Lock down letters

Another work week passed by like the clouds drifting past. This one was a slow one with tasks mostly on hold due to the latest lock down. The good thing was I finished one of the darlingest books in two days flat, stepping away just to do what could not be avoided. A few letters also got written and there’s a trip to the post office waiting for me when this opens up. Quite a few friends texted with images of letters that finally reached them, almost a month after I put them in the red metal box and that has made me a little more enthusiastic about another round. It got me to reach out for a shoe box of old letters and cards from across the years.

Letters are slow living and I enjoy writing them for a variety of reasons. Often, when I feel stuck, my day begins with a letter or two or three. In the pandemic, I even started writing a monthly letter to myself to be read sometime in the future. It will be interesting to see how I will react to it then. I imagine when I turn 50 there will be a pile to look at and see how the journey over the previous years panned out. Many books and even movies have references to letters and when I come across them, it brings a smile. The act of letter writing is not dead, at least not yet if it is being kept alive through other media. But it does seem like a fading practice or perhaps art.

I enjoy slow correspondence with a few good friends now and it is always a savouring to read their long, thoughtful letters. And when I think of letters, I remember J, long gone now. She wrote gorgeous letters, rich in detail about her days and travels. We got acquainted in the early 90s and continued our exchanges until she passed away in 2007. Letters were how we grew as young women in an age before the internet, sharing the pains and joys of life.We met every time she visited the country and the last time was the year she passed away.

I guess in the age of instant messaging and e-mails, the news in a letter is dated but seen from another perspective, it is a more alive memory. There is reference to the immediate as well as a think aloud that happens in their writing. Sometimes they just rush out in a stream and the times I don’t read it before posting, I wonder if it was all just nonsensical ramblings. But, then thankfully, I forget what I wrote and by the time a reply arrives, life’s river has already flowed far ahead.

Sometimes I am curious to know how many people still write letters like these. At one time, there would be letter writers who would be hired by those who couldn’t write. Those were days before the ubiquitous cell phone and news travelled in mail bags via road and rail. Recently there was an article that revisited the story of a postman who walked through jungles to deliver letters to remote villages in South India.

Last year, on a whim, I wrote a letter to the postman and dropped it in the box. I’ll never know who read it but I like to think that it might have brought a smile to his face, a letter in terrible Hindi but heartfelt gratitude. I have one letter brewing in my head as I type and that’s what I’ll do tonight. A long note to a radiant friend across the seas who writes beautiful letters of light and love.

Of friendships and flowers

A couple of evenings ago, a friend came over. We met after a few weeks. I love it when she calls to say, “I’m coming over, will have coffee.” While I prefer a strong shot of black, she prefers filter coffee and I enjoy the slow process of making it happen. The smell of coffee as boiling water is poured into the filter, the clang of tongs and the vessel as they are set down, the sound of milk coming to a boil and the whoosh as it settles down. Finally, the long pouring of coffee into two cups. It’s an incredible sensory experience.

S was the first friend I made in this city and as our tentative acquaintance found common ground, she and her family became mine too. Slowly, the pieces of our lives grew like a comfortable patchwork quilt.

She is an amazing culinary artist, we met over food on a now defunct food platform. It was an idea just a little before its time. I did a feature on her and in the course of our conversations, discovered that we shared a common love for flowers. There’s something about fresh stems which makes any living space light up. The last lot she got had yellow snapdragons, uncommon in the Pune market. Usually, it’s a mix of tuberoses, gladioli, liliums, chrysanthemums and whatever wild flowers are in season. Sometimes, we would toss it up with roses, carnations, orchids etc.

