests: new light sears 
the soothing solace of the darkness;
my shut eyes see the blood from the burn-
a vainglorious vermillion.
My desire arises from the sopor,
and I, likewise: groggy and rueful. 
The hour is lost, and irrevokable;
the spirit droops, a wee bit.

Moments

Those are called moments:

when an emotion befalls you
not a care that you look for none,

when the feeling conquers your within
fills you whole
the balloon-like voids,
flits into the invisible pores
and the constricted straits
till it douses, chokes your brain,
 
when it commands your aspect:
curls your lips, waters your eyes
or not
though you intend not, even a twitch;
directs your mind and invades you-
by an imperialism of a different kind,

when you feel it so intense
You grope for words-
words you know exist
you know as familiar
those that turn disloyal then
and find you blind to,

And when as fiery as the emotion itself
is the realization of an inability
to elucidate it for another,
recreate it in words
and vivify it to equivalence.

For those are called moments
that are souvenirs of humanity
that cannot in any case be crafted.

a poetic take on the nature of emotion

I have come to understand,
To love
is an experience so unsettling.
The mind begs to rest,
to float placidly, mindlessly,
to revel in the surrounding tranquil.
But it is an ask gravely futile.
For contained within is a blizzard;
whirlwind circling maniacally,
a storm so mighty, thunderous
it threatens to irrupt.
Every wave rises up fiercely,
pounces wild into another formidable,
in an embrace of illogical ebullience.
Together they come down crashing,
before the rise that follows.
And in all, engendering Energy that prevails
any plausible or existent force.

To love,
Is an experience so inebriated,
So unsettling.

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