Sojourns in solitude


Swiping through my phone gallery, I pause at my favourite album. I linger and savour the memories lacing each camera shot. It was a sojourn I had always dreamed of and hoped for; one that came true. And yet, I haven't journaled it all, as I have always done, to come back to the narrative a later date, to relive the moments, revel in a state of a happy bubble, and feel grateful.

Nostalgia is a great muse. It rises up like fragrant wisps of strong filter coffee, covering your senses with an aromatic shield, languidly filling you up with emotions, and then with a gush, lets the thoughts and reminiscences flow out.

The end of 2017 was eventful in more ways than one. I had arrived at yet another crossroad in life. A new beginning awaited me, while I closed certain chapters. Emotionally, it was a tumultuous phase. I watched mutely as old connections withered away into nothingness. 

Life lessons don't come in sugar-coated pills. Still, it's not a pleasant truth to digest that it never mattered to certain people whether or not I existed (in their lives). It was amusing and painful to note the superfluous and fluff that we mistake for the real.

I was glad to leave the hurting wound(s) alone to heal on its own and seek refuge elsewhere. Drawing up trip itineraries, researching places to visit, weighing accommodation options, bookings, and finally embarking on a journey rank high as self-care, in my book. I threw myself into planning the trip I had been waiting for. It was a catharsis of sorts. 

Writing would have been therapeutic as well but I was nursing—and still not fully recovered—a battle scar of a different kind. This is, strangely, a wound that now resembles a dried scab. The urge to itch is irresistible but I'm wary of scratching the surface of something that's still raw beneath and would surely bleed. 

Writing (not to be confused with dairy journal) is always two-part: the first is where you strip yourself bare, laying down your innermost fears, thoughts, and intentions, untangling the wired mess in your head to correspond closely with the words on paper. This, though it doesn't seem like it, is fairly easy. 

The second and tougher part is to put it up for public consumption. To publish your writings means to be open to receiving empathy and judgment that would come your way in equal or unequal parts. To embrace that sense of the unknown that's par course when you throw open your life as a book, when you don't and cannot know all your readers. This part is what I'm battling against, the one that makes me reluctant to write and share honestly. And interestingly, it's the readers I know that terrify me more. I'm worried they would come across a person they never knew through their interactions.

My writing is a vehicle to find my inner self. It's an exercise not everyone else can or needs to appreciate. This, I'm beginning to understand but need to accept.

How to not write- #YeahWrite377

Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/pencil-sharpener-notebook-paper-918449/

Yell at the household for not doing their bit to tidy the mess. You end up wasting time you’d rather spend writing, this you remind them with accusatory fingers.

Decide today that the cleaning can wait. Open the word document. Remind yourself that there is a quick link to it on the desktop status bar.

Stare at the clean slate. Then stare some more. Blink away the saline droplets that are threatening to spill over the edge of the pool your eyes are swimming in. Convince yourself that you’ll find the words to translate these tears one day.

A fresh mind works, always. It’s a voice you sometimes hear.

Close the empty space before you and step into the doors of Facebook or whatever that’s enchanting and welcoming at that point.

Get swept away in the avalanche of advice by wannabe experts that generously share their wisdom on everything from gardening to making babies, from meditation to taking out the garbage the right way.

Let your head spin in the overdose of virtual hobnobbing and hit the bed with a mid-day hangover.

Take a break, come back rejuvenated, implores the same sagacious voice. Check. Writing breaks in your life now are pretty much regular guests that overstay their visit.

Read other writers for inspiration. It’s an advice that cannot be ignored. So, curl up and lose yourself in the labyrinths of splendid prose and poetry. The pen you hold, heavy with envy and self-pity, embarrasses you with its juvenile craft.

Sigh. Glance up in time to the sun slipping under the inky covers and jump off to chop your thoughts for dinner.

An idea sprouts up unexpectedly just as the soft paneer goes under the gleaming knife. Swiftly scoop it up before it blends into in the simmering curry before you. Take quick strides to plant the seed into the still-open Word.doc but bump mid-way into your sulking pre-teen.  

You lose just a split-second in deciding to nurture your fledgling, an adult-in-progress, over saving the germ of a story. The latter, though, wastes no time in slinking away.

You’re left to contend with a clean document and a dirty house.


Fuelling ambition | Fiction

"Get the inventory in order!" I heard the manager bark as I busied myself before the long line of customers.

I glanced up at Marianne for a brief moment, in between getting the change for the middle-aged, portly man, who leaned heavily at the counter, clutching packets of Marlboro in his short, stubby palm.

“Fasst…hon…you think I’ve all day?” He winked at me, his breath reeking of alcohol.

Repulsed, I banged the coins on the counter and waved him away.

