I must have mentioned this before, about how I am not a religious person at all. I consider myself spiritual, yes, in the sense that I believe in the construct of destiny, and I’d like to believe that there are greater powers in play and that there is a plan.
But this is not about religion or spirituality. It is about a childhood in which spirituality and music were so intertwined that for the longest time I couldn’t tell one from the other. It is about those evenings meant for singing prayers and sitting next to Mamma and Aita as we soaked in the Borgeets and the Naams. It is about watching Aita getting moved by the scriptures so much that she would have tears in her eyes, and feeling utterly at loss as to how anyone could get this emotional about stories from Lord Krishna’s life. It is about listening to her read aloud, in her beautiful sing-song voice, page after page of chapters from the Kirtan and trying to figure out how anyone would willingly seek pleasure from (what seemed like) such a boring means of recreation.
I chalked it to her age back then. I thought it was a habit old people got into. You know, thinking about religion and spirituality, and probably finding hidden meaning that’s lost on us simply because we were young.
Of late I have been missing my Aita a lot. She played a fundamental part in my upbringing, having taken care of me from the time I was a wee three-month old while Mamma went to work. Aita’s account of my days include tales of my mischief and how I would come up with creative ways to torture her (such as pouring water on the lemon pickle she had set out in the sun to mature), until one day, when she said enough was enough and that I needed to be sent to school, which explains why I started school at the early age of three. Evenings were spent singing/praying and then listening to stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana while lying down on her lap. She is amazingly progressive, and gave me and my sister life lessons that one would almost judge rebellious. Question, she would say, don’t just believe in things you are told, and if it doesn’t seem right to your conscience, resist; resist with all your might. I will never forget the day she sat us down in front of her, and told us in all sincerity, “Marry for nothing but love, but find a man who would make you proud, when you introduce him to your father.”
Even now, I equate being open and progressive with Aita. I equate strength and independence with her. I equate music and spirituality with her, and my way of keeping her in my heart is to ensure that everything she’d handed down to us is nurtured and taken forward. My way of enabling that was to bring a copy of the Kirtan and the collection of Borgeet and the raihal (the wooden ‘platform’ on which to place the book while we sing from it) with me when I got married and shifted to Vietnam. I pledged to make my own little spiritual sanctuary, in whatever manner I could, and whether I was fostering my own faith, or honouring the culture instilled in me by my family, I didn’t stop to think.
So maybe this was why, when the husband mentioned last Sunday that it had been a long time since we’d done anything remotely spiritual at our house, I suggested having a naam. After making the first compulsory call to my mother to affirm that I did have it in me to organise one at our place, I made a mental list of things I needed to gather, and realised that it’d been so long since we’d had a naam at our place that I would have to brush up on the tunes. And that’s when I opened up my Kirtan and the all-too familiar tunes came back to me. If I stumbled once in a while, I only had to trust my instinct. I would just have to close my eyes and I would hear Aita’s voice singing loud and clear in my mind, nudging me in the right direction.
As I sat there, singing prayer after prayer, lovingly caressing the pages of my still-new book while thinking of the well-thumbed one back home, I finally got it. I finally realised that I could see myself doing this, sitting in a corner and drowning myself in music… and restoring my faith while at it, and that it has got nothing to do with age.
Then again, maybe it *is* about age. Maybe I am finally old enough to appreciate what was given to me, and realise that now it is on me to pass it on to my daughter. To faith then, and music. And a formidable woman who revolutionised the naamghor by making her own tunes and starting a whole new trend.
Your eyes drank from me before skin met skin,
You burned me and left scorch marks everywhere.
We didn’t just meet, we shivered and crashed,
The raging house on fire, that’s what we were.
‘Don’t hold back,’ you whispered in my ear.
I sighed and told you I didn’t know how to.
You stripped off the layers, until I had none.
One word and I’d unravel; I’d give myself to you.
And give myself I did, all I could and more
You knew just the right things to say,
You claimed me as yours, and I let you
For I didn’t know any other way.
Until the day I dared ask for something,
Your word, a promise that you would stay.
I let the word “forever” escape my lips,
Because I couldn’t bear to be away.
You told me I was naive, that forever doesn’t exist,
You told me it was all about now and here,
You packed your clothes, slammed the door and left,
Your goodbye still lingering in my ear.
I salved my scars and licked my wounds,
But you didn’t break me; I was alive and whole
And I thanked the stars shining above me,
That it was only my skin I had bared to you,
And not my soul.
I miss them already. I keep dreaming about them, and find myself unconsciously thinking about them as though I will meet them right after Diwali break. I think about the sheer number of books I’d wanted them to read, and wonder what I am going to do with all these books stacked in my house. Walking into the bookstore will not be the same without my eyes scouting through the Young Adult section for new releases and good deals. I look back at just how much they had bloomed and flourished in the last six months and send a silent prayer that they keep doing so.
My last day was two days ago, and I think the wound is still a little too fresh. My subconscious has not woken up to the fact that I am no longer a teacher.
