Dreamer

Every day the reverie of sleep shatters

With that familiar wail from next door

And splinters of invisible glass prick my skin

As I am dragged from my castle of dreams

My child is awake

 

I watch him at play, revel in the largesse

He extends to the inanimate

As he breathes life into his toys

Dancing with them, giving them

Reason to exist.

 

As he falls and the world turns upside down

For that second; a sharp intake of breath

as everything hangs in suspension

Will he crack his head against the floor?

Not today

 

The day is on me, a quick cup of tea

Boiled over, gingery, a welcome slap

Glass in hand, I bark orders for breakfast

Trudge to the washing machine

Following a trail of scattered nappies

 

I drop the dirty clothes, adjust the settings

1200 RPM is the speed at which

I sometimes wish my life would go

But who knew that seven kilos

Could weigh so much?

 

I emerge to find the remains of a busy morning

apple rind here, wet towel there

The ring of a cup forms a halo on the table

Recalling one’s lifelong commitment to coffee

In a blur of movement, everyone is at work

 

Except me, I’m still here and it’s time to bathe

in the tub we splash and sing

Making little whirlpools and eddies

For the ducks to go round and round in

And soap bubbles, our favourite thing

 

We emerge smelling of summer

Puffed and powdered, hungry and happy

And attack the food prepared for us

I find that if we approach it aggressively

It’s easier to vanquish the plate

 

Full stomachs, clean bodies, happy hearts

His eyelids droop, it’s time to nap

I sing him his favourite lullaby and

He is asleep, let me quickly sit and write

This poem for I too have a dream.

 

Are you offended yet?

This is a question that clogs the gutter space of our 21st century lives. With the democratization of technology and increase in access, the virtual equivalent of people shouting from the rooftops is here. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving of opinions, like the clamour to board a Mumbai local (or get off it). There’s a lot of bruised egos, hurt feelings, rants, and self-aggrandizement. Indeed, it’s almost deemed necessary that everybody has an opinion. That’s how you get mileage today.

But it also happens that our newfound voices sometimes sound too screechy, like bad chalk squeaking on an unused board. We love to react. We don’t seem to have found any balance when it comes to potentially controversial subjects, no room to engage with difference. Yeh India hai bhai, thoda adjust karo. But are we adjusting? We’re always walking on proverbial eggshells, increasingly getting so tetchy about issues that we’d thus far only been passive spectators to. Our opinions are now sacrosanct, and those contradicting them are like burrs on our favourite cashmere sweater. They must be removed with immediate effect.

Is it that we’re finally standing up for what we believe is right? But what is right is becoming an increasingly grey area. Also, who gets to decide what is right? And why can’t people disagree anymore? When did we stop being able to look critically at ourselves, to laugh at ourselves?

My partner has been introducing me to Good stand-up comedy. And with it, I’ve found that my sense of humour has had to take a moment to grapple with what would traditionally be perceived as insulting or offensive. I’ve learnt to understand forms of expressions as pushing the envelope, a version of social commentary. And this has helped me greatly. I’m a more tolerant person for it. But the question remains: Are we equipped to distinguish between the offensive and the sarcastic?

Lawyer about sad client: 'I object, your honor - that witness hurt my client's feelings!'

'You can't hurt his feelings ? at least pretend to eat it.'

Comedy tells bold truths, things that we may initially be uncomfortable hearing. And that is its beauty. Comedy shows you more clearly than anything else what lines not to cross, by itself coming closest to that line. It is a form of reverse censorship of one’s thoughts, a speaking of the hitherto unspeakable. With beliefs previously held dear now crumbling or reprehensible practices now being held up to scrutiny, maybe it is only fair that engaging with new modes of understanding be accompanied by a liberty of expression, a certain licentiousness. An ability to mock our own narrow-mindedness.

So doesn’t comedy have a duty to keep up with the times? Since ancient times, the role of comedy has been satire, and exposing the follies of society. But can one comment at the expense of those who are already exploited, or on the backfoot? It’s like men making jokes about sexual politics around the only woman in the office. These are the dilemmas we are confronted with in this age. To compound matters, social media seems to have conferred upon us the right to be self-righteous.

Opinions are a dime a dozen, and along with it comes the inevitable need to decide who is “right”, what opinion is “legitimate”, what stand is “moral”, what the most equitable position is on various issues. We are all forced to become more political beings. The increasing impossibility of “being there” yet lending ourselves to diverse discourses and issues that we feel strongly about is becoming a possibility, but also a problematic one.

