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.”

To tell you the truth

I have been writing poems a lot more than I usually do and reworking drafts of old poems. Perhaps due to my PhD work on the ghazal I tend to spend more time on structure and sound. Strict metrical scales and working with rhymes, refrains, provide me with an effective tool to have a dialogue with borders and control. Themes that I have no answer to, no solution for, but find myself deeply bothered with, amazed by our own humanity (or, often times, sadly, the lack of it).

I have also been attending these thought-provoking and insightful lectures on Politics and Literature by Prof. Diederik Oostdijk at the VU. Last class we listened to Naomi Shihab Nye (who I love very much, her poem “One Boy Told Me” I believe is a personal, intimate, love poem meant just for me) reading “Letters My Prez Never Wrote” and “Ted Kooser Is My President.” She is so incredibly talented – wise and kind.

The setting, topic, students and discussions in class are connected, entrenched, into the world we live in today. Even to say I am not into politics seems like the most politically charged sentence to utter. In our everyday choices, to choose to look or look away, to comment or not, to publish a post or avoid trouble, in every way we step into the fabric of politics.

I had an excellent teacher in school who taught us Political Science. Archana Pental at D.P.S. R.K. Puram instilled a sound foundation of understanding governing bodies and their functions. In her class she made us question democracy if it actually worked and where we could see the three arms of governance function as we stepped outside the classroom. I wanted to pursue a Bachelors in Political Science. However, St. Stephen’s College does not offer a Political Science degree. “Members of our family only attend College or else it is Salipur College in good old Orissa for you” (no offence to any Salipur students, I have never visited the campus, the warning of its existence impacted my teenage mind as a mammoth scare). So I pursued English Literature. That turned out very well.

When I heard about the course imagine my delight.

But, I am not the only one getting excited about this merger of literature and politics, Diederik was recently interviewed for this special class – “Hoogleraar VU wil drempel universiteiten verlagen voor vluchtelingen

In the end I would like to leave you with this poem I wrote after getting to know about blockades that did not get reported, and of getting papers, embassy visits, pondering over what my lost citizenship would mean to me, and of living in a country where I can write this still.

To tell you the truth

Upon walking into an airport
My body somehow becomes a machine
Mechanical with nuts and bolts
A system I cyclically follow
My head tells me – lets get this over with

Please take out all electronic devices from your bag ma’am
Place them on the tray ma’am
Take off those shoes as well ma’am
And ma’am your jacket, and that belt
Ma’am, now slowly move through this capsule
Arms in the air, your legs apart
Indeed like that ma’am
Let the scan run over you
Step forward ma’am
To be patted down ma’am
Arms
Breasts
Hips
Legs
Ma’am you may go now
Step away ma’am

Contorted into the shape of an ill-positioned seat
I curse the person who said the journey is the destination
Who was it – Buddha?
Would he travel First Class?
Sleep-deprived, dehydrated, claustrophobic, partially deaf

What is the purpose of your visit to this country ma’am?
Where will you be staying ma’am and for how long?
Do you really want to visit libraries ma’am?
Do see some of our well-known sights as well ma’am!

My bags wheel out of the hall
Backpack clinging onto to the side of my body
The awkwardness of playing dress-undress with sardines
After all calling ourselves cattle can have me debarred from several states
I did not want to be touched
I did not want to slip out of the comfort of my zone
But to enter
You must submit
Did you ever feel like my entry into your state was forced upon my body in ways that defiled my clean sheet?
Now I am stamped.

At the embassy I attested that my son could have a different card than mine
I looked at his disinterested big eyes as we stood in line
Two minutes more baby
I want to go to school after this
Yes, I will drop you there
As she sliced his picture she said she is afraid of such large shears
Her shaking hands cut a sliver into my resident card
I offered to do it for her
She hesitated looking for purpose in my eyes
And then relented
I cut his picture to fit into the allotted space
They made him sign
This is him
His y like a bird in the sky
My residency jarringly sliced

I look at my blue and their maroons
It says I belong somewhere else
A grey sky
Angry clouds
Each crossover like a painful birthing from tired hips
My labor was three days long
It left my arms limp for days
I could hold nothing

