A White Table

There used to be a white table, at least it was white at one time. Probably years ago. Now, it has candle stains, patches of wood showing, an edge that doesn’t quite go around the entire periphery but it is reasonably stable. It’s suitably maimed, scarred and would be the perfect subject for a DIY project, just that it wasn’t bought for a leisurely Sunday afternoon activity but for utility. This one is versatile, it sees study, work and food in varying proportions. A serendipitous find, the perfect size for two people and the room.

It was appealing, getting a table for a song, refurbishing it to make it worthy of Pinterest. But, that thought was covered with a poinsettia table cover which overstayed its Christmas welcome. The cloth is a cheery one and goes for a wash every now and then considering its constant wear. It adds a smile to a stark room. There were paintings that were intended to be hung but never got around to being displayed. The place feels like an inn and she’s wary of making it a home.

She made a home once upon a time ago and abandoned it, what is the point of letting roots grow? Perhaps the troubadours got it right, wanderers of the soul with nary a painting, just their music and an endless road. She imagines becoming a roaming wordsmith and writing stories and songs for a nickel and a smile. Wishful thinking, one doodled thanks to colourful note pads lying around.

Homes are fickle, they change shape with the lives of its residents. Nothing endures. Now it makes sense why Siddhartha despaired and escaped into being Gautama. It is appealing, a life of silence and just one’s own body and mind to wrestle with. Maybe people make families to dispel loneliness but eventually it is a solitary journey. Can sleep be shared or the dreams in that sleeping?

The table though feels none of the paradox, it just stands on four legs, silent and listening to the sound of the keyboard or the conversations floating over its head. There is a motley crew of stationery, art, books, bags and coffee standing around as though at a cocktail party. She finds herself imagining them as people, how would they look? The steel mug morphs into an elegant lady in stilettos and a cigarette holder. The smokes have gone but their memory is still strong in the mind and she toys with a thought of lighting up again.

The wooden paper weight turns into a jolly man, plump and decked in rings of shimmering stones and a loud laughter. Perhaps he has a turban studded with precious jewels like the elephant painted out of the dust of precious stones. The spectacle case turns into Anton from Ratatouille, cold and unimpressed until he is lost in the gustatory memory of his mother’s kitchen brought to life by a little rat chef. The characters on the white table are from books she has read, movies watched or wisps of a mind with time on her hands and a willing keyboard. They people the table and the tableau changes through the day. Sometimes they get arranged like little soldiers in their proper places while at others they are at a party, milling around.

The books are the most talkative of the lot. They end up in discussion as one page opens up another in a second book and so on until there is a veritable tower of the written word. Study texts jostle for space with short stories and poetry. Imagine if each word weighed a pound, how much time would it take for this table to collapse? Imagine the weight of memories and worries in the mind. And there’s no tidying them up really. Where do lost memories disappear? Where do you discard useless ones?

The table asks no such questions, it just stands under bright red flowers, stoic in the face of clutter or order. It has grown to be her friend, one that is welcoming and forgiving and privy to thoughts and words that may never see the light of day.

Letters in Pandemia

A letter sits undelivered in a post office, perhaps in a bag with other letters that have made the journey from various parts of the globe, the same one in the grip of a pandemic. The post office is shut and there is no one in the old brick building. It is a scene out of a doomsday movie just that it is happening in real life. Right now.

The letters sit in the dark, bursting with words and no one to read them. Perhaps, if they had to introduce themselves to other letters, they would have some companionship in these times of social distancing. How do you quarantine words?

The letter writer remains home bound and writes even more letters, less to people and more to the paper. Those letters sit it out as a species retreats into itself, bewildered. Once she is gone, these will be abandoned children, wandering without release until someone discovers them and sends them on their way. For now, they pile up neatly on her desk.

Gendered Spaces

I was clearing my phone and came across this picture and it reminded me of an unusual experience. One that tickled me no end and also provided fodder for thought. Since there is time, let me tell you about an evening when I discovered what it felt like to occupy a space not really inhabited by too many women.

Earlier this month, I was back in Bombay, the city of my childhood. It was a trip with mixed emotions and thoughts, a happy afternoon with friends, an evening walk by the sea and also packing up my mother’s household. That last there was a heaviness, the knowledge that for all her aided liveliness, she would never live in that house again. And as is wont, every time there is a sense of being weighed down, I chop off my hair.

Sunset Family Salon is not really for the entire family, just for the men folk, a modest place with 6 seats under fluorescent lights and whirring fans. There was a popular show blaring on the tele and I tried hard to understand what made all those people in it laugh but didn’t get it. So, I sat staring at a mirror and saw men in various stages of grooming. Haircuts, massages, shaves- the entire gamut of male grooming at 10:30pm.

The owner was a genial man, late 50s perhaps with crinkly eyes that told of laughter and an appetite for life. He made me welcome, showed me to a chair and asked me to wait as he wanted one particular guy to cut my hair. I could have told him that it was not about a sharp hair cut but just a shedding of heaviness. But I didn’t and chose to observe the scene around me as unobtrusively as I could. It must have been strange for all the men there to have a woman sit there. There was silence except for the buzz of equipment. I’m unsure if it is so always or whether it was the presence of a woman in their midst.