There is so much to say about public shaming, wherever you may be located. Jasleen Kaur, whose case has thus far (in)famously gone down as the incident where the shamer becomes the shamed, is still fresh in the minds of Indians. Though many people seem to take the middle ground on this, and laud her for speaking out against violence, the very nature of this violence, and its authenticity, is yet to be determined. And if her allegations stand unsubstantiated, she will join the current crop of people (women included) who are stirring up trouble to further their own ends. I hope that people can compartmentalize when anger and outrage is justified and when it is uncalled for. Or best, wait for the verdict.

There is no being politically correct in some cases. The weight of historical injustice to women may be sitting heavy on one scale, but nothing justifies crying Wolf, especially when you have been given the benefit of the doubt. Like most women in Delhi, I have faced my fair share of harassment, sexual and verbal. I’ve been groped, sung to, made obscene gestures at. I’ve even been molested in my own bedroom by a stranger who somehow gained midnight access to the rented apartment I was sharing with my friends! And I have retaliated. To men who are rude to me, to patronizing and condescending attitudes, to cheap comments. I once chased a chap who made “boob squeezing” gestures at me through the lanes of Nizamuddin basti, and had him beat up by the crowd.

People have stopped taking shit lying down. It’s a sign of our times. But that’s hardly just cause to shame without proof. Yes, nobody likes being verbally abused. But there are many ways to stand up for yourself and spurious exposés shouldn’t be one of them. With the toxic post-hedonist environment that we live in, let’s see how this entire business of being offended pans out in the near future! Until then, keep your skin on.

#Justsaying

Untitled Feelings

damseldamseldamsel

Sometimes I just lie back

And watch my distended belly

As my breath rises, falls, rises, fall

Watch as a theatre undulates under my skin

Subterranean movements, life

Making itself known.

“I too am here”

 

I trace the ragged contours of the journey

From seed to baby,

 A wisp of cirrus to a cumulonimbus

Spreading over the landscape of my life

Nature’s radiance, its fury

Soon to be mine to hold, fear, love

This ticking timebomb

 

I, this lonely player in a stadium of

Flat bellies, pierced navels, unpigmented breasts

Searching in the crowd for something familiar

A face looks back at me, a simulacrum

She looks like someone I used to know

But I must go home now

These swollen ankles are tired.

What I think about when I think about bookstores

34593_409344234078_3300481_n                                               An independent bookstore in Edinburgh.

It feels like the end of an era. Another independent bookstore in Delhi recently announced the pulling down of its shutters. Fact & Fiction is the Al Pacino of Delhi bookstores, diminutive but like dynamite. Every reader in the city worth her or his salt has tasted of its offerings and emerged happier, wiser, more enchanted by literature, by life. It’s the kind of place that gives you a sense of privilege just by being privy to the knowledge that it exists, that you can spend an afternoon there. The rotating shelves near the entrance hold an enthralling promise that allows you to traverse different domains of handpicked experiences. Remember the flutter of excitement you felt while watching The Crystal Maze on TV? As you step on the ladder to reach out for a book on the upper shelves, you transcend your own worries and cross over an invisible boundary that separates the wheat from the chaff. Fact & Fiction is a world that erases lesser worlds.

Where do I begin?

In my ideal world, bookstores should stand witness to the blossoming of young love, their walls enclosing the exchange of serendipitous encounters — not a bar or coffee shop, but a bookstore. And so it did, this bookstore. It was a candyfloss of fantasies, standing out in its simple, alluring authenticity. And I lived out my own fantasy there. When I was younger, I met a girl there. I forget her name. It was a different time, a time of short hair, open sexuality, barely a care in the world. I was then managing a bookstore myself, and also had pretensions of being a writer, or wanting to be one.

I watched her as she browsed through a bunch of novels, all the time making like I was concentrating on the shelf behind her. Man, was she pretty or what. We were within touching distance, and I was pretending to be immersed in the blurb of the book I was holding, Cafe Europa by Slavenka Drakulic (again, a wonderful book that you would only come across in a bookstore like Fact & Fiction). Minutes, or aeons, passed. My mouth was dry. Then the gods smiled. She looked up at me and uttered that tome-tested line every book lover wants used on them sometime. “Have you read this book?” And conversation flowed.

