A cold, wet Saturday morning. Despite what Salinger said about the foolishness of taking the weather personally, I was still grumpy as I drew the curtains shut and resumed work at my desk. Wet, grey skies are not a salubrious sight even when one is healthy, much less while recovering from the flu.
And then a sudden sound outside my balcony door that could not be dismissed. A scratching and a call that grew persistent. I opened the curtain and looked into the face of a large white and grey cat with shades of calico, hazel eyes, bushy tail and a little chain around her neck. I had often seen her around the neighbourhood, besides a regal black cat which might have had at least one Persian ancestor, a perky young tabby, and a fat striped cat with a perpetually bored expression that was almost human.
I wiped away the mist from the glass and looked again. My visitor leaned in from the balcony grill and meowed loudly, looking straight into my face. I was delighted. It appeared that she was stuck in the cold and wanted to be let inside. But an unopenable door and a balcony lay between us. I waved to her. Sorry sweetheart, you had better go home, I said. As though on cue she turned and rushed away into the rain.
It reminded me of how during the Chennai floods in 2015 when all of us were stuck at home without electricity and transport, the resident ginger Tom of the complex came to our flat demanding milk and food, unaware perhaps that we were vegan. He looked contemptuously at the organic biscuits that I offered him but nevertheless made himself comfortable on the living room carpet.
In this cold city where dogs of every kind abound, I had watched these cats for long but I never knew that they had caught me watching them. How had my feline friend guessed that a cat-lover sat working behind that thick curtain? I wish I could have told her how much her short visit had cheered me up, like a patch of sunshine that lit up a grey, wet Saturday morning.
I met Geeta didi in unusual circumstances. We were introduced by a detective who was verifying a man’s matrimonial profile on a website. Both of us had been approached simultaneously by the fellow whose simplistic demeanour and doctorate degree masked a pathetic stereotype found on such sites – a loser who chatted up women online under the pretext of pursuing an alliance. We dismissed the creep within the first thirty minutes of conversation and blocked his profile as we continued to talk about life, careers, studies, love, marriage, friendship, rituals, customs, food, relationships…we talked for three hours on the first day, a conversation which would run into weeks, months, and eventually into seven years. She was not much older than me, though she was far wiser. Within a week of having met her, I had started calling her ‘didi'(elder sister). She loved it as she did not have sisters of her own and cherished her close female friends. In retrospect, she was never just a friend. She was always my sister. I realised it when she passed in August.
Being an only child who grew up surrounded by more books than people, I never knew what it meant to have a sibling. I could not connect to the cousins whom I saw once in a few years and disliked having to address older cousins with suffixes to their names. For those old-fashioned, charming terms: akka and anna, didi and bhaiya, they made sense only when one actually considered the person as an elder sister or brother and hardly fit people who were practically strangers. In all the seven years that I knew Geeta Didi, I never saw her in person. Yet I always thought of her as my sister. Di, Didi, Deedu…I could never think of her simply as Geeta. Just like tying a rakhi on his wrist can make a boy into a brother, a bond of sisters could be formed over endless online chats, emails and phone calls.
She was perhaps one of the most educated women in India with a doctorate in medicine, a masters degree in computers, more than one postgraduate management diploma and a masters degree in business leadership from one of the IIMs. Ambitious and successful, she celebrated the traditional roles of an Indian woman in all aspects of her life. A beautiful, intelligent, kind, affectionate and compassionate woman who loved life and the people around her, and was in turn loved by everyone who knew her. To know her was to love her.
Coming from Punjabi and Tamil backgrounds, we were two very different people with diverse interests and worldviews. She was not particularly interested in literature and often teased me about my love for classical music. Once when I pinged her, she responded casually with ‘ennadi’, having picked up the Tamil word from somewhere. I felt a thrill of joy on hearing her address me in Tamil, even though the term is not something that I am familiar with in real life, for it is colloquial slang that people rarely use in regular conversation. It was a beautiful moment which made me wonder for days afterwards about the significance of how language affects our interactions with the people around us, especially with those who are close and dear to us. Coming from a pan-Indian family with cousins and in-laws from across the length and breadth of the country, most of my communication with my extended family tends to be in English. Yet, there is something sweeter about talking in Hindi and also in Tamil, though I have not been able to analyse why. Strangely it is Geeta Didi whom I feel like asking about this. She loved analysing things, taking apart the pros and cons of every aspect of a statement or concept.
