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.
Over the weeks, I’ve consciously reduced consumption of the written word, sticking mostly to study texts and work related reading. I’ve also resisted the urge to buy more books and instead finish the ones I have or reread those that call for a second reading. There’s been a withdrawal of sorts happening right in the middle of my life with everything else as is, almost a parallel living. One firmly in the world outside and the other in an inner world. Yesterday, I experimented with not writing a single word just to stay with silence. It was incredibly hard. Truly, silence is not the absence of noise, it’s the absence of thought as I read somewhere! The urge to pull out my book or screen was very compelling but I didn’t, choosing to let memory record them as mental notes instead. Maybe that’s why sleep was unsatisfactory. Perhaps, that’s a cue to work on letting go of the attachment to the act of writing?
On an average day, words are strewn about on my blogs, journals, letters etc. They number up to a fair bit, often unruly and raw. It’s almost a compulsion- this need to capture the fragments of my days, thoughts, opinions, contemplation, practice notes, scraps of imagination etc. Maybe I’m afraid of forgetting, maybe it’s a way of keeping record or then it is just a journal of my experiments in living. They are an essential part of my day. The thought of not indulging in them is uncomfortable, strange how sometimes attachment can be to things without substance. At the end of my days, will it matter what I thought or wrote? But here I am, continuing to fill pages, leaving markers of a period in time where I occupied some space.
These days when I see open spaces, there’s a sudden desire to run and disappear into its expanses for a long time, perhaps for good. And if I give that fantasy some wings, I imagine that I’d make a leap for it and somehow magically the world will close behind me as though I jumped through a portal. But that’s just the mind running riot.
Much as I love using the excuse of supplies for a long meander, it is also an ache to see a world of masked people, barricaded streets and downed shutters. Last evening, I drove out about 6km, the furthest since lock down just to get a sense of the outside world. Traffic was sparse, both human and vehicular. Cop patrols were quite visible with their loudspeakers warning the few open establishments to close for the day. An entire species is living indoors. Mostly. But there are those who fall through the cracks of having homes or even walking miles towards homes. These are the unwanted, unseen wanderers of the streets like B, the homeless man on my 10k route.
He loved crosswords and I’d see him with a pen and newspaper in the mornings. It’s still not clear how he got a newspaper every single day but he’d be busy. We’d smile at each other, sometimes I’d wave out and he became one of my visual milestones. His smile had a warmth to it. His assortment of a footpath home varied slightly with the change in seasons. Rainy days, there was a makeshift tent of sorts. Winter mornings, he would lean against a wall with a blanket around him. Towards the end of my running days, he even managed a mattress. I remember thinking he seemed truly happy. There was a certain lightness in his face and being. I was fairly certain that he could have had a different life if he chose to.
His eyes were sharp, intelligent and always had a twinkle. Although I wanted to hear his story, I never ended up stopping because I was inevitably in a rush to return home in time to get the kid up for school. And then it was too late. He died a few years ago, someone broke a bottle on his head. Wrong place, wrong time. I got to know his story from a lady who used to run a Tuesday kitchen for the homeless. She’s got quite a few stories of the streets and is someone I admire deeply. But P’s story is for another day. B used to be in the armed forces but a nasty temper ensured he was discharged. A few years later, his family threw him out. Anger has that effect, left unchecked, it ravages lives.
Yesterday, I was reminded of him when I saw another homeless man not too far from where B used to hang out. This old man wore similar dirty white pajamas and a kurta and was busy feeding the birds. It was a joyous action, his scattering feed for the birds. A little ahead, there was a man who had probably lost his mind a long time back. Barely clothed and with his hands stuck down the front of his pants, he swayed and walked as though drunk. There are many such fringe dwellers and people see through them.
One that is still very vivid is a thin, bare chested man asleep on the road with maggots in an open wound. Another recent image is of a woman with bare breasts picking off something from her saree which lay around her as I walked along a busy road one evening after class. And then this morning, amidst the beautiful trees and flowers, I saw a man wasted on the pavement, probably blacked out after a drunken spree. Addiction, homelessness, insanity make them invisible to the world, often even the cops leave them alone.
The overwhelming feeling is tenderness at such times, a desire to cover them if only to protect their selves from not being seen. And in the times of a pandemic, where do these destitute children of a tortured planet go?
Finally got down to sorting some of my old files and ended up looking at the piece below. I remember that September night which began nightly walks after dinner. They had an invisible feel about them, as though I melted into the darkness. Of course, it was not difficult to experience it as such since my clothing was inevitably dark to be as unobtrusive as possible. One phrase that kept popping up in my head through that long amble on familiar streets was the rot of prosperity. Partly due to the smells on the walk which registered dominantly as also the neon glare of shops and eateries bustling with people, spending. I haven’t been out in the night these last few weeks but if day time is any indicator, the streets will be desolate.
