April 30, 2015

Making Notes From My New Desk

I am finally writing on a proper desk after a considerable length of time; we bought it in a furniture market called Panchkuyian, where I told the shopkeeper that I wanted a desk where I could write a book. I had had my heart set on something a bit vintage-y and antique-pretty but settled on a more functional desk for the time being instead. When we finished paying for it, the shopkeeper wished me luck for my thesis. "Book," I said a little wryly, thinking of my long-vanished academic persona and that the last time I wrote anything remotely resembling a thesis was a good many years ago. "All the best for your thesis," he repeated. Thesis, it is.

I like a desk which has acres of space but isn't too empty; there should be a few objects populating it, adding color and character and whimsy to the deskscape.

Here are the objects:

There is an old passport-sized picture of my husband taken several years ago, a postcard of a mad crazily patterned turmeric yellow door I picked from up an art gallery, a blue glass cube I bought at a Cambridge street market, two silver floral appliques from Jodhpur (I don't know why I bought them when I can't sew to save my life - perhaps, to use in a painting?), an intricately gold patterned and red-interiored square Persian jewelry box, which can't fit on my dressing table and has migrated over here, my journals (the ones I write in anyway; the empty ones share shelf space with my books), and a miniature art painting of two impressively dressed storm-colored elephants propped upon against the window.

Two Elephants

This painting has been wrought in the Udaipur school of miniature painting and I bought it from an artist called Mukesh at Dilli Haat, which is increasingly becoming my one-stop shopping location for traditional handicrafts, fun fabric clutches and bags, and my new sartorial obsession: palazzos (*so* ideal to wear in the heat!) The painter also painted a tiny black red caparisoned elephant on my thumb-nail. I have never been much for nail art but this was one was literally so and I spent the next few days admiring the snazzy little elephant on my nail!

Explosion of a Sunset
I experienced a sudden urge to revive my water-color painting skills this summer so my pen-stand contains three brushes, a pen (which works), and a faded dark pink rose, which I still haven't got rid of, thinking it will somehow find its way into one of my Instagram stories. So far, it hasn't.

I love the fact that my desk sits against the window; even though the view consists of faded puce-colored apartment facades, air-conditioners, a couple of trees, scores of birds (pigeons mostly) either flying across the sky or dancing or fighting on the grilles veiling the window, there is nevertheless still always something to see. I don't need a moodboard or a TV or a laptop wallpaper: I have my very own window screen.

My visual notes so far:

I see pigeons having a drink from the round black stone bowl of water affixed to the corner of a balcony.. 

There is a plucky little peepal seedling sprouting from the roof of one of the apartment buildings. If the day is clear and I see it at noon, I can see the plastic glossiness of its brand new leaves.

The chipmunk-like squirrels constantly run up and down the branches, nibble at the leaves, or have a snooze.

The kachnar tree whom I write about in my previous post has lost all its leaves and flowers; it sits there baldly, bit embarrassedly, a winter alien in this summer clothedness.

A woman in a purple salwar kameez and hennaed hair comes out to hang clothes on her balcony; she shares visual space with a fuchsia and white bougainvillea, numerous plants in blue and white ceramic pots, and marigolds.

I love writing at my desk. It also reminds me of this great Jhumpa Lahiri piece in which she writes that when she became a writer, her desk became home; there was no need of another. I wouldn't go as far as to say that but there is no doubt that it has swiftly become one of my most favorite spots in my house - and needless, even prosaically to say, I am getting far more writing accomplished here than before.

Care to share your desk notes? I would love to hear!

April 24, 2015

Photo-essay: Flower Memories and the Language of Fallen Petals


It is spring in Delhi. I see a tree top feathered with pink flowers from my window; the other day, a rain-storm neatly plucked the flowers from the tree and scattered them all across the street. When I picked up one of them, I observed that the pink petals were actually more lilac-hued; one petal was covered with warm violet markings, as if a child had absently decided to wrought Magic Marker art upon it. 


