Sunday, 28 February 2016

To You, The Boy From Far Away

(Backstory: Most of my To You letters are written after long phone-calls and email exchange interviews, this was the first which happened over several cups of coffee and too-loud laughter. This letter is not for a boy (though, of course there is a boy). This is for a feeling which, in the white noise of everyday and too many internet trolls, sometimes comes far too rarely. With this girl it took years coming and the letter is so she can trap it on paper for posterity.
For those who are suckers for plot-outlines: these two kids aren’t "officially dating"; they’re not more but they’re not less either. They’re stuck somewhere in the interesting: in the in-between).

To You
The Boy From Far Away,

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of memory. 

The way it lends itself more to what’s happening right now than to what has already happened. Maybe this is what makes me want to rush in like a firefighter and scoop all the sounds and sights and smells and tastes on my tongue and ledger them in a ruled notebook, alphabetically for posterity.

Maybe this is why, I’ve always had trouble thinking and talking linearly and why I can’t tell beginnings apart from endings. And yet, I remember you with a fluorescent burn clarity from that party I never intended to go to.
I was running late, with a mocking half fever and absolutely no desire to meet “new people”. My best friend badgered me through a slew of two word texts and there I was, waiting for her, because like always she was running on promises and behind time. I want to say I saw you glimmering through the crowd but the only time I remember you is when suddenly for the first time that night the “my name is this/this is what I do/etc” conversation actually had my attention. 
The gauzy haze of wine, mostly white, intensified my interest in your interest of me.

This is how I’m doing most of the retelling, through feelings and Granta-approved  detailed anecdotes. Wondering if what I feel for you today is shiny, sparkling brand-new? Or is it a lumbering awakening of what I felt before, the last time I started to fall into love and a relationship? 
That was 10 years ago; five of which were spent in a beautiful relationship and five in unwrapping myself from its hold.
That’s what you did, BoyFromFarAway, you smashed your too-tall self through the explanations, flow chart order, grand plans and way of life I’d outlined for myself. 

I'd pledged allegiance to the church of the Agnostic to Love. I’d eventually wanted a companion, sure. Someone I loved and wanted to go home to, but here you have me fussing over the texture of your voice. The slow drawl of the “hey”, each time you call, and the way you make my insides squeal, dance and behave like a 14 year old girl at a concert. I stare at my phone far too often, willing for you to text and I’m a distracted heap of nerves during meetings when you do. I’m alien to my own body and it’s mutinous defiance of the importance of a working Monday!
Was it only a few weeks ago when we were at my house drinking merlot? Your fascination with full-bodied wines being a point of such deep interest to me that I wonder why sociologists, anthropologists and artists aren’t dropping everything and paying attention to this fact and its obviously startling beauty. So there we were, drinking Merlot and talking and soon it was 4.30am. 
We’re warriors of time, you and I, when we’re together. Beating it, bending it and slipping in and out of black holes of sleep, schedules and pauses; what Amelia Earhart I think was really attempting to do.

Which is what I almost told you that evening when I spent an hour discussing my theories of the multiverse with you. I self-edited hastily, which I’m excellent at and wondered if I was talking too much? But you taste my rambles, like you do wine: swirling what I say inside your mouth, keeping my point of view there and never forgetting to savour. 
I do the same with your operatic silences. I can lie on my back and float through all that stillness with you. It was in one of these silences when I first mentally mapped your body. Knowing well that if I was an architect or had any way with brick and mortar, I’d draw buildings and cities in tribute: clean lines, angular planes, sharp symmetry but once inside: all home.

In my home, my mom wrapped us in hugs more than blankets when we were growing up and yet a part of me never learnt how to give affection, always hungry silently though for its receipt. I’d forgotten how to be affectionate with touch.  You brought tenderness back into my life, and I’m not quite sure how to navigate it. Next time just don’t kiss my forehead so easily and carelessly. It’s unchartered territory and leaves me more vulnerable than my rambles can find words to explain. 