Once a week or fortnight, we’d head out to the market and lose our heads over the gorgeous blooms, always returning with more than we needed. Eventually, we got our quantities down to a pat and still later, we became even more efficient with one person shopping for the two of us. But that efficiency killed the slow mornings and unfolding of our selves. The couple of hours shopping, coming back and sorting the stems over coffee stretched to make space for sharing the travails of raising our kids, relationship challenges and work related issues. It took a backseat in the busyness of our work and chores. I suppose it is the case for almost all relationships, a ticking off check boxes in order to maintain them or appear to do so. Conversations can quickly settle into the nature of updates. People still meet for a meal or coffee but the spending of time doing an activity together has a different flavour.

Those unhurried times helped to strike roots in this city, perhaps not very deep but still strong enough to not have a sense of being in transit. Although there is a lack of attachment to the place, there’s an easy familiarity and love for its flowering trees, quiet stretches and laid back feel although it is a lot noisier and crowded now. Flowers make my heart smile, there’s something so full about them, especially those on trees and plants that have but one day of living but what a glorious day it is!

The most beautiful things in the world are at once simple and profound, like the heart of a flower. Most of my pleasures remain simple and freely available- flowers, birds, bugs, stones, trees, animals, water bodies, clouds and all things in the open. They gladden my heart and senses. Since lockdown, I’ve enjoyed their colours and scents in my little garden as well as the riotous burst on the streets. Summer is always a good time in Pune, the colours rising almost like a Mexican wave- purples, yellows, oranges, reds, whites.

From the garden today and a few lines from a while ago…

in a world without flowers
the world would know no colours
rainbows would grow pale and die

and dreams …
why dreams would be
shades of grey!

It’s been months since we bought flowers.

A letter from Norway

Sarees brought me the love and friendship of many special people across the planet. Some of them lovers of the six yards, others not but all of them wonderful people. A few have grown to be friends I’ll love all my life. Some have also been correspondents over the last couple of years and I have enjoyed the slow pleasures of letters written in beautiful hands. Often these notes are accompanied by something handmade, in the case of a special sister of the soul, tea for two. 🙂

Most days, I go through life unconscious of my presence in anyone else’s life. But every once in a while, I receive an act of kindness which makes me feel overwhelmed. It is a surprise that one is thought of in private moments of the spirit of another person. One such happened today. I received images of a letter that was written about a couple of years ago in a train between Bergen and Oslo.

R discovered the notepad on which she had begun writing that letter to me recently and shared pictures of the pages today. I was deeply touched to know that someone remembered me on their travels, enough to write their deepest thoughts as they watched a white landscape hurtle past a silent window. The pictures through the glass speak of harsh winters although this was a trip in April or May. I’ve never seen snow, not yet and often wonder how it might be to experience the silence of a giant white blanket for months on end.

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Picture courtesy : R from her train ride between Bergen and Oslo

Letters though are a wonderful way to break that silence. They are a window into thoughts that are free from the constraints of conversation. Of course, they have their moods and colours. Sometimes playful, often contemplative, at others obscure and so on. But, generally, they tend to be a plane where there is a relaxation of our personas and an emergence of our person. Often they are about the mundane while at times the pen wanders to think about deep questionings and at still others they are simply a record of activities. It made me question why I write letters almost compulsively but that probably is a separate post.

In an age of instant news, instant sharing, I find an almost fierce need to protect the slow savouring of thoughts that belonged to a loved friend but could be relived in the reading of a letter. Perhaps it is a result of growing older and wanting the comfort of a touch of lives through paper, a medium that is comforting. Or maybe it is a need for a physical reminder of something that transcends distance and time. Most of the letters I have received have been from friends, very few from family. In my books, friendships are probably the best among different kinds of love.

As I type this, I realize that this too has turned into a letter of sorts, perhaps a reply to that letter written on a train miles and months away from here and now. Maybe that’s what this blog is too, one long endless letter. Thank you R for your gentle, compassionate touch in my life. It has been much the richer for your radiance.

Some letters are best received much beyond their writing.

Love

S.

A perfect Thursday in January

One fine day, she rose early. The kitchen woke up under her fingers and she cooked for the day, simple nourishing food for two. Much later, she wrapped herself in cotton sunshine and went to an enchanted garden of old trees and pretty flowers. She found a pretty yellow shevanthi to call her own, a burst of happiness in a happy day.

