F.R.O.G.S

This piece was written over a stretch of the first few rainy evenings in September. On the first evening, I sat at the department computer, earphones plugged in — listening to YouTube audios of croaking frogs, crickets and other night sounds.

Mangalore and Goa are two of my favourite cities because the frogs here know me well. What began as a tribute to frogs became an inward journey  into the home that I spent my childhood in.

TVs had a volume of their own here and this was the most liberating thing about the house. It was always blaring loud no matter who was around. Back home in Bangalore, every time I sensed my father’s mood swings, I wished all the TV volumes in the world would mute. But in Mangalore, rules bent themselves so neatly that we sat on them and made paper boats.

***

In the afternoons, Goa and Mangalore have the same slumberworthy capacities. The heat becomes duller, settling on the eyelids — making it heavy with sleep. And if there are trees around, the occasional rustle of the wind sends the birds into disarrayed flapping of wings, causing many hypnic jerks. The short dreams are always about birds – flapping eyelashes instead of wings. And, of aeroplanes that fly dangerously close to huts.

Read more here.

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Dilli

2015

Some cities share their stories with us so fiercely that when we leave, we don’t miss them anymore because their stories quietly replace them.

For the longest time, Delhi was lived quite precariously within the strong red walls of Karnataka Bhavan and its sombre neighbour, Ansal Plaza. This was where we headed to for a stroll, for pizza and to generally avoid the vacuum of living in a strange city and yet living outside of it.

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Early this year in Ansal Plaza, I found Hi Seoul, and I allowed myself to feel less tortured about not having the courage to explore Dilli. Finding Hi Seoul was the result of some form of exploration, I told myself. So as my parents and aunt trundled to Dominos’; the sister, the brother, and I walked to Hi Seoul.

The next day, we caught our early morning flight to Manali. Delhi safely went back to being the building we stopped at before resuming the actual journey.

***

2016

Chawri Bazaar

When I stepped out to go to Daryaganj, my phone was recovering from the heavy-duty Delhi Metro apps I’d just downloaded. Daryaganj, as my app pointed out, was squeezed between Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. The Chandni Chowk of Kajol from K3G’s galli, of delicious jelebis and cheap clothes that cousins talked about always a little breathlessly, and of the way my mother’s eyes turned suddenly soft and then shy when she recounted her second trip with dad there.

I cursed all my well-wishers back home who told me that I’d die if I didn’t take warm clothes and wear two socks and two bras in Delhi. I was baking – bra, body warmer, a full sleeved cotton shirt with frills, my brown jacket, socks and warm crocs.

I climbed out of the Chawri Bazaar Metro station and saw a line of cycle-rickshaws. My Google maps said walk 20 minutes to reach Daryaganj. I said chalo, why not and as I walked towards the footpath, one of my legs stood firmly in front of the cycle-rickshaw and refused to move. It all had to happen fast so obviously I went to the nearest cycle-rickshaw and looked inside. The last time I had seen one was in Band Baaja Baraat where Bittu and Shruti do their Shaadi Mubarak business phone call in a cycle rickshaw. Daryaganj jaana hai, I told my man. He nodded and I hopped inside.

My rucksack and I hugged each other as we sat because we were happy and didn’t want anyone or anything else in life. Except maybe some jelebis. Jelebis, yes. And as I sat there, bobbing up and down, I dreamt about a magic camera that could show you what all your friends were doing in that moment and then I imagined all my friends staring into my moment and feeling very happy for me. My father’s disapproving face appeared and I felt happier.

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The cycle-rickshaw braked and I fell, face -first on my man’s back. My rucksack fell and along with it, all my camera fantasies and hopes. My father’s face erupted into raucous laughter and I sobered down. I had arrived in Dilli. I held on tightly to the sides of my cycle-rickshaw and felt a little afraid for my life. My man was humming and braking and screaming at bike/car walas and jumping in and out of potholes with very little effort.

The road suddenly sprung to life and all the vehicles jammed on the lane started screeching away. There was no trace of a footpath — all the cycle-rickshaws had pulled closed to one another and were honking in unison. We were now on a two way road with a serious monopoly issue. Our side had colonised half the road.

