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Notes to Madras things: Thayir Sadam

August 21, 2016

Dear Thayir Sadam,

I remember the day we first met. It was my second visit to Madras, this time for a PhD interview at IMSc.* My train was late that day. I was dripping with sweat when I landed at Central and made my way hurriedly to the Park Town station. I remember I asked a girl called Mahi for directions at the station. Even though I don’t remember what she looked like I somehow remember her name from the brief conversation that followed until the train arrived. I managed to reach IMSc and finished the interview just before lunch time. I was told I could have lunch at the canteen and that it was free and that I would also be able to collect my reimbursement for travel the same day. I went to the canteen and piled up everything in the menu on my plate. You were the last one I saw along the row of rice, roti/dosa, sabzi, sambhar, rasam, and my eyes brightened at the sight of you. You were pristine white with a generous helping of grapes and other fruits mixed with rice. I immediately filled the emptiness in a corner of my plate with your sublime glow. I ate for a long time, finished everything on the plate, and saved you for the end. By then I was hungry no more, but I figured I could always make space for you in some corner of my bloated belly. That first time we came together, I took a spoonful of you into my mouth. And I have to say I am sorry I used a spoon, I did not really know you then. I was revolted at the taste of you and instinctively spat you out. You were not who I thought you were: Kheer.

I later joined IMSc and kept my distance from you for almost a year, despite seeing you everyday patiently waiting in a corner in your unassuming manner. I did not think about you much then because I felt cheated. You looked like kheer but you were just rice and curd mixed together with a sprinkling of fruit pieces. I had never liked mixing my rice with curd even at home. Everyone at home could do that, not me, not usually anyway. I can’t recollect the exact moment our reconciliation happened but I think it was on a day when nothing on the menu was palatable to me and I was getting bored of eating rice at lunch everyday. Not that I mind rice, I prefer it to roti but it gets boring without some companion other than yellow daal or sambhar or rasam. And there you were in a corner, full of rice but also your own person. I decided to embrace you once again, this time with the sound knowledge that you were not Kheer, and with a bit of mixing with a little pickle, I found you were more than just curd and rice. You were so much more than the sum of your parts and the names people called you. Your tangy sensuousness with the pickle was unmatched by anything I had ever known. You did not need to be Kheer, you were defiantly original, and you did not need my approval. I could tell it from the scores of people I saw everyday mingling their fingers with your being, exploring your interiority, before plopping a mouthful on their tongues.

I am sorry, though, that I used a spoon, that I let the coldness of stainless steel get in between the warmth of us coming together. My not using my fingers had nothing to do with you, it was all me. I used a spoon with you for historical reasons. As a child I grew up eating rice with my hand, my right hand. But I was born a left-hander and had been taught to switch to the right hand for writing and eating. I could even dig up a picture of me, evidence enough that I used my left hand to eat when I was really young and before I had to learn any “manners” and switch to right-handed ways. Anyway, I grew up eating with my right hand. Then one day I think I revealed to my mother that in the potty I used my right hand, which was natural to me because I needed the left to hold the mug. She couldn’t believe me and I couldn’t believe her. I always thought everyone uses their right hand. Turns out, not so. The left hand is “dirty” and suddenly the aversion to left hand everywhere became clear to me. I had never thought of it before but in that moment I decided I should not be eating with my hands any more and use a spoon instead. This, despite the fact that I switched hands in the potty also, yet another adjustment to the ways of the world. And that eating-with-spoon habit has stayed whenever a spoon is in sight. So you see, it wasn’t you, it was all me. I have since tried to fix that mistake by using my fingers on occasion.

The time is near when I shall leave Madras and I write this to let you know what you have meant to me. You have been the steadfast companion when I hated everything else on the menu, particularly the days they made a brinjal sabzi with its atrocious smell. You are not sweet but I like you just the same. Maybe I can even learn to mix curd with my rice and mingle them up with my fingers in your memory.

Yours,

R

*The first had been three years earlier, that time for admission to a mechanical engineering program, which I did not eventually take up (becoming a physicist instead).

betta fish

January 24, 2016

she spoke of a betta fish,

something about how as a kid she thought

she once killed the fish, accidentally.

but the fish survived.

she didn’t know why people

did not talk to each other any more.

i knew i wanted to talk to her when she said that,

just to prove her wrong,

but i didn’t.

i proved her right.

broken tales from an enchanted prisoner of the dark

January 23, 2016

I am chasing away my shadow, or is it my shadow chasing me away? We never really talk, my shadow and I. The silence we share is one of incomprehension, neither of us understands the other, yet we are bound together unless we free ourselves from our captor, this light.

