Monday, May 29, 2006

Pablo Neruda - Tonight I Can Write

no special meaning here , just one of the better declarations of regret i had seen in a while... i hope he really did love her.. otherwise it would be just a waste...

Pablo Neruda - Tonight I Can Write

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

translated by W.S. Merwin

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Dreams Defered

No political views being made here. Don’t expect to see sense at the end of this. This is a disclaimer.

I first came across a poem called What happens to a dream deferred several years ago. When i was still in school when my dad gave me an Encarta. Thrilled at the prospect of my first CD Encyclopaedia, I clicked on something at random and the room was suddenly filled with the chocolate voice of Hughes reciting his own work. More than the timbre of his voice, I remember the pain in just the recitation, a repetition of something that he had probably read several hundred times.

That set off a train of thought which still continues... What does happen to a dream deferred? How does one face reality or normal life after that? Knowing that you are capable of and deserve so much more? Knowing that life will be just a little worse.

I came across an essay by Jack Lessenbarry where he narrates the hypothetical scene recreation if he were to meet Martin Luther.
He states and I quote, "....I would also have to tell him that we’ve pretty much failed at becoming the America he dreamed about. I’d have to tell him that in the America of 2005, integration mostly just means the time from the day the first black family moves in to the time the last white family moves out. I would have to tell Martin Luther King that many black Americans in 2005 have lives of despair without hope. That too many of them live in a twilight world that the upper classes -- black as well as white -- try to ignore. And I would tell him that while children are still made to memorize parts of that great speech, too many adults have forgotten the line about white people. “Their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. “We cannot walk alone.” "

That’s one dream deferred. A rather famous one at that.

But to travel back to our mundane existence, where one is forced to face failure and compromise everyday, how does one face a deferring dream? Having to postpone one's deepest desire leads to destruction. The dream forced to sit idle hardens into an unusable substance of thoughts that have separated themselves from the goals and formed idle destructive thoughts that are crusted over with despair, doubt, anger, and hatred. Violence, guns, the works...

Much later in my academic life, when I was forced to study this as a part of my curriculum, is when the meaning of this poem truly sunk in and suddenly a whole lot of pieces fell into place. That and a piece in the paper today that is what I assume prompted this post.

A piece in the paper narrated the stoning of an old man in a train going to Belapur, that he may incur permanent blindness, the reference to the serious problem that it was a couple of years ago, the reasons why there is this much rage on the streets of Bombay, interviews with a psychologist and some political people, , how Bombay the once safe city is now rearing its ugly head, the usual gamut...

Lets focus on Bombay for a while, shall we? Bombay, the land of the washed out dream. Every day, people spend thousands of rupees and patronize Bollywood, which methodically churns out impracticable movies where there are Swiss locales and dancing women, opulent lifestyles and the light at the of a really short tunnel. The masses lap it up. It’s the closest that they'll ever get to such a lifestyle. Their own Technicolor escapist dream.

Think about it. In many ways, the masses we scorn and shrug off are equal if not better than the rest of us. I'm not trying to make any political statements here. But if a street urchin was given all the basic middle class home takes for granted, say a home, 3 square meals a day, a comfortable life, a home to come back to, an academic qualification, what are the chances he wouldn’t live under the poverty line a decade from now? True, the more qualified get the job, but who takes care of the qualifications? Who makes sure there is money enough to go to school and make something of yourself? Who pays the engineering fees or the architectural fees or the MBBS fees? And we’re talking about degrees in Indian, mind you. Or worse, even if you have a degree, who is to say that you will get a job given the rat race? And with reservation these days, who's to promise higher education is even an option that can be considered?

Now lets look at things from their eyes. They see rich kids in shiny cars, they see an education that is taken for granted, they see question papers being bought and answered, they see MBA's from the US, they see skimpy clothes and kitsch frothy careers like acting or designing or whatever that involve little labour and much returns. They see social evils being perpetrated and not a soul to show them up. They see Lady Fortuna place their hands on those privileged few and turn her back on the others. They also see that the offspring of the privileged also inherit that hand of fortune. They see it every single day of their lives. They also painfully see that they may never have a lifestyle like that. Ever. They see their personal dreams being bled out. A little every day. For the rest of their lives.

They see it when they clean the filth of the street.

They see it when they clean the sanitation pipes.

They see it when they are washing the behinds of dogs probably better treated than they are.

