Home is Grandma’s Butterfly Breath in a Guava Tree

First published in Plato’s Caves online

Home is a kidnapper who has finally made you submit to its territory, mapped and unmapped.

Home is your first partner in crime who, by introducing you to its hidden corners, gives a toddler you a taste of what manipulating adults with pranks feels like.

Home is the no-nonsense courtroom, where, you, still a toddler, take the gods to task by bashing up their idols at the altar for denying your grandma her own house.

Home is the compassionate table fan that breezes through the room on a hot summer day as Rafi and Geeta Dutt croon aankhon-hi-aankho-mein on the radio and two children – your brother and you – sprawl on the cool cement floor of a government quarter to hurry through your summer holiday homework.

Home is the indulgent playground overlooking that same government quarter where children make friends over hopscotch and their mothers, knitting buddies, on charpaais.

Home is the confused late-entry hero that is finally grandma’s own house. Its dust and half walls hold you in a perplexed daze. Your brother, yet to reach his teens, brings you back to reality as he returns with a pot of rice he’s managed to cook in the half-baked kitchen of this unfinished structure.

Home is the jealous new paara, neighbourhood, who estranges you from old friends and the loving playground with its consolatory offer of a cricket-colonized back street and stock loneliness.

Home is the keen, encouraging listener of your early-morning and late-evening riyaaz that mother helps add melody to with the harmonium she buys you off months of savings.

Home is the generous open terrace that grows in personality as you do in age – as your study-time ally in your yet-to-be-teen, mellow winter afternoons; as the host of a star-draped night sky beckoning you to let go in your ambivalent early 20s; as your gym and fitness partner later, when you do learn to let go.

Home is the comforting pal your grandfather brings you back to from the bus stop every evening after school. It’s where grandma waits with hot food and a listening ear for all your school stories, helping you bridge the interval until mother returns from work.

Home is the trusted ally you make your way back to, having survived an attack by gunmen in a public space, to hug your grandma, sick with worry. In the days to follow, home makes you an accelerated learner of what political revenge means even as your eyes adjust to the sight of blood on the streets you call paara.

Home is the saboteur who smashes that trust and hurtles you into the dark, suffocating dungeon of an empty house after making you witness the deaths of your grandparents for two years in a row.

Home is the traitor who makes you grow up while you’re still an adolescent without allowing you the time or the technique for the messy transition.

Home is the embarrassing hole in the bedsheet you cover with a folded quilt that you desperately hope wouldn’t shift when your university friends come over to your house to plan a trip.

Home is the sterile mate you’ve lost all love for but continue to live with, your days drained of élan vital, your nights a concert hall for sleep-snuffing nightmares.

Home, after years, no, a whole decade, is finally the conciliatory collaborator who invites you to work from home – with your mother, now retired from work, filling up all the hollows your grandparents’ departure had cleaved into its spaces.

Home is the humble plot of land your grandma bought, even if it’s no longer the house she built. Her breath moves through the guava tree she planted, still rooted to the faithful backyard soil and alights on your skin as a butterfly every time you fly back.

Home is a detective plot that can only unravel in back stories. Each flicker of memory is evidence of the scraps that went into constructing this labyrinth. Every solution is wisdom distilled only in hindsight.

In Praise of Slowness

Because time is not a
Super highway, not even a
Road. It’s the mist that rolls

Over mountains when one
Cares to notice. Drink it like

A flu patient does chicken broth.

Learn to watch like
The robin does, letting an
Entire universe unfold

Within while eying
A single worm. Listen to the
radio as it rebukes you.

It’s the friend you
Forsook, like paper and postage
Stamps did letters.

Discard the rust of
Ambition for the never-fading
Sheen of idleness.

Like the chirping of birds in
Spring, reserve all your haste
For love alone.

First published in Madras Courier

Letters from a foreign shore — Rabindranath Tagore’s letters to his niece

First published in Cafe Dissensus

39

Shilaidaha

Thursday, January 9, 1892

[January 14]

For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.

It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.

Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.

But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…

(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)

***

105

Shajadpur

July 7, 1893

This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.

This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.

Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.

The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling  of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.

My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.

(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)

Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com

The Art of Solitude: In Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, the gifts of a life in solitude

First published in Scroll

After a week of rain, hail and non-seasonal arctic chills, a balmy sunshine and a breeze carrying whispers of spring indulge us in the Southern Ontario suburb where I live with my husband. With a book in my hand, I step out into the backyard and find it to be the venue of an unrehearsed celebration of this climatic turnaround. All our immediate neighbours are out – the daughters of our next-door neighbours yell hellos to their school friends in the backyard across theirs; our other next-door gardener neighbour is busy tending to her perennials; my husband readies the soil for his impending vegetable garden.

Human hums and giggles enter me along with the constant chirp of the backyard birds. As I open my book Chhinnapatrabali – Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of letters, written for the most part to his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani, I don’t miss the rare synchronicity this moment brings, especially in our current physically distanced world. The cover of my reading material is beginning to tear up, evidence of the book’s confidant-like association with me through the decade of my life outside India.

Tagore wrote a lot of these letters from his family estate in East Bengal, which he’d been tasked to manage in his youth. While opening a window to his literary talent and creative process, the letters also serve as a manifesto of living in and celebrating solitude and its many gifts. A shift away from the human-centric way of life is one of these gifts. In letter after letter, Tagore speaks of how, whenever he lands in the rural environment of his estate from the industrially-rushed Calcutta, he senses centrifugalism of the humankind. “There’s less of man and more of earth here,” he notes in a letter and adds, “when in the village, I cease to see man as an independent entity,” likening mankind’s journey to that of rivers coursing their way through forests and cities.

