Yellow

Ma tells me to wear yellow on thursdays,
And I don’t complain,
Even though I do not believe that a single colour can alter horoscopes,
Because when you wear the colour of the sun,
Do you feel a little like the flower,
That starts its morning by drawing its energy from the big ball of fire in the sky.
Yesterday, my friend showed me a cloud,
And I told her it looked like a tree that was reduced to smoke,
Because no one cared to water it enough,
But you see,
Some plants do not need frequent watering,
They survive in the sand, under water,
In households where all the watering pots are broken.
My friend tells me about some place in Russia,
How it is the coldest inhabited place on the globe,
And I marvel at how successfully we humans have found the warmth of the sun,
Even in places it doesn’t shine so much.
The same friend sent me pictures of prison cells from around the world,
That looked less frightening,
More like hotel rooms,
And I realised that if the time a person serves a sentence isn’t the time for making reforms,
Then what is.
I think what I’m trying to say is,
In a city where I complain about the skies not being clear enough,
I found white clouds hovering wherever I looked,
And every time it rains,
The city just gets prettier.
They say white is the colour of hope,
But for me, it’s always been yellow,
In dried autumn leaves,
Or deliberate purchase of stationery,
And maybe sometimes lavender,
But no matter which shade of paint makes you hopeful,
Remember, there’s still hope left,
There always is.

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Houses

John Green said that the weird thing about houses is,
They almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them,
even though they contain most of our lives.
And even though I call this city home,
I wonder if home is people, or the houses they live in,
Or both.
I’ve lived here for twenty three months now,
And have changed places of residence
More than five times,
But have felt more at home sleeping on couches and mattresses laid down on the floor in houses of other people,
Never in my own.
So when you tell me it’s the end of the month,
And you need to vacate the house you’ve been occupying since a year,
I count the number of days I’ve slept there,
I do not know the exact number,
But it should be somewhere around nineteen.
You painted your walls and I laughed at you,
Asked if you thought you were Van Gogh,
And you never laughed back,
Said art was never too elite to be confined to artists of the best kind,
And I agreed,
Because in a room full of art,
I’d always stare at you,
Maybe, art wasn’t about aesthetics at all,
Maybe it was about love,
Or the complete absence of it.
I’ve never called that house my own,
It was too messy, too boyish,
Too unorganized to be a home,
The sink was always blocked,
The washroom unclean,
But your hearts were as comforting as your bean bag,
And god knows how easy it was to fall asleep in the company of someone
Who made you feel safe.
Houses are walls less, residents more,
And yours was founded on laughter,
Music, an old anecdote,
And occasional cheap whiskey.
We’d laugh to the same old jokes,
Listen to the three same songs every day,
Make love in the morning,
Like old lovers who were learning new things about each other.
I think houses are like people too,
They contain sadness and silence,
The first kiss to the last,
A broken toothbrush,
A broken heart,
A string of fairy lights,
And a pair of eyes that you could dive in for the rest of your life.
And even though all of us eventually find new houses to settle in,
Leaving you was like leaving home,
My goodbyes were short,
I couldn’t look back,
And never closed the door,
Hoping someone would call me back,
And I’d be home again.

Picture by Rajdeep Kataki.

