I hope you are well. I am having a big nostalgia party for one in my room. I have been looking back at my social media presence and revisited Quora. I have to admit that my old self (from four years ago..hmm..) embarrasses me so much that I can’t do much other than laugh. But. there is the occasional answer which makes me feel like I am reading something written by me and now some loony going off on a rant. Here is one such answer I really, really like:
Question: What were you born “too late” for?
Answer: I was born too late to enjoy the sheer joy of communicating solely through post. As a snail-mail enthusiast in the 21st century, there are times when I weep about the indifference that the people in my life exhibit when I send them a letter or a postcard (‘Yeah, thanks but couldn’t you just text me instead?’). I have been fascinated with the idea of receiving post three times a day (three!), collecting postmarked stamps and decorating special envelopes.
There’s no denying the comforts of instant messaging, but then there’s inexplicable charm in reading someone’s words from a paper that they specifically sit down to write for you.
Question: You are now the main character in the last book you read, who are you?
Answer: I’m Sabine Strohem from Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock. I can see the artwork of a man named Griffin Moss and I start writing him postcards and letters to let him know how I’ve been observing his work for years.
He thinks I’m a figment of his imagination – a muse he created out of loneliness. I’m not, as one finds out towards the end.
I love, love, love this book.
Question: How would the world be different if everyone were exactly like you?
Answer: Oh, this is interesting.
If everyone ended up being like me, the postal services around the world would be at the top of their game. Everyone would love snail-mail and write exaggerated letters describing how the weather is on a daily basis.
Postcards will be exchanged when on holiday. Birthday parcels will be sent in ornately decorated fashion over the post. Oh, and speaking about birthdays. Everyone will end up gifting everyone else books. More often than not, it’ll be books from their own shelves (adds a personal touch to it, I say).
Question: If you could meet your parents as children with the opportunity to be the same age and become their friend, would you?
Answer: Oh, I would have absolutely loved being my mother’s friend in the circumstances mentioned here. From what I hear from her school and college friends, she was a really cool person. Well, not in the conventional sense. Let me explain.
Had Mamma and I met when we were both 8 years old, I would have probably avoided her because eight-year-old me was into cartoons and soap operas while eight-year-old Mamma had read Maxim Gorky’s Mother. Had we met at 15, I would have liked nothing better than my mother as a friend who would have helped me out through the bullying (she was, in all honesty, the person who helped me out when I was 15).
Oh, it would’ve been absolutely wonderful studying with her, exchanging reading lists, attending political rallies, fomenting for feminist policies, et al. I haven’t missed out on this with my mother but it sure would have been awesome to have that experience with someone who was closer to my age.
P.S. I still think it would be damn nice to be able to write letters and postcards for special occasions. Cannot wait for the lockd-own to lift so that I can go to the GPO in Mumbai.
I was going through my (nearly dead) Quora page and it is such a hoot! It has been fun looking back at my (frankly idiotic) thoughts and ramblings. I do believe it’s best to look back at your old self and laugh every once in a while. Especially if your old self was super cringy (well, I was!) But, one thing caught my eye and that was a poem I put up by Vikram Seth for a question asked about Indian poets. I have always, always been in love with a particular brand of poetry that Seth specialises in. Perhaps you’d like it too:
All you who sleep tonight
far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
and emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
and some for all their years.
Would you look at that? Isn’t that absolutely beautiful? I cannot wait until we’re allowed to step out freely into our neighbourhood and just be there for hours and hours.
Our (thankfully continuous) supply of fresh veggies and fruits leads to us binging on fresh juices and fruits. What are you doing to keep busy whilst in quarantine?
The call for evening prayer could be heard over the noisy city of Bastan. Cars moved sluggishly in never-ending lines on the dusty roads. Street hawkers called out to the pedestrians, inviting them to sample their dishes or stop for a cup of tea.
Young boys lugging around their wares set up little stands and arranged their merchandise on display. The sequined skirts, bright scarves and boxes of jewellery lit up under the naked bulb that hung loosely from the frame of the makeshift shop.
The whole of Masjid Road was wafted with the delicious smell of freshly made snacks – crispy samosas, flavoured bread pakoras and mint chutney to go with it. A small commotion surrounded Sadiq’s stall whose famed samosas were known to bring even the Nawab of Lucknow to his handkerchief-sized dingy. The hot oil hissed while he put in a new batch of the delicacies to fry. Once evenly golden, he strained the samosas and put them out to cool before he wrapped them up into newspapers for his customers to take home.
