Wednesday, August 26, 2009

mi primera poema en espanol roto

en la competicion entre temor y rabia
entremecimiento y pena
incertidumbre y inevitabilidad
fe y destino
excusas y logica
fatiga y pereza
oidos incredulos
maltida no fidedigno
animo quieres un idioma
no entiendo bien
por que
sentimiento no puedo posible
pero la verdad es
las palabras mas fuerte
son primos en las sentencias


My First Poem in Broken Spanish

Where fear competes with rage
Numbness with pain
Uncertainty with inevitability
Faith with destiny
Excuses with logic
Fatigue with sloth
When disbelieving ears
Signal to an untrustworthy tongue
And the mind searches for a language
It does not know well enough
To feel in
The truth remains
That the ordering of emotions
Are made apparent by the order of words

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When You're In for Life, Who Gets You Parole?

It has enough memorable lines to merit a coffee table book, and enough melodious music to carry your emotions. It is like any other textbook commercial success - the good guys are put through injustice and torment and win in the end, the bad guys have a great time and are punished by paralysis, the judicial system and a hole through the head. But there is a difference. Not every movie can become a metaphor of one's life.

It wasn't the first time I'd seen The Shawshank Redemption, but I can't think of a more fitting time to have seen it. The last time was three years ago, when I was watching one Academy Award winning film a day, and had plenty of time and very little money, a combination that leaves you without much inclination to introspect.

The Shawshank Redemption makes an impression on the collective conscious of the intellectia because, at some point, we realise we're all Reds or Andys. The pseudo-intellectia like it because the intellectia relate to it. Maybe some of us are Brooks, and some of us are Jack the Raven. We never go to say hi to Brooks, who saves us and sets us free, but cannot save himself, or set himself free outside prison. But most of us are Reds, or Andys.

We all feel we've got raw deals from life, got double-life terms for crimes we didn't commit, find the people who could have been our salvation snapped away from us, and often, find we have to chisel away at a wall for twenty years because a judge and jury sentenced us for no fault of ours, and a nasty policeman wouldn't allow testimony to our innocence, for fear of getting into a soup, and oh hell, we've all been fucked in the arse by imbeciles who didn't qualify as human. We watch the maxim Good things always happen to good people, proved wrong, because who is going to make certain of that when the laws of the cosmos are veering against us?

We all feel too, that we can get up there and tell the parole officer decade after decade that we do feel rahabilitated, yes, we have been changed by the time we've done and we will not be a danger to society, and see our parole applications rejected again and again, until we come up with a theory to justify our slipping into our comfort zones - where prison is our salvation, and we have become, to quote Morgan Freeman's spittle-ridden bark:


Some birds cannot be caged, says Red, because their feathers are too colourful. Perhaps he should have added, perhaps he should have realised, that it is not that some birds have feathers that are too colourful, but that they have not allowed the dust and the grime to clog them together and make a discoloured mess of their wings. That those are the birds that will get out early, after building libraries and building lives, to leave for a warm place with no memory. While the ones that have forgotten the vivid colours of their own feathers will wait, till they "don't give a shit" because that boy whom they could have told "this is how it is", is not there anymore, and all that is left is an old man who "doesn't give a shit", an old man who is beyond redemption.

There are Andys who will crawl through nearly half a mile of sewage to come out clean on the other side, and Reds who will wait for nearly half a century before they figure out the right lines to tell God, or Life, to get parole and get to the other side of the prison wall. There are Andys who will spend their lives mending boats so they can take the visitors to their hotels out on a cruise, and there are Reds and Brookses who don't want to be there any longer, and see their salvations in a neatly-pressed suit and a firmly-strung rope...a rope that can be used to die, or to tie up the possessions that will give one the licence to live.

But the good thing is not every Red has to be busy dying while the Andys are busy living - every Red could find that note and those dollar bills, come far enough to maybe go a little further, and get to Sijuantanejo, where that chessboard and that Andy will be waiting.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Rants

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 22nd August, 2009)

You know it’s one of ‘them’ as soon as you see its mobile phone. This creature’s display screen always has a studiedly candid picture of itself. It belongs to the Sorority of Self-Admirers. They have the most nondescript faces in India, but believe themselves to fall into the ‘hot’ category. They usually get the biggest pout out of their thin lips.

