Immigrant’s Postcard: White is White (even when it isn’t)

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

My husband has a visit scheduled for his vision test. The optometry is close to his workplace. A couple of days before his appointment, the doctor leaves him a voicemail to confirm the time, date and location. The message is an elaborate one; short of reciting the exact map, the doctor makes sure his patient has all the necessary information to show up for the test. At the appointed time, my husband finds the doctor to be an octogenarian, as he had imagined him to be by the tone of his voice and his laboured speech in the voicemail. The oculist smiles widely on seeing my husband. “So you are a Sikh.” My husband acknowledges with a soft smile as the doctor goes on to tell him of his English lineage. On hearing B’s date of birth, he says, “Oh, so you were six months old when I moved to Canada.” “Have you been to Goa?” He asks my husband. “Yes.” The affirmative response encourages the elderly specialist to share the story of his friendship with a man from Goa. “He had a Portuguese heritage. For some reason, he was dark skinned even when everyone else in his immediate family had a light, Caucasian skin tone.” In between applying eye drops and asking my husband to stick his eyes into machines the ophthalmologist has to use but doesn’t have much faith in, he regales him with how his Goanese friend, a fellow ophthalmologist, travelled around the world in a ship. “I can’t tell you all his stories, but I can tell you one today.” This is the story goes on to narrate.

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The Goanese oculist once visited South Africa to attend a conference on ophthalmology. Those were the apartheid years. After the conference, the group of ophthalmologists he was travelling with went to dine at a restaurant. Everyone but the oculist from Goa was allowed inside the “Whites only” restaurant. The man accepted the verdict and made as if to leave the spot. He had barely stepped out of the restaurant’s precincts when a woman, a member of the restaurant staff, came running to him. “Sir, please wait a minute,” she said. The man turned around, half surprised. “Sir, please come in,” the lady huffed. “We have been able to confirm that you are white.” The dark-skinned Goanese man of Portuguese descent walked in to join his colleagues, as sanguine as he was moments ago when he was denied entry into the restaurant.

Alien Winter — IV

White seizes the city.
Peace blows
into pieces.
Chaos is kicked around
and shoveled.
On a walk to the library
two foggy eyes
sunk inside a snow-hollowed face
accost you.

“Do you have a fu–ing nickel?”
You walk on,
frosty, quiet.
At the crossing,
the doped beggar marches on,
leaving you with,
“You are a fu–ing nigger,”
before accosting his
next potential
fu–ing benefactor.

Below your feet,
the ice takes
forever to melt.
Flurries go about
their business, settling
like drandruff on walkers’
coats, car tops,
a pigeon’s wings.

Guarding a hotel is
a pine tree
bi-polar —
half-covered in
snow moss.

 

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Game

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

She is petite, her skin a burnished coffee tone. Ever smiling, this beautiful Ethiopian woman is a janitor and my friend. We chat about her weeknight chores and weekend plans. She tells me about her gang of girlfriends, the one that’s stuck together for 14 years, the one that meets every month for a potluck or a fun outing.

“No husbands or kids,” she tells me. The rules of the game are uncompromisingly clear. The women, all hardworking immigrants from Ethiopia, earn this–their day of leisure–and they wouldn’t let encumbrances of domesticity ruin it.

I point to her braided hair and request her to teach me how to do it. Not a problem she says, flashing her toothy smile.

The next time we run into each other, I find her extra animated .

“Did you see Survivor? On TV last night?” she asks me.

I nod in the negative. We don’t have cable, so I don’t get to watch that show.

“You know, there is an Indian girl in it. You’re from India, right?”

“Yes,” I nod.

“Oh my god–she is so good. She has a good strategy, she is smart…she knows how to get there. We are all wishing for her to win.”

I have no idea of the show she is talking about.

But I know she is right.

Survivor — that’s a game Indian girls of all ages play. A lot. With or without strategies. At home, on streets, in buses. And now inside cars.

Everyday shadows — Book review

61AAigRVfILEveryday and Some Other Days
Pooja Garg Singh
Authors Press
Available:
India: http://www.amazon.in/dp/8172739605
Worldwide: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/8172739605

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out and about to take in the last of fall’s sunshine and carmine-toned leaves. We posed with and photographed coloured trees, nestled our feet in dry leaves, tired those feet by walking miles in the autumn sunshine, and then relaxed them at a cafe that offered lazy views of the weekend downtown besides coffee and Bailey’s cheesecake. Two weeks hence, tree branches wear nothing or dead leaves, snow has replaced leaves on the ground and coffee will be no more than a homemade indulgence. That’s simply how the character of everydayness changes–across seasons and terrains, external and internal. In Everyday and Some Other Days, Pooja Garg Singh mediates the fluid space between every day and red-letter–or some other–days with unruffled ease. This is how she does it:

The year buzzards came to the fields,
She was out tilling a book in her hands

….

