Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage
Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.
By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
I enjoyed this article in which the author refers to copy-editors as “irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.”
Two copy editors whom I worked with were all that and more – pathetic characters who tried to justify their work by mangling the prose beyond recognition and who took sadistic pleasure in making uncalled-for actual edits in the text, when all they had to do was simple proofreading for spelling and grammar. Thankfully my editor rejected everything done by the first, while the second still managed to inflict some damage to the prose in the process. Yet another lesson in publishing, to avoid superfluous over-editing by presumptuous copy-editors.
The grey snow was crisp beneath my shoes.
From within the penultimate pages of a book
I had strayed into a cold world beyond
this side of life.
I watched the characters whom I’d followed
fight off the ghosts who closed upon them
I watched them both return to the story,
vanish in a haze of fog
while the sound of words on the page
subsided into silence.
How she had changed. I watched her, both fascinated and repulsed at how she ate and talked at the same time, indifferently cramming the multi-layered chapatis and korma (that took me two hours to prepare, I wished I had that time back) into her mouth even as she passionately berated her husband and mother in law. It seemed impossible to connect her with the girl whom I thought I knew, who had grown up with me. Could a person change this much in five years?
I had last known her as a bright young business analyst who could make herself at home in the corporate workplace, anywhere in the world. The customers loved her. Each of our regional offices across the globe asked her to join them, though it may have had something to do with the way she cultivated people, the way she would give them her full attention, turning her face towards them, head tilted just a little to a side, speaking in those murmuring tones which reminded me of a cat which purred as it calculated its next move. I had once mistaken the fire in her eyes for ambition to dance on the glass ceilings, but what she did later showed that it had merely been an average human’s lust for life. She was really a very ordinary woman.
I wondered if she was assessing me the same way I was trying to piece together the missing parts of her story from the way she slouched over the table, with that inscrutable expression in her eyes. But she seemed too preoccupied with the happenings in her life to talk about anything else. Who thinks of anyone but themselves in today’s world? Even I wanted to know her story only because I am a writer and people are part of my raw material.
Had I changed in five years? But I had stayed back on the fringes of life, observing, analysing, recording and writing. Each story brings me revelations as I type, flashes of insight into the many dimensions of truth, of life. The last time we met, she told me that those who seek the meaning of life often end up not living it. Depends on what you mean by living. If it was relationships, they were no longer reliable, I said, forget security. She had replied that what matters is the courage to forge relationships, to dare to put yourself out there, to take the risk, which was the key to make a life. Of course she didn’t put it like that, rather something to that effect in cruder words, and ungrammatical sentences.
I willed her to stop the melodramatic monologue as she piled salad, and then dessert on her plate. Even a pulp fiction writer of those appalling bored-housewife-finds-herself novels would have balked to plot the commonplace scenes of domestic woes that she was harping on. I wanted to show her out once more, shoo her away from my beautiful new flat and return to the comfort and excitement of the pages of my novel.
An asylum seeker about to migrate to another country: “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveller returns. For so long it has beckoned me. This cliff upon which I stand today, this has been my little nest egg that I had tucked away for the future, my plan B. This little Himalayan town is the polar opposite of others, them where they go to renounce the material world for the abstraction, the endless light of an eternal life. Here where I stand, a poor priest once jumped into these swirling waters where the three mighty rivers merge into one. He was reborn as an emperor, they say, wealthy and handsome, kind and wise, surrounded by good family and friends, replete in the sixteen blessings of life. I too should like to return, someday. To the quietness of the leafy lanes that I have loved, the peace of mild blue skies, the unfailing joy of birdsong, to the hallowed libraries that I have seen, the blessed classrooms where I have been. To voices raised in laughter, to silent warmth of friendship, to glances, handclasps and words of love. In those moments, I remain. To them I will return someday. In another name, with another face.”
A watching stranger: “I see her from the bathroom window. Where have I seen her before? She stands close to the edge of the cliff. The wind blows the hair across her face so madly that now I see her, now I don’t. Hers is that sort of face which once seen, remains imprinted in the mind, as it has remained quietly somewhere within mine. Was it on that winter morning–maybe five, six years ago? The mass of humanity among the bright pink and yellow canopies, the overpowering smells, the muddy taste of cardamom tea in clay cups and the annoying anchor woman who was drooling over me so much that I had to shield my eyes by focusing on the audience. I knew my lines so well by then that I did not have to think too much to speak, and then she came in, midway and left early. I have seen her somewhere else too, recently. She is edging closer to the cliff. Stop, wait, don’t! It will get better, I want to tell her. Please wait. I open the window and shout, willing the wind to carry my voice across the river. She looks serene, hands clutched on the iron railing, eyes focused on the crystal waters. I suddenly remember where I had seen her last when with a graceful movement she steps over the rail. Suddenly she looks up and catches my eye as she glides like an angel into the streams the waters of which are bursting forever upon the rocks like fragments of stars. Unable to do anything else, I wave.”