You know they’ve had a date every Valentine’s Day, who has faithfully bought them a heart-shaped card and a pink teddy bear. You know they’ve had their hair rebonded if it was curly, and permed if it was straight, and coloured at least once, either which way. You know they’ve never said “cute” when they could have said “cuuuuuuuuuuuuute!” and “how sweet!” when they could have said, “awwww, cho chweeeeeeeeeeeeet!” You also know they make and receive ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’ calls from the immemorable men they date, and fall in love with each of those immemorabilia.

They’re crazy about whichever world cup is going on, and make conversation to other members of the Sorority about which footballer/ cricketer is “cuuuuuuuuuuuuute!” They whine about the micro-inches of flesh they’ve put on in the most discreet parts of the anatomy, and will display it to ask your opinion on the extra grams.

What really gets to one, though, is to be assumed a member of the Sorority. I had the misfortune of meeting one of its leading lights. I had the bigger misfortune of being the only other Indian in the group she hung out with, and was therefore bound by the ties of patriotic sisterhood. Now, it so happened she fancied a man, who didn’t seem to reciprocate.

“Can I talk to you?” she said, grasping my hand and looking at me through tears.

Her room had the regulation five portraits – three ‘candid’ photographs, obviously clicked by the Self-Admirer herself, one seven-pound sketch from an artist at Leicester Square, and one grainy print-out of some other picture of hers. It also had two diyas at the door and enough dupattas to make the room look artistically Indian.

“Why do you think he doesn’t like me?” she said, staring at her bed.

“Uh...maybe you should ask him,” I ventured.

“I can’t take the humiliation,” she said, with a melodramatic sniffle, “does he think he’s not good enough for me?” And she flung her face up to look me in the eye, “ know, I don’t mind at all.”

“Maybe he has a girlfriend already?”

“Do you think his girlfriend is prettier than me?” she looked at me with what she assumed was the damsel-in-distress look that can melt even the hearts of genetically unsympathetic women.

“I’ve never seen her,” I said, honestly.

She looked at the mirror, in utter disbelief that any face could outdo the tear-stained one staring back at her.

“Maybe he’s gay,” I suggested, desperately. Those are the only three words I unfailingly remember from the chickflicks I occasionally watch.

The Self-Admirer looked up with momentarily bright eyes – it could have been the effect of the light on the tears, though – and said, “you think?”

“No,” I said, honestly again, and then bit my tongue.

With a scream and a moan that could have put Raj Kapoor’s yesteryear heroines to shame, she threw herself on the bed, and allowed her body to be racked by sobs.That was when I decided to, quite literally, call for help, and soon enough, my best friend – incidentally considered the best-looker at our university – was there.

“You know,” the Self-Admirer looked up at both of us, “it’s not a good thing to be beautiful at’s hard.”

“Yes,” my friend said, “but you know how wonderful it is to be ugly!”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Perro de Neruda y Paloma Mia (Neruda's Dog and My Pigeon)

A Delhi-ite friend of mine who moved to Madras, once explained why dating was easier in Madras for someone with intellectual leanings and no financial backing.

"See, in Delhi, you get the chicks if you drive a Skoda," he said, "well, at least a Honda City. In Madras, you get the chicks if you recite Pablo Neruda's poetry."

As most of the Madras chicks of my acquaintance don't read Neruda's poetry, and I haven't dated any man from Madras who knew who Pablo Neruda was, leave alone recited his poetry, I don't quite agree with him.

But I found a poem of Neruda's, which reminded me of just why he motivated me enough to learn an unfamiliar language. It's a poem I can relate to, too. Here goes:

Y yo, materialista que no cree
en el celeste cielo prometido
para ningún humano,
para este perro o para todo perro
creo en el cielo, sí, creo en un cielo
donde yo no entraré


And I, the materialist, who have had no faith
In a promised celestial heaven
For any human being,
I believe in heaven
For this dog, and for all dogs
Yes, I have faith in a heaven
Which I will never enter.

