Not Permanent…

My parents have repainted the house that I grew up in. The walls are so pristine now, they do not flaunt the staunch tattoos of another time – pen scribbles and cello tape marks, scuffs and chips from things that moved around in another time. The furniture is mostly new too. My old desk was handed down to my cousin, the old dining table is with an uncle. There are things that were there when I was around, of course there are. The kitchen table has marks from when I left a burning candle without a holder. The dressing table in my room still has the old box with cards and gifts from those I once used to speak to, every single day. A bit of the old and the new in every room – like my parents and Miss A. Who I once was, who I am now, bits and pieces cobbled together to make a person.

The garden, it is overgrown in some parts and bare in others.

“There was a swing here,” I tell Miss A. “And a garden bed here and roses over there.”

I spent years playing hopscotch around the pathways and I used to chat into the evening with the best friend. She is gone too now, but I did get to meet her, we sat on the same step after all those calendar pages, we talked of the same things we did when we were younger and when the world was this strange place down the highway. She went home after that and as I waved goodbye, I knew I was not staying either.

Homes are not permanent. Only the times spent there are. That is the way it is for most things in life but why would childhood teach you such a harsh lesson!

My parents still talk about the day in the early hours of dawn. Outside the sky is black but a bit of pink is creeping in from underneath the doors, a bit of light is pushing against the curtains. They talk about the day that is yet to be and the day that has since been.  About the hibiscus in the gardens and the coconuts that need to be stored in the spare crates. About how the old water tank will need a new pump set soon. The winter outside their window and how two quilts aren’t enough because the weather forecast was wrong yet again. They complain of how the new teapots these-a-days have bent handles and how they need to stock up on some kind of light bulbs. About the squirrels raising a ruckus in the garden, and the back tiles that need scrubbing. It is a soft muffle, their voices, laced with sleep, in the early hours of an incorrectly forecast winter morning

Then they switch topics and talk of politics and cricket and mull over election results in some far flung north eastern state. The tea boils over in the meanwhile, in the teapot with the bent handle, and the cups go clink-a-clink. There is a scraping sound as the biscuit tin is opened and the door to my darkened childhood room opens just a little bit.

“Do you want tea?” they whisper. “It is cold outside.”

“It is 5 AM,” I grumble and disappear under the blankets.

“I could get you tea here,” my mother says. “You could go back to bed after you drink it.”

“I am in bed,” I say. “And I don’t want the tea.”

This has not changed, this bit, we have had this dialogue for years. She walks away closing the door behind her and suddenly I want the tea. But then sleep, blessed and warm, beckons and it remains unsaid and discarded, this morning wish. Tomorrow, I tell myself, tomorrow is when I shall say yes to the tea.

Like so many childhood things, like so many grand plans that never make it to the cusp of the day, that tomorrow slips away too. Some things are meant to be done later, some things come postmarked with a future date.

The garden is sleepy and agreeable in the afternoon. The air is woody and has a tang – it it smells of the cold in the way only my hometown does – it is heavy with the memories of a thousand past afternoons. The winter sun is at once plump and meagre, a marvellous contradiction of sunlight. I fall asleep on the swing this time, and the road, it stays quiet like it did when I was a child here. A bird chirps. A tap drips. A door bangs three houses down. I fall into a dreamless sleep because when you are home and safe, you do not need any other visions.

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Somewhere in the middle of the nap, I wake up to find myself covered with a blanket. Dregs of sleep in my eyes. The street still a quiet child, waiting to be given the go-ahead to talk again.

“Do you want tea?” my mother asks. She has, I suspect, been staring at me all along, waiting for me to wake up.

“Yes,” I say and her face lights up.

She brings me a cup almost immediately and we drink tea on the porch, me on the swing, still under the blanket, she on the side chair. Occasionally the swing bumps into her chair. There is nothing else to do on afternoons like this. And so we say little and yet there is such a crowding of memories.

A week later I pack my bags and Miss A’s and we cry a little bit on that same swing. There is so much to say when you part for a while, there are so many incomplete stories that beg to be finished when you open the gate to leave. Instead I joke about the garden and I fuss over the luggage. I try to pretend I am not leaving the house behind. It knows though, it has seen my pattern over the years. So I crane my neck and try to gather in the walls, the jasmine creepers, the errant hibiscus, the mango trees, the faithful swing, the neighbours with wet eyes and wrinkled palms – they all wave back, they do not break eye contact with me. It knows, like I said, the house, it knows that I will go past the bend in the road and not be back just yet. My heart sags, my throat hurts and I do not dare speak.

