Reading, revisiting

I took out ‘reading’ from my list of hobbies a couple of years ago. I remember going to public library to borrow algorithms texts last year. The year before that, I browsed the shelves for books on development studies and sociology. This year, I’ve visited only on behalf of my mother to get her yoga books from the ground floor main section.

It is quite probable that I was never an avid reader. I mostly read what Achu annan suggested/bought me. An omnibus for every birthday when I was young. A lot of Paulo Coelho from our school library. Those standard books almost everyone reads – Kite Runner, To kill a mockingbird, JD Salinger.

He bought me Cat’s Eye in my final year and it was great. For some reason, I really liked reading books written by women. There was this book by a lady – I forget the name but I’m sure I have it written down in one of my diaries – it talked of suitors and hemming lines, dainty glass cups taken out in the afternoons with designs on them, extra linen stored away in cupboards and wardrobes, recipe books with extra scribblings in pencil on margins, and double curtains – not necessarily all plush (mostly not and those being the best kind. Too cosy. Is it too English, early 20th centuryish? There were Indian books among them as well. Unlike Wodehouse with golf and butlers, that was my brother’s thing.

Sapiens is lying around and he has asked me to read it, more than a couple times. I tried and the contents page gave me the idea of a summary of Anthropology texts – evolution. Achu annan still vouches for it, but I’m not sure I’d visit again. I had a similar experience with 100 years of solitude. Made a mental note of returning later to see if maybe I liked it now, but haven’t yet.

So – I started reading again. My reading has, over last 2 years, been reduced to blogs on WordPress (mostly recipes of thoroughly familiar and straightforward stuff like dal – yes it’s a fetish), Medium articles and more stuff off the internet. On Sundays I look for Vasundhara Chauhan’s cookery and recipes or culinary experiences in Hindu – mutton cooked in pressure cookers with meat falling off the bone and tender chicken pieces in stew. All of G. Sampath’s satirical stories, especially the ones where his complainant wife is cooking a curry, and finishes before the raunchy couple he’s watching on tv does.

As always, I digress.

I’m reading Winesburg, Ohio. It’s a small town where everyone knows each other. I picked it from a list of rustic set books. Honestly, I do not stick to settings though, and I picture a prairie-land – yellow meadow of grasses with sun shining over, intermittent cottage houses with ivy walls and narrow roads connecting them. The landscape in “Love comes slowly” precisely describes it. Once in a while Sherlock Holmes visits to solve a case, unimpressed, and the lady from A Sound of Music is running amidst the dry grasses, singing in the evenings in her skirt-gowns. All the women are strong and wear layers of clothing. The men are strong as well, like in those movies set in Ireland and they eat freshly baked bread and chicken pies from firewood ovens with gravy.

There’s a beach adjacent to it, the shore from a story about an old man once written by a friend.  Somehow it fit there right next to the prairie.

The meadow segues into the short grassy ground in front of our engineering college quarters, where boys played in the evenings after school and fresh cow milk was delivered by a woman who lived in the depths of the road that went behind our house, to far away from where the sun shines.

There was a Facebook challenge long back, where you had to pick an image out of 4, and it showed your personality. I know it sounds too simplistic, it was; I remember 3 of the options – the sky, the sea and a meadow.
If you picked the sea it meant you’re outgoing, love hanging out with people etc. I was the meadow (I remember being terrified of the sea picture lol). I can’t remember what the description said but it fit me so maybe it was the cliché loves to curl up in bed and doesn’t like going out as much. I made a mental note to keep revisiting every few years to see if I ever picked the sea.

We were taught “Daffodils” in middle school (I think we all were, irrespective of the schools we went to). I had no idea what a daffodil looked like, the teacher did describe them but our brains have their own way of concocting images, no? I was stuck in a vast daffodil field for a long time. The field over time metamorphosed into the meadow, the prairie and everything else. I googled to find a match to the image in my head, sometimes it occurred in dreams, sometimes in stories and movies, it just wasn’t daffodils anymore. I don’t think it ever was.

I think somewhere in my childhood reading or English poetry classes, I got lost in one of those villages. And I refuse to come out.

Or maybe I just love revisiting.


