The Monastery

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I find myself standing in a long queue in a dimly-lit hall. There’s an aisle leading up to a door framed by thick, heavy curtains. Long, steely corridors. Red granite floors. Sunlight struggling to permeate through the dark tapestries. I see a young man in a maroon toga, scrambling down the aisle. His head seems freshly shaven. I realise then. I’m in a monastery.

I look ahead and see my mother, my sister and my brother. They’re all calm and standing their ground firmly with cheerful determination. Something feels terribly wrong to me. Am I just waking up from a long dream? There’s something scary about the tranquillity of the place. I spin around and see it. The big grey door. The Room of Indoctrination.

Oh god. I remember now. For the last fifteen days, we’ve all been through rigorous training. Two whole weeks of the biggest “purge” so far. Two whole weeks of intense meditation, lectures, sessions where we spoke our hearts out, cried and laughed and danced and prayed. All of this to prepare us for an important task – walking hand-in-hand to our own death. It is mass suicide in the garb of salvation and ‘mukti’, when in reality this is just an evil political stunt.

Or is it? I’m not too sure anymore. I know what is behind those curtains. I know it and I don’t want to admit it. Every single person in this room has accepted it as the next logical step. They look like they’re just waiting to get to the cash register in a grocery store. The nonchalance is jarring. My mother and sister have walked ahead and I don’t have much time. If anyone here gets to know what’s going on in my mind, I’ll have to start the purge all over again. I grab my brother’s wrist and ask him to come along with me.

We make our way to the end of the queue. Stealthily. Steadily. When we get to the end, I check to see where the monks are. They haven’t seen us yet. We quickly escape to an adjacent room. There’s no other door inside except a balcony. A curtain hangs low and I look around to see if we can use something to create a ropeway. Right then I see a monk staring at me through a glass window. Knowingly. Carefully. He doesn’t move. There’s no time. I hold my brother’s hand and we jump. I land on my knees and feel a jolt of pain course through me. I look at my brother. He’s grinning at me. We look up. We see a maroon blob approaching the railing. We run. Despite the pain, I feel free. We both look back at the monastery again. I think about my mother and my sister.

At least they looked happy.

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Perched

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When love comes to you, it comes as quietly
As a little butterfly that perches itself on the tip of your nose.
You freeze. You don’t want to spook it out.
You don’t want to scare it. You don’t want it to to fly away, now do you?
So you sit there, enchanted, stupefied, grinning like an idiot.
Your eyes focused on this beautiful living being fluttering, sashaying,
This wondrous creature who has taken over your entire world.
Look! Most things seem blurry now, and you still sit there, catatonic;
Looking right into the face of this new magic that has happened to you.
You let it flood your soul with a new energy, a new colour, a new longing for life.
It’s like being dazed, drugged; enjoying moment after delicious moment.
Dumbfounded. Transfixed. Enchanted.

Why, hello teeny butterfly.
Am I glad you visited.
Now that you’re here,
Would you stay awhile?

Summer Dreams and Langra Aam

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If I could capture the entirety of summer in a small glass vial, I would use a fragrance. It would be that of a Langra Aam. (How do we not have a Langra Aam perfume yet by the way? A summer special by the likes of Alia Bhatt or some such? That’s just the advertiser in me talking. Hush, you.)

I’ve been away from the northern parts of my country for the last six years and I made it a point to steer clear from the summer months. Needless to say, I didn’t have access to this delicious, gem of a fruit all this while. I’m experiencing Indian summer in all its dry, dusty glory after so long, I didn’t realise what I was missing out on. Oh, Langra Aam. Why must you tempt me so?

A few weeks ago as I was ordering vegetables, (because I’m a mature, responsible adult) I decided to order some Langra mangoes as well. They arrived fresh and green and ripe. I held one and sniffed. I felt weak in the knees. I kept them in the fridge and impatiently allowed them to chill.

Once I was done separating the phaankein (the two halves) from the gutli (the seed), I sat down to eat. And oh man, did I eat. No, I didn’t just eat. I wolfed them down like a vampire who just got a fresh kill after years of surviving on tofu. I let my fangs sink into the cold, plentiful flesh of the mango that had evaded me for a large chunk of my adult life. I let the treacly juice trickle down my fingers and let some of it fall on my shorts. I unwrapped the leftover peel from the gutli and invaded every bit of pulp in every corner. I ate till I could feel the fine filaments firmly lodged between my teeth. No matter what someone tells you, no matter how good your cutlery is, that’s the only way to eat a mango. Yes, I just said that. I’m primitive and barbaric, and I love it.