 Another tree outside my apartment has sprouted fat, flamboyant orange and red flowers; I see crows snacking upon its buds in the mornings. These trees are the tallest and most majestic of them all; they also happened to be the first to begin blooming. In fact, I first saw their flowers fallen on the green grass, rather than on the branches. Afterward, the earth below those trees would become so densely carpeted with the blood-red flowers that it was almost as if a flower massacre had taken place. 


I have to admit that I only became so interested in the business of blooming trees after I moved to Pittsburgh from Oman two winters ago. There's something about being transplanted in a new country which compels you to be minutely aware of both its cultural and physical ecosystems: in case of the latter, its landscape, flora and fauna, and the visible, tangible transition of seasons. As I began to adapt to my new home, the trees outside my apartment balcony were my personal markers of the changing seasons; I first saw them winter-bare and snow-adorned before budding and eventually bearing leaves, flower, and fruit. 


The other day, a Pittsburgh friend wrote to me, mentioning it was a lovely spring morning. I could easily conjure up the scene: the air's promising, scented warmth, the tulips poking their heads through the soil, unmelting snowflakes of cherry blossom limning branches -- and a magnolia-filled tree blooming in a churchyard. Before coming to the States, I had rarely seen magnolias; I made it a point to find out their name upon discovering this beautiful bloom. I wanted to populate the landscape I now called home with familiar faces, rather than faceless ones -- and that included the foliage which grew and bloomed around me. 


Watching the pink-lilac flower tree, I find myself thinking of the magnolias I glimpsed in Boston one spring afternoon last year. I was eager to visit the city where so many beginnings and histories nested, in the country to which I would shortly be bidding adieu. I took the T to downtown one afternoon. In addition to experiencing the city's elegant, history-drenched prettiness, I also yearned to see the sea, which I terribly missed in Pittsburgh after years of having lived in a sea-country, Oman.

 I examined a map-imprinted signboard on the top of Beacon Hill and figured out the direction I would need to walk in order to meet the sea. However, although I proud of my map sense, that day I failed to realize that I was heading away from the sea and towards the river instead. I was completely unaware walking past the stately, beautifully proportioned homes, richly anticipating the sea with each step. 

After a while, I paused and gazed into the distance; the street appeared seemingly endless while the sea was nowhere in sight. I asked a passerby for directions. "You are by the river," he said kindly. "You are a long way from the sea." 

Lost & Found 

I eventually found myself on the river bank, unable to summon up the energy to walk all the way back to the sea. I sat on a stone bench beneath a kind weeping tree and watched the sunbeams dance on the river surface. I took out a book of Marquez short stories that I had brought along with me; I stopped reading after only a few paragraphs and examined the stone-colored waters lapping the bank’s edges.

I was lost. Yet, I knew it was much more than just losing my physical bearings; I felt a strong sense of displacement, as if I had fallen off a grid and did not know how to put myself back in or -- where. I began to wonder if the feeling had to do with the truth that I had been playing dodge-ball with all this time: I would eventually find myself in yet another new country, a country which was officially my home but felt nothing like it. I had endlessly discussed the transition with my husband, family, friends...I had even written about it, thinking words would be the best ships with which to navigate the sea of confusion and fear churning inside my head. This afternoon, though, as I watched the river slowly inch its way towards the sea, it was as if I clearly saw the move and its solid implications for the first time, rather than the abstractions I had been drowning in all this time. 

Sunshine of Magnolias

I started walking back to the T -- and it was then I encountered the avenue of magnolia trees in full, thick, unbearably beautiful bloom. It was as if I had stumbled upon a river of magnolia blossom: creamy pink, pale yellow, almost white, almost red. Petals constantly drizzled down upon the brick ground. They were entirely another entity altogether up on the trees; here, scattered, broken, they formed the hieroglyphics of an arcane nature language. I did not attempt to translate. I simply soaked in their beauty, consoled in a way that only nature was capable of doing. 