Do you know what the worst part about writing is? It sometimes takes the magic out of things. I swear.

I remember writing about Indian coffee house once. It took me a long time to feel again what I wrote about after posting it, cos when I returned all I could think of were people’s comments. It’s like exposing a part of you. More importantly, it’s just not in my head anymore, I’ve put it down in words thereby limiting it – defining it. You know?

It’s like some things shouldn’t be put on paper until you’re ready to let go of them.

So Winesburg, Ohio – it’s mostly men’s stories – men from Winesburg, a small village town with vast open fields. There are women obviously else I couldn’t bear it. This author Sherwood Anderson wrote it, there are dainty cups from time to time, soft hands and wistful smiles and a lot of cynicism. But most importantly, there are evenings with the sun shining over the village and its cottages.

I don’t think I do a good job at a charismatic or even an accurate description. But I think I might be writing less and reading more now.

It’s time to get lost again.

Beautiful polish meadow with fence in late spring
I’ll leave you with this image assuming you too like cosy beds
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Civilization

“When I have kids, I’m going to raise them in the forest until they’re like 8-9 years old, then introduce them to urban society and ask them to pick between the two the life they’d like to live. I’d give them choice, not the illusion of it.”

“I’m not a fan of civilization myself,” says George.

Winter – Romance

I met G on New Year’s Eve 2016 at Mandi House.

It was winter. The best part of winter. When it’s cold but not too much.
You can smoke fumes out of your mouth in the thick morning air while walking to class. Peas still sprout when soaked overnight and Parachute oil hasn’t frozen in its entirety in the bottle. You wear just enough layers to not need a bra (at least the less endowed ones), yet do not have to hide your cute sweater under another quilted jacket. The chilly wind against their scantily clothed chests hasn’t eaten into the rickshaw bhayyas’ pace in the mornings, yet.

Shaving of course is out of the question.

At this point, I need to confess a couple of things. My roommate had been away for almost two months, and I was thoroughly enjoying it.
I lived in my natural habitat of a cluttered room, the little floorspace was filled with copies of The Hindu and printed fliers of IAS coaching material, collected and shoved into my bag after class. I’d started wearing bhasmam regularly because it reminded me of people I love. My warrior of a chair carried a backbreaking pile of dirty clothes to topple over any moment and I went to class in the clothes I went to bed in. The bed itself was filled with Haldiram’s Aloo Bujia, a thin plastic cover of 5 tomatoes bought for 10, and leftover packs from previous tiffin any time of the day.
I fit my body in there somehow.

Evenings were dry and beautiful with an occasional warm drizzle, and by all means I avoided being in my room for long. It’s when (home)sickness slowly creeps in and lodges itself on your neck to stay until dinner.

I was doing India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra. Love you Zindagi played in my room every night after I returned from the reading room. I routinely smiled at other building-mates and refrained from (/clearly avoided) talking. By this time the chetan at the sambar vada/pizza sandwich shop that had open counters and high tables knew I wanted chai to the brim, just like the chetan at office does now. Old Rajendra Nagar was filled with puppies that followed you on the roads and needed to be fed from your tiffin bits at night.

The terrace was still the only place I could see the sky wasn’t as little as it seemed from amidst all the buildings on the ground.

Probably most important bit is I didn’t have to zone into my thoughts like I do now and did before. I was living in them.

In college, I’d go to canteen alone for a lot of different reasons, and I was lucky to always have people that asked “Are you here all by yourself?”
It was only after almost a year I realized I was disappointing people with answers such as “It’s alright” cos they thought I was upset at not having company. So I later rephrased it to “Oh a friend is coming. It’s alright” and things were sorted out. Unless they decided to give me company until the friend (never) came :D.

I hadn’t talked to a soul at ORN in the course of these two months. Except the sabjiwala and Komal at my reading room reception. And New Year’s Eve was to be spent watching a play at ShriRam’s Arts Center, Mandi House. Alone.

(Yeah don’t worry, a friend was coming).


“Can I have one at the extreme back please?”

First time at a theatre alone and I had mistaken a play for a movie, and extreme back for  balcony view.
G in the second queue overhears and looks over, smiles a friendly stranger smile. I return the smile and wait for the doors to open.

