Conversations

Sometime this week, I took a long and hard look at myself in the mirror and really noticed the difference. It was the first time I saw the way my face has changed over the years….how subtle, soft lines are starting to form around my eyes and mouth. How my eyes tell the truth, right down to my core. It was the first time I noticed that my hair falls a bit differently than it did when I was younger. How I am more prone to letting it fall naturally than to straighten or curl it. How I no longer feel the need to hide behind a smokey eye. Yes, I can now feel the actual shift and the whole idea of ageing.

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” Women should be like ornaments Majoni, like flowers, soft and fragile…beautiful. Go check the old albums, my hair was so immaculate and my skin so flawless. My daughters are a work of art too. During my days Majoni, we washed our face with milk cream and hair with lassi. Such a shame these things are gradually dying,” Aai said.

”Now we have face packs, creams and shampoos Aai.

”Shut up! What do you think? We didn’t have such stuff? But we knew better. We were smarter. Ask  your Aata what a beauty I was when he married me. He couldn’t take his eyes off me. His family said I looked like some doll.”

Agreed. She is still so beautiful.

”I think I’m getting old Aai,” I said.

”You are growing my child. It’s very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at twenty. Ageing is not just decay, you know. It’s growth,” Aai said.

”Ignorant how?  I became a mother at twenty. And I remember you saying how I was your best, super intelligent grandchild,” I said.

”Yes, you were and always will be my best, my Guxani, now keep quiet,” Aai said.

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Then she starts fiddling with my hair. Aai partitioned my hair into two zones and proceeded to weave two plaits. I good-naturedly complied and held my head still while she tried to get the motions right. Quietly, a feeling crept up on me. I was transported to another place, another time. I was on the floor in front of my mother, her hands working deftly on my hair to produce two plaits on either side of the back of my head. Ma would tell me stories, sing Sai bhajans. These were such important sessions while I was growing up. From memorizing the shlokas to bhajans, so much happened on the mat during those sessions. And like every time her memory brings with it that sickening weight. My eyes were flooded. Aai reaches out to give her gamusa. We didn’t exchange a single word.

I took out my phone and opened the photo gallery.  There she was, Ma, with her most warm and vibrant smile. Instantly I began smiling, touching the screen lovingly and wishing to relive that moment. Time slowed down. Minutes became minutes again. And I remembered  to breathe.

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”You see this line here…told you, I’m ageing Aai,” I said.

”Hmmm but they don’t make you any less beautiful my child. Look at me, as long as I am breathing, I am just beginning. And by the way, your pants are old, they are torn.”

”It’s new Aai. New design. New stuff. Style.”

”Bad style.”

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All I have of you..

When someone leaves your life, its not as if they disappear completely. They linger, they remain, but most importantly, they leave a person shaped void inside your heart which is difficult to fill by anyone else.

You see the things that belonged to them- shirts, sarees, shoes, files, papers, combs that still hold their tangled hair. You eat the foods they used to love, listen to the the songs they used to sing, you even read the books that lined their shelf. You try, in every way, to fill the gap between what used to be their daily life and yours. But there is always that distance. The fine line of mortality separates us from them and this line treads on heartbreak.

But what if you have something of theirs, what if you succeed in keeping such a lively, tangible part of them with you that it seems as though they haven’t left at all?

There she was, dressed in a brilliant jade sador mekhela and simple gold bangles. Her silver hair was styled into a bun, fastened with clips. In her ears, sat gold earrings and on her fingers were stacked multiple rings. Her gaze still fixed on me. Small wisps of silver escaped her bun and crawled down her neck. I inched forward to greet her.

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Under the glorious October sun, I hold her hand in mine. Soft, aged, wrinkled. And as I’d held it, I had felt the beat of her pulse pass through; regular and timely. Silently counting them in the same way one would mechanically count the stars that made up a constellation, I’d imagined each pulse to be as brilliant as a star. Each such star, I’d further imagined to be a verse of a poem. A poem running through her veins, mixing with her blood. A constellation flowing into the sky. This is what I have of Ma. And nothing beats this.

