May 20, 2014

The Submarine Life of Cacti

I am seeing cacti everywhere these days: an Instagram feed, foregrounding the frames of the TV show, Breaking Bad – and finally, in a sunlit glasshouse at the Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. I should perhaps now amend my statement; it was after my memorable encounter with them at Phipps that I have begun to notice them everywhere. 

Having explored room after room of luxuriant, almost obscenely green, tropical bushes and trees, it was somewhat a relief to encounter the cacti's austere beauty in the Conservatory's Cactus Room. And even though I had wholeheartedly admired the bonsai trees' micro perfection, the iridescent orchids, and the cocoa tree with its fat gold pods, embryonic chocolate bars nestled within them, I could not help thinking afterwards that the Cactus Room was undoubtedly my favorite one. 

 I wonder if it is because it appeals to my inner desert girl. Until recently, I grew up and lived in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman; the majority of its terrain is indeed a textbook dune desert, although I happened to live upon the fringes of its gravel desert. There are no cacti in Oman, but the flora is similar: minimal leaves, spare sculpted bodies, and a tenacious will to survive. Incidentally, desert also inhabits my bloodline: I belong to Rajasthan, India, which too is a desert and whose landscape does happen to be dotted with spiny, gray-green cacti. This combination of genes and happenstance probably explains my simultaneous inclination for both maximalism and minimalism; having been surrounded by minimalist landscapes, I naturally gravitate towards a pared down beauty and - yet, also occasionally and intensely crave fertile, lush bursts of color and texture. 

As I roamed through the Cactus Room, I could not help but think about my first encounter with them when I was thirteen years old. It was during a pan-American trip, involving a detour through Arizona. After weeks of witnessing the glorious summer green, I felt as if I was meeting a familiar friend as the coach trundled through the desert: I thirstily absorbed the arid, fantastical wind-eroded rocks, the cerulean blue skies, and the garden of cacti. Even if the cacti themselves were unfamiliar, they looked familiar simply by the virtue of inhabiting a similar looking landscape. And in the Cactus Room, as I examined with interest this desert in miniature, admiring a succulent cheekily masquerading as a flower in bloom, I realized that these transplanted cacti had transplanted me back home...once again. 

As I photographed the cacti – round and spiny, long and tapering - I idly imagined I had wandered into a fossilized ocean, the water long having receded and left behind these specimens in its wake. When I was a child, I would often go rock collecting in Oman, which is widely recognised to be a vast geological garden of sorts. As I sorted through the rocks, I would often discover ones bearing imprints of fossilized shells or plants or marine organisms: I realized that I was literally standing on an ancient sea-bed, the ocean having vanished millions of years ago as a result of plate tectonics choreography. For years, the rocks I collected accumulated in my backyard corner, becoming a pyramid of sorts; however, although even when my rock mania died and the pyramid disintegrated, I never forgot about those submarine fossils. 

A few weeks ago, I had gone snorkeling for the first time in the waters of Florida Keys. I had swum just beneath the surface of its brilliant blue waters, cobalt blue and yellow-hued fish inches away from my face and peering down at the fecund coral garden blooming below. Growing up in Oman and regularly haunting its numerous beaches, the sea and the beach had always called out to me, defining me in a way that no landscape ever could. Even if I lived in the desert, I yearned for the sea. And yet, for all those years of frequenting the ocean, this was the first time that I had actually explored the depths of its interiors, seen and swam with its creatures and – understood it. The essence of the ocean was ultimately this submarine theater. And it was an ocean continents away that taught me that. 

 Standing in the Cactus Room, I felt a similar sensation to that of snorkeling beneath the ocean. After years of living in the desert, I had merely begun to see it as the desert, rather than composed of a mosaic of eccentric, intriguing characters and elements. But this is the thing about leaving home: you can only begin to define home once you have left it. Reflecting on the multiple homes that I had inhabited: Australia, India, Oman, United Kingdom and America, by way of birth or heritage or education or marriage, each journey and the subsequent new place I called home led to constantly recalibrating what home represented to me. Home, I learnt, was no longer just a set of coordinates on a map: it was a sensation, elusive and ephemeral as a scent but just as palpable and memorable. 

