By Candlelight

I enjoy candles. They’re different from the ajji’s-handmade-wicks and spot-of-oil deepas from the home I grew up in, they sometimes smell like somewhere else, and they’re so sweetly impractical: built to be put out with a hearty lung’s breath, their valiant attempts against coconut-frond-susurrus breezes rouse a pompom cheerleader in me.

I favour aromas that are rounded. Vanilla-based, woods, pines, maybe spiked with citrus, or sandy. Heady florals and musks take me on start-and-stop car rides to wedding receptions, forced photos, itchy clothes, and spark an acid wash in my stomach. I also like when scents are dispersed enough that catching a whiff feels like welcome interruption. I usually begin my candle-chorusing a little after dusk, when sunlight begins to ink quickly.

High daylight at my desk is mercifully clouded, cat-proofed, and canopied. It gets toasty and rushes colour to the cheeks, yes, and a languorous fan between 1 and 2 is sometimes advisable. So when it’s daylight, I light just incense. 

Currently, an ash vetiver is playing.

It moves me that metaphors and mementos like deepas, candles, incense can work like panacea. Surprising hushes of well-being. Small reprieve, like a bite of chocolate after crying, or a spot of sunshine on a cold blot in my ear. Every time I begin this matchstick > candle > tinkering > fixing ritual, it feels like I place my most searing pain outside myself. Little fires from within me that I bring out — that I may tend with a little less urgency, with fuel other than my spirit and will to live. I tend them like a hearth, like the literal light that keeps the night going, and try to get on with my life otherwise. Drawing. Writing. Stretching. Cooking wobbly sunny yellow eggs. Thinking. Trying to make my way through the sprawl that is the whole world outside my mind.

I don’t actually know what I do with my pain during the day. Sometimes I am able to see that it keeps me ball-and-chained in bed. Sometimes, the ball pulls along as I stumble through laundry, phone calls with my mother, fussing over how much light, water, and cat my plants are getting. Maybe it goes into the vigour with which I scrub the bathroom floor. Perhaps I pour my pain into the small patch of grass that I’m nursing just for the cat to unearth.

Tending candles teaches me that anything alive enough to stir could do with attentive fuel and shelter.

The strapping and grey-at-its-temples old rain tree outside our home mingles with a bottle green young tree that bears these earth-brown fruits I don’t yet recognise. The tree’s leaves are wide and hearty, waxy, hardy, and they’re attached to tertiary-ish branches. I think they report to HQ themselves. The tree looks cashew-ish: its fruit grows downside-up, and is a plump gourd the size of my prayer-joined palms that have lapsed mid-prayer. 

This is first detail of the fruit’s design that I love: it grows at strategic points at the outer extremities of the cashew-y tree. Each fruit is wisely distanced from the next, which I imagine is to maximise the odds of successful seed dispersal when the wind one day explodes the fruit and carries its teardrop missives everywhere.

The second detail that aptly blows my mind, is the fruit’s suspension. Anchored on a thicc stalk in vrikshasana, the fruit’s weight is at all times able to counter a) the wind and b) the branch’s surface tension (what is a branch but a tightrope?). At all times the fruit stands tall, ripening in the sun. Inside the fruit, I imagine, is cellulose flesh drying itself hollow in a frosted-glass sun to make caves and cavities and prepare the tree’s seeds to be flung far out into the world one day. 

If you dreamy-play join-the-dots with the tree’s fruits (or have a machine run various path coordinates), you will, in one instance, trace the young cashew-y tree’s canopy. 

The only practice from my very religious upbringing that stays with me — is caring for light.

My fingertips are hardwired to manage a wick till the flame that erupts from it is a prudent, diminutive size, like my family’s ideal of a bottu: a humble performance of femininity a little above the eyes, a smudge enough to indicate quiet values – nothing of the raging fire that feminine beauty is. I still have a scar on my thigh from my wick-tuning years, and it makes for the world’s most boring story at “tell me how you got that scar?” games.

Like the crowns of trees, no matter the season, like fluffed-cotton clouds, like curls of incense huff, I figure skate my days around small rituals of fire. I arrange my candles in small knots and crowds at sensible distances away from the pool of light in our living room. Their pea-large flames push and jostle with the breeze like children at a puddle. When it drizzles, like it did today, the glass and ceramic votives hiss. Eyelash-wispy raindrops vapourise in crisp finger-snaps.