We run, dreaming of deliverance in the dark, where we don’t see each other. The night’s an enchantress and I, an enchanted prisoner of the dark. Unburdened by light, I ride into the night, into its open arms.

A bus stop, new and shiny, seats in rows of 4,5, and 6. I sit there before midnight, and usher in the moment of a nation’s tryst with its destiny, without meaning to. There’s the usual caravan of lights, red and yellow and blue. An awkward little slipper, once a petite woman’s right foot’s guard, lay abandoned in a puddle. Perhaps she was rushing into a bus, and lost her slipper while climbing in, wading through the rush. Or a Cinderella perhaps?

*****

She would ‘light’ up, facing the breeze. I don’t smoke, but I’d struggle too, helping her find the ‘light’. Not that that helped anyone.

I am on a treasure hunt, out and about in the night, hunting for poetry in the dark, chasing buses and shared autos, soaking spirits in the rains. It’s time I wade my way through the puddles the rains left, but the roads, once potholed, I now see are fixed and smooth. There are no puddles to wade through.

*****

The djinns are never far away, though, even in faraway places. We talked to them, and they said they are lonely, and that they would appreciate some company. So we stayed, went to Tim’s, chatted over coffee and hot chocolate. We rode into the night. We chased away the light.

I am tired. Will the night sing me a lullaby, and take me into dreams? Preferably someone else’s.

Notes from the maple leaf country

August 24, 2015

2013-10-12 22.42.00

September 2013–January 2014

Autumn, the season of parting, of letting go. The North American autumn is a spectacle, no doubt about that. For about a month I had been living in the particularly verdant neighbourhood of Perimeter Institute (PI), in love with the morning/midnight walks back and forth, along Laurel Trail, between my room and office. In the morning, I’d usually be running late for breakfast at what they call the ‘Black Hole Bistro’, often making it just in time before breakfast would end. This weekend, though, I have moved to a different apartment, one that’s closer but the walk to PI isn’t as lovely as it was from the last one, a University of Waterloo accommodation.

***

In any case, winter is here, and even as they celebrate Diwali back home, I am up rather early after accidentally dozing off while reading a paper last night. The view from the window, a starry winter sky, moved me enough to want to come back to this journal of sorts and make amends for the lack of any updates these past few months. Mostly, I’ve been occupied with work, and mostly I have abandoned the thought every time I have felt like writing something here. Impulse, and that other thing, perhaps wistfulness, move me to write and preserve something of the moment before letting it go.

***

PI has been fantastic so far, a stimulating feast of coffee and conversations over things quantum and otherwise, and a place I have come to like for its vibrancy. I had a chance to play with an original World War II German Enigma machine that James Grime had brought along and gave a talk about, a chance to mess with a ‘robothespian’ and play with arrangements of prisms that distort light enough to make objects invisible.

***

I have been in Waterloo for over three months now and in less than a month I’ll return from this wintry wonderland to the sunshine and the sea, to Chennai. It has been a gratifying visit in ways more than one.

August 2014–December 2014

Living as if you’re always leaving

I am reminded of a chance remark by a friend, Farbod, about his house that I heard on a winter night when a bunch of us were saying our goodbyes after having tea. He remarked that he lived as if he was always leaving, which explained the blank walls in the house, their lack of art.

[I forgot to make enough notes, or at least to transcribe them here. But this one sums up my current “living as if I am always leaving” phase too, as I am sure it does so for a lot of others out there.]

August 2015

It’s a threepeat!

[I write this during a particularly long layover at Frankfurt, which made me return to drafts lying on this blog for months and years.]

Books Abandoned

December 17, 2014

2013-06-23 16.12.22

The pleasure of finding old books in a bookstore—abandoned books, books passed on, books sold or lost, and books that have no business being where they are—is primarily one of finding something you didn’t think you need. You probably still don’t “need” it when you buy it, but you buy it anyway. You may go back and read it or you may simply let it join the pile of books you thought you would read but you never did. Either way, it’s not what you do with the book after you acquire it that interests me, but rather how you come to acquire a book in the first place. Or perhaps, how I came to acquire some:

Blossoms, Bangalore

‘Varnikaa, IV B’

The childish scribble on the first page of a tattered old copy of ‘Malgudi Schooldays’ captured my attention. I flipped through the pages, only to find more doodles, underlined words and their meanings, and something about school projects on the Himalayas that Varnikaa presumably worked on in her fourth grade. The whimsical pencil sketches on random pages in the book and notes scribbled by Varnikaa were enough to persuade me to buy this old copy of R.K. Narayan’s classic, illustrated by his cartoonist brother and creator of the ‘common man’, R.K. Laxman. Of course, that Varnikaa was a co-illustrator clinched the deal.

