Living with Parkinson’s

A few days after my grandmother went to sleep and didn’t wake up, we found a letter she had written in her diary. It was addressed to the university my uncle, her first-born and secret-favourite child, had graduated from. It turns out my uncle was in such a hurry to leave college, he never collected the piece of paper that proclaimed him a Civil Engineer. In her handwriting that resembles the printout of a heartbeat, she wrote “To whomsoever it may be concerned.” Could her son have his degree, now that he has constructed many iconic buildings?

My grandmother had Parkinson’s. It wasn’t something we thought about everyday, even as she slowly lost the ability to write until she could not sign her name, when she needed help to put on her shoes, when she suddenly forgot she had to walk forward and started walking back instead. I did not think of the helplessness and frustration she must be experiencing, as her body turned against her.

My Degeneration is a graphic novel by Peter Dunlap-Shohl, in which he talks about his life after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He takes us through the steps – the coping, the changes he must make to his routines, the support he received from his family and doctors, and finally the surgery that allowed him to continue living in a better way under the circumstances.

The text is informative and engaging – it presents to us both fact and emotion. We see how he deals with his diagnosis – initially contemplating suicide, but later actively working to improve his quality of life. Peter Dunlap-Shohl is a cartoonist, and it is an indicator of life’s cruelty that he was visited by a disease intent on taking away his fine motor skills. We would never know though – the art is compelling. This is a beautiful and brave book.

I learnt so much about the disease and what it takes away, but I felt ashamed for not having tried to understand it earlier. Too little, too late.

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A date with history

Everyone who makes advertisements got it right, nostalgia is powerful stuff.

There are some sights, sounds, smells and tastes that evoke a precise feeling. Or a memory. When the feeling is unpleasant or painful, I waste no time in pushing it back down. Infinite compartments exist for this purpose. Occasionally though, a memory that is warm and delicious comes to the surface. A favourite song from the nineties. A long forgotten dinner staple. The particular smell of a city in summer. Hail stones that throw themselves at the balcony door and melt in a puddle soon after.

I spent much of my childhood, or at least the parts of my childhood I remember, in a country where the locals spoke Arabic. When I hear an accent that does not distinguish p from b, I want to go up to them and say Hi. I want to tell them I like the way the English language behaves under their tongue, even if I made fun of it years ago. I want to tell them about the kuboos I ate growing up, the heat that burnt our feet, the dust storms that made buildings vanish, the cats that seemed to be everywhere, the meat that hung in revolving inverted cones. I also do not want to scare them away, so I smile to myself and keep walking.

If I may become your virtual salesperson for a minute, let me tell you about a cookie I like. A soft, thick cookie filled with dates, which is perfect in every way. It is not too sweet, and is always satisfying to bite into. Some buttery crumbs stick on to your fingers, which you can lick off later. A ma’amoul.

A few days ago, I came across a store that claimed to sell Middle Eastern Foods. Once inside, I spent many minutes looking at the products with English and Arabic lettering. I traced the font with my finger, from right to left. And there it was. A soft, thick cookie filled with dates. I sent my mother a message – Look what I found!

It wasn’t the same, but it was good enough.




This is what Rowan had to say:

It’s hard to walk the line between sentimental and maudlin. It’s even harder, sometimes, to pick a subject knowing that your readers don’t share your history with it. How much education is too much, veering into pedantic writing? How much is just not enough to build the connection? Anusha found that line this week and walked it with precise care. I want to tell them I like the way the English language behaves under their tongue, even if I made fun of it years ago. I want to tell them about the kuboos I ate growing up, the heat that burnt our feet, the dust storms that made buildings vanish, the cats that seemed to be everywhere, the meat that hung in revolving inverted cones. This eye for rich, sensual detail immerses the reader in a world they may not share but can feel through the screen or page. By the time Anusha finds her off-brand ma’amoul, we want one too. But it’s not just the descriptions that make this essay successful. What she’s done here is find a shared, universal emotion – nostalgia real or imagined – and connect her version of it to the reader’s own experience, bracketing the essay in the present day to ease us out of and return us to our daily lives. That’s how you share a memory.