Next morning, when the dawn came
She was out in the charred fields

Sowing poems and reaping them — [ The Song of Everyday and Some Other Days]

Moments, slippery as foam escaping a kitchen sink, are arrested by Singh with a marked sincerity of tone and liquidity of expression. The mundane is her best, most trusted ally–in poem after poem, Singh demonstrates how the mundane of yesterday is never quite the same as that of today; how different sameness can feel in another hour, zone or mood.

For what seemed like ages, we held hands on the telephone
You fed me crumbs from morning mist, watercress at lunch
Poetry you read on the underground [London – New York]

And this–distances and their interplay with human relationships–keeps returning to the songs of love and longing Singh pens. This appreciation is visible in “Approaching Winter,” in which a trace of the unknown and fearful joins the love and longing. “Yesterday, Tomorrow” blurs the spaces between time–Nothing stirred behind the trees/But I thought I heard your shadow fall/It was this evening/Or so I think/But it could have been yesterday/Or tomorrow or ten years later/Or before. Curiously, the loss of physical nearness evokes a new kind of bonding, one that spreads itself over and also absorbs the larger universe.

If rains were our promise
I hear this distant gray rumble above
and a sticky mustiness overcomes my limbs
Does it mean you are coming home? [Homecoming in My Mind]

Interestingly, Singh is able to bring about this sense of memory-induced proximity even through the most everyday of images. In “Umbrella,” the protagonist looks frantically for a lost umbrella so she could pick her child up from the bus stop on a rainy day. Unable to find it, she runs out …soaking/-and terribly late. She chides herself for losing precious time/looking for that umbrella your father took with him/when he moved away with his things last week.

Singh’s canvas–personal on the surface–is at once universal in a way that offers an experience of the poet’s sensibilities that could possibly get refracted on the reader’s life lens in some other way. “Alzeihmer’s Fugue”, written from the perspectives of a father whose memory has betrayed him and his child, ends with these heart wrenching lines–I take more pictures now and I write more often/Hoping my son will find a way to me when he feels like an orphan.

Reading through the poems in Everyday and Some Other Days, I felt a tinge of wistfulness–a sense that in all of life’s ordinary stories, there’s something that still remains to be found. Yet, this yearning is not a despondent one, but the journey of a questing, curious spirit. I finished reading the book–cover to cover–at one go. But this isn’t a book that’s likely to sit on my bookshelf. It’s one that will hop into the car on my way to work, keep me company in the kitchen as I go through my chores and let me get through a dreary winter evening. It’s a book that fills me with a sweet yen–of seeing another book by the same poet.

Summer and Winter — two poems

Summer at Victoria Park

Originally published in The Boston Coffee House

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Lopsided cut-outs
dare oak trees,
shiny lights freckle
cardboard stalls,
red and white flags swirl around
ice creams and screams.

The park’s a weekend museum;
a Ferris wheel of
half-spent desires.

Stuffed tigers, candyfloss—
extant signposts of
childhood—a station
one keeps circling around.

Songs float in.
The office window’s
a truant whisperer.
It pre-empts
a school boy’s and
an office girl’s secret
desire;
the weekend.

                                                                                                                       ~~~~~~~~~~

Winter Outside a Grocery Store

Originally published in Two Cities Review

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The road is a messy
half-eaten casserole.
The weekend sun, a limp
slice of lemon.
It sneaks out without a whimper.
and is not missed.

I sit in the car, waiting
for you to return
with vegetables,
their attendance
necessary for updating
the week’s meal roster.

Three young men emerge
with their acquisitions.
Bottles of wine, local and exotic.
Another, a store helper,
battles the stabbing
arctic chill to
push a fresh batch of carts,
left behind by shoppers.

The store’s sliding doors open,
a mother and son come out
bearing yellow bags. Their
tired feet scurry through
the snow.

An old lady
droops under the weight of two
bags–the weekly cross
she must bear for
still living.

Not everyone’s Saturday
evening
is the same.

Remembering U. R. Ananthamurthy

URAM-portrait@800The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.

One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.

I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?

All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.

My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.

I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.

At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I  extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.

So long then, Sir.

 
Image source: http://kvsas.by2coffeefilms.com/blog