Though I have had the book for a while now, I still haven’t read it, despite glancing through the odd scribbles of Varnikaa every now and then, and wondering where all those books and notebooks where I scribbled and doodled in school went, whether someone somewhere might also delight in finding them as much as I did when I picked up the copy Varnikaa once read and doodled in.

‘To my darling Papa…’

This copy of Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ seemed like a misplaced piece of personal history. I could not imagine a father willingly getting rid of a book his son apparently gifted him. Considering the date on the signed page is 17 years in the past, I can only imagine where the father and son in question are. Discounting the obvious possibility of a misplaced book, perhaps the father lost the son to some tragedy and couldn’t bear to hold on to the book? Or maybe someone stole the book and later abandoned it until it passed a few owners to reach the bookshop? Or maybe no one read it, and the book had a mind of its own, so it decided to abandon its owner and hide in the bookshop, awaiting rescue? Yes, the last one must be it.

The Strand, New York City

An English translation of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra (with no graphics may I add) that I stumbled on while browsing through the books lined along the sidewalk outside NYC’s ‘The Strand’ bookstore looked like something I could gift this Kurdish-Iranian-Danish friend who likes his stereotypes and wonders if Kamasutra is required reading in India. He seemed happy, even enthusiastic, about the contents of the book, in particular a chapter on ‘the wives of others’. Many a dinner table conversations were enlivened by his mention of this book and the concerned chapter(s) to an audience largely made up of physics grad students. No interesting notes were left in the book, so I couldn’t speculate on its previous ownership, but it was a rather old edition, 1965 I think.

Another book that caught my attention on that New York sidewalk was one on the history of Reuters, the news agency, titled ‘Reuters: The story of a century of news-gathering’ by Graham Storey, published in 1951. It was in great condition, hardbound and with a strong “old book” smell between its pages. Again, this one did not seem to have anything indicating previous ownership, but I was curious how news-gathering evolved between 1851-1951, and how it might have been different in those times from the present vantage point. I had no prior interest in the matter but seeing the book made me curious enough to pick it up, especially when I read the following in the foreword by a certain Lord Layton:

‘Economic and political rivalry and the development on a vast scale of the technique and apparatus of mass persuasion have given rise to one of the major social and political problems that face democratic peoples in our time – namely to keep propaganda out of the news.’

It remains to be read.

Another book I picked up was a glossy one on Sufism, not particularly old nor very detailed, so I find it difficult to explain why I picked it up. I also picked up a play by Bernard Shaw, called Misalliance, which I had never heard of before. The particular copy seemed to have been printed in 1921. It seems didactic in a characteristically Shavian way and I have yet to read it to have an opinion about it, but I consider it a brilliant find!  A copy of an art magazine, called Horizon, was probably the most beautiful and visually arresting of all the books I found. I intend to partake in its joys one of these weekends when some leisure is at hand. A piece called ‘Avant-Garde or Blind alley’ was one that caught my attention: ‘What makes avant-garde art really and truly “avant”?… And how can we tell the difference between true and false, now, without waiting for the future to become the past?’ The particular issue I picked up was dated March, 1962.

Old Goat Books, Kitchener-Waterloo

Walking along King’s Street in sleepy Waterloo, partaking in the Canadian autumn, I stumbled on this little bookshop that seemed to be set up in a house. I walked in to see what I might find. The finds I brought home were as follows: Marco Polo’s ‘The Travels’, ‘The complete plays of Aristophanes’, English translation of a Balzac novel, and a popular anthropology text, ‘mirror for man’, by a Clyde Kluckhohn, published in 1965. I find the anthropology text particularly interesting based on my bedtime reading of its first two chapters where, in particular, the notion of ‘culture’ is carefully defined, and a compelling case is made for an appreciation of anthropology as a branch of human scientific endeavour. Again, this is not necessarily something I would have reached out for on my own, but having stumbled on the book I find it an illuminating read.

These three bookshops were found in different places and only in Blossoms did I find real scribbles in the books that let me wonder about their history. Perhaps the other two shops have a policy of not keeping books where people have left “scars”. I much prefer the “scarred” and abandoned books, though.

