• 04
    Dec

    Returned from a whirlwind of a poetry reading trip in Chennai (6 readings in 28 hours!), one brief night at home, before heading into another beautiful whirlwind in Nepal tomorrow. My brain and body are so exhausted, but my heart is so alive.

    I’ve always felt these things are worth it, above all, for the people one meets and the relationships one builds. The greatest gift of this Chennai trip was a new writerly friendship with the wonderful Singaporean poet Alvin Pang (if youdon’t know his work, you really should!). I’ve never had quite such a wonderful reading, a real jugalbandi, a way of reading and listening where your own words come back to you through someone else’s. We did two sessions together, without repeating any poems, reading back and forth in response to each other, and were amazed constantly by how much our poems were saying to each other across time and space. I can’t begin to explain how special that was: how often do you discover another human being through a quiet, spontaneous, joyful conversation between your most private selves and your most important stories, told rapidly back and forth in a short space and time?

    I’m too tired to wax eloquent about it, and Alvin already did a beautiful job of that, so I’m just going to be lazy and share from his blog:

    I am reading with Delhi-based poet Aditi Rao, author of THE FINGERS REMEMBER. It is past 2.30pm; we were supposed to start at 2pm, but were held up by Chennai’s gnarled traffic. On the spot, we decide, because we have not had time to think about what we each want to read for 15mins, to make it something of a back-and-forth poetic dialogue instead. I start with a poem, which prompts Aditi to respond with a similar poem, and so on. Her work is very fine, boldly executed, unfazed but not belligerent in the face of irreconcilable tensions. It soon becomes evident that there are many remarkable correspondences in our poetry. Not necessarily a matter of style or treatment nor even tone, but certainly in theme, certain images. Finger memory. Burning flesh. At one point I recount the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and family, on which a poem of mine is based. She responds with a poem also based on Lot’s wife. We have not planned this. I suspect this sort of thing is possible with many other poets also, if one looks hard enough for some sort of semantic or thematic resonance, but this is unforced. We are not making this up. Or perhaps we are making it up, which is what makes it sing: we are actively listening to each other, calling and responding. We are having a conversation. I have often felt this is what good writing does. The poems have not been written for the occasion nor for each other, but they are chosen to suit, the way we sometimes bring up old stories in new company. We read poems we might not otherwise have selected; we are made to think a little differently about what we have written. There is the frisson of resonance, recombination. Fresh context suggests fresh meanings. This is why we read and re-read books. Another way in which the love we put into writing becomes the love it brings. This is how literature lives and lasts.

    Click on this link for more of this and other of Alvin’s beautiful blogging

    Thank you, Alvin, for 2 completely memorable sessions. Love your speaking and your listening, your warmth and your generosity. Looking forward to many more poetry encounters in the years to come!

    And thank you, Prakriti, for bringing us together 🙂

  • 21
    Feb

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    When my mother and I moved to my grandfather’s house 2 years ago, there was a shriveled up tree in one corner that we were advised to cut down. It was a peach tree my grandfather had planted perhaps a decade earlier, but it had never borne flowers or fruit. It had gotten too little sun, its roots had been badly damaged by rats, and the nearby wall of a tank my grandfather had once built was keeping it from growing further.

    Neither Mum nor I had any experience gardening — this was the first time in our lives we had a garden — but for some reason, we believed in that little tree. For some reason, we were sure it was stronger than that. I kept telling Mum, “I don’t believe that life is that fragile.” So we refused to cut down the tree. Instead we broke the tank wall so as to free up space for the roots, got the garden treated for rodents, and pruned nearby trees to give it more sunshine. And then, we gave the little tree lots of love (for the only time in my life, I even prayed for a tree).

    Sure enough, the little tree grew big and strong. Within months of our decision not to cut the tree, we came out into the garden one day to see its first blossoms. That summer, we plucked and ate the most delicious homegrown peaches. In the monsoon, the tree shot up, doubled to over twice its size, like it had just been hungry to grow and was so excited to have this space now.

    Now 2 1/2 years later, it is among the first things to bloom in the garden, these gorgeous, delicate flowers heralding the arrival of Spring. In ways that these photos can express much better than words can, my grandfather’s garden will always be a reminder of springs following winters, of life outlasting death, of love begetting beauty, of the deep joy of belief.IMG_2779

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  • 16
    Aug

    When I came home from graduate school for the first time after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother asked me to choose one of his possessions as a memento, something he owned that reminded me of him most fondly. I didn’t need a moment to think before asking for a giant (ok, 24 by 18 inches!) jute covered book with simple maroon lettering on its cover “India’s Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents”

    I grew up with my grandfather’s stories about the independence movement. He was only a teenager when the British rule ended — 18, I think — but those were exciting times in which to have been a teenager. He was full of stories and passions, opinions and memories. I must have been 6 or 7 years old when he started taking me in his lap and opening out the giant (now you get why it feels giant!) book in front of us. The book contains some explanatory notes on various moments in the freedom struggle, but for the most part, it replicates newspaper articles, photographs, letters and maps. It is more scrapbook than textbook, more archive than commentary. In my grandfather’s lap and in the pages of that book, the independence movement wasn’t something that happened a long time ago; it was present, it was alive, it was playing out in front of my eyes.