She drank deeply of nature’s beauty and slowly found her way home. Along the way, a young friend joined her and they watched a movie they had begun a long time ago. They didn’t finish it and have made a date for Monday afternoon, away from the bustle of the city. They’ll sit below a sturdy old tree and finish what should have long been finished.

She went to say good bye and on her way back, stumbled on a delightful little patisserie. She got herself an indulgence, a perfect lemon tart with just the zing to celebrate the coming of spring. It was a perfect Thursday in January.

Wander in the woods

I met a dog on the trail today, a bounding bundle of joy who demanded love and gave it abundantly in wet doggy licks. Just the pick me up I needed. It was a bleak day and a walk seemed to be the only way to salvage something out of it. There’s no one at the time save a bunch of cricket crazy young men in a couple of clearings. So, I had the whole trail pretty much to myself.

It feels like a precious gift, this access to a patch of wild where the city fades away just a couple of hundred metres into the woods. Once I’m in the heart of this land, my life outside of it disappears and I don’t think much. It’s a sensorial experience of intoxicating wood smells, bird song, stray dog sightings and so on. In such a setting, there is no urgency of deadlines or meetings. Just a full sense of presence. I’m looking forward to getting to know the trail and its whimsies over the next few months.

Today, I hung on a branch and swung like a child, picked up a dried stick and swished it around and finally threw it as far as I could. Childlike thrills. Why do we stop playing as adults? Anyway, I walked for an hour and tentatively ran a few hundred metres in installments and the voice in my head automatically kicked in about the cadence, arms yada yada even as the rational part of my being told me to not mess up the knee. If I got hurt or couldn’t walk, it wouldn’t be easy to get back.

Long story short, the woman who entered the woods wasn’t the one who came out. I felt rejuvenated and had a spring in my step. On my way back home, I also found a coconut seller and quenched my thirst with sweet tasting coconut water. Sometimes, all you need to do is wander in the woods.

And a friend dropped off a stash of sarees, some mine, mostly hers.

A city in couplets

My poet’s out in the city
Turning it into couplets

Of people and their stories
Mostly imagined

Of trees and their lives
Mostly real

Of streets and their dramas
Mostly crafted

Of cats and their gaze
Mostly experienced

Of light and its play
Mostly seen

Of sounds and their chaos
Mostly heard

Of foods and their smells
Mostly tasted

Of seasons and their cycles
Mostly confused

Of birds and their song
Mostly enjoyed

Of trails and their meanderings
Mostly aimless

Of houses and homes
Mostly closed

Of filth and its stench
Mostly avoided

Of crime and its pain
Mostly despaired

Of lovers and their loving
Mostly hidden

Of parents and their progeny
Mostly opposed

Of beggars and their belongings
Mostly bare

Of wandering minstrels
Mostly conmen

Couplets turned out
My poet’s vanished

Inspired by an exchange with a stranger(no more) friend

“It smells like agarbatti and wood”

“It smells like agarbatti and wood”, she said.

One of the earliest mythology books I bought was Myth = Mithya by Devdutt Pattnaik. Since then, I’ve wandered into Indian philosophy and her old sciences by various authors, Indian and foreign. Those old sciences and arts still exist although what we get is the pop packaged version. It is rare to find authentic practitioners amidst the din of the internet. For an inert screen, computers and phones do make a lot of noise.

The daughter had run out of books to read and I thought it might be interesting for her to get a taste of the fantastic world of Indian mythology. She took the book and in true bibliophile style, smelled the pages. I took the book to smell too and was washed not just in the fragrance of an old book but the milestones in its age.