When I was younger, my family favoured all types of mangoes equally. Yes, there was the sweet and pulpy Dussehri, the sticky and juicy Chausa, even the once-in-a-while Alphonso. But no, I was firecely dedicated to my Langra. It was never too sweet and never too sour. It was, and will always be, Goldilocks’ dream fruit. You could never go wrong with it. After lunch, Baba would place chopped pieces of orange and yellow mangoes, and I’d always jump at the yellow ones. I claimed the biggest ones as mine before anyone else could steal them. Sometimes we had feasts at home, and Baba Dadi always, always made fruit cream. Which was basically loads and loads of mangoes dunked in thick, sugary cream. It’s still the yummiest dessert I’ve ever had.

Towards the end of summer, Baba would ask us to bid farewell to mangoes until the next year. “Karo aam ko salaam”, he’d say. That always broke my heart a little bit. A whole year for my Langra aam to come back? How cruel was that. I guess it was our version of waiting for the next season of our favourite Netflix show.

Every time I saw dad come home with freshly bought mangoes wrapped in newspaper, I’d ask him with unbridled anticipation, “Papa, is it langra? Is it langra?” Later, as we’d all sit on the floor in front of the TV, swatting mosquitoes and peeling mangoes, I’d lose myself in the sticky goodness of the brightest, happiest fruit of my childhood. The cooler would start doing its trick, and amidst the smell of wet khus and the low hum of the ceiling fan, the world would just make sense.

Over the years, many, many things have changed beyond recognition. My grandparents have grown old and weak, their memories now fuzzy and out of reach. Both my parents have retired and are suddenly “senior citizens.” Most of us have moved out of the house and are learning what it’s like to be functional humans in the world of today. We don’t have as much free time, or as much energy, or as much freedom. But in all of this, I’ve just realised that the taste of my favourite mango still hasn’t changed. Not one bit. And this thought makes me inexplicably, immensely, incredibly happy.

Goodbye, sabbatical!

6th December, 2017 was when my much-awaited break began. Today is the 6th of May, 2018. It’s been five whole months. Tomorrow is my first day in my new office. In a way, it feels like my first working day all over again. Five magical trips, heaps of unhealthy food, countless nights spent ruminating, and a million treasured conversations later, I feel renewed. I needed those five months. I juiced those five months until the very last drop. I’m ready to go back to “regular” life. A life that all of us have to endure day after day after day. The usual grind, as they call it. G’bye, fairytale period!

It’s slightly different this time though. Well, it’s actually quite different in many ways, the most drastic of them being the fact that I’ve now moved to Gurgaon. Yes, I know. Gasp. Haw. Cue dramatic music.

I wouldn’t get into the long and uninteresting tale about how events transpired and led me here, but let’s just say it felt right. Yes, Gurgaon is hot, polluted and unsafe. No, I wasn’t done with Bangalore, or the weather, or its people. I’ve moved here knowing full well what I’ve signed up for. Lots of dust and smoke, the devastating effects of the sun, and the unease Gurgaon makes you feel on account of being, well, Gurgaon. I’ve come here with some sort of a mental zen. I’ve come here because I want to do things at work I can be proud of. I’ve come here so I could be a writer. I’ve come here so I could learn more than I’ve done before. I’ve come here because change, though scary, isn’t always so bad. I’ve also come here with zero expectations.

It would be incredible if I manage to strike a balance between good work, meaningful friendships, a healthy social life, and ample amount of personal time, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s okay if everything isn’t perfect. Life doesn’t work that way. It’s coo. I’m going to make the most of what life gives me next. And I know deep, deep down in the core of my being that I’ll handle situations better this time. I’ll be careful, but not cautious. I’ll be quieter, but not reserved. I’ll observe more but still keep my guard down. I’ll listen more, and help in any way I can. I’ll be careful about who I trust, but I won’t have any force-fields around me. After all, I’m just like anybody else, trying to make some sense of a world that doesn’t seem to have any. What I do know, is that I’m going to always have an open heart and a capacity to love endlessly.

So, tomorrow is my first day of work: take two. Wish me luck!

P.S. I’ve moved into a dream of an apartment with a couple of girls who took me out for a drive and chai. I have a great feeling about this!

