Tag Archives: life

Paris in the rain

Saturday, January 10, 2015, I was to be in Paris for the day to meet poet and translator Marilyn Hacker. I had many questions about her experience with the ghazal and ghazal poets; she was generous enough to offer her day to me. On Monday 5th I booked my tickets to travel by the Thalys by Wednesday the 7th – Paris was not the same. Two hostage crises bolted through the city.

I stuck to my decision to travel. On the Friday – 9th – a day before my travel my friend asked me, “Why are you putting your family through this, traveling to Paris now?” I wanted to calm her fears. But I don’t think I was able to. I just could not think of anywhere I would have rather been than in Paris. That somehow the terror, fear, the tendency to self-preserve would not, and could not hold me back. Indeed I could have rescheduled but I did not want to. I wanted to meet Marilyn. I also wanted to see Paris, like when you approach your friend to hold her hand, to let her know she will be okay when things go wrong, not just in the summer when the air is crisp and flowers are in bloom, but in winter when it’s cold and the body struggles to stay warm. The combination of these two interwove to help me make my decision.

It was an unusually gray and stormy day. The Thalys had delays while the wind waged its battle I prepared my questions. Within me was this surging tide to go forth, to ask, to inquire, while this emotion presented itself there was also this ‘manthan’ (inner churn) – poetry in the midst of turmoil. Agha Shahid Ali toyed with the takallhus Shahid – witness and beloved. Marilyn had written that her name was not as meta as Shahid’s, when the jokes on Marilyn came out she left the room. Kashmir. Palestine. Poetry. Paris.

Online I read articles on the cities of the world and the need of the hour being introspection. Why indeed is the second generation of migrants turning elsewhere to answer their religious and cultural quandaries? Have the countries they were born and brought up not nurturing? Or had they been brain washed? Was there another kind of schooling that created the other kind – this kind – what kind? There is no straight forward answer. God needs protecting. Caustic, sarcasm, dripping ink in pen, then blood, lots of blood, blood everywhere on the pages, on tables, the floor, oozing from wounds, the American ghazal – of Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Aimee Nehukumatahil talk of wounds, of hurt, Rich even says the way in which we murder is not the same anymore. Who is the gazelle today? Who the hunted, who the prey, who the hunter, who the almighty, Agha Shahid Ali “By Exile” wrote exiled by exiles, is this what is left of us? Birds fly over the landscape — Mahmoud Darwesh had asked where do birds fly after the last sky? Where do they go from here? And who are they? What hurts their heart? And what sort of God needs protection that too from creatures as fragile and faulty as us humans?

Bambi was sleeping on my bed when I left. He had kicked the duvet off, it half-covered his thin frame. His mouth was open. I could see his chest heaving steadily. His eyes twitched just a little. Was he dreaming? Would he ask for me when he woke up? Or would the iPad and Skylanders distract him enough for him to forget me just that bit – his forgetting me would hurt me. Ostriker had written in her essays in The Mother / Child Papers (1980) about birth and war time, the poignancy of the words raise a lump to my throat and I swallow it back with bad train coffee. The last time I was in Paris I was pregnant with Bambi.