My little fires rage into the night.

Wallpaper Sunrise

It is that time of morning when I’d wait for the school van.

It is cold in my uniform–even when I’d ironed it with extra vigour to crisp the stubborn collar and pack in some warmth–so I tug my school bag’s straps in opposite directions, and pull my bag closer to my body. I’m excited. I hope I’ll reach school early enough to leave my bag in class, and go exploring. Maybe I’d catch a turn at badminton, or beat the crowd by the swimming pool, or watch the school helper aunties and uncles sweeping up the school with a broom in each hand, rousing dew-lazy dust clouds and piles of rain tree leaves. At best, I’d go wandering to the other end of school near the principal’s office, and sneak a peek at the small pond with fish under the fragrant coniferous trees, and the boughs of bougainvillea in cat-stretches over the cool stone buildings of the younger classes and hostels.

Today, the cat and I are watching the staff at the darshini opposite us set up. As quietly as they can, they bring out tables and chairs, and fold out the metal counters of the chaat stall and the juice and ice-cream stall. They switch on the large chimneys over the endless-hob cooking range at the back of the kitchen, and I finally have an answer to just what that hum throughout the day is.

I tire at twenty minutes of writing. I pause, and feel weight on my eyelids, the crumple of my body, the thrumming of my heart, and my thirst. I feel tired, the effort of breathing is tiring, and something inside the caves of me wants to fold over into a slumber that will on a merciful day come peacefully. I drink water, I remember I took my medicine, and I look for the cat that I know is asleep in the little quilt-tent I’ve made for him at my foot.

On some of those school-van early mornings, my 70-something-year-old grandfather would walk the short road from our house to the end of the cross to wait for the van with me. I mostly held his attention with my pattering on about look! my breath’s making mist, look! I’m mimicking my mother’s wheezing, look! dew on flowers and on windshields — while he always held mine with stories of his sister who looked out for him in the 30?- 40?-strong household of his boyhood, of all his dogs and how each died, of how he met his wife and made his first best friend, of how he’d wait by their classroom window for that small single tiffin box that an uncle would cycle to their school to bring all the kids–a fistful of curd rice with a dollop of pickle.

I dodder through the house in socks and slippers, I’m a housecoat short and a sock too thick. But I pay attention to the breeze my body makes, the scent of mouthwash, the mist of an all-day morning. It has been a while since outside has felt like a balm. The cat is curled on my blue quilt, a round-palmed creeper is blotting over someone’s utility room, and the palm trees are rushing with nowhere to go.

I am tired. But I’m writing. Writing tires me because all I ever write about is my feelings. Feelings that are so full, they leave me empty. It feels like something deep within me radiates an ache, and the rest of me is so hollow, the ache reverberates. The echo inside a white whale.

I don’t know what this state of emptiness is, but I call it loneliness.

My loneliness is currently the one force in the world that compels me, but it’s too painful for me to simply state this is so to another person. So I write. I don’t think my loneliness is the stately white-dude loneliness that generates Joyce. But it is a paltry, personal loneliness full of highly specific minutiae. Like ‘you should’ve been there’ jokes. It weighs too much on me to simply see a person receive my loneliness; to put someone on the spot by having them have to do something in response, graciously or otherwise. It weighs on me like only words said and unsaid can. So I take my feelings and wrap them into wordy-little parcels, and leave them a little away from my person—not surreptitiously, like the pile of trash you leave at your doorstep and it’s magically not your problem anymore, but like a non-threatening suitcase in the middle of the street: children would use it as cricket stumps and kitchen-set stoops, a young man in the night would kick it about, adults by morning would note to each other with eyes that one of us has underthings sprawled on the street. I leave this parcel out to bake in the sun of other people.