Flower Memory I

When I stood up, a fat butter-yellow petal detached itself it from a branch, whirling around in sunshine before resting on my shoulder-blade. I opened the Marquez and placed the petal upon a bed of words. Many days later, when I opened the book, the petal was tea-brown -- but in my eyes, it remained freshly yellow, a postcard from a day when flowers had gifted me with respite and hope amidst a sea of lost-ness. 


I have been living in Delhi for almost five months now. I am only just beginning to understand its languages; some days, I speak it somewhat fluently, even enjoying doing so. Some days, it metamorphoses into Greek, and I long for the comfort of familiar tongues. I wake up feeling homesick, not knowing if it is the seas of Oman that I yearn for or Pittsburgh's summer-green woods. 

However, once again, as in America, I find myself watching the trees outside my apartment. I learn that the fat red flowers belong to the silk cotton tree and the pink-lilac one is kachnar, a type of an orchid. I become familiar with their blooms, watching them fall in the air before eventually gracing the ground with their presence. 

No matter where I journey, despite the multiple lands I may call home in my lifetime and all the different languages and landscapes I must learn to speak and inhabit -- nature and its quiet rhythms will always be teacher, guide, and friend. 

Flower Memories II

 The fallen flower that I find goes inside a book too -- and it will also become a memory of my new home, just like the magnolia petal from Boston represented a home from my yesterday. We carry the chapters of homes and the passages in between as flower memories inside the books of our lives.


This photo-essay originally appeared in The Aerogram here

April 8, 2015

Wah Taj: Making Notes On Re-visiting India's Most Iconic Monument


I first visited the Taj Mahal exactly and coincidentally seven years ago. I was trying to pursue a writing residency at an arts-organization in Delhi and while I ended up falling ill and not really accomplishing much writing, I made some wonderful friends and initiated my explorations in and around Delhi, unknowing that I would eventually come to call it home one day.

These explorations also included an excursion to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, both places which I had been wanting to visit for ages. For many years, whenever I happened to mention that I was from India, I was invariably asked along these lines: Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal? No? But you're Indian and you still haven't been there yet? If I was asked the same question now, I would probably reply, India is much more than just the Taj and no, it doesn't make me more or less of an Indian if I haven't visited it. However, back then, I always felt a bit embarrassed that I had yet to experience one of India's arguably most iconic monument, as if the failure to do so questioned my Indian-ness, as if I wasn't Indian enough.
It didn't help that when I arrived at the Taj with my friend, the guards at the entrance refused to believe I was Indian and in fact, asked me three questions to prove my Indian identity. Our tour-guide had already beforehand hinted at the possibility of me having to declare my Indian credentials and even told me the three questions. I still doubted that it would happen and when it did, I felt irritable and bewildered. I can't remember the other two questions that the guards asked me but I do recollect the question about the name of the then Chief Minister of Delhi. I knew that anyway and authoritatively told him, Sheila Dixit. Still, as I was finally permitted entrance and we walked towards the Main Gate, I felt a weird displacement and which, perhaps, in hindsight, may have contributed towards the gradual erosion of Indian-ness I have increasingly experienced over the years.

Gateway: one of the doors studding the Taj facade
All that vanished from my mind when we encountered our first glimpse of the Taj through the magnificent sandstone portal; it was akin to seeing Amitabh Bachchan in flesh after only having seen him in cinema and photographs over the years. And yet, as we wandered through the garden, around the platform and inside the crowded tomb interior, I felt, well, a little disappointed. I wondered if it was because I had expected too much from it. I am generally wary of subscribing to hype, whether its about books, films, personalities, stores, Aamir Khan's movies, cupcake bakeries (yes, I am looking at you, Magnolia) or even one of the world's most beautiful monuments. In fact, I instinctively develop a resistance to anything the moment it is hyped, preferring to experience it once the hoopla has faded away. Whatever the reasons, I afterwards told everyone who cared to listen that I preferred Humayun's Tomb, whose mausoleum architectural style was in fact what influenced that of Taj Mahal and which I would discover later during my Delhi wanderings - and  that it was Akbar's doomed fossilised city in sandstone, Fatehpur Sikri which truly captured my soul during that Agra visit.

