Tuesday, 26 September 2017

(Not) Open to interpretation

(Not) Open to interpretation 

On my 18th birthday when I awoke
My teeth crooked with expectations
I did not know how kisses worked
Let alone love. 
I spoke to clouds still
And threw words like soulmate
Around till they cringed themselves
Grey, unbound, laughing uncontrollably.

Before I knew it I was 20 already
Stark in the middle of repressed teenage
I did not know how words worked
Let alone love.
I spoke to my mother still
And she pulled the covers over me
Every night and lied that she was proud
As she watched me let her daughter down.

Turning 22 was a real drag and I
Crawled into golden cages and padlocked them.
I did not know how alcohol worked
Let alone love.
I spoke to shadows still 
Every sin and sinner made sense
Who the fuck did I think I was, an artist?
Taking liberties that I would never fully earn.

24 years into this mess I am, cleaning up after 
Myself, stacking my shoes in orderly rows.
I know how promises work, maybe even
A little about love.
I speak to myself still
Walk barefoot on beaches with majestic
Crabs clawing at my toes, and it does not
Hurt, I think I might have almost turned brave.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Fruity wine

Drowsy evening unfolds that dread
Between my stomach and heart
Unreasonable with a desperation
I thought I had long grown out of.

Moon in a gibbous, almost complete
But not quite there, much like you
Moving inside me. A love bite I will
Wear longer than any of my clothes.

My hair in a nest that wishes it could
Shelter our soiled sheets and chocolate
Wrappers and my earlobes quivering to
The last song you made me listen to.

A foreign bed drenched in foreign rain
But in your arms I could say I was home
And not even cringe. These other places are
Just signposts on lonely train stations.

Love poems are nonsensical anyway
So crumple these words to a side. It's
Just that our last kiss reminded me of
Promises we never made but kept anyway.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Fork


There is nothing more romantic than an unromantic marriage.

1.
I used to relate Kolkata to the hot, musty smell as we pulled into the Howrah station. I had looked out of the window, stark awake, hoping to uncover the mysteries of the elegantly crisscrossed railway tracks. The pleasantly off-key hum of ancient trains drifted in through the rusty bars.
Of course I don't remember those details. I am hoping that is how it had been.

My grandparents lived in a perpetually hot flat in Ballygung, the balcony dotted with parched potted plants. They liked card games and fried fish, disliked company. It was mid June. Lolita ushered me into sitting room, and showed me my blue strapped hawaai chappals. Gargi had a matching pair, but her feet were a little bigger. Shunil( my grandfather, obviously) took out the set of painting brushes he had gotten for me. I had grown out of painting recently, probably Gargi hadn't told him. Gargi who's grey hair and young wrinkles were suddenly conspicuous.
My parents had been married ten years ago,a hasty affair, to accommodate the last wishes of the grandmother I never met. There had been pomfret fry, rabindra sangeet and my mother's dream of a Jane Austen-ish romance. While the former two are reliable, Ashutosh was about as romantic as a counter at an insurance company. His passion for work coagulated with his mild thoughtlessness and dripped over my mother's iced cupcakes. They had stumbled through ten years of futile conversation and a general lack of laughter. 
'These silly books you women read, well-dressed men and their ostentatious promises, how shallow na? They always say that its only love and nothing else, yet the hero is awfully good looking and awfully rich. Hypocritical, if you ask me"
But she had not, she had not asked him, Gargi had rolled her eyes and rolled over on the rickety bed of their one bed-roomed flat in Old Delhi. Ashutosh was a struggling engineer, and Gargi wished he was a struggling poet instead. If you ask me, she wouldn't have been any happier if he were. Gargi had wanted glamour, like most women of her kind do, and she would not admit it until years later. When she was to have me and she had made the customary trip to Kolkata, he had not called her every night. He had not said that he missed her.
My mother coaxed me to eat a large piece of fish. I relented eventually, with copious amounts of ketchup and a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. We watered the potted plants and Shunil showed me some drawings. Most of them of a broad shouldered girl, sitting alone in various settings. Lolita was gossiping with the maid in her musical voice. Inside the room I would share with my mother, Gargi was crying silently.
The summer stretched on in stages of dullness. We played cards in the evening, after which Gargi asked me to sing. The high notes went flat as she fell asleep, and I sat by the white grilled window, listening to the orderly chaos of the city. Waiting, waiting, not knowing what I was waiting for.