Writing tires me. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes. Sometimes, twenty minutes takes five hours, with 13 hours of kicking in my sleep, six meals, two hours of therapy, four days’ worth antidepressants, five days of brownies (making them, cutting them, fixing them with resting, ice cream, dishes, talking, Ludo, the diary, cleaning vegetables, sitting up, nuzzling the cat, feeding myself, bribing the cat, brushing my teeth, noisy news, washing my hair, playing with the cat, sitting in the living room with Dathi and R, gas cylinder guy, messages I don’t know how to reply to, updates about my ticking-away grandmother, putting-off cleaning the fridge, counting money, reading poems). It takes things out of me, and leaves me empty of breath. It leaves me breathless so I don’t know what to do so I push. I push like I’d push my thighs and my calves to remember to grip the sand-brown Hawaii chappals of my childhood that my grandfather had bought me, running and running on tar after that downhill-to-the-cowshed runaway four to save my team a run. I push, I chuck the ball back at the keeper who yells “howayza?” before catching it and the teams and the umpires erupt, I clutch my knees and I hungrily push air into my lungs. I push and I write, because I don’t know how else to fill my yawn of caves.

The license for my proprietary word processor has run out. I let it run out because the word processor’s security system failed. Somebody somewhere with email address sh4 asterisks continues to benefit from my license (that hangs wilted over the corpse of an expired card), and I could not be arsed about fixing it. One of the winning features of this license-illa version is that I am locked out of my own writing. Years and years of my private letters and whispers to nobody and everybody are being held ransom by an entity that owns the means by which I wrote them. Upset that I’m squatting on their proprietary carpet that I put in my computer to doodle on, they feel entitled to either keep asking me to buy a hologram sticker, or at least reassure them that I have no means to threaten their bottomline. For the luxury of making a living by typing into a computer, I have to embroil myself in a dignified protection racket. So I angrily rip into the file’s metadata and change the file’s soulless-as-their-generic-software file format (I rename the file extension), and open the file titled Wallpaper Sunrise dot D-O-C on an alternate word-processor to snatch back my precious doodles.

Can you tell the difference between a coffee headache, and a dry-eyes headache?

My eyeballs feel dry, my mouth feels pasty, and my shoulders ache from my drooping. I can’t stop watching the sky. A laptop wallpaper sunrise is playing and I’m finally full of something. I’m full of the quiet. I’m full of some people waking up gently, quietly filling water in the vessel, holding their breaths at exactly when they pop the lighter at the gas, exhaling collectively to the hiss of the gas catching and the water swirling in the pot. I’m full of some heaping spoons of coffee into the filter, and tying their hair, and walking to the washbasin. I’m full of some going to the back of their homes to wash feet-hands-face with a green soap bar, then maybe wash a plate or two. I’m full of the smell of the soap, the dull heat of the fire, and the cold.

I’m full of a walk in the morning with my grandfather watering the garden. I am in my first school uniform, still warm from my bath, my cheeks flush with a powdery confidence. But my feet are bare. This feels mischievous, without the order of socks and the tap-tap-tapping of black shoes, with just the mix of mulch, morning, and missing-the-school-van mixing with my toes, and he’s watering the nitya mallige he has grown. Like me, a proud little tree in our house compound, full of the twinkle of teeth and white flowers and eyes of a girl spoken-for.

Light and Space

I like evenings in my house.

I like the sliver of warm sunset that I’m privy to with what I can afford of a view living in a crowded city. I live alongside arrangements where it sounds like groups of twelve, fifteen people live in the same span of space that I share with another woman (and of course R) that I feel safe with, and a loving cat who is also a rogue (but in a truly charming, vocal way). I sometimes overhear carrom games. I hear singing and language and laughter when the group tentatively steps out together. There hasn’t been a game of cricket in a long time.

I like the warm glow of the moody yellow table lamp that I put on my desk. I like its warmth, like my grandfather’s sweater, over my shoulders. I am lucky I was held. In light like this. A lone, tall bedside lamp with a switch on the wire by which I read Asterix for the first time. The neat smell of my grandfather’s room. The orderliness of its shelves. The sparseness of its person.

I have banal notes I have tacked on the wall at my desk, of things I must remember to write about in the novel I want to write. On some days, they’re mocking post-its to who I want to be. But they’re sweet-tempered and good-natured too. I allow myself that they’re sincere.

I am oddly relieved I’m not able to understand the language my neighbour next door is speaking to someone on her handsfree in her balcony. I am in admiration of her commitment to enjoying the weather, and sometimes I’m brave enough to try it out too. There is a renewed-vigour idiot still blowing his conch. I hear her laughing over it.