My class, as usual, rose marvellously to the occasion, and organised this superb farewell party in my honour. I got letters from each and every one of them, and a framed collage of photos as a gift from the whole class. What amazed me was how carefully they had picked each and every photo to be included in the collage, and how they knew just the right ones. There’s a photo of me with them on a field trip, a photo from my book launch with Adil Hussain, quite a few with Miss Munchkin because I keep talking about her so much, and of course one with my red, rep lipstick. It was also quite something to get a note from a parent thanking me, and a poem written by another parent, for me. While I am used to getting notes from my students, being appreciated by parents made me feel like I must have done something right, after all.
The other classes showered me with gifts, including the hardcover of Dan Brown’s latest, something I had been coveting ever since I had seen it in the bookstores. One student gifted me a painting he had made, and the note that he wrote behind it was as beautiful as the painting itself. Apologising that they hadn’t bought gifts for me, a bunch of guys invited me to the music room and gave me the gift of a song that they performed exclusively for me. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, because all the while I kept thinking that I was leaving them behind.
My colleagues gifted me a whole bunch of thick books, the operative word here being thick because as all book lovers know, there’s nothing better than a thick book and a big mug of tea/coffee to go with it. I received the illustrated Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, completing my set for now, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (each one a doorstopper of a book, yay!)
To ensure that I wouldn’t sit at home and mope about, my best friend in the staffroom took me to Clarke Quay after work, and we spent the entire evening talking and eating and making merry. It was a celebration of friendship, specially the rare kind of friendship that stems from being mere acquaintances, but transcends into comfortable familiarity, and then warm intimacy when you realise that they have become the person you can say anything to.
I know it’ll take time before the feeling sinks in. Come Monday morning when I don’t have to get dressed for work, I’ll have to say goodbye once again. Whenever I’ll see a book I had bought for the express purpose of lending to students, I will sigh and miss them all over again.
But then, I look at the little one at home who is more excited than ever that Mamma will be home to pick her up after school. I look at the humungous stack of to-be-read books on my book shelves and lovingly caress their spines with a promise to give them their due share of attention soon. But most of all, I look forward to this: writing… moulding my thoughts into words, seeing them take shape, witnessing a manuscript that starts from a single word extend and lengthen… Yes. I definitely look forward to making progress on my second book (can I get a Hallelujah here?)
Ending this with the poem I had written for my class, that I read out to them.
A year is a short time, I agree.
But I hope what they say is true
That it is not how long you spend time together
But it is how much they mean to you.
And given you my all, in its entirety.
Let’s just say it is simply a bend.
And maybe, just maybe, my words will be enough.
I knew a spark was lit that would turn into flame.
We even crack inside jokes. I mean, look at us now!
And we’ve had our season in the sun.
Each of you as special as could be.
I hope you’ve learned to love books all this while.
And may they come to you whenever you need.
The last two days have hung heavy on me. I finally let my students know that I am leaving the school and that next Tuesday would be my last day teaching them. Even as I answer their whys I tell myself it will be okay. That I will be okay. Because while a part of me says that I could never be anything but a teacher, the other part reminds me that I am, after all, a writer.
Between wrapping things up and prepping for my last day, I had almost forgotten that I had two tiny containers my
colleagues friends had sent food for me in, and it is an unwritten code of conduct that you never return empty containers. So despite feeling wrung out like a sponge, both physically and emotionally, I decided I would make for them the one thing I know that spells unconditional love: gajar ka halwa.
I still remember the first time I made gajar ka halwa. Courtesy her crafty colleagues, Mamma had chanced upon a “healthier” version of gajar ka halwa, which called for boiling the grated carrots with milk in the pressure cooker first, and then adding ghee and sugar and stirring until that liquid goodness turns into melt-in-the-mouth thick. That recipe was one of the first recipes Mamma handed down to me. So yes, coming back to the first time I made it: it was for my sister’s boyfriend, who is now my brother-in-law. A little back story, if I may?
My sister met her husband in engineering college, and those days when she would come back home, the only person she could talk about was him. I hated his very guts. Who did he think he was, to charm his way into my sister’s heart and shove me aside and make room for himself? I took it upon myself to pick out his flaws, and vehemently made up my mind to detest him forever. But then, over time, when I realised that he was there to stay, and was not a hopeless infatuation of my sister’s like I had predicted he would be, I made gajar ka halwa for him. The tightly sealed steel container that I sent with my sister back to her hostel was my peace offering. ‘There’, it said, ‘I am grudgingly willing to admit to myself that maybe over time I might start to like you.’ Heaven knows that that container paved way for many more to come, and that over time I would not just like him, but attain the ability to love him blindly.
That was not the only time I made gajar ka halwa to show my love and affection. I remember this one time when I was in college, and I had invited my best buddies home for Bihu. The previous day we’d had our family picnic, and towards the end Mamma and I’d had a tiff, and were on gruff speaking terms (if you know what I mean) Back from the picnic, slightly irritated and not so slightly tired, I suddenly remembered that I had promised to make gajar ka halwa for my friends. A promise is a promise, and so, I started grating my way through the huge pile of carrots, arms screaming, eyes drooping. And then of course, came the arduous task of stirring, and stirring and stirring some more. Towards the end, Ma hastily pounded some cardamom and tossed the powder in the pan. That was as close to a reconciliation as I could have hoped for. Fail-proof that Mamma’s recipe was, it turned out perfect. And testimony was the phone call I received the following day from my best friend’s mother asking me for the recipe because apparently he had said that mine was better than hers!
