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.”

Rereading The God of Small Things

It is like returning to a lover you never stopped loving
I pause and linger, rolling words in my mouth, tasting the luscious lusty writing of someone as giving as Roy
It is indulgent and selfish on my part
After all there are many new books waiting on the to-read shelf
They can wait
This once, this one time
As I drown in that river, watching the black crows, eating those over-ripe bananas, indulging in “sloth and sullen expectation”
Oh let me be
I am permitting the .docx file to slide as I grab Velutha’s outstretched calloused hand accepting all the labels that come with this enchanted detachment

Recommendation: The God of Small Things to be savoured in slow bites over cups of ginger tea preferably with feet over a luxuriant cushion:

“They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food Products Organization) banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency, they said… Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question… They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.”

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
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


Gasps of morning


“judge a country by how it treats their weakest and poorest and also their richest”

Last night I killed her. Watched her bleed near the gutter. Left her to rot by the sewer gates. There is a place where they bury dreams. They have headstones. “Here lies my need to fly.” “Loved and cherished, mother of all my desire.” “He saved the world. Now dead.” Don’t talk to an Indian about risk-taking. From the day we are born – the act of birthing itself – is a risk. The air, itself, is a risk.



Owl Time of Year


Part 1

BBT-INTJ“I am an introvert,” Owl said. Followed by silence and Robin burst out laughing. “No, really, I am,” Owl insisted.

“Oh ya! And, Obama is King of the World,” Robin got up and hugged me, while still chuckling.

“Well, in a way he is. And, I am.” Sparrow had her hand over her mouth. “I mean I am not King of the World. Obama might be. But, I am an introvert. I do not enjoy company. I am happy being on my own. In fact, I avoid people. With a vengeance.”

Robin made a faux glum-face, “Oie don’t be mean now, we have been friends for so long. We know you love us. Plus you are so social.”

“That is the whole point. I do love you. But from a distance. I care deeply. But you make me anxious. Very anxious.”

Sparrow poured us some more tea, “These red velvet cupcakes are to die for.” “Do you know Kingfisher’s birds have flown from the nest? Poor girl she is so restless now.”


Part 2

Later, much later, after four, or five years, this episode was narrated as the day Owl had her moment. “Remember that time she went all introvert on us.” Laughter. Hysterical giggles.

“Oh no you don’t,” Owl said, hitting Sparrow with the cushion.



Part 3

Once upon a time when Owl was young her mommy used to throw her these massive birthday parties. The cake was a basket decorated with delicate flowers. There were pink roses, blue pansies, and violets, white daisies layered over a weave so exquisite and edible. The table had heaps of treats – mushroom and chicken patties, mini burgers, sandwich rolls, animal-shaped cookies, mountains of spicy diamond cuts, sausage wraps and melted cheese straws. This was for the children. For the adults that accompanied them there were freshly fried hot puris, dahi vadas, aloo dum, chicken drumsticks and garden salad. Games were organized; a treasure hunt that had prizes at each step, passing the parcel, musical chairs and dark room.

As the silver metal hexagonal shapes on the front gate swung a bell used to ring in the front verandah. By the time the cars rolled up the gravel and came up the front porch the servers walked out with their drink trays. Each guest was welcomed with care.

Owl always had new shiny clothes. She was asked to be polite and wish everyone. However, there was a big problem. Owl did not want to meet people. Owl hid behind her mommy and refused to budge from there. As she was prodded and poked to dip her head out to say hi she would more insistently hold on to her mother’s dress. She got attached to it. Being dragged from end to end, trying to smile, but clinging on behind became a habit, till mommy got exasperated. “This party is for you. C’mon you have to make your guests feel good. Stop being so painfully shy.” Everyone in Owl’s family loved to talk – they hooted the night away, making merry with lots of noise. Owl wanted to curl. Owl wanted her books. Owl wanted that corner between the twigs and rags. And, thus, every party, every year became a dreaded affair for Owl. The more she was asked to step out the more she hid her face in the pleats.

