Words can be deceptive

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,
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.


someone once told my friend that sunsets are overly romanticised,
so it led me into thinking if the end of a day could be so beautiful,
it better be the centre theme of my bubbling romances.
when i was a child, i found orange a very fascinating colour,
until someone once took me to the hills,
and showed me a shade of orange i’d never, ever not remember.
some people, they’re that way,
like sunsets in big cities,
you wait for it the entire day,
and it just doesn’t occur.
the sky changes colour without warning,
without a spectacular show,
from blue to black,
without a tint of orange.
my best friend feels like one,
like she’s in the middle of a sky-changing game,
but doesn’t know it,
and sunsets are the finish line,
but with the birds that go home,
she doesn’t,
lingering in the pink and purple,
above the sea and its waves,
romanticising heartbreaks and sadness,
she’s a person less,
a sunset more,
just like in the pictures,
the perfect shade of orange.

Photograph by Parshya Bora

hot chocolate//#napowrimo

an almost random friend told me today that he doesn’t eat his dinner
until he sees the moon in the night sky
because he made a pact with his best friend that no matter wherever they are,
they would always eat dinner together,
the moon their signal to eat.
he thought i’d be freaked out with the information,
but it warmed my heart in a way only hot chocolate can,
on a Christmas eve,
and although winter never felt like my season,
i kind of miss it now,
for all the warmth that was never there,
could be blamed on the weather.
a friend told me how she’d suppressed things for so long now,
she couldn’t let things out, even if she wanted to.
it made me so sad,
that given so many apparent social platforms,
we still struggle so much when it comes to expression.
stay with people who feel like sunshine,
who kiss you in the middle of the road in broad daylight,
and make you feel rebellious in a way only they can.
the other day, i was so disturbed i couldn’t even breathe properly,
and in a car where i couldn’t put the windows down,
i listened to our song,
pretending it didn’t feel magical,
like it didn’t help me calm down,
even if only a little.
later that night,
we held each other through the night,
waking up sweating in the heat,
but having found comfort in places we often forget to look in.
so these days, when you ask me,
if i reached home safely,
i don’t know what to say,
i don’t know which home you’re talking about,
which one is here to stay.

Photograph by Nishant Baruah

The week

Wednesday is three pegs of whiskey, neat,
Because it gets you just the right amount of drunk to wake you up for office tomorrow on time,
While Monday, Monday is definitely a hangover you’re fighting for atleast half of the day.
If the days of the week were people,
I believe Friday and Saturday would be twins,
One half-nerd, but likes to dance to Bryan Adams when no one is watching,
The other waking up to Rodehouse Blues
And getting no sleep, at all.
Thursday is like my lover who hasn’t perfected the art of lovemaking, yet,
It’s clumsy, messy,
Sometimes in distress,
But he’s here, and he’s learning,
how I like to be kissed, carressed or sometimes,
How I despise human touch completely.
Tuesday is a sunny afternoon with three cans of chilled beer,
Sneaked in skilfully from the hawk eyes of your mother,
It is the cheapest cigarette you could afford after all that money you’d spent on beer,
It is like midlife crisis,
Only, to you, you feel it came too soon.
You don’t know any other way to drive your anxiety away,
So when the rest of the world is barbecuing their lunch,
you take a long, long nap,
On a bright, warm Sunday.

Third prompt for Airplane poetry movement’s 100-poems challenge- Begin and end your poem with the words “I promise”//

I promise,
I’ll remove my make up,
And take care of my skin,
Follow a strict skincare routine,
Drink more water,
Get more sleep,
Get rid of my dark circles,
And if I can’t,
I’ll conceal them well,
I’ll paint my lips purple,
Let them speak what my voice couldn’t,
Dye my hair grey,
Look older,
More matured (?)
Maybe people will start to see me as someone new,
But I promise,
I promise I won’t break down,
Even if my bones are breaking under the pain
I’m not able to express,
I won’t trade my laughter,
For men,
Who jump from one pair of lips to the other,
Like we’re service lanes,
Google maps showing them which roads to avoid
Due to heavy congestion.
But most of all,
I’ll try to heal,
I’ll nurse my wounds,
Put antiseptic on them,
Love the butterflies,
And the winter sun,
But most of all,
I’ll love this body,
This mind of mine,
And all of me,
I promise.

Photograph by Rajdeep Kataki

Mirror to me

There’s a little girl, on the other side,

She fell from a swing when she was five,

And from her bicycle when she was nine,

So she thought to herself that falling is the only way people

Learn to be more careful,

So when she fell in love,

And fell out of it,

And fell apart,

And fell down the stairs one night drunk,

She didn’t complain,

Because to her, she was learning.

She heard Phil Kaye say that if you repeat something too many times,

It loses its meaning,

So she stands in front of me,

Repeating words trying to lose their meaning,

Until she can’t find the difference between them anymore.

“Failure, failure, failure”, she says to herself,

Looking down at her heavy feet,

Until failure starts feeling like a word less, feeling more.

Maybe Phil Kaye isn’t right anymore.

She combs her hair, but forgets to tie them,

Paints her eyes, cheeks, lips, but forgets to love them,

Makes me want to be a human,

So I could hug her, and tell her

Sometimes, you could stand still and learn your lessons,

Without falling to the ground.

I want to tell her,

the next time she colours her hair purple,

Or sharpens too many knives,

She’d have too many crayons to colour on paper,

And someone who holds her every time

She feels like she’s falling.//

Photograph by Risaal Shaan

The fisherman’s daughter

Twelve years ago, when I was in college, young and jubilant, and with my love for fishing, I used to go the sea often. At first with friends, and later when what started as a hobby began to feel like an addiction, mostly alone. On one of those days, I encountered the fisherman’s daughter, the one who lived closest to the sea, like its waves are the only home his boat has ever known.
I don’t remember her face much, except, she always tied her hair up, in a bun, and once we got talking, I’d often tell her to let it down. She’d look the other way, and shake her head in disapproval. It was one of the many fears she harboured. It felt strange to me that among the fear of your house being drowned away, and not having enough to eat, she could fear of not being beautiful enough. But there are a few things, I’d never understand.
She wasn’t one of those extraordinarily mesmerising country girls that remind you of Heidi, and reading about her won’t make you think about Irish girls in a fair, but I remembered her for a long, long time, maybe because on most days, she was my only companion.
We talked a lot, but never about ourselves. Even though I know her father had weak knees and how she thought dictatorship could actually have been better, I never learnt what she liked to eat, or who she thought of every night when she went to sleep.
She taught me folk songs that she learnt from her mother, and made me taste the fish chutney that her grandmother passed onto her, but amidst these, she laughed at me, especially when I talked in the only language we both could understand, for I spent half of my life until then in an English boarding school, and she’d studied in a vernacular one.
The language we conversed in wasn’t her first language, but it was supposedly mine, but she still said it better. And every time she laughed at my accent, it felt like a slap on my self-assumed superiority.
Eventually, my dad got transferred and we moved to a city. I found a new love, a new addiction. Over time, I almost forgot about her. Maybe she got married, maybe she died early, I’ll never know.
Last night, she came in my dream. Hair let down, roses in her hand. Looked at me for a moment, smiled. It looked like she was going somewhere, like she was in a hurry.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot since then. She still remains my favourite teacher. I, however, do not remember her name.//

Photograph by Risaal Shaan

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