3

Lone journeys

As the gloom of the impending hurricane prevails, many outdoor events have been cancelled this week in anticipation and I have found myself in no man’s land. I have a lot of spare time at hand unexpectedly. I have lots to do, lots to catch up on, but I have no direction.

I’ve been dreading this free time since last night. Everyone else in the household had a place to go to; be it school or office. Even my staff had their schedules unaffected. On one hand I must go and cook the special for the day I was planning on, but on the hand I shouldn’t interfere with their routine. I felt caught in an unnecessary dilemma.

The truth is with the exception of about six months in my life, I’ve never had a purposeless period in my life where I didn’t have a predetermined job or task to perform. Some might consider it be a misfortune, but I find this to be privilege that I have been gainfully occupied. Be it a time when I was studying, or working in a firm thereafter; be it on maternity leave, or be it a planned vacation at home painting or away from home on a holiday, I’ve almost always known what I was going to be doing.

So this week when I was thrown on a forced break from the plan, I was caught off-guard. I am lost and gloomy. The constant urge to be doing something doesn’t seem to end. I can’t and mustn’t be asking people to fill in my time. I could read a book, or finish some other pending jobs, but I can’t seem to. Instead I spent the morning having three cups coffee and prancing up and down the house like a headless chicken.

Suddenly I realised that this is a natural part of life and respecting the nature enforced break is imperative. I couldn’t help but think of my ailing father in his last days. He was that guy whose life was well organised, every day was accounted for. His unexpected illness wasn’t something he had planned for. And yet he had no escape from it. He did work some inspite of it. He was always surrounded by family and friends. But eventually the journey was his alone. And he showed me a path by leading.

My break isn’t permanent or arduous. Yet it has managed to remind me of uncertainties. And showed me once again that some journeys are meant to be travelled alone.

Thankfully this one isn’t that long.

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1

About time

As always, when the alarm went off I thought it was too early to wake up. Reluctantly I rolled over and reached for the phone. And as always, I needed an impetus to get out of bed. Not sure why, but I choose Facebook to find some inspiration. If nothing else, at least the memories one sees are always fun to wake up to.

But today was special. Many of my friends in India had rainbows and gay pride posted all over. I was confused. Rubbing my eyes, I fumbled for my reading glasses. I was in disbelief as I read the news. “India’s supreme Court has decriminalized gay sex!” This was so unexpected. I have to confess, I didn’t even know that it was under consideration currently. This was amazing especially because in the recent history, the Supreme Court had overturned the Delhi High Court’s decision to decriminalize homosexuality. What a momentous occasion in India’s modern history! I shook Amit who was procrastinating waking up. His reaction was generally in the spirit of, “Great, it was about time…” but he wasn’t as moved as I was.

Until a few years back, I would have probably had a similar reaction as he had. The gravity of the topic hadn’t hit me until a very close friend of mine had come out. Until then I had known gay people, but never felt their pain. When he told me, I was shocked; not with the fact that he was gay, but with his harsh reality. He had to let people know his orientation, something straight folks never have to deal with. This was followed by a whole series of events of letting the family know and everything that follows. He had been so brave through everything. But he was also hurt and pained. Last year, while traveling in India, an incident really made me bitter and I had confided in him how disappointed I was by India. He, rather nonchalantly pointed out that if he had stayed in India, he would’ve been a criminal. That really shook my roots. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be declared a criminal for commiting no crime. That’s when I truly realized that being gay, especially in India was very difficult. It reminded me of my brother’s immigration nightmare each time he re-entered America. He had to go through “special screening” because he was born in the UAE. The interrogation was so torturous that he felt like confessing to a crime he hadn’t committed. Just the idea of being punished or criminalized for who you are seems bizarre, but more people face this on a daily basis than one can imagine.

But for now, I am beyond happy with the decision. Also it is reassuring to know that the judiciary in India is still an autonomous institution upholding human rights.

I see hope.

1

Aromas of nostalgia

This was yesterday at around lunchtime at The Verandah. I was in the middle room spicing minced meat that would soon be cooked into kheema, filling the air with its aromas, which then would be stuffed into the dough, rolled out and cooked into fresh, thick, steaming parathas. This happens to be my absolute favorite food to cook. How I love the sizzling sound of the parathas on a hot griddle and serving them up to hungry customers who devour them quicker than I can keep up. These kheema parathas made it to our menu because they reminded me of the carefree times from my youth in Bombay as a student of architecture, when we would travel all the way to Fort, to eat at a long, narrow cafeteria called Samovar, tucked in a corner of the famous Jahangir Art Gallery. We had not a care for the world then and eating the parathas with a hot mango pickle and yogurt in this artsy cafe was such a treat. I recently read in the news that unfortunately the cafe had closed after serving so many generations of artists due to pressures from the management. I was glad that I had taken my daughter there on our last visit to the city and she had tasted the legendary kheema parathas, which she herself can make now.

