On Yesterday’s Red.

Written in today’s past: the red.

***

In the morning: the red of Merlot tea, the red of a skirt skimming ankles, the red of swollen lips, the red of Jog Raga in Adi Taal. Same red.

The red of my tea reminds me of you. Sometimes, I don’t know what I am looking for when I look for red. 

The music changes; now it is a sitar concert by Anoushka Shankar. She introduces her pieces in French, thanks the audience for listening. The words are melodic, mellifluous; I think of Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. At that moment, a familiar feeling brushes past. Yearning. Then, immediately after, a picture. The red of Moulin Rouge stark against the dark of the Parisian sky.

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I was in Paris once.

Anoushka Shankar begins to play her piece; the sitar music is comforting. The red in the Jog Raga is not unfamiliar. The Merlot tea is cooling. Red tea, with two sugars. That is how it began. I still remember.

A breeze lifts the hem of my red skirt slightly. The red spills over from my lips.

On Love.

I’m nervous and antsy because I’m not sure what is the story I’m trying to tell. Is it about love? Is it about my skeleton-filled closet that I’m valiantly trying to clear, day in and day out? Is it about the beautiful conversations I have had over these past few days? Is it about the few women and men I know who remind me that we are not alone, we are a community, that we all feel the same way? Is it about my family? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nevertheless, let me try to tell this story. It has been brewing for so long; it needs a release.

I write a lot about love. If you follow me on Twitter, or my blog, you will see that the little anecdotes I share, the little quotes that I post, the articles that I retweet, are inadvertently linked to this grand, old concept. I am a romantic, and an idealist, but these facets of my personality are not the main reasons why I keep coming back to this seed of thought over and over again. I write so much about love because truthfully, I don’t understand it.

And that is how I deal with things I don’t understand. I write about them, rearrange words on blank sheets over and over, until there is some semblance of order to the mess in my head (or heart, these days, they are both the same, I tell you). It’s my way of feeling that I am in control of what I don’t know. I am aware it is quite farcical, but it helps in soothing the anxiety in my mind. And so, another day will pass.

I also write a lot about love because I have an abysmal, abysmal, abysmal track record with it. (Even as I write this statement, I know it is not altogether true. But let me come to that in a while). I spent most of my teenage years being in love with someone who never quite felt the same way about me. Then I was in a long-term relationship that, as most of these tales go, ended badly and left me half the person I was. I am not blaming this on my partner; I was young, and I had many other things that contributed to the slow whittling of my person and my heart. By the time I got out of it, I had spent close to ten years on two people who were, simply put, no longer around. By the time a decade passed, and by the time I figured out it was time to start putting myself back together, I felt older, and more tired than ever before. I was also deeply miserable, and yearning, but for what, I didn’t quite understand.

As a rule, I don’t date much. I am terrible with small talk, I can’t stand faking niceties, and I’m a forced extrovert. Dating generally is a conglomerate of the above, and it takes more out of me than the satisfaction it gives. The only reason I even began, was because my best friend S, reminded me that I had to give life a try again. I couldn’t be sitting in a cave and moping. I had been doing that for a long time, you see.

I met a few men, all of whom exhibited similar patterns of behaviour. Enamored on the first date, around for a few weeks, and then radio silence. An event happening once could be one of chance, the same event happening twice could be a strange incident of coincidence, but anything more than that is a clear sign of a pattern being played out. I talked about this with S.

“Is there an inherent flaw?” The unsaid part of the question was whether this was a flaw in me. I couldn’t bear to say it to S, but he knew exactly what I meant.

“No. It is not you. But, Arathi, in a way, it is also you.”

I was quiet. My heart was hurting.

“You need to understand why this is what you think you deserve.”

Trust S to ask me to ask myself the hard questions. Perhaps that is why we are friends. Because he is never afraid to be honest with me. Never afraid to break down the carefully constructed glass walls that glisten with what most would think to be awareness, but is mostly fragility, vulnerability, hurt.

I didn’t have an answer that day. But the question remained. Because it was true. We allow into our lives the people we think we deserve. We allow ourselves to be treated in a certain way because we feel we either deserve that much, or that little. What was the reason I was constantly shortchanging myself, letting myself be a kind of waterhole where people came, received, and left? Why did I feel that I only deserved a part of someone’s attention? Why was I so goddamn afraid to ask for time or for an answer?