Here, in a doll-house desert transplanted in a glasshouse surrounded by an arctic Pittsburgh winter, I was conjuring up home: the desert as the ocean or vice versa. As I saw and experienced it, the two landscapes most familiar and dear to me had perfectly mashed in the cactus room at the Phipps Conservatory. As I walked around, soaking in this submarine and subterranean theater, I felt at home. 

My wanderings in the Cactus Room brought me to an enormous yellow and green striped succulent  and vibrantly hued, spiny cacti surrounding it. In my vision, it metamorphosed into a mutated octopus reigning over the ocean-floor: it looked as if it was in deep slumber with its sea-urchins and coral courtiers protectively guarding it. I knelt down, took its picture, and then left - lest it woke.


This piece was originally published in 1for1000; the idea is to produce a thousand word narrative inspired by a single image. In my case, the cacti that I saw at the Phipps Conservatory had greatly fascinated me and this image in particular found me re-imagining it as a group of submarine creatures....and so this essay was born! In fact, cacti have intrigued me so much that I won't be surprised if they weave themselves into more of my future writings...

What has dramatically captured your attention and become an enduring inspiration? I would love to hear!

May 14, 2014

Beneath a Starlit Sky: Thoughts on 'Highway' and Travelling in Rajasthan

Seeing the Light: a still from Highway

In an early scene of the recently released Hindi film, Highway (dir: Imtiaz Ali), we find its heroine, Heera (Alia Bhatt) stumbling across cracked earth beneath a star-studded sky. She is trying to escape her abductors, who ironically, have allowed her the freedom to attempt an escape. She is alone, petrified and stranded in an unfamiliar terrain.

Something powerful however happens beneath those starry skies and within the chamber of the desert's vast, unrelenting dark emptiness; Heera seems to experience an existential crisis of sorts in which it appears that she has absolutely no idea of her identity. Who is she? Why is she here? And what precisely is she escaping from? And more importantly, what is she escaping to? She eventually returns to her abductors, sobbing and barefooted having left behind her black ballet flats. The shoe analogy continues on in the movie, as we eventually see her in a different pair of shoes and - indeed, Heera appears to have shed her acquiescent personality and adopted another, embarking on a real and metaphorical journey, one that significantly could not have been possible had she still be donning her posh ballet flats. To further extend the shoe/costume analogy, as she transitions from one costume to another, she willingly sheds the garments of her former life for this new one. 

As I watched Heera run beneath the starry sky, I was reminded of a new moon night on a recent vacation in Florida. Given that so much excess light contaminates our urban night-skies, it was a veritable luxury to sit beneath such a clear celestial canopy. As we lay on the beach and examined the sky, using a phone app to identify the individual stars and planets, the sky was no longer just a mass of stars: it was a literal universe of stars with their attendant histories and identities. It struck me that while daylight inevitably conceals the stars, they are increasingly becoming invisible even during the night itself. One of my most vivid memories of that Florida vacation is the unadulterated clarity of the starlight and the pure silence of the sea at night. Thinking of the starried night sky in Highway, it made me revisit memories of my own Indian travels. Was I simply experiencing the outlines of the journey rather than being aware of and appreciating its specific details? 

As Heera contemplates the salt-encrusted earth in another one of the film's early scenes, she mentions that she did not know that she could journey to places as she is currently doing, so accustomed as she is to defining travel through a series of luxury hotels, restaurants, cars and tours. As viewers, we may not necessarily identify with the nature of the journey she embarks upon, both its interior and physical aspects and of course, the chilling circumstances leading to it – what her journey did compel me to do was to meditate on whether I have ever experienced the real India? 

As the film navigates the artery of roads in my home-state, Rajasthan, I remembered the countless road-trips I have taken in Rajasthan myself: yet, they were singularly focusing on one destination to another. I never stopped en route at villages: the huts, the people, and the animals simply flashed past me, as if I was scrolling through the busy homepage of a social media newsfeed. How much of the state and its character was I experiencing? What, indeed, was I experiencing of my country through my travels? 

Waiting for Rain: a still from Highway

The insularity of the comforting, almost soporific existence that Heera leads in Delhi implodes with the event of her abduction; she experiences life pared down to the simplicities such as the gorgeously shot scene in which she stands atop a damp desert dune moments before the clouds will rip apart and rain while her bemused abductors stand at the foot of the dune, obviously understanding her need to stop and reflect. As viewers watching the film, we are privy to being both, witnesses and participants, in Heera's growth; we travel with her through the land that she assumed was home and yet what she knows very little about. 

