Journey through life

Time and again, she stopped. Sometimes, she had reached a crossroads… at other times, a roundabout. But today was different. Today, there was no way forward. she was staring at a dead-end. There was no turning to be turned. And definitely no circles to run.

She looked back at the path that had led her here… one that so many army nomads like her had walked before… traipsing around the countryside, a newborn strapped to their backs, a dream tucked away in their hearts… a track through wilderness. It wasn’t an easy stretch at all. She had plodded through streams and climbed up slopes, tumbled over stones… and yet, her footprints barely showed through the mud and gravel and grass.

Her sigh lingered for a moment longer than she had thought it would. Was it regret for every dream she had allowed to fade… or gramercy for how fortunate she had been all along? She remembered sending work files over a dial-up connection when remote working was not even a word, and who returned to work after a career-break?! At every turn, friends, colleagues, bosses had held her hand. And yet, here she was again… wondering what next.

The wave of gratefulness receded… leaving in its place a damp mood. There was a time when life had been full of possibilities. So much that could have been, and yet so much that had simply fallen by the wayside… An annoying little voice grated in her mind, ranting about a life gone waste. It mocked her, derided her, made her feel so utterly worthless.

‘We all walk our own paths dear girl…’ Aai had said. ‘Your journey is no less important because you didn’t leave a blazing trail. I can’t tell you if the routes you have chosen will lead you to places of glory… But there will be plenty of times, when doubt will seize your mind and darkness will descend… When that happens, think of the magnificent valleys you stumbled into and the spectacular views from the peaks you climbed. And celebrate your journey, because you had the courage to take a step forward when you hardly could see…’

She closed her eyes. Aai was right. Before she could dig and claw her way ahead, she needed to think of happier places… of a moment frozen in time… And of those, she had many.

Journey of life
Through wildflowers and grass
Warm memories

This post is a part of BlogchatterA2Z 2022.

Pic sourced from https://unsplash.com/@madebyjens

The hegemony of clothes

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

‘Clothes are a code.’ The old lady points knowingly towards my uncovered legs. Barely ten, I am already too tall for my age. Aai understands something much beyond my grasp and averts her gaze. Her cheeks are slightly pink from embarrassment. I have never seen my fiery mother like this. Curiously I stare at the old lady sitting next to us in the women’s clinic. 

She has dropped the knotted corner of her billowing farrashia, so her face is visible now. But the younger woman with her is still wrapped in the white sheet, leaving only one eye uncovered with which to see the world. I wonder who she is shielding her face from now that she is out of the harsh summer sun… for that’s what my friend from school told me. Her elder sister Maha has stopped coming to school and now covers herself with the white sheet on the rare occasion that she steps out, and never without her father or brother.

‘Do you think she can breathe inside that tent?’ I ask Aai in Marathi.

‘Don’t stare. It’s rude.’ Aai’s face is expressionless. She looks straight ahead, lest the old woman thinks that we are talking about her and her companion; which we are… but I don’t think Aai would appreciate me pointing it out.

‘But she is still staring at my legs. That’s rude too.’

‘Shall we stop at the hymermart on our way back? You can pick out some nice trousers for yourself.’

‘Bell-bottoms? Pink ones?’ I am already super-excited. Aai laughs and nods a yes. Distracted by the thought of pink bell-bottoms, I forget about the disapproving looks my bare legs are receiving.

It is only years later that I understand what the old woman was alluding to. There is no age when your legs, arms, face, body are not sexualized.

Are you worthy of

Dignity and respect, girl

Clothes alone can tell

Women themselves participate in setting up the hierarchy of domination and denomination. Clothes are the first step towards exerting control over another woman’s body… towards limiting her to a constricted role within this politics of class, wealth, culture and more importantly gender.

No matter how it looks in different cultures… it is still the same. It could be the farrashia covering women from head to toe… It could be the corset that leaves nothing to imagination…

A complex subject for sure… I will return to it later… perhaps do a series of posts. But for now, I understand that clothes are a code.

This post is a part of BlogchatterA2Z 2022.

Gulliver and me

Image from Wikimedia

Faraway, in another time, was a place called Childhood.

A magical place it was for sure… with twisting trees and rising roads… toad-stool seats and round fairy doors… built between stacks of books. Little men and women lived there, burrowing between pages, where anything could happen anytime. It all depended on which book one chose to open. Dragons breathing on some days, elephants flying the next!

Then one day, the little girl bumped into a shiny new book. The cover was a bright red, and its name was embossed in gold… Gulliver’s Travels. She loved the name. She loved to travel, especially during her summer holidays. It didn’t matter if she was sitting in the back of their green car, or sailing bravely to places that existed only in books.

She traveled with Gulliver to Lilliput and then to Brobdingnag! The words were so fantastical that she felt the tug on her hair, when each strand on Gulliver’s head was fastened strongly to the ground, feeling helpless when he could not move his hands or legs. And in Brobdingnag, she was filled with dread when the eagle flew away with the box, with her and Gulliver still inside.