I miss Bombay. At some point in my life, I’d dreamed of living in a city like Bombay. There’s a static of something disorienting and worn-down-to-primal, like the cobblestones of Causeway, in the light of Bombay. It tints the dust-motes off-camera, and the sweat on the faces of the men and women awe-struck, a little mouth-agape that they are in a Bombay sunset watching a whole piece of something larger, something with more spectacle than our selves being made. I no longer have the energy for Bombay; I say this with little-to-no self-pity. Cities sometimes change us and teach us who we are in different places, what of us still sticks and holds true. Cities lure us with who we could be. And many times we have tell these cities, oh well, maybe some other time.

Light changes quickly in this house, and the table lamp eases that a little in the evenings. R has put the large-batch noodles I made last night in the fridge (not to overstate, but it’s a needlessly painstaking Maggi-updo) and I’m fearful of how it’ll turn out today. I could make pakodas out of it. A tribute to you, Mescabe ladies of MCC. (This is a T9 Dictionary of the 3300/6615 joke: at the time I was in college, T9 did not list Nescafe in its database, so when students typed Nescafe under their desks about hanging out, the message sent would, in all likelihood, read, Mescabe.) I could try making cutlets too.

I was discussing lighting P’s house with him—the lovely but unused criss-crossed lantern in the living room needs a naked yellow bulb in it. He told me that there’s no need to be apologetic about needing so many chances, because sometimes the only way to get some people to try, is to keep giving them chances.

Last night, I also kept whisking-and-freezing my day-long milky cup of coffee, and it made the most intricate slushie, a star-studded pre-frappe. It’s a, as is my signature, needlessly painstaking process of how I show coffee more patience than people.

My flatmate, A, has come home. She is palpably relieved to see me at my laptop, typing. I am laughing. We’re going to play Ludo. The young men who live over the darshini nearby have stepped out downstairs, and they’re laughing too.

Feeling cute, might delete later.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt female, or *feminine*. 

Every fun activity I’ve ever been exposed to, I’ve enjoyed as a person and not as a female — drawing, writing, eating sweets, playing with a kitchen set, playing house-house, playing doctor-doctor, lagori, baddie, building with fancy-store-bought-fake-Lego blocks with their tiny potted plants. Watering the garden with my grandfather, watching Power Zone in the afternoon because that’s the only time I had the TV uncontested, terribly lettering lyrics of Alice in Chains songs and making worse-still drawings of Eddie on my rough note books. Lax-rules cricket, watching it in our balcony and secretly hoping to make a heroic balcony catch, and once, being cheered by all my friends when I, crisply chicken-poxed, came out to see them. Dressing neatly, eyeing stickers and inventively shaped candy, cultivating different kinds of handwriting. Trying to make my own site and Winamp skins. Dreaming of owning a pair of Nikes whose ads and air-themed features swore I could walk the clouds or spikes that would turn me into a ripple-muscled automaton-feline that would sunder a notion like human limitation.

I was amazed by life. I secretly wrote sincere-feelings short stories and astonishingly aching poems, edited B&W photographs shot in 2/3rds composition on a modified point and shoot, burnt CDs and traded torrents, hand-drew story boards of films I would one day make, and made friends on the internet – all in my grandfather’s room because that’s where the computer was.

I’m so lucky that I get to see how happy and loved I really was; I grew up in a difficult home. And it hurt even more that just outside my door, I seemed to attract so much pain. I just couldn’t understand why. What about me was wrong? Why was I a lesser person, a secondary human? In what way had I unwittingly, or even knowingly erred?

Why was my hair, why were my teeth, why was my vagina, why were my breasts so troublesome?

This is what I’ve known of what being female means. It means a life that keeps pinching the side of my boob on the bus, at the movie theatre, in a street after dark. It means having to sit with my knees together lest how I sit invites a fitting reply. It means being fearful of wearing something that I think I could celebrate my body with, because it’ll invite judgement, and on a bad day, an expression of it. It means feeling ugly, unwelcome, incomplete, inadequate. All the fucking time.

It means constantly constructing bizarre and unkind logic to cope with how unfair it is.

I have seen every woman I have ever loved struggle with this: the oldest of whom is now 84.

It’s so exhausting that I spend so little time inhabiting my body, (one that I don’t at all feel is *female*, like everything in the world goes out of its way to tell me it is) and I spend all my time shrunken into just my mind. Watching it, managing it, taking care of it.