If they had told me that goodbye was an essential word in the vocabulary of grown-ups, I would have asked the house to hide me in one of its many forgiving nooks, I would have created a tree-house in the old branches, I would have parked inside a tent under the beds. But I am gone now and the house has stayed behind.

And one day, I shall see it again but that day is not today.

There were so many days in my childhood when I wanted to grow up and do things. Big people things, adult things, things that extended beyond the fence and the rusty gate.

Someone opened the gate and it cannot be shut again, I think my childhood escaped when I was growing up and I did not even notice.

And now, I have a key and I can go where I want to but that damned, damned key – I cannot lose it even if I want to.

Homes. Not permanent. Time. Permanent. The twitch in my heart. Eternal.

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Hope

I didn’t know her, neither did most of us. And now we never will.

She could have been my friend or yours. She could have been your neighbour or your aunt’s neighbour, the girl you saw on the bus one busy morning. She could have been the friend of the bride at a wedding next year. She could have been the person behind you in the queue at the markets, the person who ordered ice-cream at the restaurant while you placed your order. She could have been so many things. She could have been alive.

Every mundane choice that we have the luxury of today and tomorrow and perhaps after that, every damned thing we will do or not do will be an obscene opulence from now on. Because, that nameless girl has finally run out of them. I wondered what to eat for dinner and I tidied up my kitchen and I made a folder for school slips. Because I have a million choices. Because it is mostly a safe country here and the law listens and the law is alive and cases are resolved and there is a body that protects.

The law loses its battle the day it starts blaming the victim. A firefighter attitude is what we have when things fail. Only a calamity brings us together, only a blaze keeps us together.

But. A nation needs a sharp and spiteful memory. A nation should not always forget and forgive.  A nation should hold on to old wounds and guard its battle scars so that it always remember how to protect itself.

RIP dear friend, sister, daughter. I cannot promise that you will be the last. You need mountains of faith for those kinds of statements. I don’t have that belief in mankind at this moment. I cannot promise that no other girl will meet your fate because other girls probably will – it took millions of years for the neanderthals to morph into Homo sapiens. Perhaps that metamorphosis is still in progress, perhaps a million years down the line, there is hope.

I promise though that I shall do what I can to save a sister, a daughter, a woman if I see them being harmed.

I promise to listen, to make a noise.

Mostly though, I promise, that I will not give up hope so that your death is not in vain. I am not going to say that the situation won’t change in India or elsewhere. I am not going to pretend it doesn’t exist. I am not going to sigh and say my prayers and wait for peace.

I am going to live with hope from this moment because you deserved it.

Because, hope, my dear, departed friend is what kept you going.

So, sleep well tonight. Our battles have just begun.

There is hope. There is always hope. On the days, there is nothing else, there is damned and thriving and pulsating hope and the promise of a sunrise.

RIP.

Congratulations and Celebrations…

Too much of vodka and euphoria induced happiness after the ICC World Cup 2011 win means that we have no proper post today. Regular programming to commence tomorrow. 

Go watch history being made. Call up that pesky cousin you played cricket with. Drop a message on the FB page of the college heart-throb (what do you mean you ain’t friends with him/her, you gotta grow up sometime) . Make a long distance call to your grandmother or grand aunt or neighbour’s uncle. Ask people what they were doing when we won last night. Ask, because for once, we are part of the one of the greatest wins of our time. 

Have a drink on me. On all those childhood cricket games and DD TV replays. Go on now, we will meet here tommorrow.

Today is about something much greater than all of us. Today is the tomorrow we once dreamt of.

Lest We Forget…

If you are one of those cynics that think patriotism is corny, please do not read any further. I make no apologies for a lot of things in life –  being proud of my roots is one of them. I do not wage arguments with the head for things that are ruled by the heart.

Yes, I left India over a decade ago. And I love Australia and will probably not move back anytime soon. I have learnt to never say never, because life is nothing if unpredictable. But this is not about me and my journey. You leave home one day, we all do. The ties that bind are the ties that keep you going. You do not love your mother any less because you moved out of your childhood home.