When we first started talking, three of us – Geeta Didi, D my good friend and colleague and I were looking for matches, three very different women looking for three very different kinds of men. Both D and Didi eventually found the kind of partners they were looking for (D wanted a rich man who came from the same village as her ancestors did and Didi wanted someone who was goodhearted and culturally compatible) and were happily married within the next two years. While I kept an eye open for an intellectually compatible partner – a quest that I gave up on last year, having decided that it was more value-adding to work on my novels than spend another ten minutes of my life talking to yet another guy who bolted at the mention of metafiction. I never mentioned my decision to Didi. Earlier this year when I congratulated her on her fifth wedding anniversary, she wished me once again that I might find the right person soon. I hid my reply behind a smiley, unwilling to upset her by sharing the depressing reality that there were few single literary men of my age, and the truth of Dame Muriel Spark’s words that literary men did not want literary women but girls.
In between the last two years when she was being treated for cancer, there was a period when the doctors felt that she was completely cured. She had started making plans to resume work when the malady returned. Even while undergoing the painful chemo treatments and hospital visits, she took time to advise me over chat messages, sending me recipes for French and Russian salads, urging me to eat well and take care of my health. She was always there on the other side of the chat, ever ready with advice, love, a listening ear, a virtual hug.
I did not post the gift that I got her for last Christmas – a tiny painting of two sisters, for I had intended to visit her and hand it over in person.
I got the message that she had passed on the first day of the study holidays. The lines blurred as I read them, evoking a sharp, searing pain in the heart. It was the last Sunday of August and the bees buzzed loudly around the table where I sat in the garden. I reached up to pick a flower and set it on the table imagining that it was an offering to my sister. A wonderful human being who lives on in the minds of all who had known her. I tell myself that this grief shall eventually pass, and what would remain is a feeling of gratitude that I had the privilege of knowing her, besides the joy of having known what it meant to have an elder sister of my own, if only for seven years.
I was talking to an elderly lady whose late father had been an officer in the British Raj. In his library, she had come across a book about a certain Indian politician of the past century. She spoke highly of this man and assumed that he was still regarded as someone on a pedestal in India. Now I had grown up listening to several school speeches on his many virtues. The teachers composed and sang songs about his greatness. As idealistic undergraduates, we had once celebrated his birthday in the hostel. Roads around the country are named after him. My great-uncles named their houses after him. I had been repulsed reading the vitriol spewed on him by a foul-mouthed leftist poet who sang the praises of his contemporary leftist politician in the same breath. Then I had chanced upon the truth about both of these politicians who had been hailed as leaders in their time and wasn’t sure who was the worse of the two.
Naturally I did not mention any of this to the lady. I merely said that notwithstanding the ideals that fake historians had attached to his name and his many statues, everyone now knew who and what he really was and the chap who once had something of a halo about the very mention of his name, had very few fans left in the country. At which she looked nonplussed.
Reminded me of a poet who had been one of my heroes in a past life. I never cared much for his pedestrian prose, but his poetry had once connected to me like nothing else had. Through the influence of my Professors and classmates, I had come to see this poetry too for what it was. A few years ago, I used to attend literary festivals across the country just to hear him speak, though I stopped after the third one, having found that his interviews focused more on personal anecdotes rather than literary discussion, besides being tediously repetitive. Recently I was sitting in a pub with friends and someone mentioned that this poet was speaking at a venue a few hundred metres away. It didn’t seem relevant anymore, after being exposed to the work of a hundred other writers, better and greater than him.
It appears that there can be no heroes in the age of the internet.
“Human beings are difficult,” he goes on. “We’re difficult to ourselves; we’re difficult to each other and we are mysteries to ourselves; we are mysteries to each other … Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?”
Amit Chaudhuri, Why television writing has become the new home of verbal complexity
A few months ago, I looked up Big Bang theory after a gap over three years and was unpleasantly surprised – The geeks have mutated into sad stereotypes, science references have made way for silly discussions on relationships, Sheldon has lost almost all the quirks which once made him unique and the subject of scholarly articles like this one – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/07/amit-chaudhuri-praise-difficult-language, Raj is made to link up with an older charwoman(!) and the humour completely lost in the transition from a well-written sitcom to an average soap. Reminded me of one of the best lines ever written in a self-help book – ‘Burn the Television’.
” Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation.”
J.D.Salinger, For Esmé with Love and Squalor
We were talking about the song of Amairgen among other things in the pub, and a friend forwarded this to me soon afterwards. While the liberals oppose the teaching of Sanskrit in Indian schools, this happens elsewhere in the world.
Pure fiction (as against formulaic genre writing) is a many-dimensional mirror. In its quest to reveal some aspect of the truth, it also gives glimpses into the writer’s worldview and ideology, their backgrounds, writerly influences, their vision and sometimes into their very soul. As fragile as they are, writers are also brave enough to share their work which reflects them to a great extent. A poet friend once told me many years ago, that she was apprehensive of sharing her poems with her family, lest they read her through the lines. In this context, writers like Alexander McCall Smith, RK Narayan and Eva Ibbotson to name just a few come across as not only good writers but good human beings for their work exudes the human values of kindness, hope, a vision of human nature as being the same everywhere around the world and a tendency to look for the good in everyone and everything. A radiance of positivity pervades their books, which uplifts the reader.
Sometimes I have wondered if the opposite were true. Is it the negativity within the writers themselves that leads them to portray the bullies, bastards and bitches of literary fiction? One often comes across criticism on Nabokov for his portrayal of Humbert Humbert. But as charming as the prose was and as much as it seduced the reader, Lolita was also a meditation on morality, seen through the distorted lens of an unreliable narrator. Nabokov makes it clear that he has no sympathy for HH, whose remorse leads to an attempt at redemption that is far from achieved. Likewise in the novels of Agatha Christie, which are studies in human character, and all of which converge to the defeat of evil and the prevalence of hope for the conventionally good characters. Selfishness, pride, envy, lust, greed and a host of negative emotions have been explored in several major novels like The Magus, The Secret History and Gone Girl, again to name just a few, but the moral voice of the writer comes through implying that they are aware of their character’s fallibilities and do not condone them. Even Katherine Dunne’s brilliant Geek Love with its dark premise and darker characters was at its core a story about family dynamics and filial love.
I was acquainted with a woman since the past few months who writes dark fiction, stories in which the narrative voice seems to endorse the criminal characters, making heroes out of them. She has grown more and more unlikeable since I first met her at an informal writing group which convenes in a little cafe on the weekends. Her face grows openly dark with displeasure when someone else is commended for their work. She hides her successes from those she considers competitors, fearful lest someone else may get something better than what she has, and is quick to make patronising remarks putting down others, sounding as though she were ill-wishing them. Calculative in every conversation, always trying to judge, assess, hit back when there is no need for animosity. I’m very ambitious, she said to me once with an expression similar to the doll in Child’s Play, that it appeared that she would not hesitate to incite someone to crime if it were to profit her in some way. She reminded me of a schoolmate K who at the age of twelve was deliberately mean and spiteful to those of us who got full marks in everything. But such negativity that people try on spew on others only goes back to the senders, three times over.
In academics as much as in creativity, a competitive spirit will hamper the end result while also stunting the soul. Just as a student’s goal should be to comprehend their lessons and score the maximum marks that can be scored without an unhealthy desire to get ahead of everyone else, every writer should know that all writers walk their own individual paths, at their own pace. The world needs all the good books that it can get, and there is always a way for any writer to self-actualise themselves in whatever way they wish to, without having to compare themselves with others and running imaginary races. As a teacher once mentioned in a theatre workshop, competition vanishes in the face of excellence.
I was in the queue at the lunch buffet when the waitress pointed us to the plates placed most inconveniently in the middle. As everyone moved there, the curly-haired American lady A behind me shoved past casually breaking the queue. She was followed closely by her friend who had been behind her, a fat German woman L with a perpetually smug smile plastered on her face who aggressively cut ahead of me to grab a plate, in a reptilian reflex action. I debated quietly whether to point out that they were breaking the queue, and then considered stepping ahead myself saying with a smile that I had been waiting in the queue. Even though it made the difference of a fraction of a second, the incivility was irking and out of place in the setting. However, to react to people who act on their reptilian instincts would be to lower oneself to their level. Besides each time a person acts from the reptilian instinct, it takes away part of their creativity. Indeed, it is not surprising that both of these rude women are mediocre writers in terms of both style and substance. I finally did what the very English head Professor with immaculate manners would have done – ignored them. And then it struck me that I had never ever seen an English person break a queue. Orderly queues are one of the things that I admire about the English.