I don’t know if this is scary for you to read. Spelt out loud, in text.
How much intensity of emotion is ok to display? For your health? For that of others? 
Those are questions I never felt I needed to answer, until now. Because I find myself wanting to spend my evenings, bleary-eyed as I may be the next morning, with you. Like that work Wednesday when we ran into each other at the bar. I promised to stay for a drink, rapidly forgetting my own internal scoff of promises (especially those I recklessly, valiantly and repeatedly make to myself). Details flutter away from my hold, but I remember fragrances, too many wearied, dismembered peanut shells strewn around our table and all the energy of all the world intensified around your mouth, as you told me stories from when you were 15: the boy in high school who played too much football and built a house with his grandfather from scratch.

So what next, Boy From Far Away?
Maybe we’ll have grander adventures. Maybe we’ll officially date. Maybe we’ll succumb to those famous thrill-dulling vagaries of time. Maybe we’ll walk into many rooms and laugh together at many fun-house mirrors. Maybe this too will become a caricature, as most things are ripe to be.
Maybe you’ll finally have heard all my stories and maybe I would have thrown a dance-party to all your silences.

Let’s take another second to find out.

The Girl Who Never Thought She Could. 

                              (In memory of evenings out, this one is from my fav one last year with my childhood friend at Perch, Delhi)

(To You is a letter writing project I started because there are not enough letters and love going around. If you have something to say with love-- for your ex girlfriend, you current husband, pizza (promise not to make it cheesy), your landlord who let you skip rent or even Ryan Gosling-- I'll write that letter for you. The love letter can go with real names, back stories, as many pictures as you like, aliases and even super powers.
The final letter will be up on my blog and a copy will be handwritten and posted to you or to an intended recipient. Kisses on the envelope only on my discretion. Give me a shout at: )

Sunday, 21 February 2016

To You, Mrs. Abraham

(Backstory: This is not a commissioned To You letter, or one I ever wanted to write. One in fact I should’ve written and read out loud and handed over to her, with a hug a while ago. Mrs. Abraham, the principal of my school, (that ochre painted, gorgeous turret-topped castle I called home for 14 years) lives on inside me and every girl from La Martiniere who ever knew her. There is no way to write a letter to Mrs. Abraham without writing it to La Martiniere and to my entire childhood. It involves, above all else, wanting to invent time travel, to go back and do it all over again.)

To You,
Mrs Abraham

Time is never on time, I’ve noticed.
It’s sloth-paced and languorous; filling up years and lifetimes of reading in the afternoon sun, chocolate ice creams and 5pm evenings during summer vacations when you're 12 and it’s a mechanical drill of Monday to Friday work projects and “Oh! has it been five years already?” when you are an adult.

And that may be how memories conspire too. Those you scooped up in your arms and collected during school, technicolour and bursting with sights, smells, references and inside jokes. 

And those later you only remember as milestones: the first job, the next job, and that time you turned 25 and then 35.

My school life could be cleaved into two. 

Until Cl. 7 when Mrs. Keelor was the principal: her shock of beautiful white hair, the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen and her ability to quiet a room the minute she walked into it. We weren’t really sure how school would go on when we heard she was retiring. There were rumours that it would shut down and we nodded our 12-year-old heads gravely. That made sense. Of course going to any other school would be the deepest betrayal so we discussed which of our parents got to teach us when we would eventually be home schooled. I picked my mother and went home and broke the news to her.

To say that we understood and fell in love with Mrs. Abraham, the day she took over would be a stretch. To say that we did this inadvertently and absolutely soon enough wouldn’t even begin to cover it. To us, in those first few weeks Mrs. Abraham seemed like a new parent.
What does this mean? We’d ask each other.
And no one had a convincing answer.
But that’s the thing with parents. They come in sets. And I had no choice in the matter of falling in love with both, like I did with my biological ones.

I remember clearly, that first assembly led by Mrs. Abraham. We listened expectantly, maybe for a prophecy. What we got was an anecdote of a boy overcoming a problem later in life because when he was younger he’d read many books, each of which had taught him lessons he did not know or understand at the time, but served him later in life. And in her fierce love of reading and books I identified a burning kinship.