On a cold afternoon at Rewley House, this agent approaches me and my classmate with a broad smile.
‘So, what do you write?’ she asks us warmly.
I give her a thirty-second elevator pitch on something I am working on, and mention that it is metafiction. Accessible metafiction, I want to qualify my statement. Because as a reader and as a writer, I believe in telling a story first and telling it well – ensuring that my characters are beings who breathe in the world inside the pages and who take their own decisions, irrespective of what my plot outlines want them to do. I also believe that the novelist’s pleasure of playing with the form is worth only if it reflects in the reader’s experience of the book. Above all, I believe that any story worth telling must reach out and speak to any kind of reader. All fiction is metafiction, at one level. I want to tell her all this, and more.
But she looks away at the sound of the M-word. I blink and when I open my eyes, she has vanished. I spot her at the bar at the far end of the room and wonder if she had been real.
From within the murky depths of the dating sites there emerged a charming Mangalorean with chocolate eyes and long hair, whose photograph evoked an Indian version of Rupert Brooke. A software guy who quoted Rilke and professed to adore Dostoevsky – in the background, Frank Sinatra began to hum a song that referred among other things, to turtle soup. While pondering virtually over the possibilities of walking through Regent’s Park on one of these Saturdays, he asked, ‘By the way, what do you do write?’
AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Q is being held, as I am yet to read an author with the surname Q.
A story-flake instead.
“You can read this if you like,” I handed her the file that had taken me a decade to compile. It consisted of printouts from various times and places so far away that they appeared to be scenes not from the past but from other lifetimes, the paper fresh towards the beginning and fading and yellowing within. At the end of certain stories, I had randomly added a few lines by hand, when I had revisited it after years. I had filed away these memories for no other reason except that they might go into a story someday, a story that I was yet to begin to write. But right then it was all I could think of keeping her distracted. I may not be able to dissuade her from her life decisions, but there was no way I was going to let her pop those pills while she was in my house. I sat down next to her and opened my laptop, resolving to drag the conversation through the night as in our college days. Come daybreak and I would send her safely away.
“You should write a book about this, Purna. Really. Everyone likes to read about marriages, so much nicer than all that heavy stuff about spirituality and philosophy,” she said as she turned through the pages slowly at first and then hurriedly. I was rewarded by the way the darkness on her face melted as she turned the pages, and was replaced with an innocent greed for gossip as her eyes pierced the lines, filing away bits and pieces in her own mind.
The Robotics Lecturer
An unpleasant surprise. The encounter with the robotics lecturer could be summed up in three words. He had a name, of course, a commonplace name. Call him Ramesh, Suresh, Naresh or Rajesh for he could have been any of them, yet another twenty-six-year-old Madras boy of his generation. I refer to him as the robotics lecturer, for his profession alone distinguished him from the stereotype that he was in every other way. I was repelled by the way he sat at our dining table, full-sleeved shirt buttoned to the collar, oily hair combed carefully over balding pate, wearing baggy trousers that barely hid a slight paunch and the smug expression of the ‘ideal boy’ as pictured in primary school textbooks.
His mother pushed a plate of cashew nuts to his side, and periodically gestured him to eat, her growing boy. She was dressed in what seemed to be her wedding sari, an antique Banaras silk in deep indigo with a silver border, and outdated jewelry that must have fit her once, but now squeezed her plump neck and wrists, creating small bulges of powdered flesh on either side of the dull gold.
The only thing that must be more tedious than making social conversation at a bride viewing, is to listen to it. I strained to keep my eyes from glazing or worse, dozing over while the fathers pontificated loudly about how marriages were the union of two families and not two individuals, and the mothers talked in artificially refined tones about the rising prices of gold and the difficulty of getting good maids in present times.
“Purna loves to keep a tidy home. Last week she cleaned the rooms and even cleared the cobwebs off the ceiling when the maid was on leave,” my mother simpered. I was glad she did not say that I had personally prepared each of the snacks on the table with my own hands, a statement which would have been both a falsehood and a cliché.