I was sharing my frustrations with another friend, also S. I asked her, why was it that men were so strange. (Forgive me, this was not a sexist question, but one that was just borne out of weeks and months of perplexity). She said she didn’t know, that she asked herself the same questions herself. We shared our mutual exasperations and then I went, “You know, S, if women did it for me, I would have asked you out by now.” She laughed, and told me that she felt the same. We agreed we were soul mates. I felt happier, contented that I could share my honest thoughts with someone and not be judged. Someone who would ask after my day and after my heart, the two things that got to me each and every time. Here, was love. This too, was love. Just not the kind the world was used to hearing about, or understanding.

Yesterday, I met a friend from Twitter whom I have been meaning to meet for a while. These online friendships are always a worrying thing, aren’t they. You know these people’s words and the shades of their lives that they so readily share on social media, you build impressions of them in your head which you hope and pray are similar to the real deal, and then you take the friendship to a next level by meeting the living, breathing heart behind that person. Sometimes, you hit the nail on the head and find a friend for life. Other times, you leave the scene shaking, and wondering how completely disparate a person’s online personality is vis-a-vis their real person.

M was a case of the former, a complete and utter gem of a person. We sat by the river and exchanged snippets of our lives before the conversation inadvertently turned to love. (Really, sometimes I think it is the only thing worth talking about, worth thinking about, but this is me. You may wish to disagree). We talked about love, and we talked about men, and we talked about ourselves, and wherein we tried to deconstruct why we were the way we were, we ended up talking about our mothers.

I have said this before and I will say this again; when you are a woman, it always goes back to the woman you came from.

I expressed the same frustrations that I had earlier shared with S and S; M and I found ourselves agreeing with each other that we had both exhibited similar behaviours. This fear to ask, this inability to demand, this need to give, this assumed facade of being strong all the time, this deep sense of disappointment we carried when the few expectations we had never came to fruition….

It was mindblowing. It was mindblowing, because as S had rightly asked me earlier, it had to do with me. It had to do with the roles that I had assumed as a child. It had to do with the fact that my mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was very young, and I had no choice but to step into shoes that I had not altogether been prepared for. My mother, at that time, had needed me to be strong. She had needed me to be there for her. She had needed me to give. And like any other daughter who just wanted to make her mother’s pain go away, I had taken it into myself, swallowed the responsibilities whole without quite digesting them, and let them build into these little boulders that sat in the pit of my stomach. It meant that I was constantly in a state of helplessness, because I didn’t know what more I could do for my mother, I didn’t know how much I could help, I didn’t know why I couldn’t just take all that pain away.

This helplessness, this need for giving, then manifested strongly, and unhealthily in my relationships with men. It meant that I was willing to give, and give, and do and do, and be afraid to ask or demand things in return. It meant that the thought of loss and helplessness was so difficult for me to deal with that I would be okay with putting up with sub-standard behaviour, because really, that was all I thought I deserved. It meant that I attracted men who wanted to take, and who were selfish enough (I don’t say this with spite, just matter of factly) to not give much in return. And I had convinced myself that I was okay with it.

When, really, I wasn’t. At all. I was not okay with it at all.

I realised how not okay I was with this while I was talking to another friend, V. My conversation with V was so strikingly, uncannily similar to the one I had with M, that I knew this was something that had to be shared. As V kindly, and lovingly reminded me, the awareness of why certain habits manifested the way they did was the first step in dealing with said habits. She also reminded me, ever nurturing that she is, that developing new habits was not that hard, that all I had to do was start. Like asking for what I wanted. For being unapologetic about the desires I had. For not being afraid to admit that I was angry, or unhappy, and to expect others to compromise for me. I agreed with V. Told her I loved her, and that I had needed to hear this.

And here I am, trying to write it all out so that there is some sense in this cacophony.

It all boils down to love. I wrote earlier that I have an abysmal track record with it, but the truth is, for all the disappointments and heartbreaks that I have gone through, I have also hit the damn jackpot with the people who continue to remain in my life. There is a community of men and women here who remind me that I am not alone, that they have got back my back, who have cleaned up my vomit on drunken days and fed me food on depressed nights. There are girlfriends who have never given up, even when I have. There are good men, who remind me that there are good men out there (not that the ones I met were not good, they were just not what I needed in my life) who would understand and appreciate what people like me would have to offer. Then, there is my family, which remains an oasis of comfort, strength and support despite the different levels of asshole-ishness I exhibit on various days.