    As I grew a little older, he showed me another book. I forget the compiler and publishing house, and I gave up looking for it a long time ago, but this was a thick, hardbound light green book named “Martyrs of India.” There was a photo on the front cover, but I am no longer sure what the photograph depicted. A noose? Perhaps. I cannot remember. But I remember that book as my introduction to Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh (or Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, as he later called himself), the figures in Indian history who chose a different path from the Gandhis and Nehrus. It was my first introduction to how Chandra Shekhar Tiwari would only tell the magistrate that his last name was “Azad” (free) and thereby became Chandra Shekhar Azad. In years to come, I would read more, in school and out of school, about different parts of the Independence struggle, and I would learn to disagree with my grandfather about some of his idols. But early on, in his lap or in the chair by the window in his bedroom, I learned about the largeness of the struggle for independence, about the differences within it, about some of the complexities of representation and reportage.

    As I graduated from school and went abroad to study at a college that prided itself on fostering “global citizens,” and as I created homes and families in different countries, I learned intuitively and academically to question the idea of “nationalism” on which so much of this Independence movement was based. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, an early 20th century Japanese educator, whose writings form the foundation upon which my university was built, talks about 3 levels of citizenship — the local, the national, and the global. He stresses the importance of identifying with the local and the global in order to avoid being swept away by the national (as someone who was imprisoned and ultimately killed in prison during World War 2 for being a “thought criminal,” he clearly understood nationalism’s dangers). Back home, as India moves aggressively towards becoming a stronger nuclear power and lapses periodically into the anti-Pakistan war rhetoric, I have learned to step aside from nationalist rhetoric. As I began working for an organization that talks about nation-building and “working for India,” I learned to identify for myself that I don’t work for India; I work for ideals like peace, justice, community, dignity, and freedom from want. I will work for them in India or anywhere with the same degree of love and commitment. And when I feel that India doesn’t stand for them, I will criticize it with the same anger that I would criticize it anywhere else. Nationalism, to that extent, lost meaning for me.

    But yesterday, I became aware that I may have lost something else in this process of critical understanding, that I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. When this year’s 15th August came and went without any surge of nostalgia or passion, I felt a little empty. Not because I felt unpatriotic but because I felt the absence of a history that had once coursed passionately through me. I felt the absence of my grandfather’s stories. I felt afraid that, with his death, I was allowing myself to forget how recent colonialism was, how recently my family (like so many Delhi families) had been refugees of one of the bloodiest population transfers in history. I felt, in some ways, story-less.

    I don’t have to be nationalist to be proud of, and grateful for, the legacies handed down to me and my generation. I can recognize that it is because so many people in the generations before mine worked so hard to build this nation that I can choose not to be “nationalist,” that I can choose ideals over geography. I want my children to inherit that understanding, to know that the Independence struggle wasn’t about anonymous individuals from a forgotten era, or just about the Gandhis and Nehrus — that the freedoms they can take for granted were hard-won by countless individuals with loves and hurts and beliefs and sacrifices, individuals like their great-grandfather. And for the moments when I forget that, I am grateful I can reopen that book full of visuals and documents, reread Marx’s letter to Engels about how 1857 would come to be seen not as a revolt but as the first uprising for independence, reread the newspaper from the day that India won independence, and remember everything that those moments in history continue to mean in this one.

  • 17
    Jun

    It has now been seven weeks since I slept in my own bed. Five of them absolutely wonderful, two of them rather stressful — seven very full weeks.

    As I think back, I realize that the single thing that set my recent five-week vacation apart from every other vacation I’ve taken is simply that this one wasn’t planned around places; it was planned around people. I didn’t make a to-do list; I made a to-meet list. Over the month of May and running into early June, I visited about 40 friends and acquaintances in 10 cities, and in the process was able to spend real, quality time with at least 20 close friends. In each city, I asked the person/ people I was visiting to take me to the places they love there, or I simply hung out at their homes and in the neighborhoods, catching up over walks, meals, and slumber parties. I experienced in this month so much love and warmth that it has made the last couple of weeks of caring for a very ill family member much easier than such an experience should be. People talk of safety nets; I feel like I am carrying one of those acrobat trampoline things in my stomach — the moment my heart starts to sink, it bounces against that trampoline and springs right back into action.

    They say that we make the beds we lie in. I am grateful, humbled, and proud this month to realize that the beds I’ve been making are warm and welcoming in the most important of ways. So let me tell you about these seven weeks by telling you about some of the beds I’ve been lying in.

    There was the clickety-clack futon in my aunt’s living room in New York City, where I spent so many nights during various family emergencies and celebrations during my grad school years — where a beautiful white cat sat on me every morning as a wake up call. There was the mattress on the floor of the American friend in Brooklyn, who hasn’t bought a bed yet because she moves to graduate school soon, and who has lived in India long enough not to hesitate to ask me to share her mattress for the night. There was the bed of the school friend in DC, who has lived in the USA long enough to need to ask if I mind sharing her bed, but who remains sibling enough for us to fight over the blankets in our sleep.