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When we hadn’t moved for a while, I paid up and squeezed myself out and stood on no man’s land. I was trapped. There was no room for my rucksack and me to stand, let alone move. My man took pity and offered to drop me to the end of the road. I looked around to see various no man’s land people offering 100 bucks to just sit in the cycle-rickshaw.

Metro

The metro quickly became something I looked forward to travelling in everyday with a mild jouissance. Imagining my body and the bodies of many other women in the metro, lolling freely in the comfort of the ladies compartment made me want to know them differently.

A woman was reading a text book by the door – her lips pouting in enviable concentration, her eyelashes barely visible and her posture so confident, I wondered if she did this every day. Another wriggled into the space between two large women and apologized for her huge Mega Mart bag even as the women dutifully ignored her and went back to sleep.

On my last day in Dilli, two women asked me for directions and one of them enquired if I took the metro regularly. I shamelessly said yes and smiled like a maniac for the rest of the journey.

***

Daryaganj

Monica James writes in Invisible Libraries that today, the library of Daryaganj contains the city. ‘A walk through the library of Daryaganj is also a walk through the city and in your wanderings books become your guides.’

There were various kinds of libraries here: deodorants, clothes, sweaters, track pants, spiral-bound books, diaries, but mostly more books. They were pouring out of the pavements. Lines and lines of massive books in all sizes displayed on thick, plastic blue covers. I scored two Judy Moodys here for Rs 10 each and a moth-eaten copy of Austen’s Sanditon for Rs 30 which I bought only for the inscription I found inside:

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A mean sized auto pulled up at one of the pavements and a lean, short man wearing green chappals slowly started shutting down business for the day and arranging it in the back of the auto. Everywhere else, books were being returned to humongous plastic covers, rags and travel bags. One such pile was being stuffed in when I noticed a bent copy of Blankets. 200 Rs. I decided against it because by now my rucksack was threatening to burst. I still regret not buying it.

On the way back – the rush from before was gone and Meena Bazaar had fallen to a quiet mist. Shop after shop selling meat had their showcases filled to the brim with kebabs and sheeks. On the other side, boxes of sweet smelling fruits were piled on top of each other. At Jama Masjid, I cut into a galli full of weddingy shops: Invitation cards, tent works, plumbing, bride and groom clothes, and travel agents selling exclusive honeymoon deals.

In the corner, a thin man with a big scar on his forehead sat with his knees pressed to the chest – he was getting a shave from a large man dexterously waving his knife. All the top-half of the buildings in Chawri bazaar were blackened, dusty and closed. The lower half of the buildings flourished with activity. I walked on and on, realizing that in a parallel universe, I am sitting in one of the many balconies at Karnataka Bhavan gazing down at red brick walls.

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On & Off

After a devastating performance in class yesterday, I walked back to the department feeling unfamiliar pangs of guiltless-ness. A year ago, a bad class would have destroyed my inner peace and haunted the rest of my week. I’d find it very difficult to forgive myself. I am only now learning to let go. And this is very liberating because I know I will soon go back to the class and reclaim what I think I lost.

I am missing Delhi. I tell myself that I’d be restless there after three days. I tell myself that sometimes cities can show you their face only for two days and after that, they have nothing more to offer. Even so, when I was at the airport, boarding my flight back to Bangalore, there was a large Delhi-shaped emptiness that kept growing.

Delhi has always been scary. I still can’t bring myself to believe that on my first day there, I took myself out and plunged into the heart of the city with a rebellion I assumed only my parents could inspire in me. I took the metro and got lost, took the cycle-rickshaw and nearly died, walked from Daryaganj to Chawri Bazaar and didn’t have to punch anybody in the face.

On my last day there, a woman asked for my help with directions, and another woman asked me if I took the metro everyday. When I shamelessly said yes, she told me she was lost and I gave her the right directions. I can see myself living there and working there. This is enough imagination to sustain me for weeks.

Every time I explore a city alone, I find a piece of myself that I didn’t know was lost. This has been both gratifying and confusing to deal with.

In class today, we talked about Chaucer and writing. All the shattered selves from yesterday came back in silent prayer. With every passing day, my capacity to read is becoming increasingly demanding. One evening last week, I had a quiet affair with Habibi and got lost in its illustrations and story. We all had a lot to say about it at The Reading Room. Current read is Siddalingaiah’s ‘A Word With You, World’, which has been tempting me to return to my half-finished caste piece.

