That Notebook, Ma

Ma, do you remember that notebook of yours?
The one that had been stashed away in those old drawers?
The cover must have definitely been some colour someday
But the years had made it brown, I think, although I can’t say.

Baideu and I had found it once, and flipped through its pages
Filled with your pretty handwriting, that remained the same through the ages
The pages had yellowed, their edges frayed and brittle
They were soft to touch, and if handled rough, they crumbled a little.

You’d drawn sewing patterns there, of frocks you’d hoped to make
You’d labeled each section neatly, with measurements you’d need to take
Gray and yellow, one frock was to be, and I pictured it in my mind
But Ma, try as I might, till date such a frock I couldn’t find.

In its pages were instructions, for a sweater with bobbles and lace,
Knit 2 Purl 3, and complicated terms that left me in a daze.
There were recipes too, for exotic delicacies I had never heard of before,
Sweet and savoury and a little of both, pickles and jams and more!

But what I held dear most, Ma, were the page after page of lyrics,
Of songs you’d heard on the radio, and scribbled in short minutes
Some of them were incomplete, probably rushing past you fast
You’d missed a few words here and there, despite waiting until the last

I’d never heard those songs before; they were before my time
But when you sang them that day Ma, I made those songs mine
I could see you sitting on your desk, with your ear to the radio
Half uttering those words as you wrote them down, as fast as you could go.

Those pages smelled of you, Ma, and everything you love
Even now I remember all of it, just like I wrote above.
I hope you still have that notebook Ma, I really hope you do
To you it might have been a notebook, but to me it was you.



Home is where Uruka is

The otherwise sunny Singapore has turned all grey and cold for the last few days. Summer dresses are out, cozy flannels and socks are in, and we’re making the most of this freak weather that somehow feels just right on Uruka. For the uninitiated, below is an excerpt from my book “Revelations of an Imperfect Life“.

Of all the three Bihus in a year, Magh Bihu was my favorite. It celebrated the end of harvesting season, and marked the beginning of the month of the Assamese month of Magh. It was that time of the year when food reigned supreme, and Ma went out of her way to stock the pantry with delectables. From two weeks before Magh Bihu, Ma would immerse herself in the kitchen, emerging from it only when she was satisfied that she had enough pithas and larus to feed generations of hungry cousins. On the evening of Uruka, the day before Bihu, the neighborhood would come together to have a feast together, and a hasty tent would be set up with an area dedicated to cooking. It would be an extravagant affair, with food plentiful and a special “deck” player being brought to make sure the entire neighborhood got to listen to disco music. Younger kids would have their fill first, some of them barely making it through dinner without slumping asleep right there, lulled by all that food and the crackling bonfire nearby. The men ate next, with laughter and conversation much louder than usual. Finally the women would sit to eat, having tucked their kids in bed, hunger long gone. 

Uruka was also the one night when stealing was in fashion. It was not uncommon to find whole sections of a bamboo fence missing; after all bamboo makes for superb firewood. Vegetable patches would frequently have cauliflowers and cabbages harvested untimely and stealthily, potatoes dug out noiselessly to end up in a huge pot of curry being cooked elsewhere. Neighbours went around “stealing” small things from each other’s places, only to return them the next morning, all in good humor. One time, the Kakoti sisters decided to “steal” Pahi, who was fast asleep in her bedroom while Nobou Mami was busy in the kitchen, and it was only three hours later when Mami started yelling and shouting that they brought Pahi back, who had miraculously slept through all of this.

For our part Nila and I went around scaring people, getting a kick out of being pretend thieves. Our prime target was Dariya Borta, who always wore a Nehru jacket and was rumoured to love his evergreen rose bushes more than his wife. Called Dariya Borta because of his immaculate beard, he was the kind of person who begged to be provoked. Easily angered, with a peculiar tendency to become overtly sentimental, Nila and I always treated him with utmost respect to his face, and then pulled harmless tricks on him to see if we could get that purple nerve on his forehead to show. That’s all we did though, rustle leaves and shake branches to make him run out of the house brandishing a walking stick. The one time we tried to actually steal a rose from Dariya Borta’s tree (we were certain he had them counted and would know for sure if one was missing) we got cold feet in the last moment and ran away. 