While I was smiling to myself reminiscing about the good old days and the spicy parathas, I heard some gleeful sounds from the dining room. I waited at my spot to overhear what all the  excitement was about.

Over a period of time, I have come to realize that there are a few recurring instances that always warranty a certain amount of commotion in the cafe. Either it involves a group of first time visitors who are confused yet excited over the aromas and flavors and need assistance with the menu to make choices. Or conversely, it could be some regulars who have come after a long period consequently leading the staff to gush over them, ready to serve them their favorite dish. Occasionally it involves customers with severe allergies and the joint effort on everyone’s part in figuring out what they could eat.

When a substantial amount of time had lapsed and the sounds from the front continued, I poked my head through the corridor to see what was causing the excitement. It was a small group of people, with a couple of Indians. I happened to know one lady in the group, Sujata. She was a parent at the school my children attended and an acclamied published author of several books. For her last novel, The Widows of Malabar hill, she had recreated a world of 1920s Malabar hill, a neighborhood in Bombay where I grew up and she had sought references of the architecture of havelis from Amit and me. This had truly made me feel special and I carried an air of a writer for a few days, even though I had nothing to do with it.

Coming back to the lunch time, she had brought in her family comprising of her German mother and Indian stepfather, Gujurathi to be precise, and American daughter to eat at The Verandah. She introduced everyone in the group and we exchanged pleasantries. They were all very excited to find their favorite dishes on the menu and wanted to have everything. They finally settled on a few. We got busy getting their food ready. Soon they were served and on their way to relish it.

I often make a re-appearance at the guest table, once they are about halfway through the meal to check on them. By then they are satiated and want to chat. This is the best part of my job. I’ve met such interesting people over the years and had such diverse conversations on various subjects.

I noticed her stepfather was really enjoying every bite of the kheema paratha he had ordered. He pulled a chair for me and started telling me stories of his youth in Bombay. He said he belonged to a family which was strictly vegetarian; they couldn’t even utter the word egg in his home. So he, along with his other ‘vegetarian’ friends, would often sneak out during college hours to eat non-veg food. His favorite spot was this inconspicuous cafe with a temporary roof structure behind an art gallery in downtown Bombay. They went there because in those days all the hungry starving artists and actors would flock it as it was known to serve hearty meals at an affordable price. It was the place to be seen at if you had any artistic aspirations. He was aspiring to make movies. For a moment he was merrily lost in the aromas of his past.

He told me that my parathas reminded him of the ones he would eat at this cafe, about forty years back; the same flavors and crunch. He only wished that I had served the same mango pickle and yogurt with it. With each word he said I was brimming with fulfillment. Those were the best days of his life and he thanked me for a trip down the memory lane.

Little did he know that with his affirmation, my own little journey came to a full circle.

3

Wandering

As Amit wandered in the Himalayas on his bicycle, untraceable for a week, oblivious to the incessant rains in Baltimore and the leak in the kitchen ceiling, unaware of the dental extractions for our boy and the ridiculously high copays which left me wondering why we have medical insurances at all, I was envious and yet filled with extreme happiness for him.

In today’s times, it has to be the biggest luxury to be disconnected from the daily grind and happenings of the world. His voyage would end soon and as excited as I was to have him back home, I felt a sense of fear for him as well. He would be thrown back into the throes of life. With each day the mundanities would take over his time. Unavoidable chores would find a way to creep back into his life. I would steadily, sometimes apologetically and sometimes shamelessly, start veering him back into the life we have chosen. One wonders, when do the scales tilt and the life we thought we wanted to live forever takes over and becomes the life we must live hereafter?

Upon his return from his adventure, he managed to land safely back into routine as if he had never gone. He is back to work, back to chores and back to my rants. He makes it appear as a seamless transition with no sign of reluctance or inertia. Yet again, I am filled with envy at his ability to glide back into the life he had left behind, albeit the absence was brief.

He hasn’t shared much of his pictures or videos with us. Considering he had taken three phones and a couple of cameras with him on his trip, I had expected to see his entire route documented minute by minute. But even a month later, I am still waiting to hear the details. This strikes out even more because it reminds me of how different we are in our outwardly expressions.

When I am back from my Indian jamborees, I can’t stop talking about them. I have photos printed, framed and mounted for all to see. I talk endlessly about the stepwells, the meals on trains, the whimsical tourist guides we meet, the people…

But then I suddenly remember all the things I keep for myself. I like to hide them from everyone so I can relive and savor them little by little, over and over again, but privately. Somethings are best enjoyed that way. And maybe that’s what he might be doing.