It lived longest in an old sheesham bookcase which also housed incense sticks from various parts of the country. Some were bought on travels, others gifted by friends. Every time I opened that cupboard, there would be a whiff of wood and smoke and it always reminded me of an old ancestral home that no longer exists. That house was deep in the hills, snug at the bottom of a green jungle, all stone and wood. I remember all too few weeks with my aunt listening to stories and watching the fireflies flit until we fell asleep. Life was simple in that way. Mornings began with the smell of black coffee and the kitchen would cough up food and smoke through the day until the embers were silenced at night. There was time for stories and aimless wandering, games in the open and books.

The sheesham bookcase was abandoned but some of the books made it through the various pages of my story. Stained, yellowed and with the binding showing signs of disintegration, these old books are uncannily similar to human lives. Fresh off the press, they are sharp and crisp and as they come in contact with hands and eyes, they start to lose some of those edges and become softer, beaten and develop age spots. Hidden between their pages, you discover old notes and cards, like the one I found in this book. It was from a colleague many years ago as she was moving on to a different role.

The past never leaves us, it circles around our present and comes up for air every now and then. Like a friend once said, we live our lives in the orbits of other people.

1969 -2019

The year was 1969 or thereabouts. 50 years ago, India would still have been very young in her freedom and quite poor but the handcrafted aspect of her everyday was rich, a living, breathing continuum of history, full of colour and flavour. A tiny part of that piece of culture wound up in a country far away marking time.

A New Yorker visited India as her friend was from this exotic land of colour and chaos. Perhaps her only visit and she might have been enamoured by the colourful sarees she saw on the women around her, enough to splurge on a few herself. Soft silk with exquisite zari work, thread work and unusual motifs, they lived half a century in the wings before winding their way to me.

I wish I knew more about that lady, her impressions and thoughts about my country as it was then. Travel in that era would not have been like it is today with app based cabs and airbnb. It would have been fraught with logistical nightmares and culture shock. I am curious to know about her relationship with M, the Indian lady who was her friend. Which part of the country was M from? What nostalgia did she bear for her country that kindled a desire in her friend? What were the seasons of their friendship and how did their lives play out?

I don’t know any of the answers and the questions still bubble over as I run my fingers over 50 year old silks in extremely good condition. Part of me wants to know and the other part is happy imagining their lives and flavouring it the way I choose. All of life is really a series of choices, moment to moment anyway and a different choice at any point could result in a different unfolding.

These sarees found their way to me via a pretty circuitous route. I opened the package yesterday and they shimmered in all their silken glory. The choice of colours would have made it just the right range for an exotic garment of an infrequent saree wearer. I wonder how many times M’s friend would have worn it and the way she might have played with it.

M’s friend would have been quite the hippie and might have worn the saree out and about in NY. I imagine a happy woman with a full throated laugh who would own a drape and make it her own. In my head, I have an image of Audrey Hepburn like elegance. These were a part of her life’s possessions and her daughter kindly offered them to me, a stranger on the internet. And just like that six yards of silk stretched across time and space to connect the lives of 4 women and an unknown number of hands who wrote poetry on silk.

Social media often gets a bad rap but it’s brought me real people and their stories, some from many miles away. Often, homes are opened and strangers like me have been privileged to break bread. And sometimes, they take the shape of stories, like this one about vintage sarees that unfolded thanks to a fellow blogger’s generosity. Thank you Caitlin for sharing a piece of personal history with a stranger.

Update:  The New Yorker in the story- that’s Caitlin’s mother Cynthia and Molly Tharyan’s friend. Cynthia wore these sarees around Toronto causing quite the scandal amongst the sedate moms in their understated and elegant pearls and cashmeres. She would have been an exotic adventurer considering she did a trip to India in a cervical collar after an ill fated dive into a swimming pool. The silks are so vibrant and full of life, colours of throaty laughter and uninhibited expression.

Half a century later, Molly has passed on, her sister and daughter lost to distance and time. Estrangement at many levels. Some wild art of me wants to see a story unfold here, it’s just a romantic’s dream. Maybe Molly Tharyan’s daughter and sister stumble upon this post via an unknown reader and connect with Caitlin. I’m not sure if that’s desirable or not but it makes for an afternoon’s worth of story making.