Without consciously thinking about it, I started equating this humble dessert to love. It came to me, incidentally in the same steel container, that Mamma lovingly packed and sent all the way from Tezpur when I was in a hostel in Guwahati. Sitting on my hostel bed, feeling lonely and homesick, Mamma’s gajar ka halwa felt like a warm hug that melted me from the inside. Much later, when I was studying in Tezpur University, I would make some to bring to my brother who was living in the hostel, and that would become the one thing he would always remember me by. In fact, the day after my sister got married, I entered her mother-in-law’s kitchen, and made gajar ka halwa for my brand new brother-in-law.
Thirty weeks pregnant, of all the things that I could have desired, it was gajar ka halwa I’d had a craving for. And so I made it, standing in front of the stove, shifting my weight from one hip to the other, heaving and sighing because hey, what the heart wants, the heart wants. In my mind, if itty bitty baby in my tummy wanted that, I’d do anything to make sure she had that.
So today, looking at the mellow orange mix of carrots and milk, stirring in the ghee and sugar and cardamom, I thought of all the times I made gajar ka halwa for the people I loved. These two people I made it for tonight? Very special ones. Made me think of the reason I had those containers in the first place, and how it might seem to be about food on the surface, but was so much more. It was about that time when a person thought about me and told herself, ‘Well she loved the chicken I cooked so much I should pack her some.’ Or that time when she brought me lunch because she knew Jenny wasn’t around to pack mine. Or about all the extra portions a friend thoughtfully packed with just me in my mind.
Jenny looked at me, all sweaty, hair sticking to my forehead, furiously stirring the halwa, and asked me why I chose to make this when I could have made anything else.
‘Because this is love, Jenny. Why would I choose to endure this if not for someone I love?’
It felt almost ritualistic, the stirring, and as I stirred, I felt… maybe not so melancholy anymore. I am not looking forward to saying goodbye to my students. I definitely do not look forward to saying goodbye to colleagues turned friends who have become such a major part of my daily life. But I tell myself I am lucky to have found in them people I absolutely adore; people I would be willing to make gajar ka halwa for.
To aching arms and breaking hearts, then. And food, of course. Always.
I resign. Here, take my notice
To whom it may concern, it says,
I inform you with this,
At this moment, on this day
That I wish to quit.
I quit from sleepless nights on the couch,
Glaring at a screen that takes me away
From things that matter the most
No offence, but I can live without knowing
What happened to everyone else today.
I quit from letting others affect me,
From letting insults disguised as compliments
To get under my skin. I’ll leave them be.
They will have no place in my mind
Or my feelings or my memories.
I quit from being nasty to my body.
From wincing at my reflection
And telling it what it isn’t, what it can’t be.
From now on, I’ll tell myself I love it.
My marks my scars; flab or fab, I’m just me.
I quit from seeking validation elsewhere,
I’m enough, and that’s all there is.
Never again will I say, ‘Say something nice’
Has happened once, has happened twice
I promise myself it won’t come to this.
I quit from living in the past,
Carrying the massive burden of memories
Wherever I go, heaving and hauling,
Never forgetting, on the brink of forgiving,
But never quite letting them go…
I quit, I tell you, I quit from holding on.
That’s quite enough, my heart says.
What use is it to remember what was,
When this is what it is till the end of the days?
So there. I put it in writing so I know.
Yours sincerely, it further says,
A cluster of vivid dreams,
The entire rainbow of mixed emotion,
A study in conflicts, if you please.
And thus it ends, my resignation.
Sweet cravings in the long night
Of things that could be, things that might
Silky sheets slipping through fingers
Honeyed whisper that vaguely lingers
Two glasses of wine, one lip-stained red
Scattered crumbs on a tray by the bed
White satin gown, wrinkled, on the floor
Promises… promises, trapped by the door.
Blushed walls that sigh, waiting
Parted curtains, fluttering, flirting
Clammy palms, and a ring slightly loose
Hushed heated words, accusing of a ruse
A gasp, a plea, a fervent apology.
Sheets draped for modesty
Quiet of the night, sultry regret.
Salty tears, desires never met.
A knock on the door, quickening of breath
Coy unsure steps, knees that melt
Throwing caution to the wind, to hell with rules
Crushing, falling, dying… two fools.
Giving in to sweet cravings, witnessed by the night
Curtains parted, greeted with morning light.
Note: Like with everything else, there is a story behind this poem, and it is more funny than anything else. So this friend of mine and I were chatting about Puja and well, literal sweet cravings, when it struck me that Sweet Cravings could be the name of a song title. He sent me the first line and I took up the rest.
Thank you, sweet friend of mine (get it?) Had it not been for the free flow of conversation that I have been indulging in with abandon, had it not been for our shared obsession with the written word, had it not been for right words falling in the right place, I couldn’t have been inspired to write poetry in the middle of the night.