A major part of Uruka celebrations was staying up all night to guard the neighbourhood. Men wore monkey caps and thick shawls and sat around the bonfire to make sure the fences at least were secured. It was a night of merriment, one that culminated the next morning with the auspicious meji being burned until the high pile of hay lay in ashes on the ground, after which people again ate a heavy breakfast and slept all day long to make up for a lost night’s sleep. As if all that eating was not enough, for the next few days people visited each other over tea. It wasn’t just about inviting each and every family in the neighbourhood to our place for tea. We had to visit each of their places to have tea too. 

Over time things changed. Small disputes sparked by an inch of road claimed “unknowingly” by someone putting up their new fence, or over a budding romance between so-and-so’s daughter and so-and-so’s son, got fanned until they turned into cold wars that stretched for years. People picked sides, over-the-fence conversations stopped midway if a certain someone passed by, and tears appeared in what was once a tight-knit community. The final straw was the raging argument that took place during an Uruka feast when someone turned up drunk. Nasty obscenities got hurled while the kids snickered, and things were almost about to turn violent when a few wise people interfered in the last moment. What that futile argument did achieve was to ensure that the feast got cancelled.

Uruka was the home stretch of Ma’s frantic Bihu preparations, and so after the community feast was cancelled it fell on Deuta to prepare the feast for us, something that he pretended to be disgruntled about. The pretence would last barely a few minutes though, because Deuta loved to cook, and he loved an audience, and the Uruka feast was just the time to bring those two together. It was Aita’s responsibility to engineer the makeshift stove out of an old cement mixing tray and a tripod-like thing balanced precariously over to hold the pan. Nila and I would be Deuta’s audience and assistants, because he couldn’t be bothered to do anything other than the actual cooking, and all the peeling and chopping and pounding fell on us. We would sit by the fire, singing songs. The faster the song, the faster Deuta’s ladle would move. Watching Deuta cook was also supposed to be a learning experience so we could later make the perfect, the very best version of whatever dish Deuta was making, which is how I know that in a maasor tenga salt is crucial, and in a chicken curry, frying till the chicken is almost cooked and only then adding water is key. We would eat till we could no longer move, and loll by the fireside praising Deuta’s cooking, the smoky chicken smell still lingering in the air, the simple yet intense flavours unforgettable, and Deuta would not so humbly lap it all up. 

Ah, to be home for Uruka… But then again, it’s not like we are sitting at home wishfully twiddling our thumbs. Even as I type this, the husband is out shopping for our feast tonight.

“Get the baby potatoes!” I remind him, “I need to make hesa aloo

I associate hesa aloo with my Aita, because she made them the best, and also with our ancestral home in Sipajhar, Assam. The recipe is simplicity itself. You boil baby potatoes, skin and all, and once cool, flatten it between your palms (hence, hesa). You then sprinkle a little coarse salt and pan fry the potatoes until they are crisp on the outside. Throw them in the oven and give a sprinkling of fresh rosemary and call them baked potatoes if you will, but for Bihu one does not make “baked potatoes”. No, Sir. To make it even more authentic, you fry the potatoes in mustard oil and dig into them hesa aloos. Sigh, happiness.

When evening comes, my sister and her family will join us, as will friends who are our family here. We shall stuff ourselves will food, and talk about missing home, and then stuff ourselves some more. And then, like stuffed pythons after a meal, we’ll groan that we’re full. And when desert will be brought out, we’ll lift ourselves off the floor because hey, no one says no to doi-rosogolla.

And I’ll feel right at home.


(Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Hanoi, Highlights and Happiness

The executive lounge in Hanoi Hilton Opera oozes warmth as we sit in a hushed silence broken only by apologetic clinks of fork on plate and the occasional polite cough. The wine is good, the grilled pork belly melts in your mouth and the itty bitty pretty cakes are an absolute delight. The two four-year olds, exhausted after their exertions while playing hide and seek and assaulting the indoor plant, are finally quiet as they watch cartoons on the iPad as a treat for their good behaviour. The four of us harried parents revel in the ensuing silence, and it suddenly dawns on me that it’s the last evening of our four night Christmas holiday in Hanoi.