Reading women

I notice that the books I choose to read make me appear a certain way, as though I am a social activist, participating in marches for equal pay. I am instead the mouse that wreaks havoc inside the house, orchestrating small-scale revolts, stealing freedoms that aren’t given to me, trying to start revolutions in one family at a time.

I do not attempt to read women writers only, but my recent reading choices are too much of a coincidence even for me. And then I asked myself why I should not try to read more women. Fiction has always alluded to a man’s version of events; a woman’s version of events somehow always necessitates the phrase women’s fiction, to categorize and decry.

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is a collection of essays on race, gender, sexuality, entertainment and feminism. She does not discount pop culture as entertainment not to be taken seriously. She talks about how many groups of women have been constantly ignored by mainstream feminism. She isn’t scared to admit that her feminism is constantly evolving, and that sometimes misogynistic songs can be catchy as hell. This isn’t a book that dives into the history of the feminist movement. This is also not a book that aims to give us neat solutions to all the problems we worry about. The writing feels both emotional and intellectual. By calling herself a bad feminist, she gives space to imperfections and contradictions. She isn’t a bad feminist at all, maybe just a brave one.

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Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a collection of short stories set in Nigeria. But the author does what she pleases with Nigeria – she imagines Nigeria during the civil war, the present, and a future which sees a Biafra-Brittania Alliance. Some stories bear the shadow of folk-tales, mythical and magical. Some other stories have the bizarre and the commonplace going hand-in-hand. Almost all stories mine relationships for drama, horror and hope. The first story, The Future Looks Good, is stunning from start to finish. There is only one scene – a girl tries to open a door – but from this scene we unravel the history of a family. In the titular story, a group of people called the Mathematicians calculate the precise amount of grief a person is experiencing, and work to remove it. There are no explanations of context or setting, yet the stories are absorbing. The author offers us unexpected gifts of storytelling as she plays with time and structure.

Let us all read more women!

Self-portrait

I am the one who dreams.

I dream of the love that revels in the ordinary – in walks shared and kisses traded, in confrontations, in meals cooked, in corners of the body discovered as the Nocturnes carried us to sleep.

I am the one who fears.

I fear disease and sickness, and indifference. I fear I may become irrelevant, or that I will lose my money and my hair. I fear all my nightmares and the horrors of many realities.

I am the one who leaves.

I pack my life in two suitcases – one light blue and the other black. I take my clothes and notebooks, my earrings and scarves, the greeting cards and the letters, and things my mother stuffed in when I was not paying attention. We cry. But I am also far away, already observing the tears from a distance, knowing I will write about it someday. I leave often, I go from parent to guardian to keeper, occasionally wresting freedom and solitude. When I return, I bring with me the smells of different places and stories of cities where the rain fell differently. I carry inside me the speech of different people. Some I have loved, some have made me cry.



Ten Little Indians

IMG_20170503_161330_605The day I discovered Native Americans, my world altered a little. I believed until then that Christopher Columbus sailed to a large land mass and brought his country men over, fellow white people who would then make this their nation, a United States of America. Our social studies textbooks thought him important, and it turns out he was even more important than we realized – he had a holiday to his name and a song in Shankar’s movie. Later, I found out they were called Indians. And for a while afterwards, I walked around asking – if they are Indian, what am I? Do they prefer one name over another? Would they call me Indian too? What do they call themselves? None of these questions were answered.

Much like other discoveries, I came upon Sherman Alexie’s book Ten Little Indians by chance. The stories in this book all focus on Spokane Indians in Washington State, living out their lives in Seattle. They are regular city people, not wise elder stereotypes. The Indians in the stories are always present but never romanticized, their experiences are both specific and universal. They go to college, play basketball, start families, build homes, roam the streets and make inappropriate jokes.

