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.

Advertisements
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…

0

Consciously unfinished

Why do some stories take forever to be completed? I have a stash of unfinished stories. Here are a few.

Story #1 : The Gujurati gentleman who once dined at The Verandah couldn’t have made me happier when he told me that the Parathas I served him reminded him of those that he used to eat in a quaint cafe in Mumbai, coincidently the same ones that had inspired me to set up shop. Each time I get to this story I think of that cafe, my days there, the art gallery that housed it and the beautiful fall day when this gentleman took me down the memory lane. I might not finish this one, just keep revisiting it, because that’s how some stories should be.

Story #2: The street vendor in Delhi who talked shop with me, gave me a run-down on business in the big city and advised me to move my street stands from Baltimore to Bombay. I had a simple, delicious and hearty meal at his cart. Keeping this story open-ended reminds me that I have yet to fry up some pooris like he did and serve them with a simple aloo sabzi.

Story #3: My children who play various sports have so many more experiences about a collaborative process than I have. At such a young age they handle wins and losses so elegantly, a skill I never learnt while growing up and still struggle with on a daily basis. This story had really started to dig deep and take me to places I wasn’t ready to explore quite as yet. So it was yet another topic I abandoned.

Story #4: While solo traveling overnight in a train in the remote parts of India, I came across this family who was returning from a wedding celebration. Their bewilderment at me, along with overly friendly gestures of including me in their revelry, my initial reluctance followed by a hesitant submission; even as I was in the moment, left me feeling so distant.

And then there are so many dark topics which are so taboo in this beautiful world I belong to. Where I inevitably become a part of patronising discussions on equality on all platforms where the hypocrisy becomes unbearable after a point.

Story #5: The maintenance guys from Verizon phone service managed to create quite a stir in the hood during the Freddy Gray riots for doing their job. Their fault was they were people of color in our neighborhood at the wrong time. Phone calls were made alerting the neighbors and a chain of emails was passed without due process. Eventually the storm calmed and all parties concerned did the right thing by condemning their prejudices. The whole charade was unbearable to a point where I haven’t yet figured out how to write about it. I don’t want to sound frivolous yet I don’t want to be meek about it. Perhaps there is no happy medium. Perhaps this is where I learn to take a stand in my writings. This is a tough story for me to undertake where I want to express my anger without sounding angry. Probably a step forward towards tackling some subjects close to me.
After this mini exercise of identifying some of my abandoned stories, I can see that while there are many I am under-equipped to finish currently, there are an equal number of stories I choose to keep unfinished for me to relive. Their thoughts are comforting. This may not be a lack of discipline as I had blindly misjudged before but simply a matter of choice. Some are easier to let go while others I need to hold on to.

 

 

0

One step at a time

It seems I have nothing to write about. Perhaps I have no time to spend on any thought to let it flourish into a story. My mind is cluttered with pending taxes, baseball, soccer, multiple events at work, staff schedules, invoices, proposals, emails…. The list is endless and I am sounding like a broken record of  everyone’s life story. 

In spite of this, I have a new found hobby. I don’t like the word hobby too much, but it is still in its budding stage I am wary to call it a passion or an obsession. 

It started when I had to take my son to soccer tryouts when the father bailed out at the last minute. I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect. It meant sacrificing the time allotted to my workout. (Lord knows I needed it after several months of sporadic attempts and irresponsible eating.) But there wasn’t much time for me to whine or argue and I drove us to the field. After registering him, I settled on the bleachers in the 90 degree heat and the bright sun beating down. I sat there like a dutiful mother, witnessing my life change forever with each goal my son made. It meant that he would be selected in the prestigious soccer club and I would have signed up for endless driving hours to and fro from practices and games throughout the rest of his schooling years, thereby becoming the quintessential “Soccer Mom.” I knew it meant the world to him but I couldn’t help the sinking feeling growing inside me. My memory flashed back to my childhood days when my cousin was an accomplished tennis player and my very stylish aunt spent her evenings being a tennis mom, chatting with other equally charming tennis moms . I had fancied that scene then as a ten year old. But I dreaded the idea of it as I was asked to do so. 