The market place had opened for business. The polite demands for bargain were met with courtly refusal – leading to more pleadings or hostility. The occasional buyer could be heard reminding the sellers that they were indeed regular customers, and making promises to introduce their friends to the exotic carpets on display.
People whirred past, making their way to the buses, trains and tongas that connected Bastan to the rest of the Province. The odd pedestrian who stopped abruptly was reprimanded, “In the name of Vishnu, why have you stopped in the middle of the road, you oaf?” The distant Aarti – Hindu prayer where people wore vibrant saffron and chanted in unison with the low thumping of the drums – the clear ringing of the temple bell, and the rhythmic clapping of the hands could be heard faintly.
Amjad sat in his master’s car that was parked a little distance from Sadiq’s shop. With his boss, Mr. Khanna in a meeting, it would be past 10 o’clock before he reached home. He looked in the mirror to find a pair of glassy eyes staring back at him- expressionless and tired. He massaged his temples with his cold fingers. His eyes and throat had dried up, preventing him from crying or talking. The lines on his forehead furrowed into his face. He had been a handsome young man with a shy smile playing around his lips. The days of his youth – not that he was old yet- belonged to a time that felt so far away that it strained him to think of it. He was certain it was yesterday that his daughter was born – a happy infant who had looked around the room with keen wonder. He looked at his little finger that she used to hold while walking with him in the bazaar where they bought the week’s groceries. He would take her to Sadiq’s shop to buy her a tiny samosa that was specially made for her.
Time had played its mysterious tricks on him – decades flew by before he realized his little girl wasn’t quite little anymore. His wife was the one who had broached the subject of their daughter’s wedding. “What nonsense, Shazia! She’s still a little girl. Surely you don’t think now is the right time to look for a groom!” he remembered telling him wife.
It was a few years later that his daughter, Namrah, spoke to him about it herself. He bought her wedding dress with the advance pay that Mr. Khanna had given him that year. Unbeknownst to his wife, Amjad dabbed a kerchief to his eye when his daughter left for her matrimonial home. The gloom that had spread across the sky when his daughter had left was similar to the melancholy that hung in the air that evening. The moon was faintly showing against the sky which was turning inky blue.
When Amjad walked to Sadiq’s shop, he was immediately recognized. Sadiq asked his nephew – a careless boy of fifteen who looked longing at the frying oil and forgot to flip the pakoras even as they burnt – to handle the customers.
“I’ll be back after the prayers, boy. Do be sure to turn off the stove,” he said hurriedly as he washed his hands and wiped them on the towel in the back of his shop. Away from the heat of the cooking and into the cool air, Sadiq looked at his troubled friend and embraced him. Wishing God’s peace upon each other, they spoke of the events of Amjad’s day. He had woken his friend up from his afternoon siesta to ask him of the whereabouts of Amir, the travel guide in Bastan who arranged people’s pilgrimage to Mecca. A groggy Sadiq replied that he hadn’t the faintest idea.
“Sadiq, my brother, he ran away with my savings for Hajj.”
The bed that Sadiq slept on squeaked as he jumped out – his eyes wide open in terror.
“In the name of God, tell me you are not serious!”
“I promise you, Sadiq. I looked at his shop and didn’t find him there.”
Sadiq had asked his friends to look for the man at his home only to find that he had packed everything except for the lock which bolted his door and left for the west winds. A search for hours led to nothing fruitful for no one knew where or when he left. Amjad drove his master to his afternoon meeting and waited for word from Sadiq. By evening, when he returned, there was a small pool of people who had gathered outside Amir’s office. Each haggard face bore a look so distraught that it scared Amjad to look at a mirror lest he see the same expression on his face.
When someone had hinted that Amir had run away with the money, Amjad felt his knees give away. His eyes tore open. He kneeled on the ground with his face in his hands. When he told his wife, he saw the colour drain from her face. She put her cloak around him and cried in anguish. It had taken both of them years and years to save the money for pilgrimage. After the repayment of the loan they had taken for their daughter’s wedding, they had made it a priority to set aside funds for the journey. Amjad’s wife cried and consoled her husband. She covered him in her cloak and embraced him while he stood next to her, shivering. It was a while before she sat down on the carpet with a look of shaken disbelief. She put her head down and the soft fabric bore the stains of her tears. Soon enough, she lay down in exhaustion and fell into dreamless sleep.
