A Hundred and Four

Clad in gossamer salwaars,
Ponytailed hair tumbling in ghosts of school-plait cascades,
Dupattas folded with indecision –
A stiff V, like in the heart of conservative?
An elaborate arrangement to shade modesty?
Wound around the neck, an emulation of favourite liberal aunts?
Or an incidental billowing sail, that, who knows, will steer to first and true love?

They gingerly ring the doorbell,
Always underestimating the pressure required for the button,
Always sheepish of the loudness their efforts produce.
They come armed,
With first names and surnames,
Door numbers and invitations,
The Barbie peace-makers,
Negotiating neighbourhoods in currencies of cuteness, comeliness and camaraderie.
Freshly powdered faces,
Light hairs on still-baby cheeks aglow,
Shaky-handed-kohl-lined eyes shining,
Security, manners, and social lessons all clutched
With handkerchiefs folded to sixteenths.

They always come in pairs,
Bearing with them, if not words for exchange,
Well-shorn coconuts,
A few rupees and betelnuts,
Snug in an offering of heart-shaped betel leaves.
They come armed,
With neatly arranged wire-baskets,
Covered with erstwhile sofa doilies,
Both, topics for your mother,
Who they will call, “Aunty”.

Aunty will offer them coffee or tea,
But they will both exchange looks and say, “We drink only Horlicks.”

Aunty’s husband will then ask what their parents do,
Where they’re from, who their siblings are,
What they want to be when they grow up.
Aunty’s husband will then nod gravely, and say, “Good, good.”

And Aunty’s husband will promptly forget.

They will hurriedly cool their evening’s fifth Horlicks with their breaths,
And gulp, careful to not seem indiscriminate,
Or unladylike,
Consciously licking the corners of their lips.
The first to finish will fidget
With the yellow string around her wrist.

Then Aunty, or maybe you,
Will then bring them their own coconuts/bananas/bangles,
Vermillion and turmeric.
The lesser experienced of the two,
Or the one with her guard down,
Will briefly fuss over which finger – ring or index –
She must ply.

They slowly get up,
Tugging at and ironing the bottoms of their kurtas,
And studiously slip on their sandals,
Teetering on one foot while adjusting the straps.

Their goodbyes sounding
Comically adultlike in their plurality:
“We will be back soon”.

They leave,
In their wake, the alien smells of the spoils
Of a visit to the fancy store,
Where they flirted with the henna-fingered “Bhaiyya”
To buy four hairclips at the price of two,
Where they found the bindi stickers they wore today,
The mehendi that they’ve stashed for later this week,
And even the bangles whose glitter
Twinkles like indoor starlight, on our sofa.

A Hundred and Three

Every Sunday morning, my little girl wakes her daddy.

He’s the sort of person who sleeps on his belly. Swiftly growing scant hair a victim of the ravages of the tides of his sleep. Arms tucked under the pillow. Face stuffed in, like he denies ownership for his lucid dream-addled utterances. A heavy sleeper; that in minutes of a fit of conjugal conscience, his arms at my sides sink, sleep-logged, binding us in thick, sinewy bandages.

Our little girl stopped sleeping between us about a year ago. Roughly around the time we decided to let her hair grow out. At first, it seemed like it was taking after his hair – soft, thin, reluctant to germinate. But soon, her head spurted thick, lush, black hair. Like mine. Like my mother’s. Like her mother’s.

Her daddy and I have a running competition between us – a sort of partitioning of who she is, and what she’s like. She has eyes like mine, but lips like his. She’s quick to learn (tricky territory, but it comes from me), and is musically inclined (this he claims is his, despite being unable to hold a note on any scale). She has no interest in chocolate, and makes friends readily – something alien to both of us. In lighter vein, and on darker days, he attributes these to our fat, balding neighbour Mr. S.

Every Sunday morning, she stumbles out of her bed, and hurries, plodding on tiny feet, facing her biggest hurdle with Herculean determination – clambering onto our bed. She belly flops on her sleeping daddy, spent with the effort, and breathlessly whispers all kinds of things to his back. Freshly learned or improvised rhymes, words, sounds, secrets, fascinations. She’s always enamored by two moles along his spine, and uses them as buttons when she chants, DaddyWakeUp! DaddyyyyyWakeUp! DaddyDaddyWakeUp!

Daddy then attacks her, the groggy-eyed Godzilla, roaring, trying to get the monkey off his back. The baby chimp cheers and squeals, and soon tumbles over-shoulder and caves into his arms, defeated readily by a bombardment of kisses. Soon she soothes her stubble-burnt cheeks, but Godzilla is not done. He chafes her paltry-protesting hands against his prickly face, and her face is caught synthesizing the joys in irritation, the pleasure in pain.

Daddy then hefts her onto his lap, and they share a bowl of soggy strawberry cornflakes, her mouth too tiny for the tablespoon. As she sits proud on her favourite steed, she runs him through the highlights of her week: what Miss Jennifer said, complaints of how I never let her crayon the walls, what grandfather told/gave her, what her grandmother forgot this time. When silence lapses, she snuggles up to him, and listens to his thick voice boom through his chest as he speaks to me about how work went, what an a-s-s-h-o-l-e his boss is, his impending business trip, her grades, and if we really should buy her a p-u-p-p-y.