Marianne held the inventory chart clumsily in the left hand, cradled a phone between her neck and left ear while simultaneously ticking off the items on the list with her right hand.

“Yeah, Sweetie..today’s when we get your baseball cap and gloves” Marianne now spoke breathlessly over the phone. She hung up a little abruptly, pushed a few Coke cans back and forth on the shelf.

“Something’s always missing,” grumbled Marianne, her frown deepening as she counted and re-counted. "Shit, I need the money!" She swore loudly.

I had a déjà vu at that moment when I was the new junior attendant at Costco. I'd patiently wait for salary day and feel a stab of pain to find the already paltry sum reduced, to compensate for the items that would routinely go missing during my shift.

I kept looking for something more than the missing item.

I’d pour the frustration into my cello lessons and draw out melancholy notes that, my faithful listeners insisted, tugged at their heart. I chose to believe them. Music filled out the empty spaces in my life.

When Marianne joined six months back, I found someone I could share the work misery with. We savoured our 15-minute lunch break outside the store. It provided us downtime, enough to simply breathe and recoup for the next few hours of stifling work and humiliation at the hands of the always harried and often entitled customers.

The foil crackled as Marianne tore opened the packet. She frowned as she took a bite of her cold tuna sandwich. Sweat had stuck her front curls to the forehead like a sort of headband. She looked at my box of hash browns and some salad with extra mayonnaise dressing. It wasn’t the usual fare of bland rice and stew. She raised her brow at me and I quickly explained,” made a few extras at the musical gig last weekend.”

“It helps to have some talent or at least brains to escape this,” She jerked her head at the store.

“Say, Marianne…” I hesitated while fishing out a crumpled piece of a pamphlet from my overcoat pocket. “What do you think of this?”

Her eyes opened wide as a saucer and she snorted, her entire body rippling with laughter. “You serious? Had I the patience…would’ve finished high school long back.”

I felt a hot flush rise to my cheeks. “Yeah..bad idea, maybe,” I mumbled and hastily thrust the piece of paper, now smudged with the remnants of cream from my fingers, back into my pocket.

I turned to my cello that night. Every right note spoke to me about perseverance and passion.

*
My stomach lurched at the smallish farewell gathering on a crisp morning a month later. My voice trembled slightly as I spoke about finding a job as a part-time cello teacher at a high school.

My manager and colleagues clapped like automated robots as I took a deep breath and added to say that I also planned to finish school. I glanced at Marianne and she wore a blank expression. My throat went dry and I wondered if it was too late to laugh out loud and say, “Gotcha!” Yet, hearing my own words gave me strength.

I placed the battered pamphlet on Marianne’s desk, grabbed my keys and dashed out of the station before my knees crumbled under the stress.

***


Seeking little joys


Anjana’s stubby fingers bristled as she caressed the edges of the woven straw hat. A thin red satin ribbon was wound at its base, with a neat bow. The hat was two sizes large for her. But, she didn’t mind. She simply loved to touch it or see it hung over the nail above the rectangular mirror in her room.

“Whose is that?” Ma asked. They rarely owned pretty things so it stood out.

“Oh, Mary Amma gave it to me,” Anjana lied. Fortunately for Anjana, her Ma had more pressing duties like making sure the next meal was on the table than cross-verifying facts.

“Sajita Chechi has had a girl,” Ma updated as she rolled out chapatis.  She muttered to herself, “Again. .Ah, poor Chechi, God knows how she’s going to fare with 3 girls now!”

Anjana looked up quizzically at Ma. She wondered how Sajita Chechi’s news was relevant to her.
“It’s been a rough delivery. I've been asked to help her out. I’ll get double pay,” Ma continued. Anjana nodded.

Double pay meant overtime, although the pay never seemed enough. Ever since Pa died at the construction site two years ago, Anjana’s conversations with Ma meant exchanging important information in bits and slices. Worry lines creased Ma’s forehead and her mane was streaked in silver. Anjana had learned to befriend silence.

Anjana walked up to the mirror. She reached up on her toes to place the hat on the nail. As she looked at the hat, now settled crookedly on the nail, she felt a stab of shame and guilt wash over her.  It was Mary Amma’s daughter’s hat. But, neither Mary Amma nor Suju Chechi had given it to Anjana.

Suju Chechi had arrived that summer morning. Brightly coloured suitcases dotted the living room. Excited chatter filled up the spaces. Chechi’s girls bumbled in and out of the corridors, clamouring for attention. Sugary fragrance wafted through, followed by the scent of crispies fired in aromatic coconut oil. Delicacies were being laid out one by one on the kitchen counter. Ma was a superb cook and was usually summoned by the locals for special occasions including annual visits of their children from foreign shores.