It's one of his most poignant pieces, and one that came to mind yesterday. My dad wanted us to block the window through which pigeons enter my kitchen. I decided to do a survey, to make sure we wouldn't be doing too much damage, and that there were no eggs in the nest. Having run into the kitchen with a war cry, and scared away the pigeons, I climbed the counter to look into the loft. Cuddled together, hearts beating against their soft down, were two tiny pigeons, pink and brown in colour, their eyes closed againt the invasion of their privacy.

Now, I hardly qualify as the maternal kind. I shudder when people show me wrinkled newborns, and didn't find the creature in 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' any more grotesque than his uncurious counterparts. But something about the twin pigeons, unguarded in their nest, made me hope there was a good life in store for them, and a heaven to get to at the end of that.

There's something about animals, I think, that reminds us of the lost innocence of humankind (not a reference to the serpent, this). Maybe it's because most of them don't have to work to live. Maybe they live the lives we would all like to - the hunter-gatherers of old. There is something about them that needs taking care of, that depends on one, even while being self-sufficient to all outer appearance.

What is this dependency about? Perhaps it's the fact that we have the power to destroy. That it would only take a well-aimed boomerang to bring them down mid-flight. That it would only take a sharp knife and a heated oven to get them on the dinner table. That it would only take a piece of cardboard fixed against a kitchen window to tear families apart.

Neruda's poem reminded me of a day long gone, when my brothers' pet strays, Snowy and Mona, left us. Snowy had eaten rat poison left out by the neighbour, and died slowly, in a lot of pain, while my older kid brother watched him. Mona ran away soon after. And when I think of those losses, these lines come to mind:

Ahora él ya se fue con su pelaje,
su mala educación, su nariz fría.


Now he's gone, with his furry soft coat
His bad manners, his cold nose.

And I hope there's a heaven, for all dogs, and for all pigeons.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One Flu over the Cuckoo's Nest

Actually, it's a pigeon that nests in my kitchen, but I haven't cleared up after it in a couple of weeks thanks to my flu.

"Swine?" my mother asks, anxiously.

"Don't clean up or cook for me," my dad says generously, a few days before his visit.

One of the things that freaks me out most, is falling ill. I hardly ever do. The last time I fell as ill as I did last week, was when I was six years old...well, a long time ago. There was a time during my childhood when I looked forward to being ill - my parents were quite happy for me to bunk school whenever I wanted, so that wasn't the thrill - but it did mean a lot of TLC (not usually the privilege of the oldest of three). It meant my favourite foods being cooked whenever I could manage to eat, tea and coffee served at my bedside and everyone in the family keen to fetch writing material whenever I wanted. As a child, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking up famous last words.

This time, though, was a little different - for one, the TLC was about two thousand kilometres away. For another, what I love most about having my own place, is running it. Being ill means you can't wipe the dust off window panes and clean the tiles on your bathroom floor with an old toothbrush. It also means constant phone calls from home to make sure I'm alive. And, it means sleeping through the day during the aftermath, and waking up when the sun has gone down. It was the misery of waking up in the dark that prevented me from taking siestas until I started working odd hours.

It's not that I'm scared of dying. Maybe because I know I won't. From when I was nearly not born to missing a glider crash because I overslept, to when a Sumo ran into me, to the day I chose not to go on a turtle walk on the day of the tsunami (though, thankfully, those folks survived), I've pretty much survived every close call that's come my way. What's painful, though, is that a decade-and-a-half-long rebellion against medicines that have been tested on animals, came to an end with this attack (the neem leaves weren't available, and turmeric with milk wasn't enough). The fact that my mother knows this means I will have to submit myself to medical tests, despite my insistence that hospitals make me ill.

More than anything else, I guess it's the helplessness that bugs me. It's the fact that I haven't been able to go swimming everyday, or talk much on the phone. Well, most of my phone calls are restricted to three people, but it's irritating not to be able to talk. It's the fact that I can't write fiction when I'm ill (cribbing is not usually a problem). It's the fact that I think more than is good for me (and I do that even when I'm un-ill). It's waking up at the wrong times (sleeping at the wrong times has been a life-long habit).