It is comforting to read Siddalingaiah. I wish I’d read the book last year, which may have been a time when I needed it the most. His stories remind me of my father’s childhood – they loom in the background and are told in a soothing voice. Never preachy nor patronizing, they reveal more than what I assume they can hold.

This has been my week – Habibi, Delhi, Metro, Chaucer, and Siddalingaiah.

Seeing and Reading

Pondicherry

Day Three – 11/10/16

When I am listening to the soundtrack of Pride & Prejudice, I imagine what it must be like to touch the keys of a piano. My sister and I were put in a music class in Belgaum once. We were new and mother made us do everything that our neighbours were doing. We were very late joining so the neighbour kids lent us their music book. It was filled with ragas, all written in neat, round Kannada.

Ma copied everything down in two separate notebooks.  She hand wrote it in a ball point pen. I don’t remember how long it took her. But we didn’t go to that music class for very long. We didn’t understand the instructions because they were in Marathi. One day, the music teacher played a tune on his harmonium and asked my sister, ‘ye raga cha naav kai?’ (What is the name of this raga?) And my sister screamed her name loudly. Everybody around us collapsed with laughter.

I was happy that at least we got people to laugh at us. I was sure they didn’t like us much. We were the strange girls from a strange town who didn’t speak their language.

***

When day 3 begins, I am sorry. My bus is at 11 pm and there is a lot to be done, drunken, walked on, touched and taken pictures of. In the middle of all this, I am worried because I only have Alice Munro to read and things with her are never quite simple. I decide to risk it and take her along. I leave the room determined to see and read as much as I can.

If it has rained all morning, I haven’t heard it. I can only tell by the suddenly wet roads. I take a little stroll by the beach and don’t recognise the almost vacant land before me. On a Tuesday morning, Beach Road was a ghost town. I walk to Indian Kaffe Express for breakfast. It’s a small restaurant with six tables and 2 waiters. And here I begin to read the first story in a book called ‘The Progress of Love’.

Reading Munro makes me hold out all my stories like one would hold out playing cards. In this moment, I see the capacity there is in all our lives for stories and storytelling. Atwood once said that in Munro’s stories she feels a nostalgia for vanished miseries.

The first story I pick is called ‘The Progress of Love’. It is the story of a girl, an old house with cornflower wallpapers, the many women and a few men in it. The girl recalls watching her mother trying to kill herself on a Saturday afternoon. Standing atop a chair, and noose around her neck, the mother tells her to go call her father. The girl runs down the hill, looks for her father at the farm, and cannot find him. She is still wearing her night clothes but she only realises this after it has been pointed out to her by a bunch of men who stand listlessly– ogling and sniggering at her. Your father is not here, they say and laugh loudly. The girl is repulsed by the sound of their laughter. Munro later says that the sound of a group of men laughing loudly is the most terrifying thing in the world.

While on the bus back home, there is a loud group of men that doesn’t shut up until very late in the night. They call each other loudly, make jokes and sing songs. By the cold silence that follows after, I can tell that everybody on the bus is annoyed with them. I am annoyed too but I am more afraid. Their voices are loud and all alike. Just before exploding into menacing guffaws, they whisper things to each other. Every time they do this, I tighten my grasp on the far end of the curtain and go deeper within the folds of my blanket. When they get off the bus at Electronic city, the many relieved faces of women and men peep out from the curtains. There is a long line of sighs heard. Mine, I am sure, is the longest.

***

The story continues. The girl runs back up the hill and waits for a train to pass by. Even as she waits, she bawls loudly in the faces of many strangers who are sitting by the window and watching her. This scene stayed with me. This is the most ridiculous, yet the boldest scene I have ever read.

My waffles are cold by now. I pack up and head towards the Romain Rolland Library.

It is a government -white building with dusty old stairs out the front. When I step in, I smell a faintly old library smell coming off the corners of the red oxide floor. I peep in and see some fifty old men sitting pinned in their white lungis and white shirts, all reading newspapers. My enthusiasm died a little bit and I left. I walked slowly towards the Pondicherry Museum.