In another time and another place, the 15th of August meant getting up early and dressing in house-colours for a special day ahead. On most Independence days, the temperamental Indian rains washed away the carefully marked chalk lines on the school courtyard.  Brown rivulets crisscrossed the soccer grounds and the muddy footpaths that one had to navigate if you wanted to be at school by 8:00 AM. The air was damp, the school assembly hall leaked and if there had been a storm or a power failure the night before, the loud speakers that were supposed to blare the national anthem were reduced to a whimper. Shankar, the school peon was normally in charge of getting the flowers and garlands for the dignitaries and for the photos of the freedom fighters that resided on a ledge in the assembly hall. He almost always messed it up. The freedom fighters had bouquets placed under the ledge where they presided, the dignitaries spent the day with bright yellow chrysanthemums hanging from their necks. The speeches were usually the same – history does not lend itself to variety after a while.

After the speeches, a motley group of kids sang a bunch of patriotic songs and the day’s proceedings always ended with a loud and joyful whoop that was the national anthem. The teachers handed out sugar lollies and then shepherded the kids away so that the school could be cleaned up. You walked home through the same slush and rain. Every corner store worth its salt played a medley of patriotic numbers – the lyrics of which you knew even in your sleep. A friend usually turned up for a play later. You chased her around the garden even as the Prime Minister addressed the nation, even as the old freedom fighters association marched past your house with their tinny old brass band, even as black and white footage of the freedom struggle was replayed on TV. Every year, every Independence day, the nation was born again. More vignettes from the past were added to the list of birthday milestones, more plans for the future were made.

There is no sound made when a nation grows, when a nation fails, when a nation falters or when a nation surpasses itself.  Sometimes when the friend was getting ready to head back home, the TV would recap the horror that was the Jallianwala Bagh. You would watch wordlessly, a burning knot stuck midway in your throat, a tell-tale tear poised to give it away all. You did not know who these two dimensional black and white women were, the ones that jumped into a well even as General Dyer ordered for more ammunition. They are long gone, but their screams are still a silent echo in your collective memory. You will never truly know their horror, their final moments, the shackles that brought a people to its knees and did not allow them the luxury of primal grief – there can be no greater tragedy than losing your life premptively and therefore being robbed of the dignity of your death. You did not know this then, of course. And even today, all you have is a sepia clipping of a struggle that defined your past and therefore your future.

This is not so much a day for dissecting where we as a nation faltered. There is more to us than failed roads, bad infrastructure, an ailing moral compass and dizzy visions of the future. This is not a day of stock-take, this is a day of Thanksgiving. To those that walked before us, carving a path out of the woods so that the rest of us had a chance for a journey. To those that paid with their lives, hopes and dreams so that the rest of us got a chance to get a slice of much criticized nationality back from the pawn brokers of fate. To those that tried. And succeeded. And didn’t live to tell the tale.

The country they fought for was not perfect. The people they fought for did not always want bluer skies. For all those of you that talk of your roots in such abysmally realistic terms, spare a thought for these freedom fighters who gave you that gift of luxury. Of being able to ridicule a nation because it is now yours, to have, to hold, to cherish, to mock, to denigrate, to leave, to come back to, to love and to loathe. It is a free country – you have earned the right to love it or to hate it the way you see fit. But there were those that died to give you this freedom, this choice, this opulence of an opinion.

And so I am thankful. For my culture. For being able to say that I am an Indian. For the fact that I am an offspring of the world’s largest democracy. For the fact that I can tell my child that I come from a country where we fought inch by painful inch in less than fair conditions and reclaimed our nation. For the fact that I come from a land where we do well even when we are not always happy. For knowing that no matter how bad the roads are or how late the trains are, this brown sun-swept land has enough love in her to gather me up and take me home, no matter how long I have been away for.

There are no permanent abodes for those that ventured into battle a 100 years ago for a pristine freedom they believed in – their names are now a hazy memory, their photos accumulate dust behind yellowed glass, their sacrifices accepted at the altar of a country coming to age.

To those freedom fighters, the famous one and the inconspicuous ones, the nameless ones and the ones that believed enough to fight – Thank You. From the bottom of my heart. For giving us a free home. At the cost of losing yours. Lest we forget.

Vande Mataram.