—-

A long-winding dark bent wooden staircase curled up three floors to her small door; Marilyn opened it with a warm and gentle smile. Her office-living areas were covered in books. On the prayer stand open was the Arab to French dictionary, we both look at it, I tease her, “Is this what you have been worshipping Marilyn, have you done your hundred Bismillahs?” She laughs, “Oh yes I’ve been praying to irregular verbs.” She makes me coffee upstairs in her kitchenette with a Lebanese flag, over buttery croissants and raisin rolls we discuss ghazals. Her mind is sharp, wise, knowledgeable, a polyglot; she switches from Rumi, to Darwesh, to Ghalib, to Mimi Khalvati with such ease and grace. Somewhere my own ideas stretched, some modified, and some get fortified. While I start to understand Shahid better, women and the ghazal remain deliciously complicated. As a researcher one tends to be clinical about the work we study, for the artist it is more organic, natural, and inexplicable. She talks about her inclination towards anonymity, the idea to remain unknown – nameless, her last poetry collection was called Names (2010), she does not use the takallhus sometimes she alludes to it but most of the time she drops it. She says she enjoys doing that. It is fun to work with forms, to see how it functions, how far you can go with it, how much will it stretch. The ghazal becomes play-doh in my head and I start imagining what color it would be. I ask her how she knew about the ghazal, it was through Adrienne Rich, and Shahid, about Shahid she says, “He was very loved.” I can imagine that Shahid in his living room surrounded by his friends reciting poetry while the fragrance of a good rogan josh wafts from the kitchen. We discuss the differing styles of Shahid and Roger Sedarat. We analyze what it means for me an Indian living in Amsterdam to come to Paris to talk about an Arabic but more Persian-Urdu poetic form with an American-Jewish female poet, we notice the irony of it, also noting of how people and forms travel.

Marilyn takes me out for lunch to her neighborhood café. Where we meander away from the ghazal to nation states, and borders, and Paris, her reason to live in Paris was that she kept coming back to it and one day she decided to stay, she liked it there, her life, the book stores, the ability to have several literary options at her doorstep and the fact that she had studied French Literature in her youth. We talk of Beirut and our experiences with the city. She talks about Mosul and Syria.

I leave her apartment at five. She gives me her new collection of poems – with new ghazals – A Stranger’s Mirror (2015) – it is not yet in the stores, and she insists that I would understand it. I accept it. She gives me another book for Bambi. It is The Honey Hunter (2013) by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet; it is set in the Sunderbans, close to where I was born. I think of Bambi, and home, Marilyn smiles at me like she knows what I am thinking.

I go to the North Bank and walk along with the Seine towards Notre Dame across the bridge of locks, it is teeming with people professing their love, kissing, locking their locks, I pray for the bridge to hang on to its knobs and not collapse under the weight of too-much metal. The Seine looks angry. The sky is dark gray. The gothic elements of the cathedral look menacing. Every store, each corner has signs for Charlie. The air is somber.

I arrive at the station early. The taxi driver from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord tells me that on Sunday the 11th there will be a big demonstration to show solidarity and unity for Charlie. He says it is important to show it – that through this demonstration people want to stand together for Paris. He grew up reading Charlie’s newspaper and he could not believe what happened in the last two days, he says he has lost his ability to react, “Charlie was always poking fun at everyone, even himself, and I grew up reading his pages, this is my Paris, these are people from my childhood.”

It is pouring. The rain – “Even the Rain” (thank you Rafiq Kathwari for a poem I carry with me everywhere) – I am soaking wet. The Gare du Nord station is cold. There is police and military everywhere. I have to sit there and wait. Gare du Nord is no waiting room. But I have Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) for company. There is a lover’s tiff in the station, it gets physical, the military officers step in, it is like a dance, the officers don’t really do anything, but they watch, they don’t say anything, they observe other people watching the couple, the couple, the officers movements are orchestrated, slow and mindful in comparison to the fighting fish who seem random – jerky – slowly as the couple moves away, the officers move as well, their faces are expressionless.

The train back to Amsterdam has police doing checks – they are still looking for the girl my co-passenger informs me, she also points out — good thing you do not look like her despite your dark hair. I nod, not saying anything; I try to make my face expressionless. I don’t think I am good at this. For the rest of the journey I remain buried in Kureishi. By the time I reach home – it is the middle of the night, stillness, Bambi is in bed, Purab’s waiting. The day drains away in the shower, steam, quiet, words forming, Seine curling, qafiyas, radifs, buttresses and mornings. They always come. Like the radif. Somehow even when the sun does not shine, the day starts, life moves.