One look at us and anyone would realise that it hasn’t been an easy trip. If handling one opinionated child is tricky, try handling two. My nephew and Miss Munchkin together are a force to be reckoned with. They fight and bicker most of the time when they are together and still cry when they are separated for the night. Philosophical that I am (after a glass of wine) I want each of us to talk about the highlights of the trip. My sister, my brother-in-law and the Husband talk about theirs, and I look back on the trip as gushes of emotions and feelings that washed over me rather than encapsulating moments.
Like our first night in Hanoi, when my sister and I offered to get takeaway from one of my favourite restaurants. We put on our jackets, linked arms, and brisk walked our way past the busy bustling Hoan Kiem Lake. Once there, I realised I didn’t even need to brush up on my Vietnamese. It was all there inside me. I didn’t need to summon the words. They were there on the tip of my tongue waiting to roll out fluently. That was when I knew that I could never sever ties with this place. I might have moved out of Hanoi five years ago, but I carried it with me all through the years, and I felt love for this quaint city all over again.

My sister and I spent quite a lot of time together this trip, just the two of us, and that isn’t something we do very often even if we live in the same city. After a perfect lunch (there may have been sangria involved, don’t judge us) in the old neighbourhood, we bundled off the kids with their Dads to the hotel and stayed behind to get foot massages. In my sister’s words, “it was the most extensive foot massage” we’d ever had, given how it started with a hand massage and ended with a head massage. An hour of being kneaded, and it was as though the very bones in my body had melted away. I remember feeling satiated, and relaxed beyond belief and so, so content to be in the company of my sister. I didn’t need anything at that point (except for maybe a bed; I was yawning continuously) and that is a beautiful feeling to hold on to: the not needing anything.

That was yesterday evening, the one at the lounge. Much later, as I struggled to sleep, tossing and turning (I never sleep well before an early morning flight) I looked back at the year as a bundle of highlights. This year was a big one, but what makes it interesting is that my biggest highlight isn’t the most obvious one. Yes, this was the year my book was launched, and it was monumental, but like I said, it wasn’t the most monumental one.

This was the year I discovered poetry. Over eight years of writing and it had never occured to me to try my hand at verse. I took up the project of turning Rabrindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwallah into verse for the school play, and finished writing the entire thing in three hours. That was when something clicked. I realised I could rhyme, and better still, that I enjoyed writing verse. I’d never been a fan of poetry (sacrilege, I know right?) but that was mostly because I didn’t like metaphors and symbolism and vague interpretations. I liked simple lines that I would understand because reading complex ones and not “getting” them made me feel dumb. But then I started teaching poetry and I realised how passionate I could be about the same metaphors and symbolism and interpretations. Verse became my friend and I experienced something I had never done before: a poem come to me on its own, willing me to take up the phone and start typing, the words weaving themselves into simple paintings, sometimes childish, sometimes melancholy. I’d feel the words pouring out on their own, and before I would even consciously think about what was happening, a poem would write itself. Now that is monumental in my eyes.

The next big thing, and probably the biggest this year was the conscious decision to quit my job, and refuse to find another one. I was on the fence for the longest time, torn that I was. On one hand was reason and the nagging feeling that I wouldn’t really be happy at a job where I couldn’t be creative, and on the other hand, a dream and a vision where I do what I love doing, and eventually earn enough to justify my quitting my job in the first place. I chose heart over head and while it is scary to venture into the unknown, I have never been more excited. A friend and I have started doing storytelling sessions for little ones, and are planning a whole wide range of things we are going to do the next year. With my passion for writing and nearly obsessive relationship with books and reading, and the experience of raising a child who loves being read to, I feel it in my bones that wherever there’s books and little kids involved, I’d be right at home.

Speaking of books, I’ve started writing my second one, and have everything laid out, but prose isn’t really my friend these days. I am setting it aside for a while, in the hope that when prose comes back to me, I will be ready to embrace it with open arms and finish my book when I am supposed to. After all, who am I to command the words to flow as prose? Who am I to deny the words if they want to mound themselves as verse?

I’m writing this on our flight back home to Singapore, nursing a miserable cold that demands my attention, and am yearning for a pot of honey lemon tea and a book to drown in. I’ve already filled my belly with a big bowl of Pho Ga and then another bowl of just the soup at the airport and it seems to be doing so much more than warming up my inside. I see the irony in my saying that I take Hanoi with me wherever I go, but if this cold is the price I have to pay for making such a fulfilling trip, so be it.

Oh, and here’s to the man who made Hanoi happen for me in the first place. I owe it all to him after all.

WhatsApp Image 2017-12-25 at 9.32.58 PM

For Mon

I blinked my eyes, and you turned one.
I said to myself, “Phew! But wasn’t that fun?”
I watched you coo, I watched you crawl
I was there to hold you when ever you’d fall.
I’d started reading to you way back then
And you and I would cuddle for hours on end.
I’d sing to you, you’d gape and laugh
A yummy gummy laugh I couldn’t get enough.