This keeps me wondering. We may be similar after all, in many unknown ways. Just like we always return home, no matter where we may wander for a bit.

2

Longing

I have just returned but I want to go back. I want to go back right now. Nothing deters me at this moment; not the dreadfully long flight, not even the impending hot summer that is about to set in there. Work here, that is about to get busy, isn’t luring me to stay either. This is surreal to me. This longing makes no sense. And yet it is the only real thing to me right now. Is it the same me, who usually feels exhausted upon returning, who typically needs a year to find the need to go back?

What was different this time about the towns that I have gone to so many times before? Was it waiting in the serpentine queue with fellow Indians at the Taj Mahal? Was it the several train rides through the two weeks? Was it visiting the architecture college in Jodhpur? I can’t lay my finger on it, but something was different this time. I’ve felt most at home this time.

I was often trailing several steps behind my co-travelers, lost in my own thoughts but very much rooted in my surroundings. Why did I catch up with them? I should have wandered away at least once. Or hopped off the train and stayed back at a station accidentally. May be that is why I long to go back. To find out what I could have found had I gotten lost.

This was my first visit to Benares, the holiest city for Hindus. I don’t identify with the two key words in that sentence. What is Holy? What makes one a Hindu? These aren’t concepts that were ever a part of my life. And yet it was impossible to resist the mysticism of the city.

Growing up, there was a small Ganesh temple at the corner of the street from my uncle’s home. Or was it some other god? I can’t remember. But it was a very modest temple, a complete contrast from the ostentatious one on the other end of the same street. I remember as young children, when we were sent out to the either collect the laundry from the dhobi or get last minute supplies in the evening, we’d make a beeline for this little temple, mostly to chime the bells or eat the sugary sweets they offered to the devotees. I was fascinated by the simple ritual of taking off our slippers at the stoop, spending a few minutes there and soaking in the sound of prayers, the smells of the flowers and incense sticks, getting seconds of the sweets and then heading back home. It was magical, especially at that hour in the evening. This is my only memory closest to any religious activity from my childhood. And yet some strings of my heart were gently tugged on as I sat in our boat mesmerized by the evening aarti at the Ghats in Benares, the sound of which transported me back several decades right into those few stray evenings from my childhood. I am not sure if I regret that religion is not a natural part of my life. But I do miss it’s absence. Is it even possible to miss something that you’ve never really experienced? I want to go back to find out what it could be to be a Hindu.

I didn’t take many pictures this year. I had too many from the previous visit and I lacked a new perspective this time. In the first few days, I tried to create a collage of people. People watching is always fun. But soon I felt psuedo with an elitist attitude taking pictures of simple people who were finding joy in small things. I felt so small and ashamed and so I stopped. But today, I regret all those photographs I didn’t take. I remembered what my friend said to me when I had shared my apprehensions:

Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on camera is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”

All those images, though captured in my mind, will slowly fade. And I will miss them. I want to rush back, hoping to find those scenes intact and take those pictures so I can cherish them forever.

This longing is rather absurd. Will it subside with time? Or will I simply tuck it away in a corner until the next time?

PS: Thank you Sussana for reminding me that it’s okay to allow those strings to be pulled.

2

Met

My teenager who is ready to go to high school to major in arts, has been quick enough to imbibe the artsy terms in her daily lingo. Like a true blue-blooded artist, she comes to me saying she feels stuck creatively and lacks motivation. In my mind of course I start to think of the endless number of times I will be fielding this situation in my near future. A quick trip down the memory lane reminds me the very first time I was ‘stuck’ in my first year of architecture and my mother had come to my rescue. She practically designed my very first architecture design project for me, a pavilion on some hypothetical site.

Anyway, so I have an equally cliche suggestion to help her get her mojo back. I suggest that we pick a book from our shelves, any book, pick a page number and consequently pick a word on that page. We then either draw or write with that word as our inspiration.

So today’s word is from A Cup of Comfort, page number 300, word number 3: Met.

My instant reaction is to write something. She starts sketching using her new sketchbook and graphite pencils.

‘Met’ is a relatively easy word to write or sketch. Or so I think.

I decide to step outside my comfort zone and sketch instead. Recently very inspired by the paintings of Amrita Sher-gil, I go the route of drawing a woman in a flowy sari, who climbs down a series of steps, inspired by Benares from my recent travels, where she met a young girl who is the carefree version of herself. I am mighty pleased with my concept. Maithili and I both discuss our ideas. She dismisses me reminding me that our ideas of cheesy are vastly different. I can’t disagree on this. Coming back to my sketch, this is clearly not going as I thought it would. My hopes of being the next avant garde revolutionary painter are smashed to the ground within minutes. As I glance over, I see she has used both the options; text with a sketch.