They see it when they scrub the sick off backseats where a night of excesses has decided to present itself.

They see it when six months salary is blown up on a birthday party in a fancy nightclub.

They see it in their eyes, the scorn, the smirk and utter disrespect because they are children of a lesser god.

The spewing rage, the mounting violence, the escalating suicide rate.. Do you blame them?

I now leave you with the immortal words of Poet Laureate Hughes. In his poem, Hughes places particular emphasis on Harlem, a black area in New York that became a destination of many hopeful blacks in the first half of the 1900s. Now, in a different century and on a different continent, I think the reference still fits.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like?

rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Story of Steffi

We brought someone back with us.”

Mahsa looked at me apprehensively as she said this to me. Katherin looked pretty apprehensive too. Since like most Europeans I knew, they were sympathetic towards all gods’ creatures, I was sure they lost their heart to a little chimp or a lame puppy on the street or something to that effect. Hell, they had just driven back from Goa only a few hours ago. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a full-grown black bear in the boot. “So, what is it?” I asked. Before she could say anything, a tall fair blond young child, more striking than pretty, with facial characteristics unmistakably German jumped out of the car with a boisterous exuberance that could come only out of extreme youth. “Hi! Im Steffi!” she chirped, shaking my reluctant hand.

I cocked an eyebrow to Mahsa, who laughingly said she’ll explain later. Later on, sitting in their overpriced little apartment, she did. Stephanie was someone they had met on the beach and later in a bar. being German, they got talking and realized that she had been in Goa a really long time, did not have a steady job, no family no money no prospects nothing at all in the whole world. She needed to come to Bombay as she had a friend here who could help her get a job. He would also give her a place to stay. So they were to give her a ride and a place to stay for the day and would drop her off to a friends house the next day.

“Is that a good idea?” I asked. I was 21 and much too realistic and snarky for my age. A hereditary strain of sarcasm and cynicism didn’t help matters. “How do you know she won't murder you in your sleep and run away with everything you have? I agree, she’s from your country but that isn’t always the best judge of character. ”

She’s seventeen” Katherin remarked dryly, “ I don’t think she’s gonna kill anyone anytime soon.”

Seventeen!! I looked at her, just getting out of the shower, blond hair dampened darker, singing loudly and tunelessly, carelessly wrapping a towel around herself. She seemed much too old for seventeen. Even by non-Indian standards. I thought she was twenty five or more. Definitely not seventeen! That little bit of information didn’t ally my fears at all. She didn’t look or sound or behave seventeen. Something was definitely fishy i thought.

She bounced into the room. “What should i wear to a photo gallery?" She asked the room at large and bounced right out without waiting for a response. Okay, she was definitely behaving a little younger now.

The photo gallery in quotation was the Express photo exhibition held annually. A collection of all the best photographs taken by photojournalists all around the world, it was something I looked forward to, every year.

In the longish car ride getting there, Stephanie unfolded her life story bit by bit, emotional yet candid, about how she was hooked on crack by age six, was thrown out of her conservative household by age nine, how she wandered illegally into Switzerland and lived on the streets for a year, busing tables, waitressing doing anything to get her fix. Eventually she hooked up with a couple of students, all on their way to India. They all pooled in for her airfare, brought her to gGoa and she’s been there ever since. Her narrative didnt potray herself as a victim or without responsibility. Something i found quite refreshingly different about her.

“How did you live there?” I asked.

“ Well, I did all the stuff I did in Switzerland, I danced some because Indians like me. And when nothing else worked, I did soft porn. Nothing dirty!” She hastened to add, seeing my aghast face. Mahsa looked sideways at me and decided to say nothing for the moment.

From the closeted conservative upbringing that I have had, I was scandalized. Porn was not even an option for most people I knew. In morality-ridden Indian society, even more not an option. And definitely dirty. In fact, the conceept of clean porn was alien to me. I was so shaken I was speechless. The rest of the ride passed in silence.

We got to the venue eventually. Then we meandered in different directions looking at the different photographs, each forming our different private interpretations. Half an hour later, I had just wandered around corner when I heard uncontrollable sobbing. Stephanie was sitting on the floor, mascara running down her cheeks, crying over a … photograph? A closer inspection of the photograph showed me a picture, a sepia toned study of two crack addicts, mother and teenage son lying on a bed smoking their crack pipes.