On the way to the Arts Center were walls painted Inquilab Zindabad, posters of Che Guevera, lots of young and older men and women all of whom seemed like students. Reading newspaper and eating Maggi, outside shacks and shops nearby and on circles around tall trees. And all I could think was how I’d have turned out had I joined DU and studied English, or even joined for MA after B.Tech.

I wasn’t sure then, but when was I ever?

I’d quite probably have turned leftist, sat under those trees reading The Hindu, turned up in loose neutral kurtas instead of my favourite Lifestyle sweater, worn chappal instead of Converse and carried a cloth bag instead of Wildcraft. I’d probably still have turned up for this play. Probably.
At least I knew I wasn’t a literature person by then.

As soon as I get seated I realize my folly. I can hardly see the actors’ faces, having especially asked for the backseat. The play is about the revolt of 1857 and I have a leaflet about the troupe and the actors. They’re probably college students, always rushing to catch the Metro for their practice sessions in scorching summers and chilly winters. I would’ve impressed with my Doordarshan-imparted Hindi, though started from the top every time I missed a line.
I would’ve sucked with the lines.

Memorizing dialogues and scenes, indulging chai sessions between, and Maggi from that shop outside on lazy afternoons after naps. Streetplays on weekends, processions at India Gate, LeftWord Books for every book launch. Never miss a LitFest and never miss a lecture. Debate over Yechury’s points on the phone with Achan and borrow Amma’s sari for characters when I went home for vacation.

I don’t really know how differently I’d have turned out.
What if’s and I have had a romantic relationship since forever anyway.


There’s a cosy canteen attached to Centre’s right with low tables and chairs. It’s evening now and the sky is losing light, it’s getting chilly outside. I sit down with hot chowmein at an empty table. There are a couple of benches and desks outside, and through the door I can see young students in their sweaters and mufflers clicking selfies before their foods arrive.
We could all be at a tea shop in a beautiful hill station at Manali or Nainital, sipping tea and eating chowmein. Barfi could jump in any second singing Iss dil ka kya karooon with Ileana De Cruz in her long dress, shoes and pink hairband. And I wouldn’t need to get up and dance because I’d already be.

Next to me, a lady who I’m positive appeared in Taare Zameen Par to judge the painting contest comments “Isn’t Three Arts Club doing quite brilliant these days?”
She has grey cropped hair,  wears a starched saree and is seated with other older men who look like they could be college professors or The Hindu editors, with a general wise air. All neutral shades. They drink tea. I wonder if I should’ve ordered tea with my chowmein.

G appears opposite to me at my table, placing a bag on the last vacant one, and has ordered Maggi. I shift my water bottle away from G’s plate, polite. I’m hardly ever impolite to strangers. At this point I’d like to say I’m one of those I’m sure everyone’s good at heart people. I love being disappointed.

“Is it your first time to a play?” G is smiling more broadly than the summer sun.

“I’ve been to a couple back home, first time alone though.” G sits down.

“So where are you from?” “I’m from Kerala. Where are you from?” I can’t help the full sentences amidst all the smiling.

“Delhi.”

I smile broadly as well.
Like when you find the flavor of tic-tac you were rummaging for in a large bucket at a supermarket. Except there’s no way we knew each other’s flavors. Yet.

G is an arts graduate. PG in English Literature. Civil Services preparation.
“ORN?”
“Yes. You go to Vajiram?”
“I go to Sriram.”
“Evening batch?”
“Morning, actually. You must go in the evening batch?”
“Morning, actually.”

Later as we walk out from the canteen into the tall trees, under the orange lamps I can spot G’s backpack that says WildCraft. I smile stupidly, like Swetha says I often do when seated by the window in our office bus.

Everyone should have the privilege to meet themselves, sometime.


I had earlier decided I’d remain stoic for as long as I could hold out. But that New Year night I talked to more humans over Never Have I Ever. And realized I’d always, always loved people.

When Umadri packed up and left for college in late May, I asked her to list out the things and people she’d miss (yea I do that). On top of the list, was who she was when we were at ORN.

