Monday, December 24, 2012

Postcards from Kashmir - II

Continuing on the ruts of my previous post, we move from Srinagar to the idyllic villages that rest on the foothills of the mighty Himalayas flanked by gurgling streams and balmy pines. This is another Kashmir, with another facade, equally fascinating and inspiring as that of the city and its pristine lakes. 
Unfortunately the day, and how grudgingly, comes too soon when one has to leave behind this dream and return to the forced, the mundane. A sense of loss, a throb of fear grips me unaware as our taxi speeds into the relatively modern city-scape while the rustic scenes of the villages fade away into the blur of the descending evening twilight. What if I cannot come back? What if the conflict hits a peak again? What if the still struggling situation of peace crumbles one fine night? The thoughts leave me a little shaken, for we did see and sense the tightness of the lingering turmoil in the valley. The silent, uncomfortable presence of the army, armed and alert, almost everywhere and their uniforms oddly camouflaged with the landscape - the busy market streets lined with them, the saffron fields dotted with vigilant soldiers, their tired eyes looking for signs as we very consciously eat our fragrant Kashmiri pulao on a terrace restaurant, the airport buzzing with multiple security checks - were constant reminders of the fragility of the situation.

With a sinking feeling, I make my way inside the airplane. Reluctantly, I buckle my seat-belt and moments later when we take off, I watch the cloud-engulfed mountains garland the valley of Kashmir. It was difficult, imagining it as this beautiful, unfortunate paradox - the awkward coming together of beauty and terror. It is then that I couldn't help but recreate bits and pieces of an old, haunting poem in my mind - 'Postcard from Kashmir' by Agha Shahid Ali, one of the most talented contemporary poets from the subcontinent and Kashmir's very own, who took the tales of his land to far and wide. 

"Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this is the closest
I'll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won't be so brilliant,
the Jhelum's waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped."

~ Agha Shahid Ali, 'Postcard from Kashmir' from The Half-Inch Himalayas

A cold November morning unfolds on the streets of Srinagar. The battered dome of Hazratbal undergoing a face-lift. Dance of the pigeons. Like the boys of Kashmir, they too fly away, unbeknownst of their fate. Doll-faced little girls, blushing at my touristy request to photograph them. The rural landscape patterned with terrace fields and trails of smoke escaping from the tin-roofed houses. The jagged peaks of the Himalayas at Sonmarg, the 'meadow of gold'. Pony boys' persistent pleas for a ride. The postcard-perfect village of Aru in Pahalgham. A camera-shy pashmina goat in the midst of a scurrying flock of sheep in a lavender patch. Folds of pine and fog give an impression of a surreal, layered curtain. Beautiful shepherd huts down the meadow. A village shop, rickety yet colourful. The famous Kashmiri embroidery and the ubiquitous paisley motif on a shawl. The much-celebrated maple leaves carved on a houseboat panel. A papier-mâché heaven. To the city we return, where the sublime Jehlum once again greets us with a stoic silence. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Postcards from Kashmir - I

“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.” 
(If there is ever a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)

~ Emperor Jahangir during his visit to Kashmir in the 17th century

A sublime world, barricaded by timelessness. The centuries-old yet still breathtaking Mughal gardens will vouch for that. The restless stride of the clock ceases to exist in the valley. The dreamily skimming shikara on the calm waters of the lakes is a testimonial to that. The coming together of a bygone era with its proud remnants of old, dilapidated mosques and a modern water-old chockablock with houseboats and floating bazaars. 
Kashmir - the forever fragrant land of saffron and roses; the land obsessed with its pashmina and chinar (maple); the home of the whirling sufis and the imposing Himalayas. Like the very atoms of breath, every inch of the place is soaked in an enduring, ethereal poetry. Such was my joy on finally reaching the much-fabled paradise, that my heart swelled with a desperate, greedy thrill - as if there was no tomorrow; as if I needed to live every single moment to the brim then and there; as if I had a million tiny hearts throbbing inside me, all at once.