And letters back then were sent the old fashioned way 🙂
It’s been many months since I walked and a while since I ventured out in the night. The dark of the night is so different from the dark of early dawn. Night time darkness is weary with noise and fumes of a mindless humanity. My tree friends also remain shut for the night. They curl their leaves and sleep while I make do with jazz in my ears.
My life is silent these days and words seem familiar in their written form rather than let loose on the wind. So, I write letters. Letters to stranger friends, the ones whose words and faraway presence somehow comforted me. I write letters to my daughters which may perhaps go out from all the mothers in the world to their daughters. Today, I wrote a letter to my daughter and one of the stranger friends, a woman I haven’t met yet. They couldn’t wait until morning so I went walking to the postbox I usually frequent. The clearing time mentioned on it is 1325 hours and my letters will sit at the bottom, perhaps with other letters.
Maybe I should write a letter addressed to the postman who clears that particular box. What would I write and tell him? I don’t know. I recall a story about a postman who discovered unsent letters when he retired and was distraught at the fact. I can’t seem to remember anything beyond that point, perhaps I didn’t finish the story. It’s quite possible. I’ve lived long enough not to suffer through books that don’t speak to me. If they have words meant for my eyes, they will find me somehow.
The letters dropped, the weather pleasant and the prospect of endless hours to myself led me to amble on roads I knew so well at one time. The streets were packed with headlamps and frantic drivers all rushing to their destinations. The food carts and stalls were doing brisk business and I watched people eating without really eating. I found myself behind young couples with cheap perfume and the unmistakable musk of lust. Somewhere, there was a dead animal behind the bushes and the fetid smell of rotting garbage. There was also the fragrance of a carpet of the cork tree’s flowers. Mild, just a hint masked by the haze of pollution.
I passed parked cars with their owners playing games, a paani puri wala chatting on the phone even as he whipped up the puris in quick succession, bikers speaking with 2 people behind them. There was barely anyone without the ubiquitous cell phone, me included although mine was in my pocket and on Spotify. Even this is distraction, music.
It’s a confusing worldview, this rot of prosperity.
I woke up this morning and found myself on the floor, glasses askew, mugs and bowls, books and papers all around, earplugs entangled around my arms and a trailing saree. After an initial moment of bewilderment, I put on my glasses and remembered a longish night, laughing to Forrest Gump, nostalgic wanderings to a trail in Auroville, a midnight snack and some beautiful sketching by the youngling. There was music too that wafted to the accompaniment of moonlight and jasmine scents of a summer night.
The trashed room was actually a lovely reminder of the fullness of yesterday and its incompleteness too. It’s always the longing for what lies just a little beyond even as you go about the business of living. It’s been a very long time since my room grew wild on me like that. In the midst of a night space shared by the resident young artist and this scatterer of words, both of us acknowledged the chaos of our craft.
We produce a fair bit and then go on to produce more, scattering our babies across tables and books where we cannot quite find them. Last night I was searching for a line I had written earlier in the day and had to hunt across 2 screens, a notebook and a notepad before finding it tucked away in a blue cursive hand in a letter yet to be mailed!
Daylight comes and lifts the veil of night’s magic and last night was pure enchantment. Right from the moon peeking behind clouds, the intoxication of night blossoms in my balcony garden and a shared space of music, art and words to the delight of a favourite film on my screen. I could have died then and it would have been a lovely celebration of living.
Yesterday’s blog rumination prompted a repeat of the movie and it was just as sentimentally sweet now as it was the first time I saw it. It almost seems blasphemous to savour the days of slow living and helpless creating when a pandemic has wreaked havoc. In the midst of this island of companionable silence, there’s also the din of volunteering which brings up stark realities of hunger, abuse and opportunistic tendencies. Inevitable. As my friend AJ says, it is what it is.
And so I straddle two worlds of completeness and endeavour.
Earlier in the day, very early on in fact, the mind settled on a single word as a cue for the day. In the course of exchanges with a friend, the word cropped up a few times lately and yesterday as I watched the bougainvillea curve into a dip under the weight of violently pink flowers, it settled into an easy prompt. Often the word stays fluttering behind my mind’s curtain until threads start to appear and I can begin to weave it into a poem or a snatch of prose. There is no purpose save to see where a word or thought might go left on the wind. And then, it gathers unto itself something of an energy to become a piece that is self-sufficient. It mostly writes itself with very little intervention from my end, save a little rearranging like one might attempt with flowers in a vase.
Curve was meant to be the word today until I was asked, “Do you see your writing as an end in itself?”
I suppose so. It wasn’t always so. Even now, sometimes it slips into a means rather than an end but that is reserved for my journals.