2.

July on the threadbare couch. I was impatient. Ashutosh was impatient. He ruffled my hair that my mother had just flattened. He wanted to take me to Science City. The life size dinosaur models there were a novelty. Gargi sipped her tea and looked at The Telegraph. "Don't you want to come too? And Baba was hoping to see Titli in Durgapur for a week."
"Yeah, I suppose I will come along too." Gargi wouldn't look up from her papers.
"I mean to Science City."
"I have work to do."
"I was hoping we could go to the recital later too."
Gargi wore a pale green saree that day. I have a picture too, of the two of them almost smiling, under a giant black umbrella. It's the only picture in which I wasn't accidentally covering the lens with my fingers. We pranced around the air conditioned halls, my mother shrieking whenever she thought I would trip, my father asking her to calm down. I think I fell asleep halfway through the recital, because I hadn't heard the song that Gargi tried to teach me the next day.
Ashutosh stayed for the rest of the week. He watered the stubby cactus on the terrace. The crows would chase him but he flapped his hands rapidly till they left us alone. He bought fresh fish from across the road, and helped Gargi measure the mustard that she cook it with. I watched their silhouettes as I sneaked to the refrigerator, free from the bitterness that I knew was the norm. Shunil took me away to show me how he sharpened his pencils with a blade and I was easily distracted.
Through the translucent windows of the hall, the ancient blue buses of Kolkata blared their musical horns to get our attention.

3.
I did not go home when summer ended. Ashutosh dropped off our things at the Ballygunge flat. I remember the smell of cologne on his bush shirt as he hugged me six times in a row. His lip trembled. I was mad at him for breaking the chimney of my doll house. I was so mad that I did not listen carefully when he told me that we would not live together anymore. That I would go to the missionary school by the river in Chandannagore and that I should learn my tables well. That he would come see me every three months from Delhi. That there is such a word as 'divorce'.
Gargi was shelling peas at the table. She turned on the radio as he left.
I skulked around school, hair braided, my english halting, my math deplorable. Bharat sat next to me in class, his fountain pen leaking illogical amounts of royal blue. We did not make eye contact as we spoke, only when we snickered at the teachers. Gargi was furious when the royal blue had stained my starched white skirt, even more so when I asked her where my father was.
Then when I was thirteen my cousin told me that her mother told her that Lolita had told her that Ashutosh had cheated on Gargi. It had been with his manager's daughter and my mother had been distraught.
I ate my fish without complaining that night. I also stayed up an extra hour studying, while Gargi tuned the harmonium. She would look up at me once in a while, searching for something she couldn't find.

4.
I broke it to my mother yesterday. I told her we had been dating for a year now, and that I might actually marry this one. I was very excited. She did not reply, walked over to the bookshelf, kneeling to sift through the row that held the photo albums.
"Ma?" I asked, as if apologetic for her failed marriage.
Gargi was famous in Kolkata now, they took her reviews very seriously in the literary community. I found her work when I clicked on the article links that my aunts texted me. I found them a little lofty but I called her and told her I was proud. She sighed slightly and before she hung up, always asked me to call my father. I never did.
"Titli, you must know, your father did not cheat on me. He loved me very much. I may have loved him too, but I could not live in his cage."
I backed up against the wall.
"We decided that summer. Just before that week he stayed here. We decided I should have you. I am after all, more artistic, more complete a person. We told everyone here that it was his fault. You know how people talk. You must understand. I needed out. I couldn't breathe."
I watched her lips move contemptuously, till my mother faded out completely and I could only see Gargi.
And Gargi was a stranger.




    

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Oath

It has been a week now. I have woken up to the same nightmare.

 It is a dream as peaceful as it is horrific. I will describe it for you. I am fastened to a bed of red hot ice, stomach down, much like a massage table. I look through the face hole at a pair of feet, my husband's. He is humming nonchalantly to himself, while cracking his knuckles. Muzak is playing inconsequentially in the background. And then my husband of seventeen years inserts his fingers through my ears, reaching to grope my brain. He probes and soaks in data as I weep with the realization that he finally knows what I am thinking.

 When I was was twenty two I was largely stupid. I lived with my parents who did not like me and slept with friends who I did not like. I bought things I did not need and could not afford. I drank wine because they called it classy and smoked cigarettes because I was afraid I would live long enough to get old. I liked to think that if I did not do something reckless every day, I would end up securing a future for myself that I did not want. I wrote poems sometimes. They were bad, but I tried.