Father and I

My father and I had this rule,
If I could get one multiplication table right,
He’d grant me one wish.
On some days, my wishes ranged from icecreams in fancy places to bike rides in the evening,
And on others, experimenting if a text message could be sent from a phone number to itself,
Turns out it does.
My father granted all of these wishes,
If only to see the delight on my face when I received a message called “Ada” on my phone,
From my own number.
He told me,
It was a tribute of some sort to Lady Ada Lovelace,
The first programmer in the world,
And today while reading about how The merchant of Venice is a classic example of a tragic comedy,
I accidentally discovered that she was the daughter of Lord Byron,
And it amused me so much to think that
So many years ago,
The daughter of one of the world’s most renowned poets
Chose computer languages over literature,
And how some rebellions do not need too many words after all.
So my father, he is a simple man,
And worries too much about me,
Walking mindlessly on the road when he knows I’m not home yet,
Although we’re two thousand kilometres apart.
My father, home to him is fragile,
He’s seen it break far too many times than he can remember,
So when I tell him I don’t feel at home anymore,
I can see him pleading, his eyes almost always closed in submission,
And although he’s always been a man of few words,
The ones he speaks,
Are put out with measured caution.
It’s been a while since I’ve memorised multiplication tables;
We use scientific calculators now (even though we don’t need them),
I have started to like poetry more than math,
But still take an extra minute to decide if I’d choose words over numbers,
Or both, given a chance.
I call him, tell him about my recent discovery,
About how I’m learning new things everyday,
And for the first time in a long time,
His voice feels different to my ears,
Like nothing has changed,
Like he’d still grant me a wish every time I get a multiplication table right,
(Or just a phone call on time),
No questions asked,
And it’d still be the best double coincidence of wants I’d ever learn,
Despite all the economics they (do not) teach in college.

Inqalab (Urdu)-Revolution

The storm in Karnataka is rough,
But not as destructive as hurricane Katrina that killed exactly 1833 people thirteen years ago.
And so is the storm brewing inside you, every time you read the news, watch a documentary on Kashmir.
You say it boils your blood to see them spit blood from all the tobacco that does not grow in the valley.
Your stride is measured, you have a resolve.
You grow deadlocks, pop acid and write poetry on the walls of the city they call the capital.
You’re right, what is poetry if not the real things,
Your poetry is your rebellion, maybe the only kind you know.
It’s 2018 now, eight years since you started believing that extremism is the purest form of religion.
We’re walking towards home,
No, do not take the first left, it would take us somewhere else,
and like always, you have no clue about directions, because you’re either reading Arundhati Roy’s controversial works of non-fiction on your Kindle,
Or telling me why Mehbooba Mufti turned from mourner to aggressor,
On a flight back to his homeland almost a decade ago.
After watching three YouTube videos that couldn’t teach us to perfect the spice mix for Malabar biryani,
we settle down for scrambled eggs and toast;
we don’t let capitalism affect as directly,
Even though we’d become its victims long ago.
Ammi makes qahwa, its warmth filling our throats across a skype call,
but our supermarkets have roasted Arabic coffee, and that should do.
We’ve reached the 8th block, our house is the third one on the left,
even if the home we left behind, is far, far away.
It’s windy here, the city might witness rain by midnight,
and even though this land is cut into halves horizontally,
Bad weather unites us all,
After all, war has more heroes than Bollywood,
And you celebrate the martyrs we mourn.
The year is 2019, but you’re still furious, still burning from the pyre of all those soldiers that died on the border twenty years ago.
They’d named it Operation Vijay,
But I doubt either side got anywhere close to a win.
I cross check three government websites,
and they give me three different statistics about the casualties,
Maybe the truth is too harsh to be recorded,
Maybe the truth we’re seeking isn’t truth, afterall.
We’re home, and you’re still reading why Kashmir worships Burhan Wani,
why some of your friends have his ashes on the same pedestal as the Quran,
even though he was known as the face of militancy.
The land is burning,
And Agha Shahid Ali must be weeping in his grave.
But you love your people,
Even though you don’t write poetry anymore.
You say guns can speak more fluently than your pen ever did,
Your words fail to bring a revolution,
so you kill anyone else that you think has more powerful words than yours.
This land is his home,
It’s evening, he’s heading home for Iftaar,
and there’s no one to write about this assassination in the newspaper tomorrow,
A dead man has no words, you say.
But if the blood that rushes out of a dead man’s chest had rhythm,
You’d know, poetry could be ugly too.
I hope your blood stops boiling,
I hope you’re home now.

Photograph by Risaal Shaan.