Some days I think I’d give anything to go back to being the unfuck-withable dragon-hunter. Impenetrable to my mother’s calls to life as we know it.

Why is life not the way I know it?

IMG_20161216_175545                                               Old Rajendra Nagar, Winter 2016

Predate

I have heard and I’ve known it’s true
When you see someone happy
You want a bite
And you’d expect the happiness would multiply
But really you only care
Until you’ve eaten it all up
I don’t think I have any happiness left
You can leave now

Cry

I’m a crier.

I mean I own a weak-ass heart that feels too much.

It’s funny because I didn’t quite cry for a long time, although I was sad for the longest time. Then came this study leave before sixth semester exams in college when I cried 24×7.

Like after a breakup you look at your face in the washbasin mirror but realize it’s already wet all over with tears.
Like you don’t cry for two decades, and then you do.
And you can’t stop.

So one evening after my second last exam I cried to someone, and although I didn’t think it was possible, this time I cried it out.
Well, most of it. Which is when I started crying for all the right (you decide) reasons.

For those of us that feel too strongly, crying just happens to be the easiest release in a world where we’re a minority. It isn’t reserved just for when I’m really sad or really happy, it’s for everything overwhelming in between.


At how time conned us, and didn’t let me meet my parents’ magnificent younger selves.

As most 70/80s songs play, I can see my father contesting elections in engineering college (to lose, of course) in black & white, while my mother (in color, cos she has described the shades of her college saris to me) is studying her ass off in medical college hostel. Achan vehemently yells SFI slogans in CET while Amma scoffs at party members in MCH, and they both listen and tap their feet to the same songs, but I never got to see or hear any of it.

Neither know at the time they’d marry each other. Or that they’d have 3 kids who’ll listen to them humming these songs (with a much much lower tempo) some 15 years later on moonlit nights at engineering college quarters, sleeping on their shoulders and laps and chests. So I was upset when I finally heard the originals of Aayiram Padasarangal Kilungi  – “that’s NOT how you sing it, those are not even the lyrics, this record is all SO wrong”.
Because that’s not how Achan sang it to us.

Some days I wonder at how beautiful the world looks during sunrise and wish I could broadcast it across people’s minds in a network so we can feel one another (okay Amal I know that sounds wrong on many levels).
Or how we could both be looking at it and I could be thinking of you right now, and you could be thinking of me, but we’d never know.

And the sunrise could be a Kathak performance or a ghazal recital, or two lines of a brilliant poem or a song or an instrument, the beauty of how its boundlessness dissolves us into one, for as brief and fleeting a moment it be.

Like listening to Vijay Yesudas’ Malare and remembering that’s the closest I can listen to his father’s voice sing it, and how we weren’t lucky enough to belong to the generation whose lives can be traced along Yesudas’ songs.

Or those dusty college windows with sunlight streaming into classrooms and how there was never such a romance as Premam to enjoy all of that on evenings after classes, how I never had the appetite for those back then either.

Of how we were (I mean I was) ugly and sweaty and sick dressers in school (and college, pfft) and how the people and the happiness was innocently believed to be ‘a trial version of what’s to follow’ yet the trial was the best there ever came.

That there was this magical duet of If I Lose Myself we practised during monsoon 2015, when the song could hardly be heard over the patter on chetan’s studio roof, that we never took a video of, that the world never got to see, that’ll die in team memories.

Or of how we cycled through the college forests at Madras at 4am on borrowed bicycles after placing a wrist watch on loan, stopping under orange streetlamps for breaths and shouting across roads, turning in zigzags as trucks passed us by, not knowing it would be our only time.

Of how often I deserved to lose so many from my life yet how they always stayed. And stayed.

Of longing to have known certain people just a little bit more, and to have hung onto certain chapters of our lives just a little bit longer.

How life is short and life is unfair and life is cruel and yet how it comes back together to us every time. And just how much we endure in those hopes. Alone.

Of the stories we hear delivered, and how there remains so much more untold.
Of how no poetry is more beautiful than the conversations we leave unexplored.

And at the end of the day, how we all deserve more.
So much more.


I know most of this is worth smiling over. But you can only smile so much.
And then you can only cry.

No?