In my rabid, narrow-minded attempt to understand romantic love, I forget the daily blessings that are delivered to me on a plate every other hour. So this, this is my note of reminder to myself.

That I am healthy, that I am loved, and that I can and will receive completely, as I am.

And if your story carries shades of mine, I urge you, from the bottom of my heart, to start with me. We need to begin somewhere, after all.

 

love.

A Safe Place.

There are very few people who are relentless caretakers in the world. I would like to think, in my more arrogant and presumptuous moments, that I am of that variety, but the truth is, I’m too selfish to be that person. My “I” is still too strong for me to safely say that I am anything close to that. But I am working on it. Working on it.

I do know, however, of one such person in my life. For as long as I can remember, she is the only person whom I’ve seen give so much, give, give, give, without asking for anything, anything in return. When I think of unconditional, I think of my aunt, S. She, who has been more of a mother to me than my own mother (my mother is demanding for attention, for affection, but S, oh, she just gives it all like the river and the sun).

I learnt about food from S. I’ve always said that S has a gift like no other, one wherein she feeds and nourishes others. Kind of like Mother Earth, but of the culinary variant. All her siblings, including my mother, and their children, and their husbands, have had at least one handful of her delicious cooking in the course of their lives. Me, I’m the lucky one. Born in an awkward period where I was the baby of the matriarchal clan for decades, I grew up on S’s cooking, and her love.

Maybe that’s where I learnt first about the art of giving. From her kitchen.

She would cook the most amazing, mouth watering dishes, and then pack them for different members of her family; neat little plastic boxes filled with richly coloured, sumptuous food that we would keep for days, only because they were so good, and there was so much of it.

I’m so spoilt on S’s cooking that to this day, all of my mother’s earnest attempts pale terribly in comparison. (Sorry, mama. Your sister wins, always.)

I’m with S and my grandmother this evening. It is a warm, 5pm moment, and I am staying over. I haven’t been the best, both physically and emotionally for a little while now, and since young, when I need to be taken care of, I retreat to the only place where I can rest (or breakdown) – with S and my grandmother.

I know my mother has been getting worried. For all my preaching and sounding like I’ve got my shit together, I don’t deal very well when my own insides are knotted up. I retreat into myself, become ridiculously quiet, and blank people out. I cry at weird times; when I’m riding the bus back home, or when I’m sitting at the park watching the sunlight dance on leaves. I write about stupid things, like inks and hands and memories. I pray a lot and I forget how to smile properly. The few people who know me well know that this is my coping mechanism, and though they don’t necessarily agree with the way I deal (or don’t deal), they tolerate me in the nicest way possible.

This time though, I had been back home for about 5 days, and had said about as many words to my folks. I had also been really ill, which meant that I had spent copious amounts of my time wondering why I was in a constant state of pain. All in all, it was a sorry scene.

While I was moping at home one hot afternoon, I received a call from S; she wanted me to come over and stay one night with her. It had been a while since I had spent time with her and my grandmother, and I wanted out from the four walls of my flat. It sounded like the perfect plan. We agreed on a date, and I hung up the phone feeling a little better.

This too, is not a new phenomenon. All my life, I have slept in S’s home with my grandmother whenever I couldn’t deal with the reality of things. I would spend the day on the couch that we’ve had for about 12 years; S would feed me periodically every 30 minutes, interspersing the feeding with small talk about film actors, the weather, music, our family members. My grandmother would call out to me from her bed, first asking me who I was, and if I had eaten, and how I was feeling. My grandmother hasn’t remembered me for years now, but it doesn’t matter. Each introduction feels like a new blossoming of an old love that I hold so close to my heart.

The day would pass by in a dreamy haze; everything about the tender environment created, the good food, the soft music, the sunlight and wind in this house that stands a little above other houses, the quiet- this has remained my safe place in this mad jungle of a city.

I spent my earlier days in their arms; now, as I grow older, I return to this place over and over because the aches and pains I carry are those of that same child, seeking the same solace, the same comfort, the same need to be taken care of, as before.