P.P.S. My balcony has a wonderful view of the city. If I were a smoker, I’d take long chai-sutta breaks out there. Though, really, you don’t have to be a smoker here; your lungs are getting corrupted anyway. But yay, new life! 🙂

Inside a Japanese local

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There’s hardly any sound except the gentle swoosh and hum of the train we’re sitting in. Standard railway announcements fill the air. This station. Next station. Mind the doors. They’re in Japanese. Sweet, sweet Japanese dipped in rich soy sauce. There are faces around me. Oh, so many faces. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on their lives. I’m being intrusive. Voyeuristic, even. But gosh, how could I not look? How could I not sniff out the stories around me?

There’s an elderly woman sitting opposite me with her legs crossed, making notes in her diary, tucking her hair behind her ears as she pauses to think. There’s silver, powdery make-up on her eyelids, glistening quietly as the sun peeps in through the clear glass windows of the train. Tufts of puffy, white fur is peeking out of her wrists. A muffler is wrapped fashionably around her neck – cosy, snug. Flamboyant Japanese letters flow out from the tip of her pen and onto the paper. A slow, unhurried drawl. Each letter looks like a little piece of art, but in reality, she’s only keeping a tab on her expenses.

A tall, thin, youthful student is standing by the door, eager to reach his destination. His straight hair falls over his forehead and covers his eyes. His earphones are plugged deep inside his ears, eyes fixated on the screen, fingers tapping away adroitly. He’s probably isn’t even typing full sentences or using proper punctuation marks. He’s okay with that, and so are his friends. There’s a fresh scratch mark on his finger right under his nail. Impatience has its follies. He looks like he can’t wait for life to happen to him.

A middle-aged man is wearing a white face mask. His pants are crisp, pristine and white. He looks antiseptic. He’s fast asleep next to the window, and his body is hunched forward as if he’s on battery saver mode. His face is slightly scrunched up as if he’s dreaming of something unsavoury. His black overcoat hangs loosely around him, as if it was hesitant to be taken out this cold Monday morning. He looks like if he was left alone, he could go into hibernation.

Three teenagers, schoolboys, friends. They’re huddled together as if there’s an invisible bonfire between them. There are tiny, pink pimples strewn across their faces. They’re all gangly and have their hands deep in their pockets. They’re wearing black coats and serious expressions. They talk in soft tones, but when they laugh, they don’t hold back. As they throw their heads back and guffaw at their shared jokes and quips, their eyes become half-moons and their noses crinkle with mischief. Their laughter defies the discipline they seem to possess. It’s like a pair of orange coloured socks peeking out from under a dull, grey business suit.

Two kids hover around their mother. They’re wearing colourful pyjamas with unrecognisable cartoon characters stamped all over them. The mother is wearing a spotless white face mask and an overgrown jacket that isn’t large enough to conceal her bump. She looks wearily at her children as they wriggle and squirm around her. She seems too tired to intervene as they quarrel. She glances at two girls standing against a pillar, clad in black skirts with checkered patterns. They’re giggling, their poker straight hair seems to laugh along. She looks at them only for a fleeting moment and then looks away.

There’s a young girl with blunt-cut hair adorned with red and white ribbons and tiny, golden bells. Her knitted stockings have diamond-shaped patterns on them. She’s wearing a brightly coloured frock that has tiny dancing dolls all over it. Her bright red coat has pompons on the sides, and her face looks like it’s been painted white. Her stark red lipstick is hard to miss. She looks like one of those dolls you’d find decorating a little girl’s birthday cake. She has tassels hanging from her big bag. She’s smiling. She jingles softly every time she looks up from her phone to talk to her friend.

On the other side, an old man sits next to the window. He has salt and pepper hair. He dons black pants, a black overcoat, and shoes so black you could see your face in it. A maroon muffler is coiled tightly around his neck. If it weren’t for that dash of colour in his ensemble, he could well be in a black and white movie and dissolve amongst the crowd with ease. A shiny briefcase sits next to his legs. His gaze never leaves the window, his irises flitting rapidly from side to side, keeping up with the passing views. His eyes are fixated beyond the world outside the spotless glass. As if he looked away, reality will pull him into a world he doesn’t belong to.