I couldn’t name the date when Mrs. Abraham became indistinguishable from the walls, passages, classes, smells and sights of my school: that drafty walk up from Junior School to the dorms or from the senior school staffroom (always neat as a pin. Always a mystery.)
To meet her: you needed to cut through the study room, where protractors met wood and names were carved, claims were made and a clock that seemed to loom larger than the length of the room, smile at Matron Michael and pray fervently she doesn’t ask you what you were doing out of class and how you had no business being near the offices.
Stop at the precipice of the office, re-arrange meticulously the pleats of your tunic (sometimes twice over), pull your socks up and sleeves down and then convince Mrs. Healy to let you see her. That your problem or question was possibly of State interest. Once in, her voice and she filled the office. You didn’t sit, because you’d practiced what you had to say in the walk from there to here, and timed it to under two sentences, but you almost always left her office smiling or definitely less terrified of the scare you’d drummed up, on your own, inside your head.
There was always a solution and a smile at the end, followed by a
“You’re welcome, Kakul, now go back to class.”

In school every class you were in felt like the most important anyone had been in yet. Class 9 was scary. We were near adults, because looming around the corner were the dreaded ICSE Board exams. All of us walked faster and looked at the class 7 girls goofing around like they were children at least 15 years younger and so much more irresponsible. We didn’t think there was anything more important going on in school than what our class was doing at that moment, and she helped solidify our belief. I wonder today, as I run to keep up the demands of my day, how she managed it all.
She ensured she made it to almost every Inter-house elocution contest, impromptu speeches, sometimes even flower arrangement competitions. Mine one year, was a long red flower, curved along a rocky bed and coloured gravel. In my best calligraphy, I had typed out the caption: Rhett. She told me that it was interesting I didn’t go with the obvious choice: Scarlett and wasn’t Gone With The Wind a delightful book and hoped I was reading better?

Monday morning assemblies meant her reading out snippets from books, anecdotes or just stories of what doing the right thing meant. And every time she spoke, without a microphone, her thick, soft voice always met silence and seemed to effortlessly glide across the space and reach the Prefects standing at the end. She shook our hands solemnly, every prize distribution ceremony, ensuring that Best Student (English) Cl 8 felt as accomplished as General Proficiency -1, Cl. 11.

It was in Class 10 when Ruchira and I found ourselves outside her office. Standing straighter, feeling as grown up as we ever thought we would be, we were asked if we’d like to go to Welham to represent the school for the debate next year. I don’t remember what we said, I remember her face, the sunlight streaming through from behind, the ochre of that almost round room and leaving thrilled and certain that the pride of the entire school rested on our excited, wiry shoulders. Since that day, we never ended a debate without her and Mrs. Dasgupta reassuring us that irrespective of results all that mattered was how well we spoke and argued. No one cheered us on as loudly, fiercely and proudly as they did, each time we won. 

During the final round of Frank Anthony Memorial in Trivandrum, we walked away with the runner up prize. Two Type-A girls sullen and semi-sulky decided to spend the evening watching TV in the guesthouse, to honour that special relationship teenagers seem to have with TV. She told us to go outside and soak in the colours of the sunset against the water, because debates will come and go, what if we never came to Trivandrum again? 
We went out. And she was right I’ve never had a chance to return to Trivandrum since. 

She loved us kindly too. In Class 11 when the Boys’ school cruelly heckled us, she ruled that the girls would not attend the Social that evening. Crushed with disappointment, as young girls before the evening of any dance they can’t go to would be, I know now that it was her teaching us to put before all fun and revelry our pride and dignity, and let no young boy(s) who challenges that, come first. Another time Class 11 Science decided to bunk school together; we thought we were entitled to that experience. All the badge holders who participated were issued a stern letter and when she found us laughing and making light of the letter, she told us how disappointed she was. That being a House Captain or Head Girl necessitated that we remember those young babies of Class 6 who would emulate our behavior. Teaching us that pride in offices is preceded with the responsibilities we shoulder.