I have decided to rebel
I do not belong to any country
I do not believe in borders
I am just going to say that this body is a state by itself
And I am sovereign
My heart the center of power
My head, brain and eyes – legislators
My legs and arms that are used to hold and walk these are the executive wings
I refuse to pay allegiance
Cancel my subscription
Here take this document
This card, the signature, take away this marker of who you tell me I should be
You do not get to decide who I am or who I will become
I belong everywhere
To myself
And to the encompassing powers of love
I will live by my heart
These lines – decrees of the blind – the misled – mean nothing
They will never mean anything
My passport from now on will be the picture of me my son drew when he was two
I declare that I will care for those my heart demands me to
I will not be held back by color, caste, creed, class or other such crap that I was taught to adhere to
I refuse to conform
I will become an amoeba
My nucleus will welcome immigrants

I will cry
I will defy
My document will have all colors of the rainbow
This earth, the soil, water, sky, trees and birds
I will tell my son to go ahead choose pink, choose green, choose any color, any one, be, be, be, who you want to be, be with who you choose to be, be a star, be the sky, become a river, flow, roar, escape, run, stay, root, grow – be you – be who you think you are meant to be
There is nothing, nothing, nothing
More powerful than to be free
Of compartments and cubicles
Confining commands that tell you don’t look, don’t see
Do not register disappointment, disagreement, dismay, disability, your disdain, keep that debate away

This is a democratic state
All dissidents will be made to obey

———-

Poem Unlimited, Augsburg

Over the weekend I attended and spoke at the Poem Unlimited Conference at Augsburg. The venue, the Augsburg University, has a beautiful campus. The trees were in Autumn hues. I was narrated the story of a duck family in the University pond. A ledge was removed from one of the campus buildings so to lessen diving deaths in ducklings. The Augsburg University has its own resident cat with its Facebook page. A selfie with the cat is a must-do. I did see and pet the cat, however, missed taking a selfie.

Prof. Wai Chee Dimock gave the Key Note lecture on “Recycling the Gilgamesh.” The body was described in all its fragility. The violent element of death, and the processes we undertake to recycle the body were analyzed. The aggressive factor in recycling as an act of degradation offered a new way to look at biodiversity. After all, everything natural disintegrates, it is that which is man-made persists. What then happens to poetry as it ventures into art and theatre. In order to stay, we must recycle, to use again provides longetivity. But something, the person, object, aspect, gets lost in the act of recycling.

I enjoyed listening to talks about the Romantics, Czesław Miłosz, the African-American sonnet, and Walt Whitman’s Sufi side. I presented a paper on Agha Shahid Ali and Roger Sedarat’s ghazals, in which I explored how the beloved and witness lie entangled in their identity within the form.

The conference offered moments of insight and also a vision of what the future might hold. As we discussed and debated the transcience of physical matter, the regenerative spirit of nature, I left Augsburg sensing a hopefulness. Perhaps, the season, the theme, and my state of being mingled to create a mind that was prepared for Winter and the promise of a Spring – that always follows.

Friday Book Market at Spui

Every Friday there is a Book Market at the Spui, Amsterdam. On this day there is a peppy vibe to the place. Antique books, quirky books, second-handbooks, new books and forgotten books all find their way to stalls here. The keepers are friendly. People seem to have time. A certain stillness. Browse and be. No hard sell. No interruptions. The only contact is between you and the books. You touch, you flip pages, you read a page here and a blurb there, and you move on.

I come here to absorb the spirit. Often to remind myself why I made the choices I did. Words become dust motes. People fade to the background. Sounds filter to a muffled white state. I leave parts of myself in the corners. And I collect new ones that I want to carry.

Of all the things I have experienced in this city – this market is closest to my heart. Along with the OBA. That I will save for another day. When it’s not Friday. Till then you will find me here. 

   
 

Dilruba Pe Dil Aaya

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I discovered Dilruba Ahmed’s poetry in the early part of this year and it has stayed with me.

The first poem I read was: “Snake Oil, Snake Bite” and it lingered over my days, making me smile at odd-moments as I remembered its tender irony.

Imagine my joy when I discovered she had written a ghazal. Each couplet such a nugget to carry around. Don’t miss the witty: “In Ramadan, we’ll break our fast with dates and wine— / Must we pray in one room and dance in another?” Well, must we?

[Click on the image to read the complete ghazal.]

Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam

Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam

A day spent at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam.
Such peace and tranquility in the heart of a busy city is unusual. The meditative spaces and careful corners are crafted here with such sensitivity.