Chhinnapatrabali also endears itself to me because of the way it reveals the everyday Rabindranath, shorn of his career accolades and their accompanying weight. With gentle humour and uncensored vulnerability, the letter writer brings out his deepest loves and anxieties, his humanism shining through them like the sun gleaming in our rain-sodden backyard.

In reading the letters nestled in this volume, I learn, recurrently, the need to take a pause from the staged antics of a mechanized life. For, as Tagore shows, true viewing – whether of blackbirds and squirrels in my backyard, or the rivers and trees, boatmen’s songs and women’s banter, cows chasing flies away with their tails, a silent full moon night in a Bengal village – calls for rest and repose. Not only of the outer eye that sees. But of the inner eye that makes, out of one, a seer.

Letter photo source: The Daily Star

Bhimpalasi

A faint note of his flute.
An abstracted Radha
wanders through a
flower garden. She loses
herself in his strains.

Why do you wander
in the forest looking for
him, Kabir teases. He’s
everywhere, in everything.
Entwined in your very being.

Bhimpalasi courts me even
now. Still as shy. Still
as persistent. Soft. Plaintive.

I seek like Radha. Sometimes I
Find like Kabir.

Malkauns

Radio waves dance between
sleep and the half light
of dawn. Yawning, Ma adjusts the
knob to wake up the station. The man
on the radio invokes the Mother in
gravelly chants. Malkauns,
waiting in the wings,
takes the stage. The beginning
begins.

Far away, in another lifetime,
a temple bell rang. The devotee,
crazy for a single glimpse of the
lord, cried his heart out. “Don’t
shatter my hopes; leave me not.”
The dark-skinned god stood still.
Wobbling across decades
of palsy, an old man’s feet
breathed life into its
stone.

Malkauns moves mountains. Cripples.
Stony gods. An adored mother goddess
and her carousel of
children. It moves sleepy heads
into a dozy trance. Malkauns
moves dark nights of the soul
into mornings that must
awaken.

Lakeshore

When shallow, water extracts
its wages in laughter peals. Children
Slosh in the lake filling buckets, spilling
More than they draw, like their giggles
splattering over the beach.
Mothers keep watch from the shore with sips
of wine, not aged yet. Grandfathers slide back
to afternoons when sibling platoons
scattered their own ruckus on the sand. Backwards
Is the aging mind’s favourite sandpit.

At the deep end, water gets more exacting.
It asks for payment in palpitations, dense
heaving. It’s voluminous crests mock
blood rush, adventure, even love.
There’s no digging at the deep end, only
swimming and sinking. You age as the water
does — angry, quickening, fateful.

Between the shallow and the deep ends,
Water makes you float. Gravity is a
slippery trickster. Not a bedrock.

LOST SEASON

Spring has lost its
Spring and doesn’t
spring anymore. It waits
a long time to
alight from behind a steely
Curtain. Politely, in slow
Overtures, with well-rehearsed
daffodil smiles.

Once spring was rambunctious,
impolite. It burst open
Like a ripe wood apple
In summer, pregnant with
Forbidden pleasures.

Spring lured us into sucking
a pit off its berryness.
Abandoning textbooks.
Diving into a sea of
yellow, the colour
of sudden love. Faces were
canvasses for
freestyle paint-throwing.

Spring waited for no one.
It raced straight into summer.
Spring. Sprint. Vanish.
The ripening berries its
only remnant. As tart and
impolite as spring.
As irresistible.

Notes of Eternity: Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                                                          Calcutta |May 2, 1895

A nahabat recital can be heard playing somewhere today. A morning nahabat makes the heart quiver strangely. I haven’t been able to discern the significance of the unspeakable state that envelopes one’s mind when listening to music. And yet, every time the mind attempts to dissect that state. I have noticed that whenever beautiful music plays, the moment its intoxication hits the soul, this world of life and death, this land of arrivals and departures, this world of work, of light and darkness recedes into a distance — as if across a vast Padma River — from where everything appears as if it were only a picture.

road nature trees branches

To us, our everyday world doesn’t always appear to be the most well balanced. A tiny fraction of our life might seem disproportionately huge, our hunger and thirst, daily squabbles, rest and labour, petty annoyances besmirch the present moment. Music, with its beautiful intrinsic equilibrium, can, within moments make the world stand in a perspective where the small, transient imbalances disappear. With music, a whole, vast and eternal balance transforms the entire world into a mere image, and man’s life and death, laughter and tears, past and future land in the present to play in one’s ears as the meditative rhythm of poetry. With that, the intensity of our personal tendencies decrease, we become puny and immerse ourselves without strain into the immensity of music.

Small and artificial social ties are useful to function in the society, yet music and other evolved art forms instantly show us their insignificance, making every art somewhat antisocial. This is why listening to a good poem or song quickens our hearts, tearing asunder social formalities and igniting in the mind a struggle that seeks the freedom of eternal beauty. Anything beautiful stirs in us a conflict between the fleeting and the permanent, causing us a certain inexplicable pain.

Poona | May 6, 1895

Nahabat: A temple music tower. Musicians sit on the upper story and play during festivals and sometimes at the time of daily worship. (Source)

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com