She was a girl after my own heart. We spoke about the books we adored, our love for poetry, I told her about the short story I was working on, she told me about a funny incident in another bookstore. I don’t know if this is imaginative glazing but I think we talked about the meaning of life and what kept us up at night as well. “I’ve seen you before,” she said. “It’s possible. I work in a bookstore,” I replied. I invited her to the store, and promised her a cup of coffee and a discount (shouldn’t more dates be of that nature?). We arranged to meet at the store in the next few days. It was the closest I ever came asking a girl out. It was surreal. I remember walking on air as I left that hallowed space, clutching on to Cafe Europa as if my future depended on it.

Needless to say, she never came. But that’s never really the point, is it? In retrospect, it seems like all my experiences in the store that day were meant to be short-lived. Cafe Europa also remained with me for only about a month before it was lost to the wiles of irresponsible book borrowers. I looked for it in every other bookshop I subsequently went to, but in vain. That’s when I got the idea that the gentleman who ran the store was not just a bookstore owner but a curator, a gatherer of beautiful world views under one roof. Ironically, I only found the book again only when I looked it up and ordered it on Amazon last year.

No, this is not an elegy. The brilliant store owner, Ajit Singh, has written his own elegiac tribute, as have others affected by its impending demise. Yes, we all probably expected it, steeling ourselves for the inevitable. Yes, we are all culpable. Yes, I too visit bookshops with none of the intensity or frequency that I used to. I too check prices of books on Amazon.in and order from there because it’s convenient. And I regret, regret how my life has become ruled by convenience. Of course it doesn’t end there. For everything comes at a cost. So what is the cost of convenience? The erasure of a fundamental experience? Must bookstores too follow in the footsteps of the shutting down of VHS shops, of music stores, the era of cassettes, the cheap thrill of finger rewinding?

Yes, things change. My body is changing too. Pregnancy will wreak some minor havoc on my previously skinny frame, of that I have no doubt. A baby will change how I see life, and choose to lead it. And I cannot stop that, much as I want to remain my earlier self. Yes, times change. But there are some things that remain constant. My spirit, for example. Another thing that doesn’t change is how bookstores make you feel.

All my life, the one thing that has always made sense to me is books. I was a single child, often lonely. I found in books my friends, my fantasies, my weapons against a cruel world. As I grew, books grew to become my anchors of moral judgment, my guide through the grey areas of experience, my window to other cultures, my conduit to empathy, my sense of self. Books that I could hold, sleep with under my pillow, read on the pot, carry to the doctor’s waiting room, pass time on a train/ metro/ bus/ airplane; books that I could open and point to a random line which would then answer the current dilemma plaguing my life. Their very tactility, their slight weight that is the marker of a reassuring presence; the slight breeze against your cheek as you shuffle the pages.

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My parents took special care to nurture my love for books. While growing up, my mother would assign me to learn new words every day from the dictionary and write them down in a special journal. Even when I began earning my own money, they always told me that one thing I had carte blanche over was book allowances from them. As long as they lived, I could always ask them to buy me books.

As an adult, I always skirted around professions that involved an intensive engagement with words, whether it was journalism, copy editing, running a bookstore, transcribing. I studied English Literature for a long time. After my Masters, I thought of moving away from that and pursued an M.Phil in Social Sciences, and now a doctorate in Law and Governance, located within the domain of political rationality. But my research interest, the history of literary censorship in India, veered back to fundamental questions around the relationship between literature and law, religion, politics, history, memory, identity. I married a man whose book collection possibly outnumbers mine (it is a sore point in our relationship). I cannot imagine being with someone who doesn’t read. Always, the magic of books has meant so much to me.

If you are no stranger to Delhi, you will remember the closure of another wonderful independent bookstore, The Bookworm, about seven years ago. If you run a Google search for Bookworm, Delhi, it will still show up: B-Block, Connaught Place. Eerie. Like coming across the Facebook profile of a dead person. The flesh and pulp is gone but the blur remains. That store which I loved and frequented (their Foucalt and Derrida were so cheap!) was the place where I first attempted to actualize my desire to work in a bookstore. I remember just having finished my Masters and being in between jobs. I was crossing The Bookworm when I saw a sign on the door. “Hiring. Manager Wanted.” I was going to go in and apply for the job. My mother was with me then, and dissuaded me saying that I could not romanticize running a bookstore to the extent that I did. It wouldn’t pay, it would be frustrating, I was just starting with my life — the standard arguments. I listened to her then.