Looking for rabri

April is the cruelest month”-T.S. Eliot

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

They’d named him Arish, it meant sunrays in Arabic but sounded like a Hindu name, so it was a well-bargained settlement, although everyone called him Babu, like every second child in a local household was called. I remember his childhood distinctly, Kajal didi bringing him to work every day, and over the years, how he’d grown up from eating dates to learning not to colour outside the lines in my used colouring books, while she moped the floors, did the utensils, helped Ma dust the furniture. Arish had a terrible weakness for sweets, his mother would teach him to politely refuse if people offered food, and he obliged, he was an obedient child, but to sweets, he could never say no.

So he sat there, six days of the week, not old enough to go to a government school, eating kaju barfi, or whatever sweet Ma brought home on the way back from office, but never the rabri. Rabri was a delicacy only privileged children could relish, and even with the amount of generosity my parents showered everyone with, it was a luxury they could not afford to share. Arish waited patiently till 5 pm, roughly the time Ma would be home, while I spent hours perfecting Neer bharan kaise jau sakhi ab, practicing the same raga twice a day, trying so hard not to miss the sur, taal, laya, while he sat there, never uttering a single word. Quietness was a virtue he so easily acquired, that most children of his age did not even understand.

Ashfaq mian was a fishmonger, Kajal didi, a cook with average skills but heightened enthusiasm, so when she told Ma she would do all the household work AND cook our meals, too, for a decent amount, Ma was more than happy. She was a jovial young woman, in her late-twenties (I’d later learn why the poor married their daughters off early), and the cheer in her voice while she told us stories about other households she worked in, made up for the lack of salt in her half-boiled cabbage fry, and we never complained, Ma, grateful to rest for the evening, us, grateful to see her relax. Ashfaq mian had married her when they both were teenagers, it was nothing extravagant, they fell in love while didi had gone to buy fish from the market, until going to the market every day seemed like a necessity to her, today, for lemons, tomorrow, for the fresh fruits, her excuses never ending, even when her parents’ suspicion had begun. Their religions clashed, and even though she sometimes tells us she thinks religion should only be for the rich, they had to elope, lacking the support of their kin on either side.

Theirs was a family of three, just like ours, but different in every conceivable manner. Even though they lived from hand to mouth, you could see that they were happy. Every evening, after didi finished her chores, Ashfaq mian would come to pick them up in his bicycle, and even though secondary school economics taught me that human wants are unlimited while resources are limited, I’d like to believe some people knew how to make adjustments perfectly.

Time flew by, with me moving to a different city and my father’s retirement, and with Adam Smith’s invisible hand making the necessary changes in the market, our household lacked the requirement for a household help anymore. Kajal didi worked in double the number of houses now, and Ashfaq mian was to buy a second-hand motorcycle the next month, even if that meant them having to continue staying in an unhygienic neighborhood for another year, or maybe more. Arish had started school, and two months into it, he was already the class topper, he was a fast learner, and I’d already taught him the alphabet and a few simple multiplication tables the week before his classes started. So when Ma told didi that she’d have to leave, she didn’t mind much, except, she told her that they felt like her own parents, never treating her like a domestic worker, and even though she had no idea about the conspiracy of rabri, she told Ma no one else ever offered Arish any mithai and she was certain he would miss us terribly. She cried a little when she left, said she would come visit us sometime, meet me when I was home for vacations, which she religiously did, for the first couple of times. Arish was growing up now, and fancied sweets a little lesser than before, but never saying no when offered a kaju barfi or whatever sweet Ma brought home on the way back from office, but never the rabri. You see, some habits hadn’t changed, they almost never do.

As the years passed, with the advent of technology and my parents learning how to video call on Skype, my visits to home became infrequent, and so did Kajal didi’s. We never bothered to keep ourselves updated about which standard Arish got promoted to, or if they finally managed to accumulate the down payment for a better house. We hired a new household help, with arthritis taking a toll over Ma, and Kajal didi and her family of three was, like most things that happen in life, forgotten. That was, until Ma called me yesterday.

She called me while I was hustling through the streets of Chawri Bazaar, looking for a place that a friend recommended, that supposedly served the best rabri in the whole of Delhi. She told me it was something important, told me to find a quiet corner and call her back, and something in her tone told me it wasn’t to complain about her ailing health or how my father never fixes the fan in the dining hall. I rushed back home, leaving my quest for rabri midway, and called her to hear her sobbing on the other side. “Kajal came by in the morning”, she said. I knew something wasn’t right, so I kept silent, waiting for her to take her time. “Arish is no more, beta, he died in an accident.”