 

Kitchen windows

Recently, I sat at a kitchen table of a woman I had never met before. My mother’s friend, let’s call her V, is her walking companion most mornings. They go shopping together and have an easy camaraderie which reminds me of the friendship of little girls. Now V aunty (since aunty is the necessary blanket suffix used for all the parents’ women friends and acquaintances) expressed a desire to see me and so I accompanied my mom to her place. A younger me would have wriggled out of the situation but as I get older, I find that I wish to humour my mother’s wishes and do what makes her happy.

V aunty kept a spic and span home. A mildly obsessive compulsive husband helped with weekend deep cleaning so it was a joint effort. The entire house was done in dull shades of brown that kept temperatures cool and somehow had a very calming effect. At one time she was a working mother but now she’s an empty nester who carries the ache of a silent house in tired eyes. The energy she exudes though is another force altogether, one of sheer enthusiasm.

It was a hot morning when we reached her place and my mom made her way to the kitchen, a familiar practice for the two. I followed and sat at the table from where the window on the other wall was a living screen. A brilliant copper pod tree stood right outside it and the grills held a neat napkin and a basket to dry dishes. The window remained my muse through their chatter and I watched a crow come to the window for a drink of water.

Aunty V set out three glasses of the most refreshing buttermilk spiced with ginger, curry leaves and shallots for us to drink. The two of them exchanged notes about their common friends and I was content to listen to their voices wash over my mind. These women had their share of life’s struggles and at this stage still giggled like teenagers. How does age shape thoughts and actions? Would I have the lightness these women brought or would a current spell of darkness be a permanent night? The buttermilk was just the necessary distraction and aunty V was delighted to give me a refill. Something about feeding people that makes my mom and others of her generation happy.

The table brought back memories of a scarred dining table in a home I left behind, one that was an equal participant in similar conversations with a friend. That walnut table looked across the kitchen to an old silver oak which was home to a pair of crows. Maybe they were a much married avian couple quite like us humans with one doing the talking while the other sat stoically. Kitchen windows have an odd comfort, a sense of slow time that is gentle and forgiving. Writing about it, I can see myself at my usual chair looking out of that window and straying into thoughts of my dad. His presence is an unassuming one on days when I wander in quicksands of the mind.

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Looking out of that old kitchen window

There wasn’t much time to linger in fragments of the past as the two women decided to move to the living room. The windows there looked out at a beautiful mango tree. A thoughtfully designed ledge along the window sill was a cool spot to sight squirrels scampering in the compound and sparrows carrying little twigs. Maybe it is nesting season for those tiny birds. A lazy cat ambled atop the compound wall with typical feline elegance. I didn’t realize summer days as an adult child of my mother also has its pleasures.

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And saree of the day was no. 75/2019 which is the only one I haven’t managed to document for myself this year. Dug out an old picture and incidentally this one has that scarred table.

Tuesday with a shoebox of memories

A Tuesday morning spent in the company of an old shoe box with even older letters and cards.

This was written on a folded piece of paper by a friend who is a star herself. She was one of my early correspondents as I discovered how fragile and difficult adulting can be. Back then, the term didn’t exist but the suffering was real.

She died young but lived a full life of music, art and swimming with the dolphins. India was probably her soul home and she would spend 6 months at a stretch here before heading back to England.

The very last time I saw her was when she stopped by on her way home. She was quite poorly then but wouldn’t miss spending time here. As I type, I can see her bright eyes, freckled face and wisps of blonde hair bleached by the sun. Her arms were tanned and spotted with much sun and she radiated beauty.

Her letters lifted me up on days I struggled and now when I look back, I wonder what did she see in that barely 20 year old?

This particular line is so beautiful and is as true today as it was over 20 years ago. This one is for a new old sister of the heart who completes another trip around the star of our Solar System. Sending you love T, from a star in the skies. .