S is my hero, role model, mother, friend, and an embodiment of the purest kind of love I have ever seen in any human being. I carry a gratitude that comes from being the child that was nurtured and fed, but beyond that also lies a a gratitude that is deeper, that is much more pervasive and alive, for having someone who lives by example, who shows me how I want to be when I grow up.

It is now 9pm. We have had a good day, listening to music, complaining about the heat, eating S’s scrumptious vegetarian feast which she cooked especially for me, and now, we are winding down. S will retire with my grandmother, but before that, she is making my bed for me. You need new sheets, she says. She has also given me a new pair of pajamas to wear for the evening, and made me a hot drink. Soon, she will sleep, and so will my grandmother, and this little slice of heaven will drift into darkness, only to be awakened by creeping light, the fingers of an eager dawn.

Tonight, that tired child in me will be able to sleep comfortably, because she is home. And tomorrow, it will be a new day.

 

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Ink-stained hands.

This morning, my hands are ink-stained. There are streaks of black along the tips of my index and middle finger on my right hand; a smudge on the front side of my right thumb that is shaped like a continent, a lighter smudge on the base of my right palm, and a splotch of ink darker than my skin along one of the veins on the upper part of my left hand.

A person’s hands are a flowering universe, filled with possibilities.

A person’s hands are a doorway to love.

I’ve fallen in love with strong fingers that circled the rim of a wine glass so softly. I’ve fallen in love with hands that held a guitar as gently as they would, a baby. I’ve fallen in love with fingers and nails caked with dirt after working with soil for years, and years. I’ve fallen in love with hands that have birthed.

I come from a woman whose one hand is deformed, gnarled. That hand has taught me the most about love.

April’14, Munnar, Kerala, India. A small office, with a barely working AC. An old man, with a few teeth, eyes hardly open. A magnifying glass. One crooked finger tracing the palms of both my hands. “Your hands have too many deformities. Love will be difficult for you, success and money, much easier. It must be something you must have done in your past life.”

The finger stops at a big mole on the base of my left hand. “A massive obstacle awaits you in finding love and joy. Take yourself to a mountain, there lies a rock, stay, pray. Or I could do it for you.”

All of this in mangled Malayalam, which is translated by a man who speaks of White Persons and Foreign Connections and Money and Property. There is hollow laughter.

I come back and ink onto my veins the only truth I know.

Love deeply.

The blood continues to flow into my hands, a reminder.

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Of people and places.

To anyone and everyone who feels the same.

***

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t fall in love with places. You can.

You will fall in love with the shapes of the winding, bumpy, roads, the cool, dry breeze that flirts with your pink silk dress, the traffic cacophony of honks and choice swear words that punctuate the night air, the trees lining the dirt paths that are tall and large and green, the black bike that you sit on as a pillion rider, the dark interiors of a reclining bus where you hold hands and feel your heart beat in your mouth, the chaat store down the road where you gobble down little containers of masala puri and dahi puri and marvel at the coolness and heat that melts in your mouth.

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You will fall in love with the mall where she brings you to buy earrings because she insists, insists you need a birthday gift, the same mall where you are climbing up an escalator pretending to be cool, calm and collected but instead you trip in front of someone you really want to make a good impression on, the same mall where you came a year ago to meet a little friend and shared donuts with, the same mall.

You will fall in love with the roadside curb you sit on and smoke copiously, the lake you walk around again and again as you scoff at lovelorn couples, the book store where you pick out reads for yourself and for people you love, the restaurant at the rooftop where you sit and discuss politics with friends and lovers of friends who are now your friends, the  rickshaw that you sit in and the driver rips you off so bad you wonder what the hell is wrong with you in dealing with people and places.

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You will fall in love with the balcony that you sit at and have coffee on the fourth morning because you are baking in the sunshine and writing, flower girl that you are, the same balcony where you will sit on the last day and write love letters and weep and weep, not quite sure if you’re weeping because you’re leaving the place or the people, the same balcony where your best friend will hold you and tell you to man the fuck up, the same balcony where you will sit with swollen eyes on that last day and watch the laundry flutter in the wind and stare hard at the two crows that are staring really hard at you, while your friend goes: two crows for joy, see, two crows for joy.

 

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(Now, I don’t quite know if I’m writing about my love for the people or the place. It’s the same thing, really, this feeling that fills my womb and heart and skin and eyes.)