Home

When you are away from home, there is this unshakable feeling of being exiled. Everything feels makeshift, temporary, like an adjustment until something permanent takes its place.

I’ve been living in a flat for the past year (The one year anniversary passed by, unnoticed, as all dates tend to do in a mind that just can’t hold on to numbers). In many ways, it feels like home. I love drinking tea on the terrace steps every evening, when a slight wind blows faithfully, never failing to bring all my hair to my face. Sometimes, we go up to our terrace much after midnight, and have our deepest conversations. I feel relieved when I return from somewhere, and it feels like I am coming back “home”.

But this is temporary. The clothes hanger that dangles from a wall, collapsing from holding too much weight, the paint that scrapes from the ceiling every time it rains, the windows that don’t shut properly, the stove which stands on three legs – these don’t faze me.I am convinced this is temporary. This home is mine, for now. Next year, there will be another name on that lease.

I think of words a lot. Sunset, chocolate, love, pain, biriyani, loneliness, trees, stars – these are some of my favourites. Then I develop images around them, and watch them all pass me by, as I sit still, like a passenger in a train.. .

With the word ‘home’, the breeze immediately begins blowing. Sometimes there is a slight drizzle, sometimes not. Everything is a lush green. The guava and sapota trees are there, though they’ve been cut years ago. The neem is taller, though still slender. And the water… I can’t see the river bed, there are no plastic bags. It’s a rush of waves. I can hear wind-chimes in the distance. Then Amma places her plump, soft hands on me. As usual, they feel heavy and light at the same time. I sink into her touch. Appa is there. His smile shows teeth just like mine.  I smile back, and his eyes shine. The scene seems to last forever, like a badly directed Hindi movie. Except, even in my fantasy, the wind gets hair in my eyes.

This is my picture of home. My sisters aren’t there. Maybe it’s because now they’re exiled too, just like me.

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Creation

It’s been a while since I wrote. So far, I hadn’t thought about it. But when I found myself at the centre of a universe of books – the sort of stuff my dreams are made of – I felt a twinge of regret. Where had my urgency to write gone? Was my writing only fuelled by excessive emotion, a hot outpouring of rage, my heartbeat that refused to slow down until I had feverishly scribbled feelings I never even knew I possessed?

Other things have been claiming my time though. A one hour metro ride, for one, where I try my best to flip pages without finding my face slamming into the armpit of the person next to me, who is simultaneously holding his bag between his legs and glaring at me. Then there’s the hours at the office, which pass faster than office hours are supposed to. And then, there’s my new passion – cooking.

I’ve always known to cook. In a spacious kitchen shaded by mango trees, I’ve watched my mother gently rub an electric red paste into gleaming, silver fish. I began with washing her dishes. Slowly, from cookies that left soft sugary powder on your fingertips to chicken drowned in gravy thickened with silky coconut milk, I grew to love my time amidst the granite tabletops and sober grey tiles, with my mother’s expert fingers ever ready to fix any mistake.

It’s been a year since I’ve moved to a flat. A kitchen that fills when the three of us occupy it, my roommates and I divided cooking into three neat columns – breakfast, lunch and dinner – spanning from week to week. Sometimes, I lost the happiness I felt at home, when cooking was an indulgence, not a necessity.

Now, with my two months of staying alone coming to an end, cooking once again relaxes me. Coming back from work, strangely exhausted, I peel and slice. My hands are swift and purposeful. In the kitchen, I realize more than ever that I am becoming like my mother. It isn’t a realization that frightens me.

The oil here is a sunshine yellow, not the amber of the coconut oil Amma uses. It feels less heavy, like the teaspoon of coffee Amma used to mix with my milk when I’d told her I was too old to drink plain milk anymore. I feel strangely cheated. However, the onions quench their stinging nature in the sunshine yellow oil, seething in delight they lap up the burning liquid.

The onions are soft now. They’d taste sweet, if I took them out now. I put in the crushed garlic and ginger. The overwhelming aroma of the garlic eager to burn and stick on the pan’s surface never fails to bring a smile to my face. I inhale deeply, the smell filling my stomach more than my nose. The scent changes every few seconds, the onions are rimmed in gold, the garlic and ginger have slipped their way through every corner.

