Tag: life

Our neighbour, our enemy

My mother and the Syrian lady next door were enemies.

Theirs was a feud that excelled in the tactics of non-verbal intimidation. They practised their stares and their cold shoulders, and how best to turn one’s face away when they each saw the other approaching. We were amused and confused, we did not know what started their rivalry.

It was the food, said my mother, whose tolerance for anything not vegetarian went only so far as to ignore the eggs my father made me. All those smells driving the air out of our second floor corridor, she complained. Cooking meat any time of the day. Beef today, she declared, sniffing the air as we stepped out one evening. Crab, she snorted, one afternoon, when a pungent smell greeted us as we opened the door.

The Syrian lady wasn’t one to be intimidated either. She disturbed the kolam my mother drew outside our apartment every morning, she was worried those rice flour patterns on the floor might be voodoo. She blew out the lamps that my mother placed at the doorstep every evening in November, saying they were a fire hazard.

She was always by herself though, and this didn’t escape my mother’s notice. No husband, no siblings, no parents, no children, we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have. What was she doing here all alone, my mother couldn’t imagine. We watched her bring up the furniture, carry home carton boxes of mineral water, clean her car. We saw her arguing with the children who threw tennis balls into her balcony, thinking it would be fun to upset her mood for five minutes every so often. We continued to watch as she left for work every morning, cooked for her friends who visited her with clouds of perfume, we could hear their laughter past my bedtime.

I must have missed the thawing that happened, because one day, my mother said to no one in a voice just above a whisper, “I am amazed by her courage.” Later that year, we wished her Eid Mubarak, and she gave us rice with beef on New Year’s day. My mother left it on the small table in the living room, I suspect my father ate a little of it when she wasn’t looking.

Written with the prompt: I am amazed at her mountainous courage. Crowd favourite this week on the fiction|poetry grid – thank you for the votes!

For summer

I want to bottle this green smell of summer. Fresh and ripe, with possibilities maybe. Pollen and tiny yellow flowers that we trample, sweat and the moist air, the harsh light that sometimes makes way for unexpected rain, and the darkness that makes everything clean. I smelt it again, after many years away. It took me back to when we had the yellow of the street lights for company, when we were unaware we didn’t have much else. A drop fell, on our palms and thighs, on the leaves beside us, into the soil beneath us. The dust settled as more drops fell. We willed the rain to stop. We thought the night-time world belonged to us, as we wandered from street to street. We weren’t lost, we were finding each other.

There was a dream that hovered. Behind my shoulder, above my head, in my heart, always a little out of reach. One day, I held it in my hand. It was lighter than I imagined, it fluttered, it was alive. It made my chest ache and it set me free.

I am curious about happiness. Is it contentment, is it finding out that the hurt of the past suddenly feels far away? You remember its outlines, but the ache is dull. You allow yourself to pierce and pick at the scab. The resentment seems to be making a graceful exit, but you do not want to let go of it all, because you do not yet know who you are without it. But there is joy to be discovered, on other summer nights like these, when we realise that the sadness sometimes creeps away without us noticing. The night whispers to us ancient stories of love and longing, watching us as we write our own story, calling the fireflies to witness.

The night is infinite and wise, she said to me she knew I would be back to bottle the heady smell of summer.

This short prose was published in the Summer 2017 issue of Panoply, a literary zine. You read it here first! Do take a look at all the other prose and poems that have been published.

The gifts of childhood

Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. Neon green with yellow patches. Was it a key-chain?

Remember, it was our first sale. We went to an adult whom we didn’t think of as an adult, and we told her to please buy it. 5 Rupees only.

Whose is it, she asked us. We didn’t know.

It had been lying around. Maybe given to us by an aunt visiting from abroad, with cheap toys made in China and bought at 50% off elsewhere, reminders of people who liked us for three months in a year but not much for longer than that.

What will you do with the money, she wanted to know. We will donate all the money to kids who don’t have anything. There is this place where they stay. They go to school and pray and someone gives them clothes and maybe toys. I read about it in the paper.

She bought it and then we were off. We collected everything we didn’t like, had no use for, stopped playing with.

We took a plastic bag from the kitchen, and a pouch for our earnings. We went knocking on several doors. Just the building at first. The street next. Then two streets over. Until an old lady asked us if our parents knew where we were and offered to call home. We didn’t wait for her to buy anything from us, we ran back the way we came.

A week later, when the afternoon heat put everyone to sleep, I took out the pouch. Two hundred and fifty six rupees and some paise, all in coins. I walked to the post office and asked the man behind the counter how to send all this money to someone.

Do you know their address, he asked. Yes. I wrote it down. Yes. I know my address too. He counted the coins again. He wasn’t very quick and I stood on my toes the whole time, trying to peer in. Quick, before they wake up. Count faster.

After a month, I received a letter. Thank you, it said, in many big words most of which I did not know. They were happy. They told me they would buy school books and stationery. But I was upset. They called me Mrs.

I was eight and my sister was six. We hid that letter and we lost it too.

Editor’s Choice and Top Three this week!