One year, when Owl was a bit grown-up (but not-fully a grown-up) she decided to make mends. She let go of the dress she was desperately holding on to. She was amiable, friendly and almost gregarious – all to prove she was anything but shy. She did not lack confidence. She wrapped her not-want-to-meet-people into neat folds and put it in her back-jean-pocket. Mommy Owl felt a lot better. No one prodded or poked. After five hours of hopping around and eating too much Owl had a moment to herself. Everyone had left. Their pet dog Poodles was slumped on the floor. Owl leaned on him. National Geographic was playing on the television. She could get through this. As long as there were these moments – after. She could glide through events. Post these, she had the pillows, the corners, the little feel-good-factors.



Below is a letter Owl sent to me to post here on her behalf: 

Dear Universe,

A lifetime of — being social, cheerful, peppy, chirpy, for occasions — is tiresome. It is a performance. One, which I can assure you, can be skilfully mastered in order to let people (you care about) feel that you do. Because people (aka we) have been conditioned to constantly crave affirmations.

But, here’s the catch, I want to sincerely apologize if my introversion has caused you any hurt. I don’t care any less. I do think of you, often. I do miss you. But, I am not lonely when I am alone. I am happy. Content. Peaceful. Excited. All of those. And, I do love you. Very much. And, lastly, this will make you laugh out loud: this is not about you – it is about me. Funny, eh! Not. Oh ok. I tried.

Love, Owl

enhanced-buzz-5106-1390335836-8(image courtesy: buzzfeed)

Recommended Reading

Caring for your Introvert – Jonathan Rauch (an excellent piece to understand how presentations and parties are different from groups and small talk)

Why do we feel compelled to include ourselves? Susan Cain, thank you. Quiet. Introversion as a fuel for being creative.

Because I like graphic novels. And this is a simple enough explanation. How to interact with someone who tells you they are introverted.

The need to create. Why we are the way we are?

The reason why Owl sent the post: Daring Greatly.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” —Theodore Roosevelt

[If your curiosity is piqued – I am an INTJ]








I Go for a Walk in the Evening While the Body Stays at Home by Alix Anne Shaw – Guernica 

These wet and windy days aggravate the rheumatism in my joints. I struggle to keep the body at pace with my mind. My mind: the curious two-year old, with the passion of a teenage romance, and the gravity of mid-life. The body oscillates. Move forward, I demand of it, it stays at home. Then comes a poem that speaks to me as well as listens to me, and I want to share it with you.


The body unbuckles the door latch
and stands behind the screen. To hide its bloated legs
it wears the frayed red bathrobe of its grief. The sun, that swollen increment,

gathers to a dark burr in my mouth. The green leaves
tighten down across their stems, a small voice coming toward me
on someone else’s phone.

There was something I wanted to say
about the body. (The sun, that swollen
increment, a dark burr in my mouth—) That the body

is a tent stake. That the figure I am chasing through the late
short grass is mine. But the lip makes no remittance
and the sparrow in the boxwood

cools itself to quartz. Then the sparrow casts the spiral
of its sleep. Our feet in the earth are chisels.
The lights in the houses turn in

on themselves like little snows.

Source: I Go for a Walk in the Evening While the Body Stays at Home by Alix Anne Shaw – Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics

Suture by Philip Schaefer – Guernica 

The moment we say alone we are
not. The sun tucks under the mouth
of a mountain yet still light fills
our skin. Every day a heart is pulled
out like a wet plum from one body
and placed inside another. Every day
someone comes home to a lover
packing her bags. It is normal
to fall asleep in pain and wake
with more. We break open
clouds by waiting long enough.
Behind this midnight other midnights
trace a face so familiar we touch
our cheekbones like twin moons.
With closed eyes we wonder what
we are to do with all this living.

Source: Suture by Philip Schaefer – Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics

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