For many years, I didn’t consider myself a writer simply since I did not publish anything (blogs didn’t really count). I still haven’t done so. It was mostly in the nature of unpacking thoughts that would refuse to go beyond a point in the mind or then to capture a moment or how it felt or appeared. These remained private, anonymous and a way of making sense through the years. The form it took was mainly entries scribbled in journals and the odd poem or a patch of prose. These have been scattered in papers, notebooks, screens and pretty much anything that could be a writing surface. They’re coloured with the textures of my days and in retrospect I see changes that have happened as well as an intrinsic basic nature. It was and continues to be a way of discovering myself and allowing the thoughts to flow. These have led to explosive breakthroughs although the intent was never about using it as a means. The outcome just seemed to happen. I burnt my journals written until the age of 27 when I decided I didn’t want to look back. There are some old letters that I had written which have survived and somehow happened to fall in my possession.
Blogging was a tentative exploration and the initial few were to save my words somewhere lest I lose the papers in the process of moving homes many times. A few years ago, I decided to document my running journey as a means to keep me accountable to myself and discovered that it became an accompaniment to the sport. Running fed the blog and vice versa. I also discovered the joys of having someone read what I wrote. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that they connected enough for a two-way conversation.
Yoga came back to my life soon after and another blog was born and the two were primarily to document my journey so that another who might struggle with these things as a beginner might benefit. I also discovered my voice and that of others who began to read those musings. It was just a way to document my personal experience, subjective as it might be. Running was lost after a few years and around the same time, sarees made a re-entry into my life and through them, an entire world of memories. I found that the humble piece of clothing that had been a staple when I was younger also became an anchor for musings, mostly quiet reflections about the mundane every day. Maybe a witnessing of living in the now and how it has never quite been too far away from the past and the future. Lately though, that is also dwindling and I find myself withdrawing into the format of a letter.
Perhaps, it is a way to reclaim time, find a pause and release where instant communication is the norm. Does an experience cease to have significance if it is dated? Letters make it possible to pause in the present to share of myself in the moment and send it into an unknown time and place. I like the act of writing to one person and that is how I like to relate to the outside at present. The appeal of this format lies in its dispatch, once gone it is truly gone from my memory until a reply, if and when it came, jogged some of the contents. It also feels natural considering that it used to be a way of sharing myself as a very young adult, long before the time of facebook and texts. Of course in these days of a pandemic, I take pictures and send them on since the postal service has been disrupted.
Now, the three weave in and out of each other and their boundaries are blurred. And in a sense it has become a practice, much like my yog sadhana, a continuous striving with no end in mind, just the act of endeavouring. Call it a studentship maybe? Occasionally, there are aha moments when a sentence or a pose come together effortlessly but that’s nodded at, acknowledged and it’s back to working on the art.
Writing for me is an intensely solitary act of silence. It feels like painting in a sense, brush strokes of a present truth that are rarely edited simply to keep the truth of the moment of its birthing, both conscious and unconscious. There are crafted pieces too but the spontaneous fragments remain my favoured children. Most of what finds its way as a complete picture or a profile of one are raised from a pool of rememberings, colourings and learnings. It is a sum of all I have experienced, imagined or heard. There used to be a time in my younger days where I feared that all the thoughts were already thought, all the beautiful sentences had already been written before. I feared having my words resemble that of other writers and not being original but that perhaps was an insecurity of an immature writer. Writing just for myself released me to let the words flow through me as they deemed fit.
If I had to have a framework for my craft, it would be Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Simplicity and restraint are the checks that I like to use in language. As much as writing is for my pleasure, it also gives me happiness when others respond to what I write from their own recollections. The biggest joy is when young ones find something useful and beautiful and true in my words.
So, why then do I write?
I write to wrap a hint of myself in the act, an act of ego perhaps, to mark this blip of a presence.
I write because I feel through words all that I may not necessarily be able to experience.
I write because there is pleasure in seeing words come together to create something familiar and new at once.
I write because the act of writing is a deeply sensuous one, an act of giving completely of myself.
We’ve crossed the halfway mark of the lockdown. It seems an uncertain world that we will emerge into whenever this forced isolation is over. What is certain though is that art created in these times, splashing a canvas with fears and desires across all kinds of media, will remain. Decades from now, a future generation will read about these times like we do about the ages gone by of older wars and plagues.
These days hand written letters have morphed into images sent electronically
A couple of nights ago, I had fallen off to sleep and then gotten up with a start. So, I thought I’d work on some writing when your sister came by. She craves company and says that she is like a bug to my light. It’s a cute analogy. For me though, at writing times, I want silence and complete isolation. I don’t like having anyone nearby. Long story short, I didn’t end up writing but indulged her drawing whims.
We spoke for a long while and she sketched me, I really like the picture. Sending it to you so you can see what I mean. She is gifted and doesn’t quite know it. That’s probably the best place to be as an artist. Perhaps someday, I might ask her to make illustrations for books I will write. Through my writing, I have started to discover myself and explore beyond the edges of what I thought I knew. It’s been exhilarating, this deluge of discovery. But that’s for another day when I get to see you in person, my love.
It’s late and I’m tired. My mind’s ranged universes today and I have no wise words or thoughts for us to ponder, just this little slice of my today. And a very big I love you.
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.
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.
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.