Going away – a visit to NIAS

Our team at work went for an offsite to NIAS in Wassenaar. I wrote a small feature on the outing. I am sharing a snippet (the one which Purab made me read out again):

Autumn is an extraordinary season. The trees laden with orange, brown and red, shed their leaves. Ripe with the experiences of the entire year, this purging of excess is liberating. Autumn prepares for winter a time of silence and rest. Lest we forget, in this stationary season much work is done. Below the surface, life prepares, and waits. The reflective black waters of the fountain in the Persian Rose garden is stirred, from these ripples emerge messages, onwards we must proceed.

Read more: click here

The pictures are that of NIAS and the area around the building taken on my iPhone 5s.

Full text:

The act of going away is highly underrated. The cyclic nature of everyday routines coats like a fog. When we step away we are able to see details clearly, patterns emerge that our eyes would have otherwise missed.

On November 20, 2014, Thursday, the VU Literatures in English team – staff members, Research Master students, and Ph.D. scholars – visited the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) in Wassenaar where Professor Diederik Oostdijk is writing a book while on sabbatical.

NIAS is an idyllic location nestled near the coast, with glorious beech, oak and horse chestnut trees currently in vibrant autumn colors. The building – quaint and a generous space provides valuable research time for international scholars.

The team enjoyed a walk through autumn’s bounty to the Persian Rose garden. Intricately painted blue tiles stood out against the white walls, a fountain, and roses saturated in white, in summer the same roses are pink. To grow, indeed, we must pay heed to changing climes and still retain some of that ethereal beauty that makes us unique.

Autumn is an extraordinary season. The trees laden with orange, brown and red, shed their leaves. Ripe with the experiences of the entire year, this purging of excess is liberating. Autumn prepares for winter a time of silence and rest. Lest we forget, in this stationary season much work is done. Below the surface, life prepares, and waits. The reflective black waters of the fountain in the Persian Rose garden is stirred, from these ripples emerge messages, onwards we must proceed.

Surrounded by this lushness, visible through large windows, the team members had their first session. Diederik Oostdijk talked about the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, Tim Scheffe on the Spanish Civil War, Karin Diks on Grace Nichols, and Anita Raghunath on the creation of the postcolonial other. They were joined by Professor Arthur Verhoogt, also a fellow at the NIAS. He is the Professor of Papyrology and Greek at the University of Michigan.

A warm lunch with pumpkin soup (apt for autumn), meatballs, vegetables and salad, cups of coffee and banter about the journeys undertaken and work accomplished was followed by the second session. Allard den Dulk, a guest from Amsterdam University College, joined the conversation and talked about 21st-century existentialism in American films and novels. Subsequently Roel van den Oever spoke about reading and sexual desire, Dirk Visser about plays revolving around the AIDS crisis and Amrita Das about American ghazals.

The themes varied, the techniques different, yet common threads of memory, remembering, forgetting, commemorating, performance, cultural symbolism and a passion for literature emerged. As the participants walked back to their cars, heading back to Amsterdam to what awaited on their desks and in their rooms, one could sense that stepping away had been worthwhile. Like the Persian Rose garden in the middle of NIAS, in between teaching, exams, administration and preparation, our research lies, sometimes white, sometimes pink, and it is helpful to step away and notice we chose the academic path (and literature in particular), and to witness ourselves going through the process of creation and recreation.

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Leaves – A Ghazal

It is August. Soon we will be in Autumn – Fall. I like the manner in which fall as a word rolls inside the mouth, in the end making the tongue meet the roof of your mouth.

For that reason and a few other.

Leaves – A Ghazal

What eats you from inside gradually leaves
They place your body covered lovingly with leaves

In winter they told me that these trees have color
That nature undresses seductively dropping leaves

I waited and watched nothing ever came of it
You closed the door quietly when you leave

My shirt, my trousers, bits and pieces of me
Gathered now in a dust pan, your gaze sweepingly leaves

Change happens when you aren’t watching
From the door the old lazy wretch of a dog reluctantly leaves

I painted the chairs yellow to match your mind
A sleepy head watches the sun finally leave

Meditation has made Das still
When someone says go away, she happily leaves

Read “The Last Leaf” a short story by O Henry: click here
Apoorva’s ghazal “Never Again”: click here

Soya cake for milk allergy

Yesterday I made a cake that was butter-and-milk-free. I wanted to celebrate with my friends and the fact that most desserts have milk or butter in them bothered me. My son, almost 7 years old, has cow’s milk allergy and can’t eat many products that we often associate with kids – pizzas and cupcakes. The more I learn from his journey the more I realize that kids have such resilience and strength. I am teaching myself to cook in a different fashion so I am happy to share the success of this cake.