But sometimes you just can’t be stopped. Three years later, I did actualize that dream. I helped establish a bookstore, CMYK, in Lodhi Road, and ran it as a manager just to understand the experience. I walked into a room with empty shelves, and left it a bookstore. I stacked every book, every magazine, in the niches that some occupy even now. I learnt the accounting software and inventory management, started visiting other bookstores to see what the “competition” kept, had regular conversations with book and magazine suppliers, learnt the ropes. I learnt how hectic running a store can be, and no, I never had the time to just put my feet up and browse my favourite books. I was either receiving book orders or making them, manning the till, taking stock, mingling with customers, offering suggestions when asked, or preparing for a book reading or film screening in the evening. But at some point in the day I would pause and look around that expansive space, filled with beautiful tomes on art, design, photography, travel, cookery, architecture, interiors, textiles, history, and would tell myself “This is Paradise. And You are in charge.”

I want to do it all over again. On my own terms.

And that’s why I am so worried. I am anxious about the future, about living in a world where there are no independent bookstores, where bookstore owners aren’t curators who work to stimulate the reader’s mind but algorithms that give you access to the book you are looking for. I dread the day (it’s almost here) when we will only encounter bookstore chains in malls which mainly stock penny dreadfuls, bestsellers, and self-congratulatory narratives of embracing modernity. I fear for my child, for the legacy we are going to leave behind, one of alienated experiences of reading, no visceral excitement at visiting your favourite bookstore, no exchanging knowing glances with kindred spirits, no being lost for what seems like hours in that wonderland. No playing Alice.

Earlier this year, my partner and I visited Dasa Book Cafe, Bangkok’s largest secondhand bookstore. Watching us systematically stack up a massive pile of books to buy with bemusement, the bookstore owner and his extremely genial friend got into a conversation with us. The place was full of treasures that they helped us excavate, from Anthony Burgess’ magnum opus Earthly Powers to Antoine du St. Exupery’s “Wind, Sand and Stars” (which I bought after the friend’s exposition on women’s penchant for Exupery’s prose, his wife’s love of his philosophy, and how he had bought the book for her). Both men in the prime of their lives, they had stories about George Orwell’s eccentricity, Burgess’s linguistic genius, Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy life, peppered with their own life stories, their own trysts with reading and writing, and the former’s experience of running bookstores in other countries. We stood around and chatted for an hour. We left with 15 books. Again, serendipity.

I know bookstores aren’t doing well. It’s a question of commerce, not romance. But the future is in our hands, it is something that we are partially responsible for, even as technology influences all our decisions, and always seems to be one step ahead. I want to recreate that experience for future generations. Nobody should have to live life without the pleasure of unmediated encounters with books in spaces where they are still held sacred. I wish we would all make the effort to go down to our nearest independent bookstore, buy a book, meet like-minded people, select and small though the set may be, and keep the flame alive.

Can we understand what language does not let us see?

A few weeks ago I was leaving my university (where I am pursuing a PhD) on a self-declared maternity leave of sorts. I was going back to my hometown to nurse my six-month pregnant belly in peace till my baby was ready to enter the world. I could leave my struggles behind, relinquish them to a sweltering Delhi summer. I would not have to wonder whether the bathroom in my rented flat would have running water (which was contingent on the landlord’s largesse — there were days when he just didn’t feel like switching on the motor), whether monkeys would invade my kitchen today, if another of the cleaning lady’s relatives had “suddenly died”, or if the water guy was in the mood to deliver drinking water. Life held the promise of being soothing, idyllic.

Unplanned pregnancies can be a delightful yet trying time for the best of us. My twenties were about shaving my head, traveling solo, switching jobs and doing psychedelics. Motherhood had always been someone else’s reality, not mine. And now here it was, embodied within me, and words failed me. As I was making my way out of my department, I affectionately ruffled the hair of a dear friend and confidante. My goodbyes had been said already, as much as one can successfully say when one is climbing an experiential ladder from where there is no coming down. My mind was whirling with the heavy imminence of departure. With each step I realized I was leaving behind me the symbols of carefree living. When I reentered the same space, my life would have altered completely. Departures are difficult. Words sometimes don’t suffice to explain to yourself, much less to others, the life you are leaving behind and the unknown terrain you will tread.

So I ruffled his hair and walked out of the door. Later I came to hear that he had found the gesture condescending, as if I were ruffling the head of a dog. Or something that an adult does to a child. I was stunned. Had I unknowingly already become the older person I was steeling myself to be? How could a gesture so basic be so misunderstood? It was after all an action predicated upon goodwill. Goodbyes are always insufficient. They fall short, and seem to be expressed best through not words but the very lack thereof. A light squeezing of the arm, a parting glance, can speak louder than the attempt of language to signify feelings that are momentous, gesturing towards its inability to successfully reach into our innermost recesses and spread out what lies there.