    There was the couch in the office where I used to work and where I will always be home enough to be able to go nap during a spare hour of a too-hectic day downtown. There was almost a bed in the house of one of my closest friends from poetry school in Brooklyn, but I’ll never know what that would have been like because my aunt threw a party that night, and said friend and I ended up reunioning over baking brownies in a toaster oven instead of having a slumber party.

    There was the futon in San Antonio where I spent Spring Break two years ago, catching my breath in the comfort of an old friendship, between the many episodes of illness and the deaths that punctuated my years in graduate school. There was the solid ground and open night sky of the Texan desert, sleeping bag on picnic blanket, with the moon and stars so bright they woke me up periodically.

    There was the wrought iron bed in the house of another high school friend in Los Angeles, where we slept less than we talked during my brief first visit of only 10 hours. There were the cushions and the sleeping bag on the floor of the spare room in the home of my favorite family — a former professor and his wife and daughter — where ocean sounds mix with distant highway traffic, and two beautiful dogs vie to shed hair all over you and your bedding. There was the Japanese fold out mattress in the graduate apartment of a close friend from college who says she’d cook and clean for anyone the way she does for me, but who nevertheless succeeds thereby in making me feel like a special guest. There was another night in the wrought iron bed, except the bed had by now moved to a new apartment, and we spent an hour after midnight literally making the bed we’d lie in.

    There was the 6-hour long bus journey to see another of my closest graduate school friends, during which I did most of the sleeping I didn’t do the previous night as we talked rather than slept in that newly remade wrought iron bed. There was this graduate school friend’s bed in an apartment full of loud, night-owl musicians, while he slept in someone else’s apartment. There was a bed covered in drapery in San Francisco where I napped after an eleven hour journey that could have taken just three hours. There was a couch by a window, with a view of the ocean and the most gorgeous light, in the home of an acquaintance who became a close friend while I stayed there. There was a spare bedroom in another house, this time in the UAE, where I recovered from jet lag and was offered four pillows and fell asleep to the crying of an old friend’s new baby.

    There was my mother’s bed with my own pillow, and my dog on the floor beside me, for one brief night as I transitioned from holiday-travel to family-emergency-travel. There was a mattress on the floor of an almost empty apartment belonging to a friend of my father’s, where my family and I processed his sudden illness. There was another mattress in the home of another friend who is an expert at making one feel safe when one stays with her during an emergency. There was the half-broken fake leather armchair in the waiting room of the ICU, where I spent many long hours, reading or napping or talking to my father’s family, whom I otherwise don’t see very often. There was the attendant’s bed in the hospital, where I napped while my father rested after his four bypasses, and where I will spend tonight.

    Soon, in another couple of days, there will be my own bed, at home. For many weeks, perhaps even months, to come. I have never looked forward to it so much. But I will also always look back with a smile at this summer spent in so many beds, homes, hearts. And I will always look forward to the opportunity to offer a bed in my own home to all of these people I am privileged to call my own.

     

  • 23
    Apr

    You enter the church, arm in arm with your father, scan the pews as you walk down the aisle. Our eyes meet briefly. You smile and mouth a silent thank you. I take a photo.

    Dressed in nine yards of silk and flowers in your hair, you are more woman than I have ever seen you.

    When you put on borrowed sunglasses at your wedding brunch, even though your friends say they make you look like a 60s movie gangster, you are again the girl I’ve known since we were fifteen.

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    The girl who not only scarfed down the sociology teacher’s tiffin everyday well before lunch break, but who also convinced said teacher to bring your favorite foods to school. The girl whose notes, big round letters, headings meticulously underlined in ruler and black ink, saw me through exams during a year when I could not write. The girl who regularly arrived two hours late for brunch and made me forgive you.

    When I tell you at your sangeet that I just secured a publisher for my first book, you high five me, still-damp mehendi on both our hands. You announce my good news to a room full of strangers, and I promise to always remember these huge moments of both our lives in a happy continuum.

    A decade ago, we had all laughed when you won the school special award for abundant optimism. You had laughed the loudest. But today, your cheeks glow with a love of life so deep I am forced to revisit that memory, tweak it slightly.

    The first think you say to me on your wedding day: “I am the world’s most chilled out bride.”

    Later, you slip the ring onto your new husband’s wrong hand, and even the priest bursts out laughing. It is the first of the many small mess-ups that make your wedding so memorable.

    You ask me to hold your bouquet before you throw it to the other single women. Someone wonders if I will get lucky because I touched it before anyone had the chance to catch it.

    At the reception, your new husband introduces me to an old friend: “You’re in-laws of sorts now.”

    You message me from the airport as you leave for your honeymoon, telling me how you just burned your hand with hot coffee.

    I tell you simply that clumsiness becomes you.

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