She says, “Perhaps a dilation of the eye, or an increase in the heartbeat, meeting someone once again, can take many forms…. ”

The bounce in her stride tells me that she has met with the artist within her. She wants to do this again tomorrow.

I, sadly, met with my vulnerability and fear.

I wonder what will be the prompt word for tomorrow.

0

Blurring lines

YouTube suggested I should watch an interview of a Bollywood actor whose latest movie was a box office success. I didn’t recognise him from anything I’ve watched but hit play nonetheless. He seemed pleasant and enthusiastic. He looked very familiar but I couldn’t place him within a context. Soon daily activities took over and I forgot about him.

A few days later, while I was mindlessly browsing through Instagram, once again I saw the actor from the YouTube video under suggested videos. I hit play, only to realise it was Virat Kohli, the cricketer and not who I thought it was. Few more suggestions later, when all the men in the various videos looked alike, I started to recognise the pattern. All these men sported a beard, had similar haircuts and body types with delicate features underneath their facial hair. Only upon a closer scrutiny, I could spot the dissimilarities in them. It suddenly occured to me that the nuances in their features were a blur to me.

It took me back about 18 years when I had first come to the US. I got introduced to a lot of new people. Not only did their accents and names overwhelm me, but their faces seemed identical. I could not retain the distinctive features of each face. These weren’t face types I was used to seeing. They fell in very broad categories: white, black, blonde, brunettes, bald. It was rather embarassing on several occasions. Over time, I got used to these facial features, accents and names. Today, I am much better with identifying people.

The eyes, like other senses, get used to a certain palette. What was once foreign, isn’t so much anymore. And what used to be familiar is slightly removed now.

Distance surely does blur the lines.

2

Yet again

I will get out of bed. I will shower. I will put on a bright shirt, some dangling earrings, a touch of lipstick, I will cover up and set out to work.

I will greet the customers with enthusiasm, I will regale them with stories about my children and travel and crazy cyclist husband. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve repeated my stories. I try to be current. But I will never know if I have told them the same stories over and over again. They are always polite and amused. Perhaps they don’t pay attention. Perhaps they don’t care. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

As always, I will suggest what they should to eat. I will prepare their food with a careless ease. And then I’ll watch them inhale their food. Just as I will wander away momentarily, I will hear satisfied sounds. It’s always heartening to hear the “ummm” sound they make while gulping their morsels. Sometimes I wish I had kept track of how many fresh mint lemonades I have served over ten years…

Yet again today, I will go about my day, as if I am fully present in it. Nobody would know that I am not. Nobody would care that I am not.

In my chemistry classes in high school I had mastered the art of sleeping with my eyes open. It was one very handy skill I had taught myself, probably the most important life skill of all.

I wonder if any of the people I cross here today, are also in their own world, somewhere else? I wonder if we ever meet there, will we recognise each other from here?

I will end my day exactly where I started, staring out of the same window where I sipped my morning coffee, sitting on the warm radiator box, wishing the winter never ends.

0

Washington IAD, 5th March 2018.

It was that simple.

With my recently acquired Green Card, upon entering Washington, I scanned myself to enter the country through immigration, just like I scan the gallon of milk at the self-checkout line in a grocery store. At the next counter, the once seemingly powerful immigration officer looked at the receipt the scan machine spat. He asked me a couple of routine questions. I remember stammering at one. He asked me, “Are you returning home?” My instant reaction was, “I am returning from home.” Not quite able to make up my mind, I may have involuntarily nodded. I assume he took it for a yes. Next, very casually, he said, “Welcome home.”

2

Oil drop in the Ocean

Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, on the little folding tray table, my brown skin against the bright white sketchpad paper reminds me of my impending destination. I try to color the sketch on the stark sheet with the various shades of the sandstone of the Jaisalmer fort. Momentarily it manages to hide the whiteness of the paper, but soon the pale sheet peeps from underneath. Such is the strength of white.

There is no hiding from the fact that within five hours, I will hit the ground and little by little the soothing visual monotony of people will fade. I will soon return to a free nation bound by the shackles of color. Once again we will be classified by race, nationality and country of birth.

Three weeks away are more than enough to forget these distinctions and enjoy a sense of belonging. Just like the sandstone fort I am painting, there were multiple shades of the same color. A vast country which prides itself on its diversity, at least one thing seemed common.

I enjoyed the illusion of oneness, conveniently overlooking the other extreme disparities, as I walked through a sea of my people.

Tomorrow shall be another day…