Today is Ma’s birthday. She would have been 63 today. I would have hugged her tight and she would have cupped my face with her soft hands and planted kisses….one on my forehead and each on my eyes. And we would have hugged each other for a long, long time.

Be well Ma!

 

Traditions

He did not look me in the eye as I folded the piece of cloth around his head. Some priest said this act non-verbally announces others that the concerned members are in a state of mourning and that some untoward incident had happened in their family. Therefore, the sight of mundan shall mentally prepare the acquaintances to move with them with a note of caution. Indeed. The sight.

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Let me not weigh you down today. Instead, allow me unfold the history, beauty and intricacies of Hindu traditions and customs. 

Our priest told us about the the circle of life. He told us that everything in our belief system can be explained by science. That we are just a small fragment of the Universe, yet all the Universe resides within us. First came the explanation of the Tonsure; the act of cutting the hair or shaving the head after the death of an elder member of the family. In Hinduism, the underlying concept is that hair is a symbolic offering to the Gods, representing a real sacrifice of beauty. Hence shaving your head shows your grief for the departed soul.  

Hair on the head is treated as an adornment and as a symbol of vanity. On the death of an elderly person in a family, the Hindus consider the children not to be egoistic in nature but humble, devoted and submitted to nature. So they need to give up their adornment and vanity in humility. The death of the elderly member makes the inmates feel that they have lost the elderly protective guidance they had been always enjoying. The removal of hair indicates them that they must now prepare for the change with a sense of detachment and vairagya.

 

 

Then comes Pind Daan. In the Shastras, there is a line that says, ‘Yat Pinde Tat Brahmande’, meaning whatever is present in this little body is present in this Universe; our body is a miniature Universe.

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The Earth is round, every person in this world is born into a life cycle, also round. Whether it’s a human child, the child of a cow, of an elephant or of a bird, it doesn’t matter; its very first form is an egg. There is nothing in this world that does not originate as a circle, whose life isn’t cyclical and infinite. Round. Body. Pind. Accordingly to the Shlok above, everything is a Pind and within the Pind, there is everything.

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When we cremate the body, only the soul remains. It is said that the person that cremates it also has the right to give that soul another body. So we do something called a Pind Daan. A daan denotes charity, therefore a Pind daan means giving charity to the body of the deceased. All obstacles are said to smoothen out {for the soul} once this ceremony is performed. Every family adheres to this custom in their own ways, but giving is essential.
Round balls of dough mixed with honey and sesame seeds, signifying the Pind, are donated to the Bramhaputra. 

“You presume you’re a small entity, but within you is unfolded the whole universe.”

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Mundane: Ritual of shaving head 

Vairagya: Detachment

Shastra: Sacred scriptures of Hinduism

Pind Daan: Giving charity to the body of the deceased

Brahmaputra: The Brahmaputra (/ˌbrɑːməˈpuːtrə/ [brɔmmɔput̪rɔ nɔd̪] is a trans-boundary river in Asia. It is also one of the major rivers of Asia that cuts through 4 countries: China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Invisible Threads

In David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, there was a line that comes back to me time and time again. It said,  our lives are not own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

How true is this. We are connected by invisible threads, forged over the course of days, months and years, and secured by bonds of community. We depend on each other, we rely on each other. Especially here in India, each small tradition and custom is inherently societal. It is based on the fact that it will bring us closer to our culture in some way. Every small action, from a prayer to a chant, to fasting, or to coming to grieve at the time of death; every one of these actions binds us to each other, our lives become inextricably linked. 

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I have seen so much love in the last few days. I have seen people come home and mourn for the loss of my mother in law in ways I did not know was possible. I have seen my family depend on each other physically, mentally, morally and emotionally in ways I did not know were possible. I have seen the young teach us about life and the old teach us about death. I have seen a holiness that can only be achieved through a kind of mutual dependency and respect.