The woman in indigo silk inclined a gracious double chin towards me. I noticed that she had extended her eyeliner to make two short lines at an angle of thirty degrees on either side of her eyes. The fish-eye style must have been popular in her college days. Come to think of it, she was carefully and stylishly dressed from head to toe, except that her style was about thirty years old.
“Our maid stays with us. She has been with us for fifteen years, wants to retire now,” she gave a tinkling laugh. “I’ve promised to let her go, as soon as my daughter-in-law comes home,” she said to my mother, looking at me significantly while uttering the last part of the sentence. The look caused an unpleasant fluttering sensation in my stomach.
Thunderous laughter from the fathers and uncles shook the carved wooden partition which separated the dining and living rooms. I wondered if men employed loud laughter as a tactic to announce their powerfulness. Good girls were not supposed to laugh aloud, my parents had said while shushing my schoolgirl’s laughter a hundred times, driving me to forget the skill for the rest of my student years. When I started to work, the first thing I bought was a little library with which I built a wall around me, and within the safety of those paper walls I had taught myself to laugh once again. There was plenty to laugh about life, like the comedy that was playing out around me now. This occasion was likely to change the rest of my life but no one seemed to care about what I thought of the whole setup. I had returned from the office that evening, tired to the bone, to face this, and me an independent Indian woman in the twenty-first century. It was amusing, in a way.
“I suppose we should let the children talk now,” someone said and soon I found myself sitting next to the robotics guy on the garden bench.
“So, what are your hobbies?” He asked me after looking around for a few minutes, just when my eyes began to close again.
I had hardly expected an original question from him, but that clichéd opening line killed any possibility that might have grown from that conversation. Stifling a yawn I began to tell him politely about the books that I loved and the poetry group that I was running at the British Library, while he listened with a polite, interested face. As I talked, scenes of life with him played out in my mind. Sitting there, hardly an hour after I first met him, I could predict every single thing that he would say, and do. I could even imagine what and how, he would think. Some people conform so much to convention that they remain unaware sometimes until the end that they have morphed into stereotypes, and live their parents’ lives all over again.
I declined him because I did not dare to risk any chance of happiness that I might finally find in the future, if I moved away from the plodding, painful path upon which most people around me seemed so contented to walk.
In retrospect, he was a good man, kind-hearted, a gentleman. I could see that from the way he lowered his eyes respectfully from time to time, from the mild tone of his voice, and the intelligence that exuded from his few questions, except the first one. More than a decade later during which I continued to work and read and write and wonder about life and occasionally meet more unsuitable boys while he acquired a doctorate in robotics and a wife and two children, just once or twice I was to wonder if I had done the right thing by refusing him right away. For with time I found that not all clichés are bad. Like springtime and sunshine, the silence of the night, like the beauty of changing seasons, and the sight of stars in the sky. Even life is a cliché when you look at it.
The Silicon Valley Architect
The chief impression that I retained of the unusual encounter with the Silicon Valley architect (SVA) was the sense of entitlement that came through from him and every one of his family members. While a display of arrogance from the groom’s side is one of the many accepted traditions of a Tamil Brahmin wedding, SVA’s family took this attitude to new heights. For one thing, he refused to fly to Madras for a face to face meeting. He was too busy with work and can come only for the engagement, his parents said at first, and later that he could only come for the wedding, if and when it was finalized.
They lived in a palatial bungalow in a prime Adyar locality, set within an acre wide garden of flowers that was tended by two gardeners. The house had been originally built for some top officer of the British Raj, and was later bought by his great-grandfather, the Diwan Bahadur ___ from whom one of the famous streets of Madras takes its name. His family flaunted their riches of every kind, most of all they were rich in extended family and friends. He was the youngest of four children, three of whom were married into equally wealthy and powerful families, whose members were well known within the state, the country and some, even internationally. When they heard of the proposal, some of our relatives murmured with a sour look that they could afford to be arrogant, having condescended to an alliance with the likes of us.
But it was his horoscope that charmed my parents. Nine out of ten celestial aspects match perfectly, the astrologer had claimed, comparing the planets that stood around his horoscope with those of mine. It was a rare occurrence. This marriage, he said, if it happens, will be most auspicious and favourable. Why the element of doubt, my parents asked him worriedly. Because this marriage is likely to take place only if the boy and girl actually see each other, he said enigmatically. My parents sighed with relief. Of course they would see each other, they mused, how could a wedding in 2004 happen without the bride and groom having seen each other? But as much as I like to say that all astrologers are old frauds, he was right. I never saw SVA, even though I was engaged to him for about one hour, the longest hour of my life.