I blinked my eyes, and how time flew!
Before I knew it, you turned two
You started to walk, and I ran after you
Tried to hold you close, but off you flew!
More books, more songs, more cuddles so pure
The terrible twos weren’t so terrible for sure
I’d talk to you, and you’d reply
In silence, not a minute went by!

I blinked my eyes, and you turned three
You started school, you became free
Letting go of you, was toughest of all
Watching you walk towards the end of the hall
But I saw you grow, I watched you bloom
And now you walk in and light up a room
You love to wear whatever Mamma does
You’re my dainty lady, no tantrums, no fuss.

I blinked my eyes and you turned four.
This time I promise, I’ll blink no more
I can’t stop time, that much I know
But I can relish each minute and take it slow
Whenever I see you learn something new
I want to do the learning right along with you.
So no blinking, my baby, no race against time
I’m here for you; you’re forever mine.

Light and Dark

Ripped pages littered on the floor,
The world banished beyond the closed door.
A pen scratching furiously over pages white,
An anguished whine; the words don’t feel right.

‘I give up!’ she screamed at the wall,
‘Every single day, I pour out my soul,
And what do I get in return from you?
Nothing, nothing, no matter what I do.

‘I’m bleeding here, can’t you see the crack?
I’m seeking the rainbow, and all you give me is black?
This darkness, this gloom, I don’t want these.
I want roses, the moon, the sky, the breeze.

‘So there. I tried. Tell everyone I did.
A hermit I became, from everyone I hid.
But I can’t anymore. I can’t take this.
I’m done. This hollowness I won’t ever miss.’

She threw open the window, banged open the door,
And watched, entranced at the streaks on the floor,
Sunlight, long denied had found its way,
Through the very cracks she’d kept at bay.

And at that moment, she made the connection.
That what made her a writer was not perfection.
The cracks and her flaws, the anguish, the pain
The rips and tears, the broken, the stained
Was what made her, her; she couldn’t deny.
It wouldn’t always be roses, or birds in the sky.
She embraced the dark, hugged close the black.
For she knew light would always flood though the crack.

Sun streaks

Image courtesy the very talented Sameer Gurung who happily let me use his photo on this post. Well, who am I kidding? His photo is what inspired me to write this poem in the first place.

The Last Day of Your Life

When I started writing my book I had no idea if it would ever be published. I remember The Husband and I sitting and talking about it and how, in a moment of grandiose generosity, he announced that he would gift me a MacBook the day I heard back from the publishers saying that they would publish my book. I laughed it off, but we had a deal. I poured my soul out in that book, laughing and crying (sometimes at the same time). And I kept asking myself, “Even if this book sees the light of the day, would people even read it?”

Well, the book did see the light of the day. It made a grand entry online at #4 on Amazon’s New Releases, and it stayed put on that list for almost a month. I got the MacBook last Christmas. But one day, I asked my husband, “What if it doesn’t do well, you know? What if it just… fades?” And proving to me that there’s good reason why I married this guy, he asked me, “When you wrote this book, did you write it so it would sell?” And there in lay the answer. No. I didn’t write the book thinking it would sell. I wrote this book because it had been inside me for long enough.

But then again, an author would want to know how the book is doing. And knowing that my book wasn’t exactly flying off shelves made me feel a little disheartened. It was getting beautiful reviews, yes. People who read it reached out to me to tell me they loved it, yes. But that didn’t necessarily translate to better sales. I wondered if my being away from India mattered. I wondered, had I been there, maybe I could have done something, anything to boost sales.

The Husband came to the rescue yet again and he told me to watch Steve Job’s commencement speech in Stanford University, the transcript of which can be found here. He told me about how Jobs talks about the dots being connected, specifically, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”


“Of course I have faith in the future,” I told my husband a bit half-heartedly. I do believe that things work out for the best eventually. But then, as I kept watching the video I came across to the bit where Steve Jobs talks about death. He says: When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, some day you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Now that made me think. I think it was a legitimate question. If today were indeed my last day on this earth, would I be sitting with my phone? Would I be worrying about how well my book is selling or the number my weighing machine unsympathetically threw at me in the morning?