This is what Rowan had to say:

I’ve often been accused of valuing construction over content. Fine. I value construction over content. I’d rather read a well-written essay about walking a dog than a poorly written one about saving that dog when it fell over a cliff and then later it went on to rescue five kids from a burning building. Of course, this essay has both solid construction and charming content, and they fit well together. You already know the content – right? you did read all three grids, right? – so I’m going to focus on the details of construction that made this a pick for me.

Three techniques really stand out in this essay: the hook, the dream-memory feel of the writing, and the way it all ties neatly back to both of those things at the end. I often say that your readers will remember the first and last paragraph of your writing the most, and this essay is a perfect example of that. Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. (For you grammar mavens out there, the comma is optional in that sentence but I think it functions well to create a little breathing room, like the comma in the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House.) Throughout the essay there is dialogue, which is handled without resort to quotation. This is a careful and deliberate choice to make the dialogue as much part of the story-memory as it can possibly be. Another option would have been to italicise the dialogue as well, but here the parts of the story that someone is saying are clearly and precisely flagged with language, and there’s no need for it. The final lines wrap the story back to what you thought it was going to be when you read that hook: lost and found. That’s the nature of memories, and of little kindnesses that peek out between the lines.

The questionable charms of Disney World

One television show that kept me up at night was Westworld.

The show is about Westworld, an amusement park/insulated world for the rich, in which humanoid robots are manipulated and forced into story lines of the human creators’ liking. The robots exist to serve the guests, who can do anything they please. Killing or raping robots is standard practice – if you can get away with your violent instincts in a space that encourages you to do so, why not give in. The robots’ memories are erased frequently, so they continue to live out the loop written for them. There is much more to say about this show, which I might do later. It is a fantastic thought exercise about how we create sentient beings just so we can behave terribly to them with no consequence.

When in Orlando, I spent two days in Disney World and came away feeling we are not very far from Westworld. Disney is a whole world by itself, shut off from the outside, a place you get to by their train or ferry. Disney pushes you to forget the outside world and exist in the vast spaces they maintain with great care. Rides aren’t just rides here, they are Experiences with effects that intend to immerse you – sounds, lights, animatronics, 3D projections, robots. They even built that castle we recognize, with fireworks going over it just like in the movies. Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, the princesses from Frozen – these are all people you can meet. Families with children stand in line for hours to make real the fantasy that movies peddle – the parades, characters, and songs help them in their quest. Employees are called Cast Members, and they can never frown. They aim to make guests happy. Disney World is not careless about wanting to create the Happiest Place on Earth, an island where childish dreams and curiosity about magic could come true.

If you have watched Westworld, you might think I am creepy for making this comparison. My brother called me weird and insisted I do not ruin the experience for others. But I came back home and performed a Google Search: Disney World is like Westworld. Look what I found here.

P.S. I suspect I might have gone over the edge after a ride modelled on Finding Nemo. I couldn’t decide if the dolphin in the aquarium was real or not. Alarming.


1080x1080 VOTY Awards_060817-short blog post3It turns out I am one of the Voices Of The Year at this year’s BlogHer conference. It wasn’t a miracle – I submitted a few of my blog posts and somebody liked what they read. I am almost embarrassed to admit how much I’m looking forward to attending the conference in Orlando later this week.

But the excitement brings with it a small helping of shame. I wrote about my grief, and this brought me recognition, which leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I mined my loss for attention.

Maybe if my grandmother were around, she would ask me to just enjoy myself.

Here is home

Leaving often must mean looking for a home often, wishing the house would become by itself the kind of home you would like to come back to. A home that is warm and lived in, that tells stories of afternoons spent reading in the balcony, walls that have borne witness to both terrible arguments and the laughter of friends, tea and biscuits shared on brisk mornings.

Moving is never pleasant, except when you find something you had long ago given up as lost. Moving is stepping over sharp objects as you wonder how you ended up with so many things, even after making partially successful attempts to live like a minimalist. It is picking something to wear out of a suitcase because you forgot you had to meet someone and packed all your nice clothes a few days earlier than necessary. It is the mild annoyance that creeps up when you realize you have to sleep surrounded by carton boxes and plastic covers, because your house needs to be brought down and set up elsewhere.

Moving is also the citrusy air freshener that greets you when you open the door, the fresh coat of paint, fine sawdust in corners that come from repairing shelves. It is the sudden joy that catches you unawares, because for a moment, you think you left your problems behind and almost believe you can start anew. You find out then that you never truly leave something behind, it is within you like splinters and scars; some memories that you retrieve with abandon and others that you keep locked down.

Soon this house will smell of cumin and incense, occasionally of cigarette smoke from the dying embers of a habit that refuses to leave, perfume and detergent. Soon there will be stains on the carpet, grease in places you can never hope to get out, hair in the bathroom and furniture you can live without. Soon a bedroom will emerge, that you will attempt to make cozy, a kitchen that you wish to be bright and spotless, a study into which you retreat, a couch for you to be lazy in. Soon it will be a home.

But you’ve always carried your home with you.

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.