Of all the books she read that summer, she chose to keep Gulliver’s Travels in the Forever Shelf in her mind, flipping through the pages now and then as the years passed by.

They say, time takes away everything… and so it took away that place called Childhood.

The little girl now lived in a world called Real Life. Navigating its alleys and lanes was fun and exciting at first, but soon she realized that people in Real Life were not very different from the Lilliputians, who lived inside the pages of that Red Book in the Forever Shelf. And with every passing day, she felt more and more helpless, straitjacketed into the inane rules set up by the small humans filled with pretensions and self-importance in Real Life. And although they were not like Lilliputians to look at, these perfectly normal-looking Real Lifers were just as small on the inside, consumed by greed and jealousy and moral ineptitude.

She grew tired of Real Life, wishing for an escape to somewhere better. ‘There has to be Some Place where people are without malice… where people will recognize and appreciate my knowledge and skills.’ She thought time and again. Slowly, her contempt for the Real Lifers grew. She felt she was better than most everyone around. The bumptiousness grew and grew, until one day, Gulliver took her to Brobdingnag, into the dark recesses deep inside her own mind. There, the mirror could only reflect her feet of clay.

Seeing her own ordinariness made her feel like she was sinking. She struggled with the storm in her mind… Fighting off the world around her… trying to escape the predictability of her ordinary life. But there was no Some Place. So she built a Maze.

The Maze was a beautiful place too… not as beautiful as that faraway place called Childhood. But here she could burrow even deeper into the fantastical words and mind-boggling worlds that could not really exist… or could they?  

Lost between pages
A silent summer of peace
The best place on Earth

This post is a part of the #BlogchatterA2Z2022.

An Extinct Past

We have left the squat, flat-roofed houses of Homs city far behind now, and the car is cruising comfortably along the serpentine road bordering the sea. Aai picks out a tape from the many she has brought along on the trip. Its her favourite… an assorted Rafi. She starts singing along. In the back of the car, I sigh happily. It is the perfect start to our summer holidays.

When the car finally slows down, my brothers and I tumble out, anticipating an empty beach where we could swim and play all day long. Instead, we are staring at a sight unlike any other we have ever seen. Juxtaposed against the shimmering blue of the Mediterranean Sea are the towering ruins of Leptis Magna.

Carved figurines and ancient motifs are everywhere, watching us as we follow the young guide through empty cobbled streets; medusa heads stare stonily from crumbled walls. For a while, I try to imagine the children who must have run through the endless lines of pillars once. What battles were fought here? What tragedies wrought? I listen keenly to the inflections of the young man’s voice, as he drones on in Arabic, throwing in a few words of English. I cannot understand him, or the history. Losing interest, I wander off.

The whispered words are startling… floating in waves to the edge of the amphitheatre where I stand. ‘… the pygmies were made to fight crocodiles here.‘ I look back but there is no one. Am I imagining them? ‘…they were slaves mostly… captives… unarmed.’ The words are fragmented by silence. But they have shocked something deeply primeval inside me. I strain to hear more, thirsting for gory details… no different from the frenzied spectators lusting for blood and death.

A statue of Hercules, buck-naked, scrutinizes me impassively from his high perch. Behind him, the fallen arches and the perfectly chiselled steps are stained by centuries of salty moisture. 

Marbled arches stood

Protruding like exposed ribs

From an exhumed tomb

Once an important Roman city, Leptis Magna was discovered in the 1930s. Only partially excavated, it is the best preserved of the seven world heritage sites in Libya, and a fine remnant of Roman architecture.

Colonnaded streets, piazzas, triumph arches, public baths, gymnasium, basilica, an amphitheater built in A.D. 56, are just some of the archaeological remains that can still be seen.

The port city ceased to be a commercial centre after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, and fell into ruin. For more pix, click https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/183/gallery/

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z2022.

Do leave a comment to let me know if you enjoyed it. Or not.

Once was my city

It used to be a charming, little city, with old trees lining its sleepy roads. A sense of familiarity floating in the air, and a genteel, if predictable, demeanour of modest living.

Where has that friendly place – which could listen with equanimity to the voices of dissent and to the voices of reason – disappeared? Who are these rowdy, greedy, intolerant fanatics that have ripped apart the civilized serenity that lived in my city, once?

Once was my city

This city
Which was once my city
Now
Feels like a stranger I bumped into
At one time
He would have
Gathered his papers
And I
My purse and specs and the keys
From the ground
A gentle apology
Exchanged
Before we went away
Now
I will be wary
Of airing my thoughts even
In this city
Which was once my city
Lest
They bump
Into someone
And he whips out a gun
And
Silences
The voice of reason
Just because
He doesn’t like
The sound of it
Reverberating
Through this city
Which
Once was my city.

Jyotsna Atre

This post is a part of the Blogchatter A2Z challenge

Feed it to the fire

Photo Courtesy: https://unsplash.com/@hip_dinosaur

It was so long ago, but she remembered it still. A pile of wood stacked sky high in front of the house, waiting to go up in flames. She watched as women in silken fineries circled it, worshipped it, offered specially made sweets to please the Gods in an act of penance, an easy way to scorch the demons that consumed the soul.

