Of Diaries & Essays: meditations on memory, what have I lost?

On A Train for A Personal interview.
10 Jan. 2015.

8:33 am train from Schipol to Paris Nord, announcement: “you can travel in this train only if you have reservations.”

There is no sunrise yet. The sky is grey; the green of the fields, streetlights, and darkness hangs over the landscape, the train is rushing forth. Purab would be glad to know that I got a seat in the direction of the journey anything otherwise would have tormented him. I did carry my Axe Oil in case I feel sick. This is my last bottle. Dutch landscape is so flat like a brown often-green pancake.

There is a delay of thirty-minutes due to stormy weather. The train will be diverted to another route than the regular one it takes. The landscape has become industrial. Overhead electric poles with wires attaching and clinging; there are square containers and cylindrical gas containers. The buildings look derelict. The sky is turning pale. There is still no sign of the sun. 9:08am and we will not see a lush bright sunrise. You know the kind people mention during their train journeys. It is not going to happen on this one. I wonder what sort of storm I am leaving behind in Amsterdam. I don’t know what sort of storm am I going into in Paris.

I will be meeting a Jewish, American, poet Marilyn Hacker who lives in Paris. We will be discussing her experience with the ghazal, a poetic form of Arabic origin, entrenched in the culture of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Paris has been shaken the last two days. Two hostage crises have riveted the city. My friend asked me yesterday, “Why are you putting your family through this, traveling to Paris now?” I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be than Paris, I want to ask those questions in the midst of this, the urgency to answer how does indeed poetry transcend, does it really? Are poets activists? What is our role as researchers, to mark that activism, to bear witness to it – like Shahid would have – or to concentrate on the poetry, just the poetry, or is there a bifurcation is purpose like Shahid who described the inherent dichotomy in his name and takallhus Shahid – witness and beloved.

Amsterdam is going through 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 straightforward 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 Nehukumatathil 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?

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 breathing 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. Family is what connects us to life. The pillars within which we contain ourselves, family in not the manner of man-woman-child but family in a truer sense of the term as people we care about, whom we love.

9:12 am crossed a big river.

9:20 am another massive river.

12:14 pm the train is running over an hour late. I had breakfast and watched PK. Strange how the movie also talks of the themes I wrote about earlier. In the film the discussion is on the purpose of God and those who connect us through “wrong numbers” – the plot involved aliens, a love story, moments in Bruges and Delhi. I am at Garges Sarcelles station. Putting the laptop away, somehow I don’t want to let go of it – like it connects me in some unknown manner to purpose (for the lack of a better word). Next when I open it I will be with Marilyn. I tried texting her and emailing her about the delay but my connection is dodgy. It is quiet here – the platform, Paris will be busy. The grey clouds are still hanging onto the sky. There is still no sun. There is light but no presence of the giant ball up there.

I prepared some questions to ask Marilyn.

There are fir trees and another industrial area. Coaches and electrics. Do all stations have the same aura – they must, right! But how come do the house acquire that same derelict look, that forlorn texture, is it the soot from the trains, the fumes, or do they acquire the wisdom of comings and goings, seeing too much whiz by before their eyes.


7:12 pm return train back to Amsterdam; the station was teeming with people and the military and the police; the taxi driver from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord told me that there is a big demonstration tomorrow to show solidarity and unity for Charlie’s and his team’s death. He said it was important, he grew up reading this newspaper and he could not believe what happened in the last two days, he is in shock; he said he had lost his ability to react.

I had gone looking for the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore but I could not find it, then I lost my way and my phone battery died on me worried that I would run out of time I took a walk to Notre Dame across the bridge of locks. I noticed the gothic architecture of the cathedral, the angry-looking seine the water a steely red, and the cathedral, why do I remember it smaller, it is massive. I felt dwarfed walking along its length.

The meeting with Marilyn was fruitful. I learnt a lot from her. She is a reservoir of knowledge having read Darwesh, Ghalib, Hafez. She called herself a polyglot. I did not know what the word meant and have just learnt that it means multilingual, indeed that she is having knowledge of Arabic, Urdu, French and English. I continue to struggle with my Dutch. Her house is small, a long winding set of wooden stairs, on the third floor of an old building, she lives there alone. It had many books everywhere most of them had white spines. I noticed in the French bookstore that most French books have white spines.

I am tired. I think I will complete this tomorrow. Am I dodging, perhaps, I am cold and tired. I am also drained by the city – two strangers approached me with heaven-alone-knows-what and I had to walk away. Not understanding the language, being alone and wet from the rain, their moving mouths sounding words I could not hear. The air seems sinister. The way the station was organized seemed to add an air of exposure to a chilly draught. At one point in time the military personnel had to disperse what looked like a lover’s physical tiff, it was disturbing to say the least. An altercation that made me feel awkward as though watching was not enough something needed to be done, someone, me, I needed to get up and sort it out but it was not my business. I was the outsider. This was their private matter.

It is dark now. Nothing to look at outside, I see my own reflection, huddled. I have my back to the direction of the train, what would Purab say to that? Would he judge my raw drafts, the private notes, or would he warm the room, bring out the blanket, make soup, “You should sit in the direction of movement. Otherwise you will be sick.”

These were the raw notes that went into the preparation of the essay “Paris in the Rain.”

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