I am not a person motivated by the idea of having children. Because life is so painful that I would rather not have someone I’d deeply care for go through it. This is such an upsetting view of life – because look at that – I was so happy. And then I saw that it was only because I was playing inside such a small box without ever being able to touch its walls. 

And now that I do, I feel trapped. In a small box.

I am in a small box with a sticker tacked on it that says, “Female”.

138: An old, old post

Hallowed Ground

My memory of red-oxide is tinged with the sound it made.

There was a quality of foundation to that sound. A thick fatherliness. Solidity. Perhaps it came from the fact that it was mixed directly into cement, poured onto rigid ground, ironed with persistence, dried stern, before deemed terra really, really firma.

Anything that fell on red-oxide floors, fell heavily. Vases made almost musical sounds. Tantrums were exceptionally loud. And coins fell and rolled into impossible places with such crispness.

This ground felt like the Earth that Science speaks of – the one that actually offers an equal and opposite force, and goes on to demand reckoning as formidable. Jumping with abandon on red-oxide made feet tingle with guilt – even without the watchful eyes of disciplining aunts. Walking on it bestowed feet with a dull Bharatnatyam red. A sort of subliminal branding – spelling a home that rang MS’s Kausalya-Supraja each morning, smelled of tamarind & (forbidden) onion sambar each noon, and slept to a mallige-talcum headiness each evening.

I remember adding curls of white paint along the floor’s edges, and getting a rap on the knuckle for letting my imagination run in a few places.

Down the 90s, the red lost its lustre. A paradox, because as years wore on, red-oxide would acquire a glow that could be kissed alive by early morning sunshine.

Learning lessons from booming “flats”, and cashing in on descending prospective-tenants from exotic parts of the country, ambitious landlords began building homes floor upon floor while it was still legal. Red-oxide, quite a cheap alternative to many other materials, suddenly encountered a problem that was unheard of until rapid urbanization – specialization of labour. Red-oxide was an art, done by hand, and didn’t see mechanization for a long time – a window of opportunity that was not lost on competing materials. Factoring in vital things, like time, effort, and our inherent need of keeping-up-with-the-times, it was decided: this would be the age of Mosaic, the understated, clipped accent of a sufficiently English educated middle-class home.

To be truthful, I don’t like Mosaic. It lacks the seamlessness and careful grace that red-oxide had. Disruptions in red-oxide floors had the treads of thin, waif-like ropes. Mosaic floors, however, are exactly what urbania loves. Square after square. Building after building. Block after block. Feigned organization. Red-oxide could glide right around the bends, trace them with the dexterity of a finger. But the best Mosaic can do, is express curves as several clumsy quadrilaterals.

Summer on red-oxide floors had the exact feeling of sweet water from an earthen pot in the same summer. Fond memories include letting my skin steal some cold under my as-raised-as-aunt’s-eyebrow seam of cotton frock. I have shelled peas, played countless games of Ludo, and watched the TV’s reflection on this hallowed ground.

Sure, new homes are retracing metaphorical steps to where they started. It’s heartening to see online forums discuss the Do’s and Don’ts of DIY red-oxide. I get a feeling, though, that the story of red-oxide will follow that of block-print fabric. It’s waiting for a Fab India and a few activists to rescue it from oblivion. It’s waiting for its mall-organized, buffed-up-by-marketing ironic comeback.

I realize now. My only real grouse with red-oxide is this: if it’s not old enough, it doesn’t matter how much talcum I sprinkle – I can never slide on it.

Dec 08th, 2011.

Thanks Aadisht, for reminding me of this thing I’d written ages ago. ❤

Eighty One

I held the story in my hand,
Held it up to the light.

It scattered, like anti-mercury.
It scattered, into a million shafts of colour.

Colours that didn’t have names to them.
Or maybe they did have names,
I mean, who remembers colours with names
like Fuchsia,
or Beige, or Burnt Sienna,
I don’t mean remember the names,
oh those – they’re enchanting,
I mean, who remembers what the names stand for?

What comes to your mind, if I say Ochre or Cinnabar?

Why can’t they name colours insightfully?
With a little more care?

Call it the inside of a pumpkin when it’s ripe enough,
The bright, jarring pink of moist cotton candy?
How about the three thick ashen lines on a pujari’s forehead?
Or the hue of his erstwhile white lungi, that’s been washed over and over with four drops of liquid blue,
with the intention of keeping it white?