I sat down on the floor next to Stephanie, watching her cry, not knowing what I could do, and not knowing what caused her such anguish. Fifteen minutes of heart wrenching sobs, a glass of water and much hiccupping later, she calmed down enough to talk. She missed a family, she never had a moment like that with her mother, father or sister, no happy little family traditions, no silent Sunday afternoon naps with her family, no mother daughter shopping expeditions, nothing. In that moment sitting on the plush floor of an upmarket gallery in the middle of Nariman Point, I saw Steffi for what she really was, a lost little child craving her kin, someone who needed a family to ask about her.

I led her out of the gallery and sat down with her on the wall facing the Arabian Sea, listening to her shaky voice talk. For an hour I listened. About her struggle with cocaine, her victory, about her still occasionally smoking hash when she gets a craving for something chemical, about how she hoped to go back to Germany and look up her parents.

“Suppose they don’t accept you, suppose they aren’t willing to let go of old wounds?” I asked. I’m a product of Indian morality, remember?

“That’s okay. I just want to see them once. If they don’t want to accept me, I’m okay with that. I wont ever stop being their daughter. “ She smiled.

I shrugged noncommittally. In my head, it’s all very well for people to talk about it, try being in it and lets see what you have to say. As if she read my mind, Steffi reached out and grabbed my hand and said one of the wisest things I’ve heard to date.

“ Happiness is about little things, you can’t hold on to grudges forever. There is happiness in forgiveness, in letting go. There is happiness in small places. You just need to let them find you. Miracles do happen.”

Discomfited by undeniable wisdom from one so young, I grunted noncommittally and bought a bag of chopped up sugarcane from one of the street vendors. As she ate, I watched the juice dribble down her chin and the ocean lights reflected in her eyes and wondered at the mettle of the girl that had brought her halfway around the world into the care of total strangers. It suddenly struck me that her undeniable faith that brought her to us and not to unsightly characters so abundant in the city.

Of course her faith was tested again, she borrowed my cell phone to make a call to her friend in Bombay to see what he could do for her. Turned out he was on a chemical high that night when he made all those promises to her. Now that he was home and in his senses, it didn’t make that much sense. He’s sorry and he wishes her all the best. Steffi couldn’t be bothered. She sat chewing her sugarcane bits, faith in the her private little system intact.

It worked too. There was a job fair happening pretty close by and we wandered in there later just to use the loo. Five minutes later, Steffi got a job offer as a waitress on a cruise liner going to Frankfurt. She would leave within the week.

At their house that evening, Katherin, Mahsa and I watched Steffi sleep wondering at the power within this child- woman. The thing she wanted the most at that time was her family and she had already made her peace with the fact that they may not want the same thing from her. In my head, that took a lot of strength. Along with breaking a cocaine habit, something i hear is nearly impossible. that girl had acquired a lifetime of strength in sixteen short years. The path she wove through the universe could have gone so awry. But she never lost faith in miracles. Or the happiness.

I likt to think it was because she is young. Whe we were younger, we believed in guardian angels, in Santa Claus, in the tooth fairy, you name it. When we were younger, we were happier because we believed there was someone looking after us, we believed in the inherent goodness of the world, we trusted until there was a reason to distrust.

Early next morning, something woke me up and I wandered out into the living room. There was a Steffi-shaped indentation on the couch, still warm, but no Steffi. My wallet was also missing. My heart had just decided to scream when the front door opened and Steffi walked in casually and tossed my wallet back to me. “I had gone out for a walk and found this on the stairs.” she said. At the time, I didn’t know whether to believe or not. Later, when my inherent cynicism forced me to check my wallet, it was untouched. Everything was as it was. It was time I learnt to keep the faith.

A few days after that, we waved goodbye to a cab with a tearful Steffi in it. The cab would take her to the liner which would take her to Frankfurt, where her parents lived. She didnt call ahead. She wanted to surprise them. I, who used to pride myself on being unemotional, found it difficult to get rid of that lump in my throat.

Today, three years later, I still wonder what happened to that child. I wonder if she reached home okay. I like to think she did. I like to think her parents welcomed her with open arms and forgiving hearts. I like to think she would have had some well earned family moments with them. With her unflinching faith in the universe, it would make a rightful ending to this story.

But every time I look at the glittering moonlit sea or look at a sepia toned photograph, I think of a young lady who waltzed into my life, forcing me to look at things positively. I used to believe in angels a long time ago. Maybe Steffi was my angel's messenger. I like to think so.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I came back to an empty house that evening.