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Yesterday I walked into my father in law’s room and saw my man  helping his father put on his shirt. No words were spoken, but so much was said in the quiet act of helping a loved one in the most mundane of gestures, at a time when their hearts were too broken to carry on. The wife and the mother ain’t coming back to them again. But they have each other. And for now this is enough. 

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When words fail

To write, to write, to write. I am always struggling to write. I am always looking for the deepest cut, the kind that scrapes out part of the flesh, the layers beyond the epidermis. I don’t want words that leave fleeting scratches or marks, or those that simply graze the surface. I need words I can swim in, can luxuriate in, that leave my fingers and toes wrinkled and pink from being immersed too long. 

My words are the quintessential essence of my being. At the end of the day  all I have are words. Words to describe the hotness of the heat, slowness of my breath, wetness of my sweat, tiredness of my body. I sit at my desk and drain out my words, but are those enough to induce love in another, enough to feel the intensity of pain? I wonder?  Can I be distilled, wrung dry, squeezed completely into a string of words? I wonder.

This is my attempt to describe the indescribable, struggling with myself about something I never thought I could write about. On 26th September, my mother in law passed away. It happened in the hospital within a matter of seconds and the best way to describe the moments that followed after are that they were filled with ineffable numbness. That was it. And I am failing here to find the right words. I am failing.

I cannot believe that everything I say now will be in the past tense. I am trying to, but I cannot comprehend the fact that Ma just won’t be there anymore. My heart feels like it can’t breathe, like it’s full of oil, like its expanding and only grief is being able to fill that cavity. Is there any way to erase this feeling?  She left behind  her son and daughters, grandchildren and her best friend, her husband, the strongest, bravest, self-made person I know who now hides his face with his two hands and weeps like a child.

All eyes have been wet. My arms have felt heavy like cement and I have wanted to rip my heart out and give it to my man. I want to collect all his sadness; his, my sister in law’s, my nephew’s, my niece’s and mine, I want to collect it all, wrap it up really tight and hurl it across the edge of the world. Is this possible? How does one feel light again?
But here I am, writing this note, taking a deep breath and acknowledging one of the kindest and most loving person there were. What a life she led, what a grand, grand life.

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Rest in Peace Ma!

 

 

She always understands

Dreamt of Ma last night. Don’t really remember much about the dream. Her face was all I could revoke and conjure up. Woke up with this heaviness in my heart, this familiar density and sickening weight. After her death I would often wrap myself up with her clothes and try to breathe in long and hard, searching for that familiar smell. Behind closed doors and drawn curtains I’d sit on the creaky old chair taking in the eerie silence of my own misplaced presence. Her saree, gowns no longer carry her smell and I wonder what should I fill them with now. There was no longer my mother’s warmth inhabiting the clothes now, and certainly no smell. The clothes rested on the shelf and she is never coming back to claim it, wear it. A deep breath and I took my phone, dialed granny, told her I would come see her. She understood the pain in my voice.

She always understands.

A friend once told me he envied my memory, envied my ability to recall exact details and conversations with an almost mnemonic aptitude. I remember wondering how this was a good thing, since most of the memories I collect often tore me up from inside.

Usual scenes at granny’s place. And like every other time I fell in love with the enchanting entrance. The very sight of it begins the healing process. Granny was busy doing which I call quintessentially Indian. Shelling of peas. And my grandmother does this in an almost ritualistic way. She picks up the pea pod, slide her fingers across, deftly opens up its pocket and with the skill of someone that has been doing this for years, her thumb pushes out into a heap on a large plate.

When I was young I would listen to the sounds of the peas falling into piles. How I loved eating the crunchy, sweet raw seeds. But today I simply watched. I could feel the heaviness in my heart slowly losing its cohesion as I watched the small pile grow as my grandmother shells them….a sight that is so, so precious to me.