By then, I had grown used to unannounced bride viewings. On returning from office and finding SVA’s family descended in droves upon the living room, I reluctantly dressed in a sari and went out to meet them. Parents, sister and husband, brothers and their wives, a flock of children, and a few aunts and uncles, everyone except the man himself were present. The subtle elegance which masked the richness of their clothing, the perfect creases in their handloom silk-cotton saris and dhotis, and the sober sparkle in the diamonds upon them, all of which exuded a formidable aura. The excitement in their voices filled the room with a pulsating energy that overwhelmed the strong fragrance of several kinds of expensive perfumes, which was making my eyes water and my head throb in the combined, cloying odour.
The younger children clambered over me, calling me Purna Auntie and prattling about their SVA Uncle. I calmed myself by silently reciting sonnets from the book that I happened to be reading those days. I imagined that it was all part of a story, and I was watching a scene unfold before me. Someday I thought, I would write with great joy about these characters, including the apathetic cow who watched indulgently as her four-year-old devil caught my sari pallu smearing it with the remains of a ghee-soaked sweet from his greasy paw, her husband who looked like a politician satirised in a cartoon strip come alive and perhaps, even the mysterious scion of this genteel circus who trusted them enough to let them choose his wife.
The sounds of mantras came from the living room. I peeped and caught a priest squatting on the carpet. “On such and such epoch and era of time, to the South of the Meru mountains in the land of Bharat, in the spring season of the such and such month and day (a number of archaic names were mentioned in between all of which went over my head), it is decided by the elders that the immortal youth SVA and the auspicious maiden Purna are to be united in matrimony on …” Too shocked to process what he said next, I managed to walk into my room without screaming aloud. My mother followed me.
“How could you -?” I had intended to whisper, but I could not suppress the shrill cry that escaped my throat, which was lost in the buzz of multiple conversations that filled the house.
“We thought it was better to formalise the engagement so that the alliance does not slip away. Such respectable people, so elite, so wealthy. Imagine, you will be part of one of the best Madras families!”
“But I haven’t even seen him!”
“Purna, Purna! Where is the girl, let us have the couple talk!” A loud voice came from somewhere, as though on cue.
My mother refused to meet my eyes as she shoved me into the living room. The coffee table was weighed down with the ceremonial silver trays of fruit, flowers, and coconuts, along with baskets of exotic fruit (lychees, assorted berries, peaches) and boxes of imported chocolate.
“He is on the line. Here” his elder sister thrust her mobile phone into my hands. There was sudden silence in the room as everyone’s eyes turned to me, even the kids were staring.
“Speak!” my mother hissed.
“Hello?” I managed to say into the phone. Someone giggled.
“How are you Purna?” Filled with rage, I was ready to hate. But it was a friendly voice at the other end.
I muttered my way through conventional answers. The twenty-odd people in the room resumed their conversations and I suddenly found myself alone in the crowd, speaking with someone I had never seen but who was no longer supposed to be a stranger.
“You look very pretty in the brick red sari,” he said.
“In the photograph.”
When had they sent that to him?
“How is the Madras weather?” He persisted with banalities that go into kindling and stretching a conversation. He talked easily, with the poise and assurance of someone who was confident of being heard. He talked about life in the Silicon Valley, the healthiness of Japanese cuisine, his remarkable work-life balance. All the while, I felt nothing but a dull sense of having been betrayed.
“Do you have any questions for me? Tell me, are you excited about moving here?”
“I just read this book about Silicon Valley yuppies,” I said suddenly warming up to the conversation.
“Not impressed,” he responded cheerfully. “I only read magazines on flights, and the odd business book.”
That did it for me. “I did not say that to impress you. I have no intention of impressing you,” I shot back, “I am not impressed with you either,” I handed the phone to his sister and retreated to my room. I did not walk away in a huff, or slam the door, but the coldness in my tone was enough to cast an immediate chill upon the rest of the room. Half an hour later when I came out, they had all gone, having politely decided to revoke and hold the engagement plans until he was able to come down later, a euphemism for canceling the alliance. I was pleased to find that they had taken their baskets and boxes with them.
My parents glared and turned away when they saw me for the next few days. Thus marooned, I washed up on the shores of the British Library where I discovered the oeuvre of Hrishikesh Datta and his twenty-four novels about life in a little coastal town. It was from then on that those books with their gentle plots and lifelike characters portrayed with clever wit and kind wisdom, became my companions, my friends and family, a virtual home.
