Lalbagh

Lalbagh has been the cause for many embarrassments in my life. The first time I saw it, I saw it two times but it felt like four. I had no idea there were 4 gates and sitting next to my friend in the bus, I saw the west and east gates in fifteen minutes and asked her if the driver was taking us round and round. Supriya slapped her forehead even as she struggled to keep from laughing rudely in my face.

She explained and I said, ‘oh’. Then I moved on with my life.

Many years later, my then best friend began frequenting Lalbagh. She’d sit there for hours, sometimes the whole day. She’d order from Dominos, eat cheese garlic bread and watch the lake. I never understood what she sought there but she went there every day. Whatever she sought, she must have found abundantly. She tried to get me to enjoy the quiet there and I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t something I wanted too much of. Now that I think about it, Josephine is probably the only woman from my past who knew how to be alone and enjoy it.

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One day in Lalbagh, Josephine and I were sitting on the bench and preparing to leave when suddenly, she grabbed me by the arm and started to whisk me away. ‘Whaaaat’, I moaned. ‘Don’t look back. Whatever you do, do not look back’, she muttered. So I looked back. A man who had been sleeping all evening had woken up and was now pleasuring himself quite ferociously. Like there was no tomorrow. The phrase ‘going to town’ came to mind.

That man effectively ruined our hitherto chaste friendship. We had never talked about bodily things before and suddenly we found it difficult to return to Lalbagh together.

After that unfortunate incident, I forgot all about Lalbagh and it went back to being that part of the road that smells nice when I ride past it. Occasionally, I’d give it a cheerless nod and bookmark it for the future.

***

Today, it rained so I thought why not and swerved right on Siddapura Road to park suddenly in the middle of actual riding. I parked and wondered if I had to pay. There was no counter so I walked on, looking back every now and then and half expecting an old man to come running after me, yelling at me to pay. Nobody came.

When I began looking around, I realised how afraid I am of my own thoughts. Every time a long walk is in the cards, I pack my ipod before anything else and rely too much on music to keep me away from myself. But the only music here was the crunchy footwear sound that I have come to appreciate so much. The after rain footwear on part dry crunch-crunch mud sound, like the sound people in cartoons make when they eat anything.

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The traffic noise seemed to be coming from an approaching city. It was drizzling and it seemed like the trees were making their own noise. Men in smart colored tees were jogging past me with their hoo hoo breathlessness. Somewhere an urdu speaking aunty was instructing her daughter to forget the ball forever if she dropped it into the lake. ‘Gaya tho uthech, bhoolna so’

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The lake became more and more real as I saw the birds near it. The faint traffic noise now seemed to be coming from above. I walked to the Lotus pond and trained my ears to pick up coastal sounds of frogs croaking. One, maybe two and then suddenly nothing. But the trees were having fun and continued making their rustling noise. I was understanding Josephine and began missing her terribly and missed also that outrageous man who molested himself.

It was a good day.

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Amma’s yellow nightie makes her face shine. She looks calm when she wears yellow. Except when I am late. Then she is never calm.

When I walk up to my room, one heavy step after another, my brown leather bag slinging morosely over my shoulder, strands of hair getting caught in the strap, I wish she is asleep. But she never is. She only sleeps after she has seen my two-wheeler parked outside. And when she has seen that, she doesn’t even see me. She walks back quietly to her room and I wait to hear the soft thud of her bedroom door closing. It’s only then that I can breathe out. My steps are far more confident when Amma isn’t home. I can breeze in happily through pa’s soft snoring and the slow, dry whizzing of the fan.

One morning I stood on the balcony and watched them go for their daily walk. My parents seem older and weaker when they are walking, especially when they are walking away from me — slowly, like every step counts, their backs slightly bent but quickly straightened after sudden remembering, their bodies – heavy and round, yet their fragile clothes hanging loosely.