(This post has earlier appeared in the November issue of Aainanagar)

what’s burning?

July 31, 2014

we walked along a narrow path that afternoon,

in the palani hills,

along the tar road on either side of which

were flowers i could not name,

but i told myself,

“well, they smell the same

to me as they do to those who know the name.

their colours are no different to my eye than they are to theirs.”

but then i do not know this for sure, do i?

surely i can’t see or smell or feel exactly as they do,

or even if i could how would i know?

alas, our inner worlds may never really meet,

and with a misaligned compass each,

north we go,

you yours and i mine.

“true north” is a lie,

you and i live under a different sky.

 

there were birds i nearly missed until someone pointed them out

so that i had to learn to keep my eyes still,

ears alert to their calls,

malabar whisting thrush, someone heard,

machan says it whistles like a schoolboy ambling along,

i pictured a schoolboy, a water-bottle round his neck,

a schoolbag on his shoulders, happily whistling away the afternoon

tripping on his own foot every now and then.

i listen in but i don’t hear the thrush.

 

machan says everyone looks like some animal,

and tries to pin me down,

confused, he consults wildlife ‘experts’ among us,

there’s much deliberation but no consensus.

i daydream by the window

as the bus snakes its way up the hill.

 

on the next day we walked into the forest,

three men came out of the woods,

wielding a big jar of fresh honey,

a bit of beeswax still there.

four hundred rupees a kilo, they said,

and offered us a taste of the sweet and sticky mush.

we tasted some, and washing my sticky hands in the stream, 

i still awaited the call of the whistling thrush.

 

water falling down a cliff some 35 to 50 metres high,

dhruv and bala go down a path, followed by machan and i,

a little way ahead machan says he doesn’t like heights

that the slope was steep and the fall was deep,

my attempts at motivating him don’t work at all

and machan goes back to the top of the waterfall.

 

going down i reach the stream

following daisy the dog,

washing my feet and catching my breath

i head out further to look for the next waterfall.

i reach a quiet corner in the middle of the woods.

no people in sight, 

i sit there and hear a schoolboy whistle, hush!

it is the malabar whistling thrush!

 

in that quiet wilderness

i sense a yearning,

a flicker,

what’s burning?

let’s go hunting for poetry again

March 19, 2014

‘let us go hunting for poetry in the woods, shall we?’

‘but why?’

‘because that is where poetry hides?’

‘no, poetry doesn’t hide, she’s not to be hunted either, we can find her right here, in the sounds, the smells and the riot of colours, or the cracks on this glass window blurring our view of worlds on the other side, thirsty worlds awaiting the first scent of rain, or in the wail of the ambulance that rushes past us, lest life succumb to that temptress death again.’

‘but we must find it and kill it and eat it. i’m hungry.’

‘you hunger for poetry, you say. and you would hunt for it, and kill it and eat it? it doesn’t work that way.’

‘how does it work then?’

‘you don’t hunt for poetry, you grow it, you sow a seed, till the earth, water it gently, and you wait, patiently. although you could go to the woods i suppose, but there are no woods to make poetry any more. and, anyway, haven’t we written enough about the woods and bubbling brooks already?”

‘i haven’t.’

‘hmm, you could buy some poetry you know.”

‘buy it? who sells poetry?’

‘i know someone, she just sold a poem, though i do not know what she charges for them.’

‘but i don’t have any money to buy a poem..’

‘let’s hope you can bargain your soul for a poem then’

‘my soul for a poem?’

‘great deal, no?’

‘no thank you, i’ll keep my soul, and hunger for poetry forever if i have to, than sell my soul to buy it..’

‘hey look out! open fields, coconut palms, also barren land; a colourful tent, and flags pink and white, a celebration perhaps. that must have been a school i saw, couldn’t read the signboard though. a railway crossing, vehicles big and small, pillows and unripe mangoes, and in another world: the pre-dawn shimmering of a city of lights that sleeps atop a mountain, and in an empty coach with a few men, women, and children sprawled on the seats, she sits opposite me, looking into that portal which separates our world — with its real windows, chilly mornings and temples and birds and railway tracks, smells of all kinds — from what’s replacing it: twittering tweeples and epic fails, ‘likes’ and a subversion of the meaning of ‘unlike’, and #hashtags for subtext..’

‘what are you going on about?’

‘oh, nothing, i was daydreaming, windows do that to me..’

‘let’s go hunting for poetry then?’

‘yes, let’s.’