A pre-teen schoolboy is wearing a blue cap and clutching a pink book in his hands. He wears a look of trepidation, the kind that you have before an exam. His white socks are hanging low, exposing his fair ankles and his black buckled shoes look too serious for his age. He has one bag slung over his tense shoulders. It looks too boxy and rigid for comfort, and he has another smaller one on his lap. His right knee moves up and down absent-mindedly.

A woman with pale pink hair and silver sparkles on her nails sits at the far end of the train. Her legs are splayed outward carelessly, the heels of her white sneakers are hoisted upward towards the edge of her seat. She has an air of effortless calm around her. She has a little brown bag by her side and she’s engaged in an animated conversation with her friend. He’s wearing brown-rimmed glasses, a watch with a big, golden dial, black jeans, and a grey jacket. They both look sufficient together. At peace, and oblivious to everyone around them. If everyone around them ceased to exist this very moment, they’d barely even notice.

A schoolgirl is standing amidst a horde of commuters. She has a book open in her hands. She’s studying English. Japanese sentences are written on the right and their easy basic meanings on the left. She’s holding on tight to the railing with one hand and is surrounded by people as they sway collectively with the soft movements of the train, but her book gets her full attention.

A young woman is perched on the edge of her seat. She’s wearing a black leather jacket, brown skirt and black boots up to her knees. Her hood is up and her golden mane seems to be flowing outwards in every direction through it. Her heels look uncomfortably long and pointy, and her lips are a pleasant shade of glossy pink. Her skin looks like it’s made of unadulterated porcelain. Her eyes bore into her phone that’s way too close to her face. She seems like she’s in the middle of an intense discussion with a friend. A colleague, perhaps? A relative? Maybe her mother. Her slender legs are crossed over each other and her hand reaches out to her little blue bag from time to time, just to make sure it’s still there.

A girl, seemingly in her late-twenties, is slouched on her seat, wearing shiny nylon pants and golden hoops. She has a bored expression on her face as if she’s been commuting far too much and for far too long. She wants to be home with a cup of hot coffee by her window. Maybe have her cat sit on her lap and not have to make conversation with anyone. She’s bored with the world. She’s bored of the desultory drivel of everyday life. She seems as if she moves around with a constant, dull, painful itch. She’s carrying a plain white cloth bag that’s hanging unenthusiastically around her white sweater. Her hair is tied up in a messy bun. She wants to be elsewhere.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. We’ve reached our destination.

This morning.

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This morning, I woke up just before daybreak. I keep forgetting how sanguine early mornings can be. Mostly because I never get to experience them. Correction: I shamelessly sleep through them and wake up at noon half-dazed and fighting off the remnants of anxiety-ridden nightmares.

This morning, I woke up to the sound of peacocks squawking in the distance. They’ve been unusually boisterous for the past few weeks. Theirs is a pleasant cackle, one that makes me incredibly nostalgic. I’ve grown up listening to peacocks, I’ve spotted them around our compound, I’ve chased them in the park next to our house, I’ve collected their feathers and turned them into wall ornaments. I didn’t realise their sound is so unique to home until I moved out. You don’t get to hear them anywhere else. At least, not the places I’ve lived in.

This morning, I walked outside and felt the chill enwrap me. It’s such a pleasant March morning. It isn’t too hot, nor is it cold. I eavesdropped on the animated conversations of the koels, the mynahs, the parrots, the pigeons and the scores of birds that sound wondrously loud and exuberant when the rest of the world is still in the throes of their slumber.

This morning, I realised how much I love Shabana Azmi and discovered that she’s also been a singer. I fell in love with one of her songs. I stared at the trees outside and watched them turn a bright shade of green as sunlight swaddled them in a warm embrace. I watch the ripe old leaves fall off the branches languorously. I watched a tiny butterfly perch herself on an inconspicuous little leaf.

This morning, I finished writing a poem in Hindi. It made me feel a certain type of way. It was a good feeling. It was a tingly feeling. I also felt a renewed enthusiasm towards Urdu poetry – Kaifi Azmi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Sara Shagufta. Such rich, textured emotions, such wonderfully measured text. The words sound so crisp, so sophisticated, dripping with richness and history and feeling. I felt fresh and inspired.