Recipe for basic soya cake
 
INGREDIENTS:
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or Triple Sec
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup soya cream

DIRECTIONS:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9×9 inch pan or line a muffin pan with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, cream together the sugar and oil. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Combine flour and baking powder, add to the creamed mixture and mix well. Finally stir in the soya cream until batter is smooth. Pour or spoon batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes in the preheated oven. For cupcakes, bake 20 to 25 minutes. Cake is done when it springs back to the touch.

Other notes:
I used Renshaw fondant and Wilton decorating gel for decorating.

The original recipe that I changed: click here 

My cake ingredients shop: click here

Georgia

There is always so much more to read. I find myself in conversations: “No, I haven’t read that.” The prospect is thrilling and worrying. There is that constant niggle – out there could be that one book I wish I had read before putting pen to paper. Each day passes in the pursuit of that text. Words tumble out easy and smooth from the tip my fingers but my mind is in the jungle – hunting. I am reassured with, “But that’s always a constant.” If the quest got over, there was no other material, I would feel defeated. A battle that I willingly lose everyday. I like the manner in which the pile of my books comfort me in the cold. The buffer between the chill and me.

Here: Sitting waiting for Bambi to complete his swimming lesson I am traveling to 1950s Georgia. America – a country I have never visited.
The rain pours, the wind whips the flag, the scrawny brown boy struggles to keep his head above blue waters in the deep end.

There: I read on, she has just birthed on a mattress on the road. Her child unwanted in every way.

Here: I wipe his soaking body and he trembles and shakes, words flood out of his mouth. He is excited. He tells me how it was easy. I squeeze him like a sponge to take the damp out of his bones. He grabs my neck and rubs his nose against mine smiling into my eyes.

In the evening, over cups of tea and tostis, and later wine we talk, “Have you read Althusser?” I shake my head, “I have it on my list.” “You must, really, it will change your views about this, really, I insist.”

Here: It’s dark.
There: I return to Georgia.

Road trip with the boys

We drove from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf. From Dusseldorf to Radhadesh. And then to Genval. From there back home. It was an impromptu trip. I felt my creativity was clogged. I could smell the rust inside my head. And, I knew that all our friends would be away. We packed light, threw caution to the wind (not really – we do have winter tires but that term so aptly sums up the headspace) and galloped away.

I wrote more than I typed. I read more than I watched. The hills, a tiny town, a hidden lake, waiting, learning, talking, grinding the tip of the shoe into grey gravel, feeling cold till the bones and then hot in the head – eating and sleeping and waking up to eating. It was a sweet holiday. I got to know Bambi a lot better. His big eyes see bigger dreams, irrational ones, I stop myself from rationalising. There is plenty of time for that. I watch how he meticulously plans his day and I see me. I hear him hum and I notice Apoorva. Then I see him for who he is … the bit not like me, not like Apoorva, just him … like him.

I would advise going away to come back. To text friends from random locations. To tell them that however far we run they remain so deliciously close. I recognise my own need for isolation, for solitude, silence to hear my thoughts talking to each other, giving each other a good fight as my friend Natasha would say. Oh they fight and then they move on, just like you said Natasha. In ways that I still don’t understand I am finding myself.

I thank you 2013 – perhaps not as sincerely as Apoorva would but in my own way. You were a difficult year. I am glad you are over. I wish you peace. And I wish all my readers:

Happy New Year 2014.

 

Jagannath, Baladev and Subadra in Radhadesh
Jagannath, Baladev and Subadra in Radhadesh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)