The good thing about it, though, is for want of other constructive things to do, I've been able to catch up on reading and my linguistic skills. And my Tamil poetry has moved beyond the realm of the devotional. God and I are on a bit of a break, clearly.

What I'm skirting around while writing is possibly what I'm shirking from facing. The fact that, despite several jobs in several industries over the past decade or so, I've realised I've still got that book to write. Those books to write. I've got those dance recitals to do, and those concerts to give. I've got that picture to paint, and that film to make. The one night of crisis, which I was wondering whether I would make it past, all I could think was that these things would be left undone.

And when I was well enough to pray, I looked at the faces smiling back at me, and thought about life as such - I don't have a house to build or a flat to book or a car to buy. What's the point of spending three decades saving up enough to get past the other few? What do you have to show at the end of it all? Does your job matter, if people don't remember you for the time you spent here, on earth? Does your life matter, when your dreams have passed you by?

Perhaps, one should take the plunge before the pool evaporates.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In Troubled Waters

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 8th August, 2009)

There’s a breed of prudent, anti-social amphibians that wait for the monsoon to begin before taking up swimming pool memberships. This cuts out the presence of creatures of the dangerous height between the knees and chest – well, at least most of them. An even more infallible measure is to register during the Ladies’ Hour – every pool has one – which ensures an even smaller population of unlike-minded amphibians. But, like every foolproof plan, this one too, comes with loopholes.

Let’s begin with the creatures of the dangerous height between the knees and the chest. Some women, for whatever reason, seem unable to differentiate between the two sexes. They believe that, below a certain height, their sons qualify as ‘ladies’, and are entitled to use the Ladies’ division of everything, from the loo to the pool. So you get out of the dressing room and you find four to five rather different-looking specimens of nature running about the floor.

This inability to differentiate between sexes has caused a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room. Fortunately for myself, I’m one of those women who would warm the hearts of nuns and conservative spinsters and saffron parties. I simply do not subscribe to the ‘she’s-only-got-what-I’ve-got’ concept. I believe this came from intuitive congenital knowledge that one of the largest demographic groups that would hit on me, in future, would be lesbians. I would delay the school bus as a child by refusing to enter the changing room till everyone else had left. Then, I would make the mistress in charge stand guard outside the door just in case anyone were to attempt to outrage my modesty. After my schooldays, I took to carrying Velcro strips around to the various swimming pools I took up memberships in, and using glue to temporarily secure the curtained changing cubicles. Unfortunately, though, not quite every woman exercises this prudence. Thanks to which, many of these boys who pass off as ‘ladies’ have been prematurely educated in the female anatomy.

Then come the Limb-Grabbers. Now, most women are quite content to flap about in the shallow end, squeal and splash water at each other and their kids, and watch admiringly while you do laps. But now and then, the odd beginner gets inspired, and decides to brave the beyond-waist-deep water. With their concentration focused somewhere between keeping their swimming caps on and themselves afloat, they forget the basic tenet of swimming – do not swallow water. And after doling a lungful of water into their ingestive systems, they make a grab for the nearest limb they see, and decide to use it as the proverbial branch. So, at some point of your peaceful swim, you suddenly find yourself sucked under water, while a puffing and panting woman jumps on to your back and digs her hands into the crevices on your head. I’ve found the best way to deal with them is to tickle their feet and save my own life.

The least irritating, and yet the most damaging of these categories, are the Wannabe Yous. You see them watching you with a twinge of envy as you swim laps, and waiting for you when you step out of he pool.

“How many laps do you do?” the Wannabe You enquires.

“Fifty. I used to do a hundred.”

“Hmm,” the grey-haired Wannabe You will grunt, “I normally do sixty. Used to do a hundred and fifty.”

The Wannabe You will then watch as you remove your cap to reveal a black headful of hair, and goggles to reveal no crow’s feet.

“Comes with age,” the Wannabe You will add, with a touch of malice, “what hair dye do you use?”
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