No. I wouldn’t. I would spend each moment with my daughter and my husband. I would read the endings of a few books I have been meaning to read. I would have that piece of chocolate cake I had been denying myself. I would probably write something overtly sentimental guaranteed to make people cry when I am gone (that’s the narcissistic in me)

So I decided to do just that. I deleted my Facebook and Messenger app from my phone (I know you will tell me that I could probably stay away even with those apps on my phone but I’ve developed muscle memory when my fingers automatically hover over those icons) I know that with my Facebook personal page gone the already pathetic reach that I have would dwindle down to zero, but again, it doesn’t really matter does it? I am reading book after book (averaging a book a day, too!) when I am not reading to my daughter or playing pretend with her. I am making a conscious decision to spend time with people whose company I relish. I am writing my second book, setting aside doubts and misgivings.

I think so often we get hung up on these things that we think matter, but in the end, maybe none of it does. I don’t wanna drop any more philosophy but yes, the fact that one powerful speech could move me this way means that there is hope for the power of word after all. I’ll toast to that.

And if you wish to connect with me, please do so on my Author Page. Let’s stay in touch!

The Friends in Our Lives

You need that 3am dead night friend,
The one who’ll always pick up the phone,
They’ll insist that you didn’t wake them up,
That you should never, ever, feel alone.
They’ll listen to you without interrupting much.
They’ll be indignant on your behalf.
And when you’re done, they’ll say “Oh, darling!”
And somehow, simply that’ll be enough.

You need that 3pm everyday friend

The one who drinks tea with you,
They make your day seem that much better,
On slow afternoons without much to do.
You make easy conversation, you laugh a lot
They know the people in your life,
They’ll get when you say that your cousin’s a bore
Or that your neighbour’s got himself a wife

Then you need that “Let’s go” friend!

The one who’s always somehow ready to go,
To party, to shop, to even repair your watch
They’ll take you to that late night show.
This friend of yours keeps you on your toes,
And makes sure you don’t become slack,
They’ll take you on an incredible adventure,
and plan the next on the way back.

Then of course there’s the F.R.I.E.N.D.S kinda friend,

The one who binge watches TV with you,
You have similar tastes, you like the same shows
Your favourite characters are the same too!
They get the snacks and you get the drinks,
And you watch in enraptured silence,
Their company spells comfort; they feel like home,
And they’re assuring with their mere presence.

If you’re not a book lover, (I don’t know you)

Then this one isn’t for you,
But everyone knows if you are one,
You need a friend who loves them too.
You really need a friend who gets without saying,
Just why you love words so much.
They understand why your eyes light up,
When a page of a new book you touch.
You’ll cry to them about not having books to read,
And for your sake, they’ll happily ignore
That ever growing stack on your bedside table
Of books you’ve never read before.

You need a once-a-month “let’s catch up” friend

The one who always seems a bit busy
But when they give you time, they give you all of it,
And picking the threads is nice and breezy.
They remember things you told them long ago
They know just the right things to say,
They might be out of touch, but never lost,
Even though for long you’ve been away.

Then of course, you need that “can do” friend,

The one you call when there’s something you need.
They always seem to know someone; to them
Everyone’s a friend of a friend of a friend indeed.
They’re handy, they’re helpful, they have contacts,
Their network is wide and exhaustive,
They know their way, through tweaks and turns,
And their capacity is quite comprehensive.

Then you need a sage of a friend,

Someone to give you wise counsel,
You turn to them when you’re in trouble,
And they always know what to tell.
You count on them to know what to do,
And you listen to every word they say
Just talking to them cuts sorrow in half,
They gently show you the right way.

You also need a “weekend” friend,

Someone you love to hang out with,
You might have grand plans or nothing at all,
But without them, the weekend feels incomplete.

Then you need that childhood friend,

The one who’s grown with you,
You might still be friends or sadly grown apart,
But you know they’ll always be true.
You share inside jokes from your growing up days,
You’ll always think of them with fondness,
Whenever you meet, you’re flooded with nostalgia,
And realise you’re truly blessed.

And finally you do need that soul friend,

The one who feels like your twin.
If soul, and not blood counted,
They would be your next of kin.
You know the one I’m talking about
You’re thinking about them right now.
They know you inside out it seems
Even though you don’t know how.
They seem to take words out of your mouth,
It used to surprise you, but not anymore.
They always know exactly how you feel,
And can tell when you’re all sore.

Each friend you have, has a special role,

A unique gap that they fill.
Lucky are you if you’ve found them all,
And if they’re all one person, you’re luckier still!