Much later still, my parents found out why SVA’s family insisted that he did not come before the wedding. Nothing serious or sensational like a secret prior marriage or live-in girlfriend, he just happened to be an ugly man who had been engaged twice earlier and rejected by the girls both times, once they saw his face. Fourth time lucky, he got married within a few months from that evening. Years later, I saw his face for the first time on my Facebook feed, cast there by some cyber acquaintance who had tagged or liked his photograph. I did not find his features too repulsive, but his eyes were bland, commonplace like his conversation and the expression on his face was of mere animal warmth devoid of intelligent thought, an expression that was mirrored in the face of the child in his hands. I shuddered at the sight. It had been a narrow escape.
In a recent interview for a blog tour, I was asked if there was were any love scenes in The Reengineers, and if any of my forthcoming books had romance in them.
The premise of The Reengineers is the realisation that one has the freedom to live on one’s own terms. This awareness of freedom, the feeling of being in control of your life, is the foremost need of any human being. Everything else, including love, comes only next to it. However, this being the coming of age story of a fifteen-year-old boy, there are references to love and romance. Here is a short excerpt.
Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from the book The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan
Something strange and sweet was stirring in the air. Raji had drawn the window shades and the overhead lamps cast a muted golden glow around the room. On the screen, Joy Mukherjee was singing to Helen in the rain: ‘Raat nikhri huyi, zulf bhikri huyi …’
A song about a date with a girl who was as charming as a flowering tree in bloom, on a night so beautiful that it appeared to blush. About how he wished that the night would go on and on. Joy was shirtless, purely out of chivalry. Helen wore his shirt with a grace that made her unrecognizable as the vamp of so many sizzling dances. With wet hair hanging in curls about her face, she exuded the innocence of the girl-next-door who looked up trustingly at the handsome hero. There was no trace of lust on Joy’s face. He was the decent young man who sang tenderly to his girl that the night should never make way for the dawn. And then escorted her safely home afterwards. They hardly came within two feet of each other, but from the way they looked and smiled and sang to each other, first love flowed out of the TV and swirled about, bringing spring into Aunt Kalyani’s living room.
It continued to permeate the room even after the song was over and Joy had presumably dropped Helen home. But, this time, the sweetness arose from Kailash and Charu. Even without looking at them, one could sense how aware they were of each other’s presence even as they talked to other people. A rude voice in my head started chiding me, telling me I wasn’t old enough to think of such things. I ignored it and it shut up immediately.
How would it feel to be married, I wondered. What if I got married to—I stopped my thoughts there. I had many exams to pass before that. Besides, I wanted to sing a few songs to a girl first, a real girl with whom I would have a real relationship. At that moment, I became aware of the nature of my feelings for Sonia. It was her boldness that had fascinated me and now that I could stand up and speak for myself, the halo around her vanished. What remained was a mild attraction that I saw for what it was: a simple teenage crush.
I thought of the summer that lay ahead, of the farewell party for the seniors. We would present them with a giant card with tearful bears holding up a banner that said, ‘Missing you guys will be too hard to bear’. On that day, when the festive confetti flying around made little chinks in the invisible walls that separated the seniors from the juniors, I would talk to Sonia. I knew that nothing would come out of it, but I would still talk to her. I might tell her that throw ball matches would never be the same again. I might get her autograph. I might never contact her. I might forget her. I might remember her. I might meet her after many years. But I would talk to her on one of those long, summer afternoons before she left school.
The thought made me smile.
Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from the book The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan
Here is a link to the song that is referred to in the excerpt.The comfort level between the lovers is endearing, especially as the film implies that the intimacy in their relationship is limited to holding hands and innocent dates like the ones shown in the song. The gentleness of the interactions between them is not something one gets to see in the movies anymore.
A poet once sang, that when
pain finally finds a voice,
at that moment, art is born
Benumbed beyond the reach of pain,
I flailed my arms against the vacuum
within the bell jar which held me, for a decade.
Words were the window through which I
Caught glimpses beyond the dark
Words that kept my heart thawed, if not warm.
On a day when the words shone
bright enough to see, I opened the window
and walked out into life. With a fifteen year old
Mind, in a decade older body. Free
At last, from the darkness that had fed upon
Many of those whose words freed me.
While my wings were tied, I had still dared
to dream of the skies. But once free, I could barely
walk and fell many times before I found my voice.
The detour from regular paths of life that I may
have walked otherwise turned the lost years into a voice
strengthened by a decade of singing in the dark.
A voice that now colours each moment gold.
Each breath a swig of light, each word a blessing.
I had assumed that words would bring
Catharsis – an uncomfortable word
But I sing, and find with unexpected joy
That it is alchemy that goes into making a voice.
(4 September, 2015)