Then there are the unforgettable lessons Kashmir offers - the robust mountains tower you, till the remaining shreds of conceit and worldliness inside you leave for good, humbling you forever; the deep lakes, those serene pools of wisdom, inspire the good in you; and, the surviving fragments of an old world narrates countless tales of perseverance. But the most profound messages swim in the eyes of the Kashmiri people, who, with their warm, maple-hued gestures tug at your heart long after you have left the valley. Be it our extremely well-read, Rumi-quoting, warm cottage owner who, very gladly takes it upon himself to show us around the remote, crumbling pockets of old Srinagar and quite abruptly breaks into a perfect rendition of "Annie's Song" on the way; or, be it the ever-smiling taxi driver from a village who insists upon us having tea at his place which happened to be on our way up to a local vista point; or, be it our concerned houseboat manager who calls us long after we've reached Hyderabad, only to make sure if we reached home safely.

For a land so ruthlessly torn with strife and its people so relentlessly bruised by an eternal, meaningless territorial conflict, to us city dwellers to have arrived from the complacent comforts of our cocooned lives, Kashmir was a lesson in silence. Of the resilience, the stoicism, and the everyday war with oneself to keep the hunger for life alive. 

An early flower seller rows away into the morning gold. The chrysanthemum-laden boat. Rows of neatly stacked houseboats on the ever placid Nigeen lake. The breathtaking Shalimar Bagh and its legendary roses - the quintessential 'Kashmir ki kali' (the blossom of Kashmir). The remnants of a resplendent valley autumn. A tour of the senses with the hypnotic rogan joshKahwah, the traditional Kashmiri tea - the fragrant wonder that cardamom, cinnamon and a few strands of saffron could do to your regular green tea. Srinagar, a surreal water-world from its topmost perch. The old city, where the Jamia Masjid stands proudly and quiet flows by the river Jehlum. Dusk veils the valley and the tired shikaras on the swarming Dal lake call it a day. 

PS. I've taken the title from Agha Shahid Ali's poem 'Postcard from Kashmir', a piece of nostalgia that has stayed very close to my heart over the years. More about it, the mountains and Kashmir's rural face in the next post. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


"When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood."

~ Sam Ewing

During the last weekend, I took a rather sudden and short getaway to my maternal hometown, Puri. Ever since our return from the States, the visit had been long due and also, I had to get away to some place kind and nourishing, before the hustle and bustle of the life here engulfed me entirely. And how the three blessed days fled past me like an uninterrupted and peaceful dream - aai's (grandma) simple yet scrumptious meals; mausi's (mother's youngest sister) overwhelming concern for me as if I'm still her fourteen-year-old, scatterbrained niece; and mamu's (mother's youngest brother) countless tokens of affection. A Puri visit, even if just for a day, has always been special, one that often leaves behind a treasure trove of perfumed memories. Therefore, after every return, it has always been difficult to let go of the joy, this absolute childlike joy, which now lingers in my thoughts and in the persistent 'in Puri...' narrations to the husband.

Puri. The little seaside tourist town throbbing on the edge of the roaring Bay of Bengal. Where I grew to know myself, who I am, and what I will turn to be one day. Where many a memorable summer vacation is still painted in warm, orangish tones, tinged with a faint whiff of the salty sea air. Where I would sit by the window of my favourite backyard-facing room and weave my first tales of imagination and love. In grandpa's two-storeyed, white colonial house, this window once opened to a myriad of musings, and for hours I would sit gazing at the moody swaying of the coconut leaves, notorious monkeys cackling on boughs laden with ripe kendu, and write my diary, my sacred diary in fact, for it kept many a precious secret of an early teenage tucked inside its doodle-stained pages. 

It has been two bustling days since my return, and by now, I should have fallen back into the drab, demanding ruts of my routine life, yet all I care to think about is the simplicity of life back there, where people still know the art of living. Just like yesterday, the coconuts trees still stand tall, the kendu still bears fruit, and the monkeys haven't moved from their choicest pad. How I would love to go back and live there, in that uncomplicated world of my childhood, a thousand miles away from this maddening crowd of corporate buildings, suffocating shopping malls, and pretentious faces. If only I could look out that window now and see the things I used to once upon a time. If only.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


The diyas are out again. Everywhere, on doorsteps, on terrace borders, on balcony lattices, and inside homes, warming them up to a toasty perfection. Glitzy and pretty, like small wonders they shine, as they unveil the hidden joy from bustling city lives. Gone are those days when lines of traditional earthen diyas would adorn every veranda in the town. I still have fond remembrances of  the crisp October-November evenings, when I would sit beside grandma and watch her make wicks from coarse cotton, which would be later dipped in diyas filled with castor oil on the evening of Diwali. Sadly, the lack of time and tradition in our urban lives and rampant consumerism have replaced this beautiful ritual with ready-made jazzy and colourful lamps that are mostly a cross between a diya and a candle. So this time, I got little pot-shaped lamps filled with wax with a wee bit of fancy lace tied around the neck.