Amjad made his way to the beckoning call of prayer. His feet washed, he walked on the cool floor and joined his fellow brothers as they bowed in the direction of the holy shrine. He felt the noise of the city drain away as he lay prostate in reverence. His palms outstretched in devotion, he chanted his favourite verse:
And be patient. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.
Mrs. Roy stood in front of the mirror and adjusted the butterfly brooch to pin it in the centre of the scarf around her neck. She had worn her best dress and a matching sweater on it. She brushed her damp hair while glancing out of the window. Soft balls of snow fell on the backyard that had gone barren in the cold.
In the distance she could see the apple trees in the farm that belonged to her neighbours, Mrs. and Mr. Sharma. They were the only real friends that Mrs. Roy had had for the last eight years after her husband’s death. She had felt bitter and lonely when her husband had died. Days of silence followed the hours of weeping. She had woken up at odd hours to find herself crying from a nightmare. For a fortnight, the only human noise in the house had been her loud wailing, for there was no one to talk to. At some blessed hour, Mrs. Sharma would come to her house. She’d wear her warm smile with her colourful laced salwaar-kameez. Mrs. Sharma had possessed a sweater each to match every piece of clothing she owned. Twice a month, for eight years, Mrs. Sharma–or Pinky, as she preferred to be called – brought a casserole full of pulped sweetened mangoes and hot puris (Indian breads that are deep-fried and sprinkled with flavour). Mrs. Roy was always surprised at the consistency of Mrs. Sharma’s appearance at her doorstep.
Mrs. Roy placed a shabby hat on her head as she looked for her glasses. She made sure she had turned the knobs and switches and locked the door behind. It had been a pleasant morning in Nainipolk, Friospur Province, British India.
‘Ye Gods, make it snow harder or don’t let it snow at all,’ Mrs. Roy thought.
She turned left from her gates and walked the long road uphill. The Sharmas were probably sitting down for breakfast because she could smell a myriad of delicate spices filling her nostrils. It made her feel bad about the leftover jacket potato she had for breakfast with a cup of weak tea.
All the houses in the neighbourhood had glass windows and withdrawn curtains to let the dazzling rays of the sun pour in. Mrs. Roy walked uphill slowly and made her way to Arthur Road and turned right. The trees on either sides of the road made a marvellous canopy. A sudden chill went down her spine as she walked some more. Her rheumatic right knee was starting to act up. For a fleeting moment, she felt bad about stepping out at a time when she knew no one would be able to help her should she need any assistance. At other times, there would be schoolboys in blazers, trousers and layers of sweaters, playing cricket or pulling out the grass. Some girls would sit down with their friends and bite into crunchy apples as they whispered and giggled. In the evening, mothers with tired arms full of apple-filled baskets would usher their children back home.
Mrs. Roy willed her legs to continue for some more time. She could see the yellow gate of the children’s park from a hundred yards away. She could feel her legs giving up with exhaustion, but she continued. She held on to the icy cold metallic gate for some support. She gasped for breath and looked at a park bench near the swings. The seat of the bench had accumulated snow overnight and shone brightly as icicles had formed on the armrest.
She placed a velvet handkerchief on the bench and sat on it. She looked around the park and found snow covering all the rides and on the ground. The only pretty things to watch were the twenty-foot tall pine trees in the backdrop.
She noticed how the dreadful cold was catching up to her bones quickly and looked over at the pine trees. She longed to be in the warmth of the jungle, but knew that she couldn’t walk there. She glanced at the empty seat on the bench adjacent to hers.
And, for the first time in the fortnight, she spoke, “So this is what it feels like. Cold, and yet, promising.”
It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read this story I had written. As might have been evident, there was a lot of pain and sorrow in the backdrop of the story, but I am happy to report that it has also brought me some joy. This is the short tale that won the first prize in the St. Paul’s International Literary Prize in 2015 for the English category. If you are keen, check out the website.
Lots of love,
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
“I live with my brat in a high-rise flat
So how in the world would I know.”
-Roald Dahl, found in my book of poetry from junior college