The Pondicherry Museum is a treat. The first floor has a whole section of ancient coins, guns, swords and stones. The second floor has the entire bedroom/living room/dining room set of Governor Dupleix. This includes the hugest almirah I have ever seen and a giant piano. My favourite moment at the museum was watching two Tamil school boys gaping at a vintage car and nudging each other. ‘Par ra, indha car la, Jacku, Rosu titanic la kiss pannanga’ (See man, in this car only, Jack and Rose kiss off in Titanic)

I giggled at this for 5 minutes before regaining composure and heading for lunch.

***

Lunch was a solid 6 hour halt at Palais De Mahe. This was easily the best meal of the trip. Prawn Moilee with appam, 3 cocktails whose names I don’t remember, gin, and coffee. I sat with Munro, reading another story called ‘Lichens’

I was there until it was time for my bus. Flashback tells me that Goa was far more exciting. N suspects that I’m used to being on my own and that’s why it’s not what it was like. I am glad I did this though. I am happier and calmer. 

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Walking

Pondicherry

Day Two – 10/10/16

Google Maps is more reliable in strange towns. In my own town, it is an enemy. Surviving day 2 became easier only because of the GPS. I stepped outside my room nursing feel -good thoughts about coming back only in the night, and my anxiety from the previous evening dimmed slowly. I left to Cafe Des Arts at 9, found the same corner seat from the day before and spent most of my morning reading Kundera. It is an old french home with big windows and tiny doors. The furniture is a dark brown wood, the walls are painted white but have chipped and gathered themselves in dusty little corners. It is a very quiet place mostly because of the free WiFi. They have good breakfast, strong coffee and an assortment of mixed fruit juices.

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Cafe Des Arts

Rannvijay Singh walked in with his crew at one point and I was amazed by how much his voice sounded the same off screen.

Lunch was a tall LIIT, fish moilee, masala fried prawn, and rice at Villa Shanthi. For a while, I wondered if my restlessness had anything to do with the food and how much I was not looking forward to it. This was a definite dampener in an otherwise obnoxiously high spirited holiday.

Two years ago, when I traveled alone for the first time, it was hard to stop myself from feeling anxious everytime people left their tables. There would be no conversation with anyone, not even eye contact but their departure seemed personal to me in more ways than one. Their voices and conversations were comforting, like a background to resist feeling suddenly lonely.

My first dinner here was at Blueline, where I called ahead and made reservations. When I got there, the restaurant was empty. There were no strangers at the tables around me. I was left alone to read and it seemed strange that it should feel brutal.

I got over some part of this nonsense while I walked around the city today. After lunch, I walked to Zuka – the chocolate shop that apparently gives you chocolate cups that you can eat after you drink from it.

There were all manner of chocolate pastries, cakes and candies. I stood at the counter ogling at them all and sipping on a tiny cup of hot chocolate. Of course the cup wasn’t made of chocolate. The spoon was. Travel allows one to see how spoons become cups in stories.

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Hot Chocolate. And The Spoon.

I walked back to Le Club for dinner and found on the way– old, semi demolished houses with broken white pillars in the courtyard. There was a particularly old one with a large, carved wooden door at the front and a black, old-school sewing machine in the corner. The floors were all red oxide and a slab was cut out in the other side for people to sit.

I stood watching this for a while and forgot about taking a picture. The rest of the walk was spent fantasizing about old and forgotten houses. Fallen ones, ones still standing tall, the black house in Mangalore where ma grew up, the small one in chikkodi with purple walls and the two windows at the front that dad is so fond of. And the quiet, crumbling house with an exploding mango tree above it, that stands meekly on the main road towards Kammanahalli. Slowly I came around to the fact that I’ve never lived in a house with a courtyard or a nalukettu.

***

At Le Club, it begins to drizzle a little and the people around me stop their conversations midway and look up smiling. Some look nervous because the only table with a canopy is occupied. Some carry on with their lives, convinced there won’t be any rain. Le Club is huge. I am noticing details that I’d noticed the first time I came here years ago and then I’m not sure if I really did come here and wonder if it was perhaps another place.

It rains. They show me to the reception with big and dusty sofas, I sit with my feet up and look around. A couple is perusing the menu and debating ordering steak. They are wondering if they can both share one.