We have been waiting for the last five years, and how desperately, to celebrate this much loved festival of lights in the home country. And here we are at last. What adds a big dollop of happiness to this Diwali is the joy of lighting firecrackers, a thrill we so dearly missed in the States. The husband has gone back to being a gleeful ten-year-old (himself, that is) and has come back from the market with a bursting bag of firecrackers. We can't wait for the evening twilight to fade and the night sky to turn into a twinkling canvas of light and colours. One luminous, kaleidoscopic feast it will be. If only I wasn't bitten by nasty cold bug! Nevertheless, wrapped in the warmth of festivity and well-being, I hope to make the most of it.
'Tis time then, to pop, fizz and sparkle. Wishing one and all a very happy Diwali.

PS. Here's a glimpse of our cracker craze!

Monday, November 5, 2012

November surprises

November always takes me by surprises, like these tiny lilac flowers cascading down from the otherwise plain, undemanding basil. I had never seen one flower, or in fact knew it did, before this. With the winter on her way to making an elegant comeback, the days have begun to shrunk. That strange yet delicious coming together of torpor and restlessness is back, and nothing like these quiet little awakenings to kindle the winter woes.

Then, there's a tiny yet overwhelmingly mulish part of me, that takes almost a century to finally acknowledge greatness that has long surpassed its peak. Of course, it's not the first time I'm regretting this, but with The Kite Runner the regret almost leaves me gasping. After two days of sleepless reading punctuated by stifled whimpers (yes, I do that), I am yet to come out of Khaled Hosseini's stunningly devastating world, a world that is so tenderly painted with love, hopelessness, and loss. Loss of everything, almost. What tugs at my heart is the one line - "There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood" - and perhaps there, in those heartrending, resigned words, lies the soul of the novel.
I won't say much about my afterthoughts, mostly because I realize I don't have words that would express the deluge of emotions pirouetting inside me, and also because I don't want to say goodbye yet. I can still see Hassan's carefree smile, the one sugared with unwavering love for 'Amir agha'; I can still smell the warm naans that Ali brings from the bazaar; I can still feel the cold crunch of snow under the zealous feet of the kite runners; I can still see Baba and Rahim Khan enjoying their black tea amid swirls of smoke rising from their cigarettes; I can still imagine the colours of Kabul before its war-torn, harrowing doom; I can still see Amir endeavoring all his life 'to be good again'. And I can still hear Hassan's heartbeat humming the only song of his life...

"For you, a thousand times over."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Poetry with a spine

Last weekend, I came across this very fascinating kind of poetry, thanks to a friend's update in Facebook. Book spine poetry. What a grand yet simple idea it is - pile up some books, pick up a few interesting titles, weave a little story and voila! An instant poet you become.
I'm sure many of you might be already familiar with this but I just had to share it here. The moment I read about it, it so tickled my imagination that in the middle of preparing dinner, abandoning everything - a hungry husband, a favourite sitcom, and a friend's phone call - I dawdled near the bookcases, restlessly skimming across the titles, creating stack upon stack of spine poetry in my head. While some overbrimmed with sentimentalism, others were oddly incoherent. This, perhaps, was the most balanced of them all.
And thus ended my obsessive urge of stacking books and searching meaning in their titles.

PS. A very happy Halloween to all of you. I miss the eeriness, the pumpkin painted world and the chance to be someone else for a day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Durga's October

The end of October draws near, that much awaited month of celebrations. The monsoons are long gone and there is a sudden crispness in the air, particularly in the late afternoons. True, one doesn't have that quintessential kaleidoscopic autumn of the West here, but the air still smells as much ripe. It is plump with expectations - of days of revelry and restlessness, of streets thronged with enthusiastic faces, and of homes filled with a harmonious warmth. During this time of the year, a meaningless mirth floods the city, reaching to its very nooks and crannies, even to its most hideous, unsightly of gutters. After all, joy never differentiates between the beautiful and the ugly, the rich and the poor. Joy is joy, unpretentious and a shade of pristine white, like the untainted heart of a five-year-old.