Maybe they can be named after
the bright green leaves of the sugar rose on a birthday cake,
Or the yellow of the wax
that drips and trails on praying fingers at Church.

Maybe even the diaphanous black of how a woman in an Abaya sees
The creamy face of a full moon,
The colour of the Pole star,
The opaque, ominous gray of rainclouds,
And the universal brown of puddles.

But what is the colour of the universe, then?
Monochrome white, in keeping with the Physics of light?
Or is it black, as dreamless sleep?

Or can it be the mossy green-black that comes from a painting
that’s a fine mess of colours?

True. The last is a problem
of the chemistry of dyes and colours made by tribes.
Or is the problem really,
the chemistry of tribes, made by colour?

Aren’t the lines of fate,
And the henna of every new bride,
the same confused orange-brown?

Isn’t every dark night,
a blanket of velvet blue-black?
Every happy spring morning,
beams of sunny golden yellow?
Isn’t every fairy’s magic wand,
touched with silver-white starlight?

If stories can bleed colours,
Why can’t colours, bleed stories?


Deepavali/Diwali for Dummies

I am, by far, the most non-Diwali person I know.

And imagine my utter vexation that I have been rudely awakened from deep long-weekend slumber, by something as insolent as a hyperenthusiastic neighbour testing Bijli patakis. Yes, the same hyperenthusiastic one who lights up rockets in blinding daylight.

Of course, my mother sees the opportunity of my rousing, for employing my services in doing the dangerous household task involving great skill and dexterity – hanging out the clothes. Yes. My mother has decided to protect our humble abode from the invading forces of patakis, with wet clothes.

So, being the middle-class household that we are, any breathing surface in our real-estate arrangement will be dedicated to the display of what makes our wardrobe. And how it all looks when it’s wet. My grandmother secretly believes that our neighbours hold up binoculars from across the street, and examine the state of affairs of the discrete variety of clothing, and so has a strict regulation of hanging out the shames inside our dwelling. Of course, it never occurs to her that the same neighbour does not appear to be fazed by putting out black-turned-purple Pumbukar Classics with holes that don’t exactly supply functionality. Not even cosmetic. Forget kinky.

But coming back to Diwali.

It’s suddenly cool to diss the patakis at Diwali. And it’s suddenly cool-er to jump the bandwagon – as opposed to jumping onto it. And it’s the coolest to not acknowledge Diwali as a phenomenon at all. (This theory is well-researched. The source being a large repository of status messages on FB.)

I find the coolest theory, the most interesting, because it heartily takes after my most favorite schools of BS-ing. The George Carlin School. Step back and look at it. You get broke. You do strange things like set everything on fire. Think about it. You are giving people who find making 1-2-3 noodles a formidable intellectual effort, explosives, and are automatically vesting in their power, the ability to blow themselves up. (Are you also wondering if people with short fuses will blow out faster? What about the tuss-patakis? And the ones that misfire? Is the opposite of that surefire? Or are you also imagining how funny it would be if humans could spontaneously combust?)

You also eat abominable amounts of rich food, and then enter the vicious circle of gastric-hell. Some will pass out in gutters in parts of the city they never knew existed. Some will embarrass themselves before previously-prospective employers/clients. It seems a lot like a birthday – recurrent and requiring a lot of effort. And the toughest of the lot – requiring civil and sociable manners.

No, don’t get me wrong. I don’t not like Diwali. My favorite bits of the festival are not very unique either. The several lamps, the fairy lights and the stars – like even the sky’s put out its best for Rama’s homecoming. The varieties of rangolis, the smell of flowers of every hue, the smell of temples spilling over onto the streets, the charged spirit and the infectious optimism. For those rare times in the year, the entire city feels like it throbs to a single pulse.

And honestly, I have no reason to complain. It’s a three-day weekend. Which means unlimited chai-chugging, book-devouring, movie-watching, friend-bashing, sweet-eating, home-food-belting, spending-time-under-bed-with-dog-if-i-had-one-ing, catching up-and then-tanking up on sleep. Whee hoo.

Ok, scratch that last one out. Hyperenthusiastic neighbour has just discovered the chain of 50-bijlis.