The sliced tomatoes that fall into the pan now aren’t the fiery red I’d like them to be, but the flaming green of the chopped chillis contrast with the paleness of the onion. I stir as the tomatoes shudder as they release the water in them and lose their colour. The salt goes in, and the flaming chilli powder rushes its hue throughout the pan. The paneer, white and soft, slices easily under my knife. It’s delicacy protests the spicy red gravy it’s going to be soaked in. I watch as the paneer rapidly absorbs the gravy, the surrender complete as the white leaps into shades of yellow and a sombre orange.

My mouth waters as the tip of my tongue tastes the gravy, and then swiftly licks the spoon, burning it in the process, as usual. My hands have already been marked with burgundy souvenirs from previous culinary expeditions, which unhurriedly fade into beige.

The spiciness is tempting, and for a moment I re-consider the final step. But finally, I pour in the fresh cream, and its thick, creamy whiteness gently invites the scorching red to gentler shades.

Am I not the author of this? This fills my heart too, in a very similar way to what writing does. But it leaves me full, contented, sober. Masochist that I am, I want what leaves me exhausted, panting, restless. And so, I pick up my pen again. I don’t know how quickly I’ll place it down, shuddering, but for now, I pick it up.

A Fever and a Fall

Response to Writing101 challenge: If you could zoom through space in the speed of light, what place would you go to right now?

It had been a terrible day, the kind that he hated: sticky, busy and messy. The work in the office had seemed duller than ever as the heat drenched the back of his neck and the tie choked his throat. The boss’s sexist jokes during the break seemed more unbearable than usual, and he felt tiny as he laughed dully to them. The ride back home was long and constantly interrupted by speeding cars. He expected coffee when he reached home. But when she opened the door, she told him she had been sleeping the entire day.

“I couldn’t go for work. I have a fever.”, she murmured feebly.

“I didn’t call you because I didn’t want you to get worried”, she answered his unspoken question.

He made coffee, the kind she liked: with barely any sugar and a lot of coffee powder, and brought her a cup. He stopped when he saw her huddled in her blanket, fast asleep. He realized, for the first time since they got married, that he liked being with her. He had never imagined that he could fall in love with the awkward girl he had met for the first time in the presence both their parents smiling at the match. But he ended up falling anyway. Looking at her sleep, he realized that this was where he wanted to be.

The Day My Friend Cried

Writing 101: Unlock the Mind

This post is written in context of the flood that is ravaging Jammu and Kashmir, India currently. This is a personal account of a friend’s grief. If you can contribute towards the cause, please do.

I saw her cry for the first time. The person whom I thought was the strongest in the world. The person who goes through more in a year than what I have gone through throughout my life. She cried in my arms. As her sobs travelled up her body, I felt so inadequate trying to contain her sorrow in my arms. But I couldn’t let go.

Her parents hadn’t called her in five days. She didn’t know where her sister was, or half of her relatives. Were they alive and stuck? Had they been rescued by the army? Or, was it…too late? She didn’t know. Being away from it all made it harder. It was her land that was drowning, her people that were isolated. And all she could do was cry in my inadequate arms, trying to contain the sorrow within her. There was nothing she could do. Helplessness is the most painful emotion. It compounds grief and kills fleeting moments of relief. She was helpless because she was away. She was alone because she wasn’t there.

She scans the news every day. When I sit next to her in class, I see her refresh her screen every now and then. Her eyes are constantly drawn towards the unresponsive phone, as if staring at it would make it ring. For the first time, I see that the allure of Literature has failed to seduce her. As our teacher talks about Eliot’s existentialism and Hemingway’s sparse writing style, her mind roams, refusing to be captivated by words which she’d hung on to eagerly, earlier.

I do not know how to comfort her. I hug her as tightly as I can, trying to contain the sorrow, letting her know that she’s not alone. But when she looks at me and says, “What will I go back to? Everything will have changed. When the hard earth which I can feel on my palm begins to slip away from my grasp, what is home anymore?”

I cannot answer her.

Elevator Ride

Parents have a tendency to repeat themselves, especially when they talk about their children. Her parents were no exception. When talking about her childhood, there was this one story that they always laughed at: it was about how as a baby, she would cry from the moment she got into an elevator till the moment the ride ended. She used to smile when her parents recounted this, though she could never figure out what was funny.