 One afternoon I went too far and my mouth foamed like the toxic effluents of dying lakes. I felt my soul coagulate and counted the moments to the crescendo from Liszt's Love Dream. It was then that my husband saved my body and dismembered my soul.

 You will laugh at me if I tell you that my husband guilt tripped me into marrying him. You will laugh at me if I tell you that my parents were profusely thankful and Nikki was always jealous of the none-too-subtle presents that found me on a weekly basis at rehab. You will laugh at my choice of vanilla eau de cologne. Anyway, we were married in a year after a distasteful proposal and I was smiling for pictures beside my husband who was asking me," What are you thinking?". I smiled wider and shook my head.

 I think this is the point when you start feeling slightly sorry for me. You are human in ways that I am not, it is no challenge. But you see, I brought this upon myself. I wallow in what appears to be self pity because I like it. Wasting away is my heroin. Heroin used to be my heroin, but that is another story. Some said I was beautiful, smart, even talented, so what did I do? I took all of it to the top of an abandoned skyscraper, and whined to the anyone that would listen- the wind, the smog, the restless clouds. It was breathtakingly wasteful.

 Our honeymoon was a flurry of nervous half truths in an elaborate beach resort. He was sickeningly sweet. He did not initiate sex, he sat beside me and stared like a coy puppy, each thought so loud that it hammered at my temples, almost asking me, 'I adore you, please tell me what you are thinking'. A while after the customary humping, his mind was just as loud, accompanied by some modestly lewd thoughts. With every kiss I let my irritation seep out of my skin as heat. We spoke about the minuscule intersection of our interests, discovering the supposed wonders of a rainy beach and caviar together. I urged myself to fall in love with the idea of loving my husband. Only my skin grew hotter as I longed for silence.

 My husband is well to do. He went to the top schools and earned a mouthful of degrees. Now he makes a meaty check and takes me to rooftop lounges. It's a shame I am not allowed to drink, because of which he doesn't drink either. Maybe he would be more fun inebriated. Maybe I would earn a break from my lifetime role of bitch trophy wife. We are going to celebrate his birthday tonight with some of his brain-dead friends. Their wives usually ask me where I got my hair done and hint that our 'family' would be more complete with children. Last year, he was ecstatic because I sang two lines of 'Happy Birthday'. He held me to his side and rubbed my arm repeatedly till I could not stand it anymore, so I complained of a bad stomach and took refuge in the strip club downstairs. The blonde skinny stripper in translucent high heels offered to take me to her room, but I skulked away in the merry spirit of self denial.

As I was telling you, I have woken up to the same nightmare again.

 I disengage myself from his eager arms and clamber to the kitchen. It is spotlessly clean and bereft of any creativity. The all-knowing sun is mocking me through the windows, and there is a teal blue bird with an unusually crooked beak perched on the sill.

Slowly I fry eggs and sausages, blissfully aware that my husband is still asleep. As he is quite unimaginative, you can guess how colourless his dreams are. I pour coffee into our finest porcelain cups, smiling as my head sings of freedom, of silence, of poetic justice. "Today is the last time, I promise," I tell the teal bird. She looks on disapprovingly.

"Darling, you shouldn't have!", my husband beams at me, happier than I have seen him in a long time. "Happy Birthday", I smile, and after a long, long time it touches my pupils.
We eat in silence. As I pick up my cup of coffee, he asks me, "What are you thinking?", for what I hope is the last time.  I smile again and shake my head.

I can't remember which cup I added the poison to.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Develop

Madapura is a minuscule village hidden in the overwhelming wave of coffee that emanates off Coorg. The winters are deliciously chilly, while summers welcome a sea of white flowers, their maddening scent knocking at your temples. At an altitude of 1200 feet, you can afford to surrender to your reflexes, without indulging in the brain corroding series of ping pong games.

I remember that other time I visited Madapura, frivolously 22 years old. I still took photographs then, while my day job was eating into my youth. I wore white converse shoes like trendy Americans but barely walked. I was a bit of an idiot.

My uncle and aunt lived in a three roomed cottage. It was scented with the finest coffee and their bitter divorce. I could not comprehend how I had a chance to stay in love, when the luscious coffee estate did not keep them together. I examined the skylight when I lay in bed, it reminded me of myself. How it pretended to emit light of its own but faltered shamefacedly at night.