Today marks the tenth and final day of Durga Puja, the time when the goddess Durga completes her annual journey in the world of mortals. Ten days of her overwhelming presence take one to another world altogether - the charged, carnivalesque atmosphere (not so much here as much as back home, the eastern part of India that is); narrow lighted streets chocked with busy hawkers; the air smelling of incense, ghee and happiness... The three-eyed and ten-handed goddess is the harbinger of good times for the Hindus, and for us women, she is the Maa (mother) from whom we draw the strength to battle evil and the fortitude to bear the worldly burdens. 

After the immersion of the idol this afternoon, though not many here in the southern part of the country, there's a sudden, pervading emptiness. Perhaps it's the accumulative nostalgia of the void since one's childhood, when we would all utter bittersweet sighs after seeing the idol sink and reappear, before finally disappearing into the silty depths of the nearby pond. Time hangs like a giant caged bird, still, yet breathing, and even the blaring highway right next to the apartment cannot wipe out the uncomfortable silence. The wind-chimes in the balcony make the only din in this otherwise empty evening.

Here's a lovely painting of Maa Durga that I stumbled upon in a nearby community puja. Until next year then...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bukowski's bluebird

"there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see

~ Charles Bukowski, Bluebird

Turns out, there has been, after all, a blue bird sitting idle and unnoticed in my photo archives. I know it's not a bluebird. I know it's a stellar jay, the darker and shabbier cousin of the pretty blue jay. I know it belongs to a green, green land and scented, mossy boughs. I also know, if it flies here (ah, the utter foolhardiness of it!!) and cages itself, it'll forget to sing.
But does any of that matter now? Perhaps not anymore.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writing, editing, remembering

"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”

~ Rilke

"Has she stopped writing?", asks a somewhat worried father to the husband, and before the latter could come up with a suitable answer for one who harbours strong hopes of seeing his daughter as a successful writer some day, the father concludes, "I can see her writing has deteriorated a great deal after your move back to India."
During this habitual weekend phone conversation, the daughter lurked conspicuously in the vicinity, trying to be a part of it while idling with a cup of tea and a fat, never-ending Barnes and Noble copy of Anna Karenina. But somehow the sharp din of the word 'deteriorated' reached her ears and stayed there for some time. It wasn't like she waited to be told about it, because she knew, deep down in that iffy corner of her heart, that there is some truth in her father's doubts. That these days, she cannot write.

For a myriad of reasons, both wrong and right in their own situation, it has been like this for the past couple of months. 
True, there's an absolute lack of inspiration in this coldhearted, perpetually shrouded by pollution city. Concrete cannot lead to creativity. Period. Then there's this recent job, where I sit, for the most part of the day, editing manuscripts of others' writings. When you have to pin, tuck and shape someone else's stories, it's a little difficult to find your way back to tales of your own. While being a part of their imaginary worlds, I often get wrung out of mine. 

And then, the autumn child remembers. With uncountable sighs. It must be autumn somewhere. The leaves must have turned somewhere. The trees must be spitting flames somewhere. It must be like this somewhere. Somewhere, but not here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Night bazaar

Another revisiting, another retelling.
Another attempt at unearthing the familiar, at walking the beaten path.

The night bazaar at Shilparamam. An enchanting heaven for all art and craft lovers. A weekly pilgrimage it was, once upon a time. A forever coming together of artists from all corners of the country. A perfect microcosm of 'unity in diversity'. The midnight air swollen with nocturnal blooms. Sprinklers stirring the tired, sleepy earth. Ah, that intoxicating, balmy scent! Deserted shops, many closed. Murals reciting pages from mythology, stray terracotta urns, familiar paintings of alluring village women, Rajasthani sequin work, Kashmiri beaded beauties, marble work from Agra. There's more to this place, I know. 
A kaleidoscope of colours and creativity. Daylight will tell more stories, weave more magic. I know. I know them all too well. 

I will be back. Soon. To the well-trodden ruts, once again. 

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