I let my wine sit in its glass for over 2 hours. The waiters get restless and keep asking me if I want anything else. I wait for the rain to stop, finish the novel and leave. My walk to the room isn’t made as dramatic by Kundera as I’d wished. I am taken by the quiet I feel everytime I finish reading his novels. I am unsettled by how well he knows his women characters, and both charmed and annoyed by his assumptions but then I always forgive him.

Ruzena’s uncertainty, Kamila’s insecurity and their eventual freedoms were both very reassuring to read. It is quite possible to fall in love with people in a matter of seconds, just as it is possible to fall out of love with them overnight. After a long day of walking, this is the most comforting thing to think of in bed.

 

White Town

Pondicherry

Day One – 9/10/16

At the bus stand in Majestic last night, a boy stood with karpura, agarbatti and a coconut in front of a Greenline bus. The Phoren woman next to me panicked a bit and asked her friend what he was going to do with it. Before the friend could answer, the coconut had been smashed to pieces on the concrete, bits and pieces flying everywhere.  We all held our breaths for a while and watched as the Karpura burnt a brilliant orange first before dying out a nice, warm yellow. The man on my right said that he was relieved it was not his bus. The Phoren woman smiled but looked unconvinced. I think she wanted to go in that bus.

Sleeper buses can be fun. As long as there are no crying babies aboard. As it turns out, I did have a crying baby in the berth next to mine and an irritating girl in the berth above who listened to some asinine music on speakers –full volume that too. I did the only thing I saw fit. I fished out my phone and played some equally asinine music on loud. She persisted and I kept increasing the volume on my phone. I was a little disappointed though. Nobody complained. Eventually, her song got over and bitch went to sleep.  When I woke, Pondicherry was slowly coming to its morning outside my window. I saw the sun first and then the dry bits of land and then the sudden uprisings of sugarcane.

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***

My room wasn’t ready yet. So I walked into Café Des Art.  I’d just had a remarkable morning. My body has timed itself to a 6:20 defecation mode.  So as soon as I got off the bus, I ran into JIPMER and hounded people to show me the way to the toilet.

At Café Des Art, I went to the toilet to cleanse off remnants of a bad stomach morning and walked in on a poor white man who raised himself off the commode when he saw me. I ran away quickly even as he chanted numerous apologies. I spent the remainder of my time at the café hiding from the man.

***

I read Kundera and drank chai. M once told me that he can never finish reading a Kundera because Kundera says things that require one to put the book down and think. And sometimes, there’s no end to this thinking.

This is true.

Nothing absorbs a human being more completely than jealousy. When Kamila lost her mother a year earlier, it was certainly an event more tragic than one of her husband’s escapades. And yet the death of her mother, whom she loved immensely, caused her less pain. The pain of her grief was benignly multicoloured- there was sadness in it, and longing, emotion, even a serene smile.  The pain was benignly dispersed in all directions. Kaila’s thoughts rebounded from her mother’s coffin and flew off toward memories, toward her own childhood, they flew off toward dozens of practical concerns, they flew off toward the future, which was wide open and where, as consolation, her husband’s figure stood outlined.

The pain of jealousy on the contrary, did not move about in space, it turned like a drill on a single point. There was no dispersal. If her mother’s death had opened the door to a future, the suffering caused by her husband’s infidelity opened no future at all. Everything was concentrated on a single image.

***

White Town is very quiet through the day. The houses are painted a polished, translucent white and the compounds are all yellow with patches of dirt. The doors are occasionally green but mostly they are white. Like from a Marquez novel, White Town and its people siesta in the noon.

The dogs hardly bark and just laze and nap on the steps. Most of the buildings have been pulled down and their ghosts collect themselves in heaps of powdery white cement. When I crashed and woke up well after noon, lunch was over in Pondicherry. Even my own guest house had closed their kitchen. Only one Madame Shanthe’s was open and let me in. I ordered fish but they gave me meat that tasted suspiciously like chicken. I ate anyway, paid and set off.

***

Travelling Solo was a lot more exciting when I did it that one time – the first time. Now that I know I can travel alone, it has become a lot less rebellious and more affected by dreary every day-ness.

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I came here for quiet, for time-off, for roaming empty streets in the middle of the night without having to worry about home or the next day. All of that remains. But there is a gnawing restlessness. While being by myself is always exciting, there’s just too much pressure to have an incredibly perfect trip. To wear the most comfortable clothes, to walk around aimlessly in shoes that don’t bite, to not have the hot weather bother you, to be lucky enough to eat only good food and to somehow manage to find time to do everything.