And always, from her charpai in a corner of the aangan, Dadi would summon her… ‘Feed the fire!’ She would say in a voice filled with urgency.

‘Did Dadi see herself in me? Was she trying to save me from a future that spoke of the past? Had she seen my downfall?’ The woman wondered.

Feed it to the fire

She walked towards the fire
That was now leaping towards the sky,
Flicking a thousand orange tongues
To satiate its burning appetite.

“What will you feed it?”

She could hear her grandmother ask.
And just like that, she was six again,
Chanting the words over and over,
Until they finally were branded on her brain.

“Greed… and jealousy…
Anger… and hatred…
Selfishness… and…”

“And…”

Even today, she didn’t want to say the word,
Although she remembered it rather well.

“Something that means I shouldn’t think
I am smarter or prettier or better than anyone else.”

“Is there a word for it, little one?”

“… but I am Gramma!”

“You are what, little one?”

“Smarter, prettier and better.”

“Such a tiny being and such ego.”
The old voice quivered.
“Feed it to the fire, little one. Or
You’ll be your worst enemy. Feed it to the fire…”

She stood there,
Intently watching the flames,
That had the power to destroy,
That had the power to cleanse.

Tomorrow,
Her ego intact,
She would start afresh.

Jyotsna Atre
April 07, 2021

This post is a part of the Blogchatter A2Z challenge

Death of a dialogue

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@travisessinger

Memories are a constant dialogue in our minds, reminding us of the years gone by in vivid colours, smells, sounds, fleeting touches… They are snapshots of our entire lives from birth until…

But what happens when memories begin to fade away, leaving white spaces where colour used to be? When silence echoes where sounds used to be? When we can talk with our memories no more? When the mind is emptied of its thoughts and its conversations with the past die…. stripping even the most brilliant, the most creative minds of the rich tapestry that they spend their lives weaving.

And what happens to those who love you when they see themselves die in your memories?

Death of a dialogue

The vacuous eyes, the empty stare,
The way the doctor said it’d be,
Her mind is shutting down,
She is losing her memory.

The memories in my head,
They don’t chatter anymore,
And when I try to remember,
I wonder what I’m looking for.

I push back a loose strand of her hair,
‘I am here, Ma! I say,
A fleeting flicker of recognition, and
The blank stare again. She just looks away.

I wonder who you are,
I wonder why you stare,
I wish you’d keep quiet, and
Please don’t touch my hair.

‘Tomorrow she’ll remember,
Don’t you worry, honey.’
But why can’t I believe,
What you are saying Daddy?

Someday, I hear voices from faraway,
Ma singing a lullaby, sitting next to my bed,
The baby gurgling happily,
When Daddy held her above his head.

‘Do you need something dear’?
Dad is trying his best.
I can see he is tired,
At his age, he too needs some rest.

The hands in my lap look so wizened,
And my bones feel frozen and cold,
I want something to keep me warm,
But I can’t think of the word for what keeps out the cold.

Do you remember Ma,
When I burned your favourite cake?
Do you remember how we laughed
And you told me I should never try to bake’?

That woman who holds my hand every day,
I think I know who she is,
We played together once, and shared secrets
Can you tell me her name, please?

Shall I play your favourite song,
The one you always loved to sing?
The one about flowers and birds,
When it was time for Spring?

Why do I feel so confused, so weak, so lost…
Why do you hold my hand?
Who are you? Do I know you?
And why do you keep calling me Ma?

Jyotsna Atre
April 05, 2021

This post is a part of the Blogchatter A2Z challenge

Packing away the memories… One box at a time.

Every two years, I pack my house in large wooden boxes, painted black, and neatly labelled with a code that tells me exactly what each one holds… K18, for example, has all the expensive crockery that will come out, when friends in the new station bring cheer at the housewarming party, and then for the many lunches and dinners that I will host thereafter.

Labels don’t always work though. M7 holds, among other junk, a large number of curtains that hung around a colonial bungalow with a humongous 37 windows and 9 doors! In the 17 years since, I never could use all of them together again. First, because I never got to live in such a grand bungalow again; and then eventually, I tired of them and had new ones stitched. Then why haven’t I thrown them away yet? Because they are not just curtains, you see… They are a precious memory. That house is where my son was born.

Many other things spill out as I painstakingly go through the contents of each box once again… some I can fit into the modest 3 bedroom house… like the Buddha head that I came across in Kalimpong. Others must be stowed away only to be seen two years from now, when it will be time to call a new place ‘home’, and do it up with the enthusiasm of a young bride… which I clearly am not!

Its a strange life we lead…

With memories in boxes, and years that we count, not in numbers, but by places, (with tongue-twisters for names), where we lived…

In houses we call our own but will never have again… And gardens that we plant for people who will walk in them after us…

Sharing a laugh with friends knowing we might never meet again, but who will become my family in the two years I will spend with them.

C’est la vie… eh?