I looked around and saw the other parents. I am not exactly an introvert but I’ve had very little success in making new friends under forced situations. This would mean no evening workouts for me, dinners would have to be planned ahead and my life would revolve around his schedule. Thankfully I felt no guilt thinking about my sacrifices and  spent the next half hour wallowing in self-pity. 

As I was nursing my wounds, I suddenly remembered a friend who had taken it upon himself to send me the daily stats of his runs every morning, as recorded on an app. I would look at it momentarily and then dismiss it soon enough. He had the most noble intentions to inspire me to get moving. But I somehow never believed I could be a runner. Partially, it may be because I was told by my doc that I have a constricted nasal passage and steroids were the easiest way to resolve it,  which I didn’t want for myself. Also, having an over enthusiastic runner for a husband can be very daunting. While I was shuddering from driving ten miles for soccer each way, he runs 50 miles in one day as if it were walking from the living room to the kitchen.  

So I had conveniently blocked off my friend’s attempts to motivate me. But when push comes to shove, miracles do happen. I couldn’t simply sit there on the fringes of the turf field, like a doting mother, guarding my son’s sweaty jerseys and water bottles. So I downloaded the app on my phone and decided to give it a shot. Needless to say it went pretty well. My first walk was two miles. I was better prepared the next evening with the right shoes and attire. 

A week into it, I look forward to my hour. It is slowly becoming a habit. The speed is improving, my stamina building up, breathing doesn’t seem to slow me down and the in-house runner’s snide remarks about my speeds, even though in jest, aren’t dampening my spirit. Today, for the first time in many years, I am off to shoe shopping. Not for soccer, not for basketball, not for anyone else in my family, but for me. 

The very first step for me was indeed a giant leap forward towards overcoming mental blocks and pushing my limits. 

4

Kolkata: A city with a lazy charm

For many years, Kolkata had been on my bucket list as a city to visit. I am not sure how it got there, especially when my bucket list is otherwise empty. I suspect it is because of films and books. They always romanticize the city and its residents. The cinema from Bengal often represents India at various international film festivals. Their doe-eyed woman are beautiful and men are portrayed as intriguing with multi layered personalities. Also, recently I read many books written by writers from Nepal who never failed to mention Kolkata in their stories. Several renowned musicians hail from here. The land of Rabindranath Tagore, Academy award winner Satyajit Ray, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Mother Teresa, the Hooghly river, the iconic Howrah bridge, Flurries bakery, macher jhol, durga pooja, puchkas; it all seemed like a mystical world from a distance. And it proved to be equally intriguing, when earlier this year, I finally had the opportunity to visit Kolkata.

My first impression of the city, as I drove from the airport at midnight, was that it is big. The roads seemed wide and well lit, giving it a vibe of a safe city. 

I stayed at the Calcutta Club in the city center. This place exuded the colonial aura of the British India. It was a true Mecca of the intellectual elite, complete with a strict dress code and continental menu at the restaurant. The salt and pepper men smoking pipes and their elegant ladies, draped in handloom sarees and big red bindis, were straight out of an arthouse movie. Mentally I had divided them into Ghosh, Sen, Ray, Das and Bose; which in my mind were the people who graced a club of this social standing and discussed literature and economics while nursing their drink. The uniformed, subservient staff stood at the beck and call of the babus, ensuring that the social gap between them remained intact. While the privileged did their bit in maintaining the hierarchy by looking through the have-nots as if they didn’t exist. No one questioned the structure set a long time back and it continued to prevail, sadly, in harmony. My place in this scenery was mainly undetermined. I was the outsider with no role to play. In general  I was restricted to the fringes or in other words, I was invisible. 

Top on the list of places to visit was the Victoria Memorial. The garden lacked nurture and the structure didn’t appear in good repair. I think over time, it had succummed to the over-hype. I decided to take a few selfies here with the memorial faintly in the background as my souvenir of this visit and check it off my list.