That incident made me think. I was tired of being misunderstood, tired of people not “getting” me. This minor event exemplified a frustration I had been feeling through the course of my pregnancy, the feeling that I couldn’t communicate my experiences through language. Maybe that was one of the problems — a lack of the appropriate vocabulary to articulate the experience of an expectant maternity. But that is a post for another day. Now here was a fairly straightforward situation and I found that I couldn’t even communicate through gesture! Had I instead chosen to articulate my feelings, would I have been better understood? My fear with language is also that words often overstate, understate; become vapid or too dramatic. Was it my “condition” or was this failure the fault of the language itself?


The Slippages in Language

What does language really capture? Language’s primary precondition is to communicate. But can communication always amount to a communion of ideas? That must be what great literature is about. That moment while reading a novel when a sentence gives you pause. And you think “How could she/ he know that?” And you wait, and read it again, slower this time. Say it out loud in your head. Roll it around your tongue. Gently extract it of flavour. Because it has pinpointed what you feel, but cannot express. I have often had that sense.

Thus began a quest to try and understand the root of the issue. This was certainly challenging, as brevity is the soul of the 21st century, and not in a haiku-esque manner. Not that books have gone out of fashion, but Twitter, Facebook hashtags and IMs dominate the quasi-literary landscape these days. On the bright side, this virtual explosion also means an increase in access to people’s thoughts, ideas, opinions. Thus trawling the Internet, I recently came across the Brazilian-Portuguese word “Cafune” in a blogpost. “Cafune” is the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair. This approximated what I was trying to convey to my friend, without having to clumsily verbalize it. Oh, the triumph I felt on discovering that word! It was akin to discovering a great sentence in a novel, that sense of “how did they nail the feeling?”

I remember, while reading one of Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s novels some years ago, being struck by his phrase “the belated eloquence of the inarticulate”. It was on the same day that I had missed delivering a fitting comeback to someone over an argument we were having, one that the situation had demanded. Only as I was walking away did the perfect rejoinder flood through my brain. And it was agonizing. If only this thought had come to me two minutes back! I remember feeling so comforted by the fact that some novelist sitting continents away, so removed from my life, had put in words exactly what I had felt.  So imagine my excitement when, in my trawling, I chanced upon the word “trepverter”, a Yiddish noun which means “A witty riposte or comeback you think of only when it is too late to use.” We have all felt this way at some point or other. But it is when the feeling is acknowledged as a word that suddenly your experience gains a universal relevance, and in those moments you feel vindicated, really alive.

If words describe feelings and feelings are components of the cultures that they emerge from, then it stands to logic that our emotions are circumscribed by our cultures. Having an experience outside the domain of access of one’s culture then may result in the feeling of being lost, alienated or in unfamiliar territory. There is then no common cultural signifier that points towards meaning. The anthology of emotions representative of the English language often does not account for feelings that accompany actions. The English language is a terse and polite one, somewhat reflective of their culture. Hence the overabundance of words that say something without meaning anything, the classic example being the word “nice”. To feel the first stirrings of love in English is not resonant with the actual physiology of the human heart, unlike for instance, its Norwegian counterpart  “forelsket” — meaning the indescribable euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love. I also chanced upon blogs and websites that have dug into the treasures of other cultures, unearthed words that one can only have wished existed, such as

12 untranslatable words from around the world

Then there are those who go a step further and push the boundaries of language by inventing words so bloody evocative that they must find their way into our vocabularies. I refer to John Koenig’s

http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/

So how do we grapple with encountering experiences that are outside the breadth of our weltenschauung? Read. Reading is the magical gateway to ideas that may not be readily available to us. I remember encountering magical realism for the first time, and coming to understand how it was located so deeply within Latin American culture and historical experience. Its essaying of reality infused with fantasy gave meaning to places, things and experiences that were previously mundane, sterile, inaccessible. The same goes with the understated intensity of Japanese literature. The Japanese quality of precision, a lilting harmony of expression and a sweeping poignance and dignity serves to excavate emotions from their roots and graft them onto newer understandings of reality. Different literatures from across the world reverberate this sentiment.

British Author Julian Barnes writes in Flaubert’s Parrot:

“Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. ”

Reading helps us demystify experience and sometimes life itself in its minutiae. Engaging with any form of expression does. The answer, I think, lies somewhere between language and culture. So read. Absorb art and photographs in order to understand the world through the eyes of others. Travel. Learn other languages. Open up to the magic of words, and the feeling of cafune.