She still hated elevators. They were tiny, claustrophobic and stifling. She hated the wait between floors, as if the elevator was suspended in time, while the rest of the world went on as usual. She felt empty: the kind of terrifying emptiness you feel when you know that something dreadful is going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet; and you’re waiting, tired of the sickening anticipation and yet, wishing that it would never end. When people talked about souls, she pictured an elevator as its antonym: empty and enclosed. She hated elevators because they made her feel empty, even when she smiled to shake off the feeling; even when she stepped out of it.

She still took the elevator, though. In one of the magazines her mother read, she found an article which cautioned that riding an elevator was always safer for women than climbing the stairs. So she stuck to it, even though her heart quaked until she stepped out.

The day her father died, she felt like she was stuck in an elevator. She knew she was supposed to scream, to cry, to tear her hair out; but she felt suspended in time, her mind weighing her down with the anticipation of tears that would come, of emotions that she would feel. She was stuck in an elevator: empty, enclosed. She couldn’t get out. She couldn’t feel. She couldn’t cry. All she could do was wait.

Daybreak

How old she was, or who her family was, she didn’t know. All she remembered was living under the bridge with a lot of other people, and always working in the brick factory a few kilometers away from the bridge.

Though she was only a child, her eyes contained enough sorrow to fill the entire Ganges with water. She had always had a bad backache, and sometimes, violent coughing fits.There was no one whom she could call her own, Though there were many families living under the bridge, she was alone from when she could remember.

Everyday, she woke up at daybreak, when the faintest ray of light had penetrated into the inky blue night sky. She got dressed, making sure no prying eyes were on her naked body, and then, set out for work. She walked all of the seven kilometers to the brick factory. She walked fast, because being late meant a cut in the wages. On the way, she saw smiling children with their faces washed, hair combed and clothes pressed, in buses, going to school. She heard their laughter even after the bus had sped off and wondered why only the rich knew how to smile.

At the factory, she worked endlessly, carrying bricks to and fro, ignoring the pain behind her neck, ignoring the pleas of her aching heart. For lunch, she usually had a glass of tea and a slice of roti. If money was scarce, she manged with just the tea. After lunch, she worked again until the cruel sun finally rested for the day.On her way back, she would stop at a noisy shop, filled with drunk men, and ate whatever she could with what little she had. Some days, she didn’t have anything at all.

Then she returned, exhausted, and lay down, ignoring the violent nightly fights between the husband and wife near her. Sleep was her only solace. She slept undisturbed, She slept like the dead. Every night before she slept, she prayed never to wake up again. Every night, a cold wind blew to fondle this girl who was alone in the world. Every night, frost held her in its icy hug as she trembled. And every night, she slept, dreading another daybreak, dreading the cruel sun.

She hadn’t eaten for three days now. Her salary had been cut because she was continuously arriving late. Today, she had woken up earlier than usual, but her head was throbbing so much that she just couldn’t walk fast. She trudged on, hoping fervently that she wouldn’t be late.The sound of the school bus and the children’s laughter seemed distant to her. When she looked up from the ground to stare at the happy children, they seemed blurry and far away.

When she got to work, she was late again. Her manager screamed at her, “Useless scum! Get out! We don’t want lazy beggars like you here!”

She begged, pleaded and finally fell at his feet. He kicked her away, and she knew that there was no point pleading now.

She walked back slowly, She didn’t see or hear anything. All she could feel was her stomach growling for food, and her mouth crying for water. The cruel sun burned her back mercilessly.

She trudged on. Not a single tear could she shed.

When she finally reached back, the sun had rested once again. She heard the familiar fighting nearby. Her head felt too heavy and she sank to the ground. she lay down, and her body shook convulsively. Yet she couldn’t cry. Her eyes closed, but her lips moved in prayer. She prayed to no one in particular. She prayed in the universal language of the wear soul: she prayed for pure, undisturbed sleep. She never wanted to see another daybreak. She never wanted to face the taunts of the cruel sun.

That night, the kind arms of Death gently wrapped the girl who was all alone in the world. She finally got the sweet, undisturbed sleep she wanted. When she would wake up, the sun would be pleasant and warm. There would be soft grass at her feet. She won’t be hungry. Her body won’t hurt. She will be laughing like the children in the school bus. And she would never have to dread another daybreak ever again.