Once she’s bored, he picks her up, puts her on the carpet, navigates her by the head and heads to the bathroom. When he emerges, she greets a fresh, youthful, soft and clear-faced Daddy. When he hoists her, she greedily drinks in his aftershave. The smell of Daddy.

This Saturday, she was prepared with a magic trick for him.

With pure concentration, she’d lock her fingers to make an aperture; focus on her favourite objects in the world – a picture of Daddy and me, her purple dinosaur, the view from the window by the diwan; and click the shutter with a cluck of tongue: kachak!

It took a longer, more detailed Goldilocks for her eyelids to plummet that night. I’d sat down to abstractedly read a difficult book about the interpretations of dreams, when I’d heard a cab door shut self-consciously.

He gratefully took the glass of water I gave him. Droplets clung on, and I didn’t realize I’d made a face.

He said it was something new he wanted to try. It would give his face a little more seriousness. More age. It was, apparently, manly. He undid his tie, and rapidly unbuttoned his shirt. She’ll love it, just watch, he asserted, massaging the small of my back.

He kissed my shoulder, and my skin crawled.

She recoiled in horror when Godzilla turned, and jumped straight into my arms, hiding her face in my hair.

A black caterpillar. Kambliboochi. On his upperlip.

Gently, I prised her hands from around my neck. Say hi to Daddy.

She buried her head in the crook of my collarbone. Her muffled voice accused, That’s not Daddy.

While she contemplated the sole leftover sequin on my kaftan, back against him, I looked at her father. I couldn’t help smiling. The aversion to caterpillars, bristly creatures, and moustaches – even the sentiment of creepy face fuzz not going with his character, the poverty in its aesthetics – definitely from me.

He ran his thumb and index finger over his carefully crafted moustache, and sighed.

I told her to get her trick ready, Daddy’s coming! She gave me a look of disbelief, tragically cynical for someone barely two feet tall. She stood moodily by his chair at the head of the table, looking longingly at the depressions in the seat, sniffling for his smell, pleading with some otherworldly entity for her father to materialize.

The bathroom door creaked. She froze, eyes wide, and looked at me for counsel. We quickly arranged her fingers.

Her daddy took the towel off his face, and roared. Relief flooded her eyes.

Happily, she yelled, Kachak!

Thank you, R. With love, for Boochie.

A Hundred and Two

You, must write.

The hurt, the angry, the wronged, must write. The lost, the wandering, the silent, must write.
The ones with something to say, the ones with nothing left to say, must write.

Write for joy. Write for sorrow. Write for immortality. Write to demand justice, knowledge, utopia, answers – the dank, dirty things that are rightfully yours. Demand them from the only thing in the world that can give them to you – words on paper.

After all, money is paper. Provinces, promises and prayers are built on utterances. Value, judgement, sanity, achievement are all measurements, metered in and meted out in words.

Write to live richly. Write to go for broke. Write to reach inside paper and seize your disappointments by the collar. Write like a blind man, sensing each invisible word in braille. Write with blind lust. Kiss, bite, tear, claw at the lips of paper. Peel the skin of your fears, your failings, your mediocrity; peel them as curls of words on paper. Avenge bitter truth, savour sweet victory, be a wit, a scholar, everything you never knew you could be, on paper.

Fuck the establishment on paper, fuck with the rules, the rules of grammar on paper. Let the verb and subject disagree. Start a fight on paper. Screw the clause; let the semi-colon take it in the arse.

Write. Document every sorry, half-assed, near-miss vicissitude of your life when you write. Write to evaluate whether you’re doing a good job of being here. Write to see if you’re whiling, wasting, passing or pissing your time on earth.

Drop a spiral staircase of paper down to your soul. Hold a candle, and walk, walk, walk with weightless ease down into paper. Hold up the candle to the demons hiding in the walls. Be the pyro you could be, but never were. Words are aerosol. Say it. Spray it. Burn every last thing to the ground. Make a phoenix of your feelings.

Make paupers and princes equal on paper. Make a grown man cry with paper. Make up, make do, make way, make plans, make it happen on paper.

Confess to paper. Look at your face, your motives, your religion, your infinity through the delicate lattice work of your Origami confession box. Cross your t’s, dot your i’s, loop your q’s and b’s and endless whorls of self-pity, self-love, self-destruction, on paper. Write, because there is no other way to journey into or journey away from yourself.

Write to fold and collapse into paper. Hurtle through barely-solid rationality, through the veneer of order, and tumble into an endless free-fall: a suspension of disbelief that never needs to end. Be the astronaut of an endless sky of day, in a universe that is white, falling with a certain gravity, but with none of the impact. Write to fall into paper, to fall in love to a depth that nothing of this world could possibly offer.

Nothing with a name, a place, a significance has existed – because it went unsaid. Meanings have been attributed words, for a reason. Inventions, feelings, bodily idiosyncracies, gods, demons, all have names. All to be said. All to be called. All to be written.

Write the story of your life because it is a fairy tale. Write to be the hero of your happy ending. Write to put away your ghosts. Write to relive a past, to invent a future. Write to commit to memory. Write to commit. Put your spine, your money, your mouth, your convictions on paper.

Write. Because nothing truly exists until it is on paper.