These jokes find their place in may of the stories, either through a character’s skewed sense of humour, or the author himself being intentionally funny. Protagonists are repeatedly asked how they can afford to find humour in all kinds of situations, and one of them makes a joke that Indians and Jews are the funniest tribes he knows, so genocide might have something to do with it. In another story, a woman walks out of a bomb blast and spends time with a stranger whose wife left him because of his terrible jokes. Many characters seem to have a connection with basketball, which I found to be interesting, as I was not aware of this relationship previously.

I liked some stories more than others. In Search Engine, college student Corliss is pushed by Fate to read a book of poems by a Spokane Indian, when this book falls on her at the library. She sets out to find the poet, whom she thinks is probably the only other member of her tribe to be seduced by words. In What You Pawn I Will Redeem, a perpetually homeless and frequently drunk Indian man must get 1000 dollars within a day to buy his grandmother’s regalia from a pawn shop. In Do You Know Where I Am, a young couple start their life together with the shadow of a lie haunting them. They are Native American royalty, the narrator says, with affluent parents and college degrees.

The author talks about the problems this American Indian community faces, but he does so in a gentle and sensitive manner. He looks at homelessness, alcoholism, mental stability, the loss of a homeland, the quest for spiritual guidance and the need for ritual in its absence. He also brings in a delicious irony at all times, evident in this exchange between a white person and an Indian person: Go home, the white inhabitant says to the brown one. Oh well.

8 Thottakkal

Consider this scene in the recently released 8 Thottakkal.

Meera, an intern reporting local news for a TV channel, is called in by her manager. He is not impressed. Meera is upset now, desperate for him to change his opinion, she really needs this job. She does not want to leave the city and go back home, she may be forced to get married. She struggles with the every day problems of an every woman. She thinks of something then. There is a police officer she knows, Sathya, who confided in her. His gun was stolen while travelling in a bus. It could be with anyone, and he is on a deadline to get it back. Sathya soon finds this information being dissected by news anchors. Ballooning with righteous anger, he finds Meera at her office. How could you do this? I trusted you! Meera is apologetic at first, then defensive. What do you know about me? You don’t even know what kind of person I am, and you trusted me, she shouts back.

This scene reminded me of Kayalvizhi from Jigarthanda. She does something against the stereotype of her character – a petty act of revenge on the male lead – and she says she is not a Tamil cinema heroine to play nice all the time. Our female leads are usually angels. They befriend children, make cute faces at babies, take care of old people, respect their parents, they are the purest shade of white. Meera isn’t a bad person, just normal; she made a choice during a difficult time.

8 Thottakkal follows the life of a boy who is framed for a murder he had no part in. He spends his childhood in a juvenile detention center. I started worrying the movie was veering off into Bala’s universe, especially when an older man offers this boy a laddoo and insists on making small talk. But this scene leaves a sweet aftertaste – the man is truly trying to help. This boy is Sathya, who later becomes the most ineffectual police officer you might have ever seen. He is nervous, never fully present, scared and hesitant. There is another man Moorthy, somewhat similar in temperament, but one who is tired of being knocked about, he can never seem to catch a break.

Characters meet each other intentionally or coincidentally, their actions and words have consequences. The movie does not attempt to lecture us on morality and ethics, it is content to allow us to come to our own conclusions. The story is centered around the 8 bullets referenced in the title, but includes perpetrators, victims and bystanders.

There is the matter of one terrible song which looked like a pantomime gone wrong. If you are watching this movie at home, you have the luxury of fast-forwarding it. The movie feels long, but there are many scenes that leave you feeling satisfied, as if you were being rewarded for your patience.

Exit

We smile, we attempt forced gaiety. “Go ahead please,” we say to those behind us. We watch as they run to security check, dragging bags, taking off their jackets. We make salty promises.

Love isn’t practical like the government’s scrap of paper that decides itineraries. I have to go now.