I cannot explain the array of overwhelming emotions that I felt while she narrated how Kajal didi came crying to our house earlier in the morning, looking for work, how she and Ashfaq mian had saved up for this new place on the other side of the city, how every last penny of it was spent on trying to save Arish, but they couldn’t. The damage was unfixable, the doctors said, they’d tried their best. Ma told me how didi had sat on the floor, refusing to drink even a glass of water, begging Ma to take her back for work. I do not understand human emotions very well, but over the phone call that lasted for slightly more than seventeen minutes, I think I felt a kind of overwhelming grief, the kind that I cannot put into words. It was like losing a sibling that I would never acknowledge, but who was a sibling nonetheless.

I can’t grieve enough for you, Arish, but I will find that shop that my friend told me about, and I will make sure that kids on the street who are fond of sweets, are not deprived of its infamous rabri. Wherever you are, I hope you’re happy, and I hope it’s not too late to change a few habits.

Photograph by Rajdeep Kataki.

Love in the age of internet

“Love in the time of cholera”,
Her tinder bio said,
And I asked her if she was an old-school romantic or just a millennial
Who likes to read Marquez,
She said she’s paranoid about falling in love on the internet,
But not sure what’s worse,
The internet, or cholera.
I tell her maybe the two have more similarities than we think,
The internet seeping into our routines like a plague,
Our lovemaking continued in a series of Snapchat streaks,
Galleries filled with nudes of people we’re thirsty to touch.
I ask her why she’s here (on Tinder),
If her paranoia is a wild dog that doesn’t stop chasing her,
She tells me she’s here because she doesn’t know where else to be,
She told me she’s looked everywhere,
And apparently, we’re all here.
So we talk (oh, we text) till dawn breaks,
Watching the sunrise from different beds in the same city,
Sharing our playlists like virtual intimacy is the highest level of closeness two strangers can share.
We tag each other in Instagram posts by Lang Leav,
Pretending we understand each other’s heartbreaks perfectly,
Even when I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about,
Most of the time.
We plan to Skype, but keep on stalling it,
We’re insecure of how a camera without filters would make us look,
Would she see how vulnerable I am,
Do my eyes give away the fact that I’m not always honest,
Is she as pretty as she does in her WhatsApp profile picture?
Instead, “poor internet connection”, she texts,
“Alright, next time”, I reply,
Half-relieved,
Fully knowing none of us is brave enough to fall in love,
If not for the selective anonymity of the internet.

Photograph by Parshya Bora.

(un) freedom

“Where do old birds go to die?”-The Ministry of utmost happiness

…………………………………………………………………………..

“Pari, you’re like a colour, so go paint your skies however you want to. Pink, yellow, or you could stick to the more common blue, that is, if you like blue. You can paint your sun green, and make your trees emit light instead of the stars, colour your donkeys purple, because they secretly might be unicorns, and dress up however you want to. Fear, fear is just a misplaced synonym of submission, remember.”

I remember Soraya maasi in broken pieces, in black and white photographs stacked neatly in the album Ma received as a wedding gift, in a shawl none of us use anymore because it’s too warm even for winter, in a secret recipe of mutton roganjosh that Shambhu kaka hasn’t been able to master, even after all these years, but mostly, mostly in the empty chair at the dinner table on Fridays.

Soraya maasi, I think she was named something else, but she liked to believe rebellion was the only way to get things done, so when she read about Alaska looking at an atlas and choosing her own name, she skipped dinner for three days, didn’t respond to anyone who called her by her original name, and came out of the room only to get a haircut and a septum piercing. She didn’t believe in asking for things, or having a discussion, she used to think that revolting was the only reasonable option, and you couldn’t convince her to consider otherwise.