Mrs. Abraham became the beginning of all things to us. My center-point during march past, on sports day, “Lyons House, look at Mrs Abraham and march sharpest when crossing that section”, who during the Cockhouse social, at my reluctance to open the dance, told me, “have fun and dance for one song, and then you can go back and just have fun with your own friends” , the person who after a trying career counseling session and my disappointment with the entire process sought me out to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and La Martiniere would be proud. Except a ballerina, it may be slightly late in the day for that career choice. But anything else at all, and she would be proud.

And so I told myself I’d return when I had made them (La Martiniere and her) proud. Visiting only once after my Masters, but promising myself to write that book, and return again with it, to her. To stand in that auditorium, the ceiling panels  of which we whispered sported blood stains and remains of past founders. 

I thought of school often as the years went by,  it’s was my primary reference point  and where in a deep vault lay my happiest memories. It’s where I was convinced I could be Darrell from Mallory Towers, because other than Lacrosse and constant rain, La Martiniere was almost the same as St. Claire’s, Mallory Towers and Hogwarts. And Mrs. Abraham stood in the centre of it all.

My first week at LSR in Delhi University, I would answer, “La Martiniere", each time we’d discuss schools we came from. Unmistakably proud, I learnt after several weeks that the school life I'd known, loved and was fiercely loyal to wasn't the same as everyone else. That La Martiniere, my teachers, that Christmas cantata, our house competitions and Mrs. Abaraham were memories and a time and tribe of belonging only ours to hold and cherish. A special secret that I could attempt to describe but you wouldn’t be able to taste and feel unless you’d lived there for 14 years.

In 2013 I ran into Mrs Abraham and Mrs A Dass in Delhi and couldn’t stop smiling, or fidgeting with the belt of my dress. Because she looked as regal out of school, in her floral sari, as she did when roaming school grounds, and I was sure I wasn’t standing up straight enough. She smiled at me and told me that the school missed me and I should come visit. And I promised her I would. 

The fact that I didn’t when she was around is still a coal shaped, burning regret. I may not have had all the awards I want and that book yet, but I know she would’ve been proud, no matter what I’m doing. Because, she made a 13 year old girl feel that, as she leaned against an interpretation of a flower arrangement- neither professional, nor centerpiece worthy-“It comes from a story Kakul, and that’s what makes it special.”

With all my love,

(Mrs. F. Abraham, principal, La Martiniere Girls' College)

(Those turrets and that moat - one of my fav buildings of school. La Martiniere Girls, Lucknow)

(To You is a letter writing project I started because there are not enough letters and love going around. If you have something to say with love-- for your ex girlfriend, you current husband, pizza (promise not to make it cheesy), your landlord who let you skip rent or even Ryan Gosling-- I'll write that letter for you. The love letter can go with real names, back stories, as many pictures as you like, aliases and even super powers.
The final letter will be up on my blog and a copy will be handwritten and posted to you or to an intended recipient. Kisses on the envelope only on my discretion. Give me a shout at: )

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Book Review and quiet wonderings about M Train by Patti Smith

The first Patti Smith song I ever heard was Gloria (in Excelsis Dio), on a cassette lying around my mums music drawer. I knew this song familiarly from our school’s annual Christmas cantata. Except Patti's was a ripped out version of the hymn where the part I could sing along to, mainly the lyrics Gloria (In excelsis deo) never appeared, no matter how many times my barely 12 year self patiently replayed it. Not even the Gloo-oo-rreee-aaa refrain I’d practiced in my falsified alto. And yet this strange, almost reggae like beat of rock n roll, stuck in my brain “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

In later years, I learnt only stray bits of her more famous music (especially 'Because the Night’with Bruce Springsteen), but the song that makes me strangely like Patti smith is the fairly lesser known Constantine’s Dream. It reads like none I’d heard before; part memoir resembling poetry but mostly rambling prose, it wasn’t designed around a beat which automatically makes it an ear worm. If you listen to it 30 times on repeat, it probably wouldn’t be an ear worm even then.
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked /
His nature that was nature itself /
And I heard him - I heard him speak /
And the birds sang sweetly /
And the wolves licked his feet,
But I could not give myself to him.