All this was many years ago though - and when we landed in Delhi last October, I found myself wanting to see the Taj again. I got the opportunity when we went to Agra on a spontaneous trip last weekend; my husband had yet to see the Taj and as I proprietorially talked about it on our car journey there, he joked, it sounds as if you personally constructed it. We stopped en route at Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna only to learn that all the temples there were closed due to the lunar eclipse that day. We instead indulged in some of the most delicious samosas I have ever eaten at a roadside stall; afterwards, lugging our samosa-filled bellies, we sped to Agra, the full moon in the sky initially appearing as if someone had taken a bite out of it.

The Taj is open five nights a month around or on full moon day but only a limited number of visitors are allowed inside it and that too if they have booked in advance. We thought of getting a glimpse from a roof-top hotel restaurant which had advertised the Taj's visibility from its location. Only during the day, the manager informed us when we reached there. We sat by the window, ate exquisitely spiced Awadhi biryani, and tried to abstract the Taj from the area of fleshy black darkness where the Manager told us the Taj stood.

The next morning, we first paid respects to the greatest of Mughal emperors and Shah Jahan's father, Akbar the Great's tomb at Sikandra. In contrast to the vast, sprawling complex and the impressively ornamented tomb facade, the tomb itself is an extremely spare, unadorned affair, something which Akbar himself had wished and accordingly designed so. There was nothing else in the tomb chamber apart from a few yellow and pink flowers and a handful of rupee notes and coins lying upon the tomb. Pigeons roosted and cooed in the intricate fret-work windows set high up in the walls. Say something, our guide suddenly spoke up. We said our names aloud; they first vibrated before reverberating, our names and voices co-mingling with each other.

Waves of Arches: Akbar the Great's tomb, Sikandra

Ever since we had arrived at the tomb, the guide had been telling us that even walls have ears in the tomb. We politely listened to him, half disbelieving until he took us to a canopy of arches and asked the either of us to stand and face the corners of the arches' pillars - and speak. Even though my husband was some distance away, I clearly heard his voice travelling through the matrix of stone - and he heard my delighted laughter seconds later. These cleverly designed and constructed walls certainly could hear...if only they could have spoken! I thought of all the stories they must have to share and we, yearning to hear. Outside, deer and black buck brunched on the rain-nourished lawns; I smelt the fragrance of roses meters away from the rose-garden. Inside, Akbar reposed within his bare beautiful chamber.

The sky was spitting rain when we approached the Taj in our car. As we parked, a passerby told me to put my lipstick away as it was amongst the objects banned at the Taj. It turned out it wasn't. When we finally arrived at the Taj, owing to Sunday and the long weekend, it was virtually impossible to navigate walking inside the Main Gate without being pushed or blocking someone's phone camera, dozens of them held aloft in the air. But no amount of people or the heat could ever mar that mirage-like first appearance of the Taj through the arch of the gate. Even though the skies were cloudily moody or perhaps because of it, the Taj appeared distant, a floating illusion-island. 

One of its Many Faces: A shot of a facade

We stood in queues that snaked all around the perimeter of the exterior to enter inside the main tomb interiors, each of us in rich anticipation at fully experiencing the monument, whether it was for the first, second, third time. I spotted that someone had freshly autographed the wall with cherry red lipstick (so much for not banning lipsticks). There were people from all over India and the world. We overheard a woman sounding as if her boyfriend had just proposed to her. A newly married woman with the red and white bangles almost up to her elbows told her husband that she wouldn't go inside the main tomb if it was too crowded; her husband smilingly agreed. Four Buddhist monks in maroon inspected the onyx flowers inscribed upon the exteriors. Inside, the crowd streamed around the island of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal's tombs; people took selfies in front of them. When we emerged from the main tomb, grateful to freely breathe once more, I noticed that the lipstick vandal was at it again. He wasn't the only one. When you peered closely at the walls, you realised that so many people had previously chiseled and layered the ornamented white marble surface with their initials as well as that of their lovers. In presence of this enormous, breathtaking ode to love, who could resist leaving behind an imprint of their own love, entwining themselves forever with this magnificent intersection of beauty, history, and love? 