She was my mother’s oldest friend, her sister, a member of absolute importance in our family, even though we weren’t related by blood. My earliest memory of her is us eating walnuts together, while Ma would casually browse through art films they’d watch, while the aroma of shahi paneer filled the room. I was around four and my mother was pregnant with my sister at that time, but Soraya maasi hadn’t married yet. She told Ma about how she didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, and that secretly, she might be gay. Both of them laughed it off like it was an old joke, but I wish I was grown up enough to understand that maybe, it wasn’t meant as a joke, after all.

Until a few years ago, even after my sister was born, we had a ritual. Every Friday, she would come over, cook mutton roganjosh and pulao for us, her arrival a signal for Shambhu kaka to retire for the night. I was still quite young to understand the intricacies of their conversation, but I remember she used to look at Ma with so much love, it almost teared up her eyes. She used to tease her about how Baba, working in defence, was rarely home, and how Ma should’ve married maasi instead. “Bacche kahan se hote? (How would we have had kids?)”, Ma used to ask, I remember, laughing. She didn’t reply, but every time before she left for home, she would hold my face in her hands for a minute longer than usual, like I was the last tangible piece of a jigsaw puzzle that somehow never fit together, like my existence was proof to a love lost over time.

And one day, she was gone, without warning, without the slightest hint of anticipation on our part. But I’d like to believe she was always that way, her eyes so distant, you could look at her, and see the depth of the ocean in them. She left Ma a letter, a hasty note of apology, about how she was leaving home to seek a greater perhaps, how she couldn’t inform that to Ma in person. That’s it, two lines, no detailed explanation, and absolutely no hint of regret. A picture of herself stapled to the note, in suspenders and a dupatta, and a big, red bindi on her forehead. The photograph still lies in the third drawer of Ma’s bedside table, and even though I convince myself that it isn’t, it is my last memory of her. One day she was here, joking to Baba about how it’s been two decades since she’d last seen him, and the other day, she’s gone, just like that, in an instant. For a while, we kept waiting for her to return, placing mats and napkins on her seat every Friday evening, Shambhu kaka trying to recreate a recipe that was probably never about the right proportion of spices.

And just like that, we stopped waiting. Ma made new friends, wives of Baba’s colleagues, but none of them brought me walnuts or talked about pink skies. They came over for lunch on Sundays, and no one mentioned anything about the flaws in the institution of marriage. Ma doesn’t watch art films anymore, she’s always glued to the news, in a faint hope that maybe she’d spot Soraya maasi talking about gender fluidity or freedom of choice, but when after years of waiting, the same politicians and their scandals kept on coming up in the news, I saw it dismantle, one television channel at a time.

Last Sunday, we got a letter in our mailbox. It took Ma less than two seconds to recognise the handwriting. “I think I have started putting my faith in the institution of marriage”, it read, along with, another photograph that I found in the trash yesterday, Soraya maasi in a sari, worn the traditional Bengali way, next to a girl who, for some strange reason, reminded me of Sweet Home Alabama. They looked happy. I think the burden of realisation that Ma felt after all these years, to finally accept that Maasi had always been gay, always been in love with the one precious woman in her life, to think that it was right there, and none of us could see it, not even for once.

But I think Ma had always known. She made excuses to maasi on most Fridays when Baba was home, something about having to go to a wedding, or one of the children not being well. She keeps the shawl next to her pillow now, and even though it’s June, I think she holds it tightly until she falls asleep. You know, maasi, I think she loved you differently, too; her ways were soft, subtle, almost unnoticeable, but the time was never right.

You believed in rebellion like it’s the only way in the world, and Ma, she was always the fearful kind. But I think, in a way, you liberated her. On days when she doesn’t leave her bed complaining about rheumatic pain, I think I remind her of you in a lot of ways, and I think I now know why she named me Pari, she struggled so much to hold pieces of you in parts of me, she gave me a name that came closest to mean the same as yours. And maybe, someday, she’d stop looking at me with so much emptiness in her eyes, like I’m the last tangible piece of a jigsaw puzzle that somehow never fit together, like my existence was proof to a love lost over time.