It was interesting how the relief on the faces of the patrons was almost in direct proportion to the vigour of their treatments. The massages though very strange to witness close up, it seemed too close for comfort, a kneading that felt strangely intimate. The new age salons have private spaces and soft lights, this one was rough and ready under harsh white light. Hair colour was meticulously matched with eyebrows and moustaches although I’m fairly sure instruction leaflets would mention their use only for the mop on the head. The head massage looked like karate chops and truth be told, I was tempted to ask for one but the hour was late. It wouldn’t do justice to cut corners on something like that. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.

At the moment, I’m mildly contemplating learning how to cut my own hair or then letting it grow out. Long hair looks pretty but it takes effort. My current shock allows me to wash and wear without the need for a comb or brush. I’ve been lazy about going to a salon for what many women consider essential grooming like monthly manicures, pedicures, facials, waxing etc. Blame it on an indifference. My indulgence remains old fashioned oil massages and hot baths, easily accessed in the privacy of my home. When you spend enough time walking with naked feet outdoors and welcome the sun’s relentless heat, the need for a pedicure or facial fall by the wayside. As to hair, I like greys so there’s no question of colouring it. If there’s one extravagance, it is the draping of everyday cotton sarees. That is a deeply sensual pleasure, cotton on skin.  

A buttercup cotton saree a friend left behind. Yellow and white remind me of wild daisies.

I try to imagine what a reverse situation will be like in one of the ‘beauty parlours’ meant ‘only for ladies’ and it would not have been the same. There would be outrage. But I could enter a male space, like in the general compartments in Bombay locals and the same would not be the case no matter how much the men might resent the intrusion.    

The young man who chopped off whatever little he could from my already short hair was pleasant and knew his job. He was the owner’s son and worked in an upmarket salon by day and in his father’s establishment by night. Sunset Salon has been the place where little boys in the locality got their first haircut and while some may have transitioned to the unisex chain salons, the perpetually filled chairs indicate a staunch loyalty of its longstanding patrons. The owner would come over home to cut my father’s hair after his stroke. Maybe if I lived there, I might want to frequent it too for its no fuss service and sense of a throwback to life when I was a child and the streets were free from traffic. The current lockdown is reminiscent of that life.  

Spending half an hour in that joint got me thinking about the spaces occupied by women as women, especially roads. Sometimes, I walk late at night and till date have never seen another woman taking a walk by herself. Usually, couples walk together. If there is a lone woman, she seems to walk with purpose and accompanied by the trappings of work or study gear. Men and boys though walk with swinging arms or hands stuffed in their pockets. The gaze of men and women differ too, raw and diffused. There have been occasions when a refusal to avert my eyes has changed the dynamic of encounters with strangers. There is a perceptible shift. The neighbourhood streets have always felt safe even when deserted, yet there are no women walkers on night streets.

Short hair and a tall frame make it easy for people to mistake me for a man and perhaps that makes it easier to roam freely. It’s only when they see me up close that there is a startle in their eyes but by then it is late to rearrange their reaction. I’ve been marked as male and it is too much work to look at me as a woman. In many ways, this androgynous receiving is a relief.

Mania and despair, and then some jasmines

There is an urgency to write all I can, sometimes it is a din and I have to forcibly shut myself out lest I go insane. I find myself scattering thoughts across screens, notepads, journals and letters, blog posts and text messages. I retreat into blank pages and screens and lock myself up in their familiar comfort. Maybe, it’s their sterile emptiness that is comforting.

I fear not being able to expel all those words before I leave. I fear going blind before I’ve read and written all that I have yet to. I fear not being able to look people in the eye and telling them how much their lives have blessed my own. I fear not having given back enough for all that I have been so freely and generously given. So, I scribble furiously and let them loose into the world. All that seems to matter is to let the words stream out. Their reading is incidental.

There are over 20,000 dead people or so the news says. It seems less considering how the invisible agent has been circling the planet, like another moon, dusting a sickness on all that it touches. But a furiously spinning ticker will make the world run amok and destroy itself. It’s better this slow progression on dashboards rather than the raging inferno that is Covid 19. 20,000 odd lives and their leftovers that others may weep over. Who will grieve for those without homes? Who will grieve for those yet to go?

I want to listen to music from different places and let their unfamiliar sounds and tongues wash over me. Today it is Gasparyan, the Armenian artiste. His sound is my mood today. Mania and Despair. It is after all the stuff of living- pain and pleasure, desire and aversion, always the dualities. How would we survive if not for light and dark? And in the midst of all this, wild jasmines bloom and release their fragrance into the night.

Silent Symphonies

Time has a way of speeding up and before you know it, weeks have flashed by. Many classes, a few misses, much travel, plenty of walks in the woods and thousands of words have happened. An expansion and extension of living, if you will. And now, there is a different sense of time, a slowing down in the face of a crisis that envelopes the planet.

Long walks in the woods and books have been steady companions for a few months now providing space and time needed to recharge. Maybe thanks to those, my world still feels steady.

The woods are silent spaces offer much to those willing to enter their quiet. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to amble long in their peace. In a different quietness at my desk, I find myself writing letters to friends, old and new.

A slow tasting of life and I find myself increasingly enjoying the richness of being silent. If solitude was a planet earlier, now I have an entire universe of wonder. That makes my moments in the company of people that much more full of presence.

A few days of no sarees and was missing the splash of colour. So decided to mirror the blue skies, add a bit of fire to it and post it here.