She looked straight into my eyes and said, ” so you’ve not been eating and sleeping well I reckon. Go check the fridge, there’s something waiting for you.” My face broke out into a huge smile as I opened the fridge door to the little earthen pots of delicately decorated payokh ( kheer ) staring back at me. Despite its seemingly simple recipe, it gave me great comfort because when I was young my grandmother would ritualistically prepare it whenever I was sad. I remember how she would stir the rice and the saffron -infused milk for hours, gently, along with sugar and finely ground cardamom. The aroma would waft out of the kitchen and dance around the whole house. Today Granny has specially garnished them generously with almonds and pistachios. These are happy memories of my childhood. It made me smile, it reminded me of my childhood in the most special way.

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I ran into her arms. She said, ” I miss her too. She was my best, my most beautiful daughter. But it will hurt her if we cry. We can’t hurt her majoni.”

I stayed in her arms for a while.

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Like I said, she always understands.

 

Dear friend, let’s talk!

 

A well-wisher texted the other day stating how my name was doing unsavory rounds at some gathering. And that he is so concerned. Another good friend calls to enquire the cause of my repeated disappearances from social events and party scenes. His monologue continued, ”so and so said something really bad about you, disturbed souls they are you see,” and the call ended. He too seemed pretty concerned. And my friend was talking about his good friends here. Friends with whom he burns the social media with updates and photos. Sigh!

Please hear me when I say I don’t want any part in the mundane.

The rest of the world can go ahead and carry on about the little things. With me, don’t do small talk.  Let’s not waste our breath with the mediocrity of empty exchanges and meaningless conversations that end in uncomfortable silence and the awkward shuffling of feet.

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Dear friend, if you want to tell me about your friends, tell me about the ways they stitched you back up after that broken heart. Tell me about the pit in your stomach you feel at the thought of losing any of them. Tell me what they mean to you, what you mean to them. Tell me what your life has been like with them in it and the emptiness it would be without the security of having them be only a phone call away.

Dear friend, tell me about your parents. Tell me how they molded you, how they shaped you into the person that stands before me. Tell me about how you carry your head up like your father always taught you and how your eyes are as piercing in color as your mother’s. Tell me about the way it felt hearing your father say he is proud of you for the very first time. Talk about the way your fathers pain cut you in the core the time he couldn’t look you in the eyes when you disappointed him. Tell me about all the ways your parents unintentionally broke you, because they all do, without even trying to. Yes my dear friend, let’s talk.

Dear friend,  if you must tell me about your favorite food, please give me more than just that. Spare me the details of where and with whom you had your last meal and how many pictures you took and and uploaded on Facebook and the likes  and comments you earned. I want to know about how many times you sat with your ailing grandmother, trying to master her favorite recipe. I want to know how many times your kitchen has had the lingering scent of that meal since she’s been gone. If you’re able to give me all of that,  I’ll tell you about my incessant fear that one day, I won’t be able to get down all the family recipes I was raised on. That one day, the recipes my mom had kept in a tattered notebook will die right in my lap if I don’t hurry up and get them all down.

I want to know what makes you feel seen. What are your biggest accomplishments?  What are your greatest regrets?  I want to know what gets you up in the morning and moves you to get through this big ol’ life thing. I want to know the things that awaken your soul and all the things you are passionate about.  Tell me what keeps you going in a world that is constantly pushing you to feel small. Tell me who you’ve fought to become. Tell me about the demons you keep hidden in the crevices of who you are. Yes,talk to me.

For as long as I live, for as many sunrises as I am able to wake up to, and as long as this beautiful earth makes its way circling around the sun, I want to make this time count. And I just don’t think empty conversations filled with how are you’s and badmouthing can ever give you that. So please, let’s not bother with small talk. Who is saying what about me doesn’t mean a thing to me. Shouldn’t mean a thing to you either.

Grace and Peace to you!

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