Soaring: one of the four minarets
This time, as I drank in the Taj, I forgot about all the hype surrounding it or even what I thought of hype itself. I allowed myself to erase all the innumerable photographs I had seen of it too: I replaced them with the pictures that my memory took of it instead. I leaned over the balustrade to look down at the Yamuna, a truncated version of itself, still slowly, silverly flowing past the Taj. I thought of Shah Jahan in house arrest in the Agra fort during the last eight years of his life. Was he reduced to seeing the Taj from a tiny window, his magnificent monument and memory to his love circumscribed within a square? From the distance, it must have looked even more beautiful, unattainable, and dream-like, much like the memory of whom he had lost. 
When I turned around to face the Taj again, the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds, drenching the Taj in silhouette.

I read the poetry in stone and smiled.

April 1, 2015

Tree Stories

Spreading, Bangalore (2015)

When reading this article today, I learned that it was International Forest Day on March 21st; this article incidentally happens to explore the politics of trees in Africa, which certainly made me pause and consider the way trees shape and influence our landscape in multiple ways.

Embrace, Fallingwater (2013)

I have previously blogged about my fascination for trees; I once again wonder if it stems from the fact that I grew up in Oman, where I mostly saw trees as gnarled, hardy, antique characters dotting the desert scrub or insulated, almost snobby clusters of exotic tree species, rather than grandly massed in forests? When we lived in Pittsburgh, I especially grew to love walking upon nature trails which wound through densely wooded parks during heady summer days; the urban drabness receded into the distance and I found myself enveloped in a leafy, green-light filtered world, hearing only bird-song and unique musical notes that only rustling leaves are capable of creating.

Telescoped Time, Sequoia National Park (2014)

Before we left the States, my husband and I embarked upon a month long cross-country trip where we visited several National Parks in the American South-west (aside: I really should blog about that epic journey one of these days!) One of the parks was the Sequoia National Park in California where we encountered some of the world's largest and tallest trees. As you wandered amongst groves of these giant sequoia trees, many of which were thousands of years old, you couldn't help but wonder: who and where exactly were you in the the grand scope of the Earth's history and existence? My personal perception of time and space were greatly telescoped, scaling down my trivial concerns and worries; I similarly felt that way when I was sitting by the sea. It was an undoubtedly powerful experience to be in the company of these august tree giants, who stoically and solidly continued to grow, as they had done for many a millennia - and I remember feeling both fulfilled and yet, a little depleted when we reluctantly left the park and returned to the identical monotony of a Californian freeway.

The Architecture of a Leaf, Delhi (2015)

I guess it is why I feel so strongly about the necessity of large and multiple green spaces in urban environments; you need such spots in which to escape the soul-sapping demands of urban life, no matter how temporarily, in order to contemplate, recuperate, and relax. Indeed, when I am in the presence of old, venerable trees, with their spreading branches, labyrinthine roots, and serried leaves, I feel that they radiate a contagious calm, which immediately envelops you in its fold. 

I recently read about and spotted Jahanpanah Forest in Delhi the other day and which I would quite like to explore. In the meantime, as I write, I see the tree outside my apartment window filled with soft red flowers; the tree neighboring it has sprouted feathery green leaves, which provide accompaniment to the parabolas of the chocolate-hued seed pods limning its branches. There are plenty more trees to encounter in my neighborhood, including the huge peepal tree behind my apartment whose leaves' shadows dapple my walls, drop gifts of leaves in my balcony, sing along with the rain, and seemingly protectively curtain me from the surrounding world. 

We Barely Know Each Other, Delhi (2015)

Speaking of protectiveness, I would like to bookend this post with another article and also, a wonderful story about tree canopy shyness; I thought it so perfectly illustrated the innate beauty, dignity, and wisdom of trees.

Do you have a favorite tree - and tree story?