Anjana had accompanied Ma that day at work, a rare occurrence. Mary Amma had insisted that they partake of the feast and celebration.

The bewitching headgear was lying in one corner, almost abandoned. Anjana’s eyes lit had up at its sight, a pinkish shade of sunset; it was beckoning her. She imagined her to be a little princess, adorning the hat, astride a white handsome horse. 

Her heart had pounded in her chest as she slunk away with the treasure that day.

A harmless trick, she thought. Soon her wooden chest was filled with knick-knacks that had all called out to her with equal urgency. She vaguely felt a sense of wrongdoing each time but also got emboldened and revelled in the merriment.

“It’s not my fault. They hypnotize me,” Anjana argued with the voices in her head that shamed her.

“The Gods will be angry!” the voices bellowed this time and Anjana felt a cold sweat trickling down her nape. She decided to seek mercy, at the local temple.  She woke up early and washed her hair. She wore the cleanest and best dress she owned, a red and brown checked hand-me-down frock with a brown belt.

Ma had been surprised but agreed to let her go to the temple. Anjana stopped to buy a string of Jasmine for the temple deity. " 2 strings for 30, buy 3 for 50." a voice behind the crowd called out. Silks swished, bangles jangled, as women jostled to get their bunch of fragrant flowers.

Anjana stood rooted to the spot, her hands were hooked in the belt, as though she could prevent them wanting to roam. The sunny Chrysanthemums whispered, casting their spell on her. They sat in neat bunches along with the Roses and Polianthes just behind the bundles of strung Jasmine and Oleanders. How they glisten with the dew!They must feel like silk..noo..I must not touch

“And, what does this young lady want?” The flower-seller turned towards Anjana, her wizened face crinkled with a smile. 

Anjana answered truthfully, “Just a bit of joy.” In her right hand tucked behind, was a single stalk of a yellow Chrysanthemum.

***


Rewind. Pause. Play


“Let’s see if you can imitate well.” His eyes would twinkle as he’d challenge me to a game he liked to play with me.

“Yesss, let's!” I loved to play with thatha.

He would then hum or whistle a series of complex notes and urge me to reproduce it. He’d listen to me, as I sang with near precision, with pride-filled eyes. As a child, I always refused a direct request to sing for an audience, even if it was family. This was his way of making a diffident young kid break out of her shell and find wings.

Ironically, I won my first ever award at a music competition the year he passed away. The void he created can never be filled but thatha’s presence lingers. Each time Amma makes Jeera rasam, I'm reminded of his musical parody about this comfort food and my face breaks into a smile. Every time I sing or listen to “Jagat Janani”, the kriti in his voice plays in my head; I’m aware it’s the only recorded song, a precious souvenir we have, in his melodious voice.

But, the years have piled on heavily and created a foggy path between me and memories of thatha. It’s as though a videotape of yesteryears has grained out except for bits of clear scenes: His serene face during the daily and elaborate morning poojai; his slender frame supported taut against the wall as he rested his almost bald head on the soft mattress, his supple body belying his age; his easy laugh revealing the slightly crooked line of teeth as he’d narrate funny stories or played silly games with me as I sat on his lap. I’d count his worry lines as they stacked up tall when he raised his eyebrows. I’d look on with a silly grin as he stuck his tongue out blowing air and making it vibrate. He could bend his palm easily enough for the fingers to touch the back of the hand. And, this would fascinate me to no end. He never denied a “once more” request to the inane games I loved and which, I now realize, can exasperate an adult.

When he left without a warning, I felt cheated, robbed of a doting grandparent who could’ve easily lived for many more years. That night of intense grief and unending tears is etched forever. I had slept from the sheer exhaustion of unrestrained sobbing and the shock of seeing the lifeless body of a person I so dearly loved. In my semi-wakeful state, I dreamt that he was still alive and the whole thing was a mistake. It was a dream that recurred in the many months to follow.

Years later, my mother confessed to experiencing a similar dream as mine. Many a time, I’d catch Amma’s eyes go all misty when an old photograph, a song or a recipe scraped at the scab of a wound that never healed completely.  She had lost a parent and her pain was deeper. Her stories of him shine a light on the person who quietly did his duty never expecting anything in return. I can completely imagine him being that person. When extended family and friends speak of thatha, it is easy to believe that he had touched them all, in many ways, by his genuine goodness. I’m bitter about not having an exclusive story to tell.

The pain has been numbed with passing years. But, the fragmented memories spring upon me when I least expect, bringing on a dull ache. I imagine how it would have been to watch my son play in his arms as I once did, to trust his sapience during my troubled adult phases in life, have him cheer me on, or watch his face erupt in joy at my small achievements.

I cup the sepia-tinted impressions together, worried they might crumble to powder. I’m desperate to piece them all together for eternity.