At the Cherwell boathouse, I sat on a rough bench facing the river and stared into the green waters. It was a fifteen-minute walk from my college room, a very pleasant walk through a treelined path with the boughs overhead making a wide canopy through which the sunlight fell in cool green beams on the ground. It reminded me of one of my favourite places in literature, the world between worlds in The Chronicles of Narnia, which, as we all know, is one of the most beautiful metaphors for a library.
I had booked a punt through the college site, and then cancelled it at the last minute. One look at the boats and I was glad that I had cancelled it. I would have looked like a fool trying to handle the punt by myself. But I felt a deep sense of peace sitting there watching the ducks float past. The summer crowds, mostly students and locals from their appearance were a jolly lot, floating across the river in laughing groups, the little boats swaying. The background sounds blended into the silence and I sat there in peace, contemplating the last two years and the darkness that had threatened to seep again into my mind in the spring, among other things.
I remember someone’s quote that happiness was a library and a garden. Which is true. But to sit by the banks of a river in silence gives something more valuable than happiness – tranquility. Watching the placid green waters of the Cherwell (which the college warns is infested with water-rats, among other things), I felt an immense sense of peace.
May God protect us both (My Preceptor and me)
May God nourish us both
May we work together uniting our strength for the good of humanity
May our studies be luminous and purposeful
May there be no animosity between us
May there be peace (in the divine), peace (in the environment), peace (within the self)
From the Taittiriya Upanishad.
I think of my Gurus – Mentors, Professors and Teachers who have influenced me, with immense gratitude and respect, when I chant these lines every morning.
I have always loved the spring, and not only because of the usual things that everyone associates with the season. In Chennai, we don’t even have proper spring. The weather is sweltering hot all the year. One can just about make out the pleasant nip in the early morning air change into a warm current as the months move from Jan-Feb into March, and suddenly the summer takes over the city with its blazing warmth. But I used to watch out for the flowers – the golden Indian laburnum, the pale pink powder-puff flowers and my beloved flame of the forest that would cover the city in orange and gold well until July, sometimes even August. Spring to me was special because it heralded the long vacations that started in April, and my birthday. Once upon a time, spring was my favourite season, because it held the promise of everything.
That was before the darkness seeped into my mind. During the years in which I was seriously depressed, I hardly cared about the season – I cared for nothing except leaving the hellhole that was Trivandrum. I don’t look back at those days but when I hear that city mentioned, I just feel immense gratitude that I don’t belong to that place, that I didn’t grow up there and that I would never have to live there again. Because should such a condition were to ever arise, I would die, literally than live in that sick place.
But now, even when I have a tiny place in Chennai that I can call home, I am not immune to the darkness. I realised it this spring – as the flowers commenced to bloom all around the gardens and squares that I pass on the way to the office, I felt my mind wilting until it finally shrunk into itself, and closed out. That cold sorrow which is not born from any particular grief filled me and I began to weep through the evenings. I was in denial for weeks. I had survived depression once, even written a novel about surviving depression – about which I get odd emails every now and then from people who say that it has given them hope. How could I get depressed again? I tried some of the newly sprung portals like your dost which counsel people on mental health issues and found that they were too cold, corporates set up to harvest profits from the many banes of the present age. Finally after crying loudly and uncontrollably from eight in the night to two thirty in the morning, I logged into my University’s nightline help service, and found solace, a kind of peace, which was followed by a few weeks of intense reading of fiction, some old favourites (Nabokov, Spark and Barnes), some authors for the first time (Coover, Barthelme, Barth – where had they been all my life?) and the darkness slowly receded. Perhaps it was also because the spring was gone by then.
Once upon a time, I loved spring like everyone else. Now every year as the season seems to descend upon the earth like blight, I begin to see why Virginia Woolf took her life in springtime.