I did not like my job. I probably did not even do it well. A series of (un)fortunately coupled fears and doubts held me in place. My grandfather had been a photographer for The Telegraph, we huddled over newspaper clippings of his saved work : Nehru assigned Prime Minister, the Gateway of India, the Camel's Back road to Dehradun, and the coffee estates of the family my mother married into. As the black and white swam into each other, pregnant with color, I picked up his camera and felt something.

But like every other technicolor dream that I dreaded waking up from, photography found a place in my resume, rows below my farce of a degree.

It was the final week of April, I think.The sun had risen somewhere far east when I yawned my way up one of the narrow paths. The soft mud drenched in dew lagged under my clean white shoes. I turned sharply into a corner that looked unexplored, to hear a faint shuffling from the depths. I moved closer holding the camera to my eyes till I stood at the mouth of a clearing. And I saw a girl with a scarf wrapped around her head.

She was a pretty girl. I couldn't tell the color of her eyes, half turned away from me, half darkened. Her hair was an overwhelming black braid, lips pursed over a tapering firm chin. She stood there around a five and a half feet over the pristine ground, but there was a resolve in her posture. The complete lack of tentativeness that I had been yearning all my life. I clicked.

She looked at me startled, then smiled in mild recognition. 'Morning, you work here don't you?' I offered lamely. "Yes, during the summers," she looked away, "You are the nephew. I should get to the other side" she vaguely motioned somewhere.
"Wait, don't go. Can I take some pictures?" I asked quickly, taken aback by my audacity.

She turned to face me entirely. Black, her eyes were fresh charcoal.
"Are you a photographer? For the newspaper?" she snapped
"Yes. A photographer," I told her, equally surprised.
She hesitated for a few moments, as if only because it was expected of her. I wondered what a girl like her would do if nothing was simply expected of her. Then she demanded to see some.
"I will have to have them developed, but I will send them to you."

You know that voice in your head that talks to you and instructs your every move? And sometimes when you smoke up, that fine thread between that voice and your actions disengages. That really happened to me.

She nodded happily and drew herself up. We spoke briefly as she swirled around, threw her head back, loosened her scarf, adjusted her basket. I zoomed in on her eyes, her chin, her fingers, lost in a faith I had just discovered.

I can only tell you what I remember from that encounter,because I don't remember the girl from Madapura. The girl in my photographs is of course, carved in my memory.
We parted ways with my reassurance of photographs and an inexplicable confidence so unfamiliar to me.

And miraculously, the next two months found me feverishly mailing copies of the photographs to every competition I had eyes on, every agency, every individual from my grandfather's grubby diary. I barely clocked five hours at work, yawned at strategy meetings, lingered at the mailbox every morning. On the sixtieth day I quit, I said thank you very much with an insincere ' hope we stay in touch'. I did not squirm, I did not cringe, I did not pay heed to the cynical sparrows chirping into my ears, I really did it.

It has been a rigorous couple of years. I got a call back from a lifestyle magazine, they sponsored a summer tour of Europe, where I shot twilight photographs at ten in the evening, of red wine splatter and the dull sun bouncing off polished nude sculptures. I also slept with this red haired Venetian girl I met in Prague, now we are in love and we got a cat together. It is unreal, but I really did it.

I went back to Madapur last month. My aunt has the house to herself now. Two hours into my old room with the cobweb streaked skylight, she called out to me.

The girl from my photographs was at the door.

Except that she wasn't the girl. She had gotten fat, but she looked smaller. Her eyes were sunken and her chin drooped. She was holding a baby.
"You didn't send me the photographs". She sounded so sad. I wanted to look away. So I skipped back into my room and fished out some copies that I still carried. A talisman. A pride that I had not earned.

She held her hand out and gazed in wonder, giggling and cooing to her baby, as if the lump of flesh could comprehend the boundless beauty of the girl I had captured.
I felt the familiar rush of my old self flooding back : an amalgam of revulsion and insecurities and prejudice and skepticism. And I felt anger.
"Look, if you want some money.." I began, irritated.
Her smile wavered. She glared up at me, flashing her old self too as she handed back the bundle to me. " No, I don't want your money."

I caressed the photographs absent mindedly as I watched her walk away. "Close the windows. Mosquitoes,"my aunt yelled.