My room is matchbox sized with only the one window that opens to the backyard and to the direct view of everybody who is in the backyard. That’s why I keep the curtains drawn all the time, therefore endangering the only source of light. A dim yellow bulb hangs over the bed and this depresses me a lot. For the first time, I unpack haphazardly. I leave the bag on the floor, clothes strewn about. My tooth brush and paste are still in the bag and I am a little hurt by how unbothered I am by all of this.

If being unbothered by one’s capacity for alone-ness is growing up then I must say, I don’t like growing up so much.

***

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I walk for a while after lunch and start looking for a place to drink. I find Le Dupleix and occupy a corner table. I order beer because everything else is too bloody expensive. My beer comes with a bowl of crackers and I start writing. I am unfazed by tone, faithfulness to truth and other things that usually keep me away from writing. I stop at 5:30 and head towards the beach.

There is a crowd that is slowly gathering by the beach. People seat themselves in all kinds of positions atop the big black stones that line the beach. I choose a spot and around me are three families. In the farthest corner is a group of young people — the three boys are sitting on the topmost stones, and the girls are sitting in the gaps between the boys’ legs. One of the boys snatches away a sea shell that the girl was holding. He passes it to another boy and they watch as the girl screams and tells them to give it back. The boy swings the shell back and pretends to throw it into the ocean; the girl holds her breath and then breaks into a smile. She takes the shell back and resumes her position again.

On my left is a smaller group. A toddler who is balancing himself on one of the stones, his mother and aunt watching over him, a middle-aged man – his back to the ocean watching his son. In front of me, a small boy blows bubbles from one of those bottled liquid soap things. It has changed from the time I remember it. It doesn’t come with the tiny straw or the steel loop attached to it anymore. The cover of the bottle has a yellow plastic loop. The boy holds it high and waits for the wind coming from the ocean to blow bubbles. The wind must have been strong because the bubbles are big and are carried away to the other side. The toddler squeals with joy everytime the bubbles sit on his face and burst. His parents watch him longingly, pleased.

***

My restlessness seems to get worse when I am at dinner, which is Pina Colada and fish. The food is depressing but Kundera keeps my spirits up and running. I walk back to my room in a hurry. For some reason, I can never bring myself to stay out late in strange towns. When I am back, I tidy up, take a quick hot shower and lie awake for a long time.

At the beach, there was a woman who was taking pictures of her daughter and her toddler son. The daughter was sulking and the son was playing with the sand. After a while, the woman showed her daughter a picture she’d just taken and said, ‘You just want to spoil all the pictures no? You only pose when you want to pose. Just like your father’

***

I see in my mind sepia photographs of women in coffee shops

I see in my mind, sepia photographs of women in coffee shops.

One is sitting by the window, hand in hair, palm on cheek, looking out the window.

One is sitting with a book, not reading.

One is sitting with her coffee, waiting. Waiting waiting waiting.

And then I see Eiffel tower in black and white and next to it, a coffee shop.

I see a woman rocking back and forth on a plastic chair. Somebody has offended her and she is wondering if she should respond.

She will pause, take a deep breath, roll her eyes and let go.

I see a man with crew cut sitting with a magazine, not looking up.

Often I have thought that our cook, Shobamma looks like a teletubby in a sari. She has a green sari, a white and a cream one. When she cackles with laughter, her body shakes. Often I have wanted to sit with her and talk to her about life.

She says definitely, some day.

I nod.

Will I ever be the woman in these sepia photographs?

I wonder.

I see my mother sitting with her big family in a black and white photograph. It looks painted and a scary time in history to have lived. She is wearing a white blouse and a printed brown skirt. Her face is round, like I have always found mine to be.

I see three women sitting and laughing at a bar. They have all let their hair open. They each have a beer mug in hand and they seem like a portrait. They seem unbothered by where they are or who is watching them.

I see women in sepia photographs taken in some far away country whose name I cannot pronounce because it is too difficult.

I see a woman in all these photographs. She is as real as I am and probably more because she is unafraid of being alone.

 

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Here is the writing by Ila Ananya that inspired this poem.