Pa in his wrinkled white pajamas, eternally torn under the sleeves, forgotten, worn, taken off and then worn again. The small patch on his glistening bald pate looking smaller and helpless. Ma in her colorful chudidhar, her dupatta carelessly thrown over, so that one half of it is always traling after her loudly.

What were they talking about? I’m sure this and that. Loans, construction, BP tablets, my marriage, thyroid tablets, blood test, my brother’s tuition teacher, my marriage, granny, lunch, my marriage. That day I stood and watched them for a long time. I watched them until my neck could no longer be craned and until the road ended abruptly, rudely.

Like in most homes, we all know when pa is angry. I think Indian homes are built to acknowledge the man’s many moods. The home would shrink and become hot making it unbearable to live in pa’s anger’s aftermath. Even the kitchen smells would withdraw into a corner and there they would stand until it was safe to step out. When I was small, I wished that whenever pa was angry, all the volumes on all the TV’s and radios could just mute themselves. It was just too terrible when he was going to explode and Urmila Matondkar’s Kambakth Ishq was playing obscenely loud. Which meant that that day we were all going to be lectured not just for watching kachda Mtv but also for watching it on that obnoxious volume.

They rarely fight and I can only rememeber this one time that they fought. I learnt that Amma doesn’t cook when they fight. She sleeps the morning off and pa walks all over the house in a haze. His face is calm but his lips are gently pursed and every now and then, a tcha tcha can be heard. His hands run constantly against each other – the fingernails touching, grizzling, moving up and down in one swift motion. Baba Ramdev’s exercise for quick and thick hair growth. It has been over a decade now. No hair, nothing. But pa hasn’t stopped doing it. It’s a habit now. Hair can go to hell.

Pa goes out to buy food on these days.  On the dining table there are 5 newspaper packets — idlis, vadas, sambars and chutneys — all rolling in one thick Darshini smell. We’d eat some and save the rest for night.

The next morning when I’d finally see Amma, her eyes would be small and puffy and she wouldn’t linger out of the bedroom for very long. They’d patch up soon and the home would go back to being room temperature again, and all the smells would come out slowly, except that there’d still be a faint trace of the darshini idli chutney smell and this I’d only discover when I’d lock up all the doors and switch off all the lights and tiptoe towards my room. And here the only sound to accompany my dull footsteps would be the bright hum of the fridge.

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’

***

Lot’s Wife

I like watching women walk away. I realized this first when I was watching Piku. Piku and her friend, Syed are arguing and she has had enough. She holds the door open and wonders if she should sit in the car when suddenly, she announces, “You know what? I need a break” and then she just walks off. She walks off and doesn’t return to work for days after that. She cleans her home, arranges books, goes out for a party and does other things.

Season 3 Episode 8 of Gilmore girls: Lorelai, Rory and Emily all walk away. Richard has fixed an appointment with the Dean of Yale University without checking with either Lorelai or Rory. When he ambushes Rory outside the Dean’s office, Lorelai charges towards them and speaks to Rory.

When Richard interrupts, she says, “Rory – the only person I am speaking to. You don’t have to go in there if you don’t want to.” When Rory says she will go in, Lorelai walks away without saying a word. This isn’t a pissed off walking away. This is a – “I’m here for you and I won’t let them bully you so just say the word and we’ll go” – walking away.

I am always amazed when Lorelai walks away. She doesn’t want Rory to go in but she is gracious when Rory decides to. That’s the kind of walking away that comes from respecting people and their freedom. The kind that I hope I’ll be able to do one day.

Scenes later, Rory walks away from Richard and so does Emily. Except that when Emily walks away, I’m both amused and frightened. ‘Don’t you even look at me’, she says to Richard before storming off. It took me years to admit this but I never get tired of watching her on screen.

Someday I want to walk away like that. I want to walk away without wanting to look back. Often I look back because I feel like I have left something back and without it I cannot do anything. Often, it is nothing. Just my frightened self, sitting and staring at nothing.