It follows course, then, that her book M Train (which after November last year, I re-read on a whim in one sitting last night) is the missing hymn from my childhood, song lyric, deep musing and an elegy to love and loss more than her songs were.

Don’t get me wrong; Patti follows no meter here either.
The book opens into minutiae and there it stays.
You follow her inside and out, sometimes in circles and sometimes on a roller-coaster sharp steep drop backwards while she details stories around coffee-swirling paper cups, deli sandwiches and encrusted soup bowls. Minutiae of your own life, perhaps, but Patti (meter-less mostly) remembers to mention in ending sentences, middle pauses and abruptly when she can that these may well be symbols of joy, or maybe neglect. Or could it all be, “A little jacking off, but mostly just work.”

You will resist the details of her life, until you will recognize and never be able to un-see that this book is a staggering tribute to time itself. 
Less a Didion like elegy and more a scrambling through Ms Smith’s personal drawers which hold mostly Polaroids, episodes of her sipping familiar coffee on favourite chairs rifling through memories, while taking a train back and forth between: old adventures with, her now deceased husband, Fred, to the more current crusade to find the best coffee beans in the world in a burlap sack filled shop, in Veracruz, Mexico, to playing chess with the slightly unhinged Buddy Holland.

Ms. Smith never travels alone. 
Always with her Polaroid camera, a book of the moment and through most part of M Train, a much loved and heavily mourned for black coat. The camera is employed to take pictures on the graves of authors and artists she’s loved: Plath, Freida and Diego, Akutagawa, Bolano, Brecht and Jean Genet. Reflecting none of the narcissism of appropriating the places we go to now, the celebrities we meet and document with our selfies and check-ins; this is a quieter, revered handshake with an artist she loves. A meeting made real to Ms. Smith only when captured on 24x36mm instant film and less when not.
Like Ms. Plath’s desolate grave (which Ms. Smith journeys to three times to get the perfect shot of in the winter), where 30 year old forever Ms. Plath lies as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. “I had an uncontrollable urge to urinate and imagined spilling a small stream, some part of me wanting her to feel that proximate human warmth. Life, Sylvia, Life.

M Train’s sentences are not constructed musings on everyday, chronological events as many memoirs tend to be. They're a gentle questioning of how even a Metro Card can be married to memory and of life and how it used to be. Most of all though, they're a swim inside a deep sense of melancholy, one you'll you want to join Ms. Smith in. Here napkins when burnt, resemble flora, “each closed like a fist, slowly reopening like petals of cabbage roses” and dirty streams become fairy-tale narratives, “a secret stream incandescent with rainbows, a mix of sun and petrol, skimming the water like weightless Merbabies with iridescent wings.” Ms. Smith’s world is on the surface resembling your own but somehow spartan, vastly different and shaped mostly by her.

The departure from Didion’s own poetic musings on grief is where Ms. Smith instead of being forbearing and stoic in her loss, writes if you let her, more of an instruction to life. This in its sheer,chilling simplicity is less rock-n-roll and more meditation, “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

Through Tokyo, a secret Continental Drift Society in Reykjavik which later urged her to burn past communication, England, Mexico City, Tangiers and her new home , her Alamo, on Rocakway Beach, Ms. Smith carries with her, her constants. A deep, almost disturbing consumption of coffee, mostly consumed at Café Ino, a black coat, much loved, more frayed and eventually lost, pictures, a recognizable love for detective shows (even if they are re-runs) and her ability to see things which you may never look at: to record these and to glean from them a manual on how to overcome loss, how to dance in the snow and how to really live life with a constant soft movement. Forward.

How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints and my iron coloured hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing the surrender my pen.

(Since all I have is a Kindle copy, got this pic from @mansipoddar)
                                                               (This image from @spensieratadc on Instagram)