I came back to an empty house that evening. I do everyday but that day it seemed emptier than most days. Didn’t know it was possible. Varying degrees of emptiness. Like varying degrees of alone. Turned the light on and sunk into the all-forgiving bean facing the sofa. Had it really been that long? Felt like yesterday, he sat on the farty settee and cringed embarrassed at the noise.

I’ve lived here for nearly a year, all alone. Never before has this house felt oppressive. Except now.

It used to be home, this house. Once upon a short time. In all its dusty glory, I had found or maybe cultivated a vibe, a peace that was to tide me over several quiet evenings. The bookshelf with its several indefinites absorbed my weekends. You never lack friends with books. The television filled the house up with a comfortable semblance of living. The DVD player was actually used once in a while. Even when the house was full, I was quite happy being alone in it.

Not anymore. The obscurity takes on a tangible masquerade; I can feel it creeping up on me. Slowly. Steadily. Ever so ominously. The feeling snakes into me, curling into a bit in my belly. Tightening steadily. Threatening to choke me. Every time I turn around I can just see it lurking around the corner. The lava lamp, the twinkling fairy lights, the vanilla candles flickering in their glass cases, the Chinese lanterns, the Buddha lamps shedding their own shy sorrow, nothing seems to quell it.

His presence had already permeated the dinky place. The walls echoed his laughter at times. The fairy lights were still up and twinkling like they were on LSD. Need take them down soon. Hell, I needed to take them down a couple of months ago. But they provide comfort. A familiar comfort all those bottles of vodka didn’t provide. A half smoked reefer lay positioned in the ashtray, stray sheaves of rizla surgically elongated, scattered everywhere.. He had put all the lights up. Insisting that there should be lights put up for Diwali. That was one of our better evenings.

Lounging around in the living room over several cases of beer, the fireworks outside had intrigued him. Where he came from, Diwali didn’t exist. He was eager to be initiated.

Soon oil stains dotted the carpets and mats, candles were being lit and placed everywhere, fairy lights in several colours and sizes were strung on every window. Overpriced sweets wrapped in festive yellow cellophane; crinkling merrily, the lights twnkling off it, clothes were bought and worn that same evening, laughingly ridiculing the crude fit of Indian clothing on Europeans.

We watched from the window, families dressed in their best meeting with others. Happy couples walking hand in hand. Children screaming around the lawn. Lights sparks fire colour noise everywhere. The crescendo of excitement steadily rising within the city. Hardly a romantic setting, however that evening was enchanting. My Diwali gift was something I had admired several times in the windows of Bombay Store. A large box full of scented candles. I thought it perfect. Almost.

Six hours. Six hours of sheer bliss, of some kind of a hope, of the light at the end of the tunnel. Six hours on an incredible high, of unbridled laughter. Six hours of being comfortable in another’s skin, realizing that barriers don’t really exist. Six hours when circumstances, emotions, mood, everything came together in a harmony of near perfection. Almost

God has a depraved sense of humour. Or maybe he’s just a man, Maybe not. I dont know. Three months later. My house still looks like its lit up for Christmas. The fairy lights mock me. Mock the light no longer there.

He’d always been proud of his cell phone, in the way only men are. Ironically it was a cell phone that ended us. A phone call from his father. He had been away too long. He needed to be back. Work was pending. His studies were pending. His family missed him. It had been too long. Come back. Blood is thicker than water. I couldn’t win.

We talked a lot that night. He couldn’t stay on. I couldn’t leave. On the last day of Diwali, we bid each other adieu.

At first there were phone calls and emails. A flower, books, promises never intended to be kept. Then life caught up and all communication dwindled. The occasional e-card still marked what once meant the world to both of us. Today the email had bounced back. Account no longer exists. The last link snapped. Electronically. Almost funny. Almost.

His empty pack of cigarettes mocks me. So does a certain denim jacket pegged forgotten behind the door. The open bottle of beer steadily skunking on the shelf. A forgotten bottle of cologne. Memories galore. Unwelcome at this time.

I pick up the reefer and look for a the paper sack. Locate the card and the straws. Snap the seal on the Smirnoff. Switch my phone off. Turn up the music. maybe today it will drown out my thoughts. Look around the room one last time.

This house used to be alive. Once upon a time. Just like me.
The fairy lights twinkle on.