One cannot go all the way to Kolkata and not visit the Kali temple. The midday sun did not dampen our spirits. Unfortunately the temple itself was underwhelming and the godmen strengthened my belief in religion being the end of spirituality, an emotion I had recently experienced at Ajmer. At both places I was threatened by the priests of ill-fate for not making monetary offerings. I said a quiet prayer in my mind, while trying not to being mugged by greed, asking for Kali’s well-being in her own temple and  moved on.

From the pedestal to the street, a short journey…

No more monuments for me. I had decided to wander around aimlessly. 

The alternate reality of this big city was yet to be explored. And it took us to the old city. The pace was sluggish, the people lacked curiosity; even the stray animals couldn’t have cared less. It was mid-week, business hours. But the absence of movement left me very baffled. How did these people earn a living? 

What seemed like a regular day in the city

After spending spending some time in Kolkata, I came to the conclusion that the two things the  Bengalis thoroughly enjoyed were shopping and eating. Lunch was copious amounts of rice with various fish curries cooked in mustard oil. It was uniquely delicious. This meal explained the general lethargy that prevailed. After their siestas, they would wake up to shopping. Beautiful sarees and artistic jewelry lined the street sides. The atmosphere was festive.  There was more food and sweets as we made our way through. The tram ride was fun. In general, one couldn’t help  but  notice the overall lack of  upkeep in the city. Its dusty surfaces and walls with peeling paints had somehow become  it’s unique charm. 

Upon combing the lanes and by-lanes, the disparity that had made an appearance at the Club, started to root itself firmly. The gap was more evident in Kolkata compared to any other  Indian city  I’ve been to. The two classes didn’t seem to overlap at any juncture. However, the one unifying theme throughout the city was the pace of life. No one seemed to be in a rush for anything. I failed to understand how it was considered as a major metropolitan. It was a different world by itself. 

Whether I want to go back to it or not, I haven’t between able to decide. But most certainly I will be thinking about it for a long time to come. 

Charming boat ride at Princep Ghat on the Hooghly

0

Something’s clicking!

I always thought it was very clichéd of architects to take pictures. They all do. All the time. With real cameras, not phone cameras. It’s as if the camera is an extension of their body, an extra limb. Since most of the people I’ve known are either architects or artists of some sort, I’ve naturally met many photographers and quite a few good ones. This has restricted my tryst with photography to appreciating others’ craft and has been a deterrent for me to dabble into any photographic endeavors of my own. It can be quite intimidating, especially if one doesn’t possess a camera with all its frills and primarily relies on a borrowed camera, belonging to the architect spouse. In such a case it comes with a long list of instructions: on how to hold it, how to zoom, how to focus, how to take care of it, what to do and what not to do. So I’ve always kept the aspirant photographer in me hidden. Instead, I would take pictures on my phone and transform them painstakingly on paper with paints. It pampered the artist in me without exposing my disappointment related to photography.

Last month when I traveled through north India, amidst the vibrant colors and streetscapes and beautiful structures with long history and well-preserved stories, I lost my hesitation and took photographs without inhibitions, albeit with a phone camera. Admittedly, it is impossible to take a bad picture of the stunning monuments and everyday scenes of the places I visited, nonetheless, I was enjoying looking at my daily collection each evening. Yet I didn’t think much of them. They were mainly for myself until one unguarded moment when I shared them with a photographer who found something good in them.  I suspect he was being polite, but I hinged on to the encouragement and took it rather seriously. From that moment onwards I was unabashedly sharing my photographs on social media. It helped me to look beyond my complexes and focus more on the subject in the photograph.

These days I find myself taking pictures of random things: rusty metal fences, crumpled papers, onion peels, pots, pans, so on and so forth. I am finding beauty in small things in everyday life. Today I took a big step, a huge one for me, and sent a couple of my photographs to be printed on canvas. If they were just prints, I would’ve probably wiggled out of framing and hanging them. But now, they are simply a nail away from being hung.

I am visibly stoked and even though just for a moment, considered indulging myself with a camera. It is amazing what a little bit of encouragement, when least expected, can do.