As a member of the diaspora, revisiting the homeland is always enmeshed in many issues: what are we returning to? This is a home, not the home; this is the home of our heritage but not necessarily the many other components that make us up. So, when we are visiting and travelling through the homeland, the issue primarily becomes as to what notion of home are we expecting to encounter: the ones that our parents and relatives have narrated to us through their stories and anecdotes? The images we see in books, magazines, and the internet? The ones that we significantly encounter in the great visual medium of movies?

I took this image in the courtyard outside one of my favorite Jain temples in Rajasthan just before dusk. Even though there is nothing decidedly pretty/post-card-y about this image, it best encapsulates the spirit of Rajasthan for me

Often, when in Rajasthan, I am unsure whether I wished to experience the Rajasthan that I had abstracted from my imagination, which in turn was inspired by all that I read and saw – or engage with the one that actually surrounded me, pretty at times but decidedly unglamorous and steeped in harsh realities on most occasions. 

Heera's route to discovering her country and herself in the process occurs when the trajectories of her life completely and dramatically veer away from the solidly established path she was walking upon. She literally steps upon the less beaten path, getting a glimpse into the many painful stories and realities that fill the lives of her fellow travelers. 

During my India visits, I often travelled on the AC coach in train-journeys; one distinctive feature of the coach was that the windows were yellow-hued, offering a sepia-tinted view of the vistas that flashed past: it was literally an exercise in nostalgia. 

When I next visit my homeland, I must make a conscious attempt to liberate myself of nostalgia and what my imagination demands and desires from me; I must see my country, my homeland, for what it is and relate to it as it is. It is time to shatter the tinted glass – and see what lies beyond it. 

Sometimes, it is not always necessary that you get a burst of inspiration and enlightenment in broad day-light; on some occasions, a sky full of stars can illuminate you a great deal more. 


This piece originally appeared in India Currents 

Photo credits:

Highway stills: various internet sources

May 10, 2014

Photo-essay: The Journey of a Magnolia Petal

I stood there in awe, my eyes drinking in the spectacle of the magnolia trees surrounding me. A I contemplated the thick clusters of blooms starring the branches, I felt a petal gently detach itself from the tree, float about in the air...before gently resting upon my head. I decided to bring it home as a memory of a beautiful afternoon spent in the company of these beauties.

Here is the journey in pictures:

Yellow Magnolias

Language of Fallen Petals

Tucked away in a Marquez...

Petal in a Book

May 2, 2014

Boston was...

cold. clear-skinned, blue skies. micro scoops of the world's best ice-cream (sample flavors: ginger and goat-cheese-brownie). a cute baby, his mother, and grandfather. MIT: tilted, amused, quirky buildings, windows popping out like bulging eyes. Moving sculptures: reeds dancing in the wind. Bits of a vivid cerulean Boston sky seen from inside a sculpture: on the inside, looking outside. Looking up into eternity. Hybrid pictures, Albert Einstein metamorphosing into Harry Potter or Marilyn Monroe. Harvard Law-School. A lost and found phone. A river which looked like a lake. Boston Common, colorfully dressed pinickers studding the grass like spring flowers. An elderly Japanese couple taking selfies. A wrong turn: walking to the river, rather than the sea. Beacon St/Magnolia Avenue: a series of one gorgeous magnolia tree after another, thickly dressed in blooms. Fallen butter-yellow blossoms (which turn sepia when shut inside a Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Imprisoned red tulips. The language of fallen petals. A missing baby blanket (heirloom) note stuck on a metal pillar. Charles River seen through the veil of a weeping willow. Boston Harbor. A giant American flag. The sea at night. The oldest pub in America. Holocaust Memorial on Freedom trail, inscribed with numbers, each number a wound, each memory uttered there a burning reminder: never again. T: red, blue, and green. Rain. Shopping: red and blue and white. Flying home: chocolate-covered almonds.

On the Inside, Looking Outside: MIT campus

Eternity: MIT School of Architechure

 Quirky: MIT STATA building

Magnolia Avenue: Beacon Street

Imprisoned Tulips: Beacon Street

Beyond the Weeping Willow: Charles River