This morning, I also felt a little lost. Maybe a little adrift. Like a leaf that’s been plucked off a branch by the wind and is now floating like a feather (in a beautiful world? Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I also told myself that it’s alright to feel that way. Life has this incredible ability to start making sense as it unfolds. And if it doesn’t begin to make sense, it’s always good to throw caution to the wind and just make a choice. Just decide to start moving in a certain direction. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Callistemon

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There is a bottle brush tree right outside our house here in Agra. It owes that peculiar name to its shape since it looks like a traditional brush used to clean bottles. Not very imaginative, I know. A quick search on Google revealed its true name: Callistemon.

Callistemon.

I like how it feels inside my mouth. I like how the tip of my tongue hits my upper teeth, then the roof of my mouth, and then how my lips come together in its culmination. I prefer to emphasise the ‘mon’ instead of the ‘te’. The Indian inside me finds it more natural to do so.

Do you think about how magical springtime is? The entire world is sprouting and blooming. The streets are lined with flowers of all shapes and hues, bees and butterflies are buzzing about, there are fragrances mingling with the balmy summer sunlight in the evenings. The roads are flanked by the most gorgeous shades, and often covered in a thin layer of freshly-fallen leaves. Everything is a little more cheerful, a little more crispy, a little more alive.

When I was growing up, we had a Kachnar tree right next to the Callistemon tree. They both blossomed together, standing tall, self-assured, confident. Their leaves would merge with each other’s, and sometimes their flowers fell together in unison. Maybe in their world, they were great friends. I’d like to believe they were.

I’d never seen a flower more beautiful than the Kachnar. It had five petals, four of them light purple in colour, and then one bright pink, almost electric purple. There were five slender filaments in the centre, topped with bright yellow anthers. We often used them to play our own silly games. We’d pick a filament each, and then entangle the anthers together. The one that got decapitated first, lost. I sometimes plucked a few flowers for Dadi. She’d tie the stems with a white thread and display them in an old, brass vase. The vase was so worn out you couldn’t even make out the design on it anymore. Maybe old kings and queens? I never cared enough to ask.

My brother and I would climb up the Kachnar tree – all the way to the topmost branches – with polythene bags tied around our wrists. We were like adept monkeys, and over the years we perfected our way around it. We knew where to place our feet, we knew which nodes to use to haul ourselves up, we knew the branches that could support our weight. We’d collect the buds that were yet to sprout open, even the tiniest ones, and ran up to Dadi with bags full of them. She’d then use them to make a special curry for us, with sliced potatoes and onions. Kachnar ki sabzi. We’d be proud of ourselves. We’d contributed to the economy of the household!

A few years ago, some of its branches started enmeshing with some of our electric cables, and so we had to chop off some of the branches. They did a horrible job. They removed more than what was needed. It was like a haircut gone wrong, only much, much worse. The next spring, the Kachnar tree didn’t bloom. It was as if we had destroyed a part of its soul. “Maybe it’s just been a bad year”, I thought. “It’d be alright.” But it didn’t bloom the next year, or the next. It never bloomed again. All that remained was a bare stump. And later, that was demolished as well.

I can’t say I don’t miss it. Even now when I visit home, my eyes rove over its usual spot. I long to see those purple petals again, I miss the tantalising smell, I think about the heart-shaped leaves (that often doubled up as betel leaves when we set up a make-believe Paan Shop). I sigh. I think about how it formed such a major chunk of our childhood, and how I’d never see it standing there in all its glory, its feathery petals falling gently underneath.

I was in New Delhi last week, and I saw a Kachnar tree after many years. I felt a maudlin sense of joy enveloping my heart. “Hey you”, I thought. “It’s been a while.” It swayed and sashayed in response. I smiled. Seeing it in full bloom again restored my faith in the powers of spring all over again. My Kachnar tree doesn’t blossom anymore, but many Kachnar trees outside many little girls’ houses still do. And that was as reassuring a thought as any.

Now, as I stand outside and look at the Callistemon tree, it fills me with the same sense of awe. The red petals that look like paint brushes, the powdery yellow tips, the way the crimson looks so stark against the natural green of the tree. The bees are abuzz, the birds visit often – loud and cacophonous, and the sunlight ripples and dances through the branches. Maybe it realises that its friend isn’t around anymore. Maybe it misses the soft touch of its branches. Maybe they had their own conversations many moons ago. Maybe trees love being caressed. I walk up to the tree, run my fingers along the leaves and the length of the flowers.

Three simple words run through me. Words that have helped me cope. That have helped me stand. That have helped me bloom.

“I’ve got you,” I find myself whispering.