Category Archives: The Abstract

Misunderstanding

The poetry of misunderstanding is related to all that intends, and fails, to meet its mark. The arrow that whistles past the target. The hammer that descends on the unfortunate thumb. It is tangled up in many of the misguided habits we have perfected. Of chasing wild geese, counting chickens prematurely, and locating carts before their horses. It is implicated in our undignified tendency to bark up incorrect trees, and in our fondness for laboring under delusions. Also in our reluctance to bite our tongues, bide our time or swallow our pride.

In a world of variable weather conditions, the poetry of misunderstanding rolls into our lives, sometimes like fine mist in the valley, sometimes like thick fog off the ocean, sometimes like rampaging tornado, full of sound and fury. It obscures the view, shrouds the sun, and introduces a vast capacity for confusion. It creates labyrinths of resentment, riptides of blame and guilt, and dark woods of inarticulate rage. It also, however, embeds in all things, an element of mystery. With it the potential for adventure. Were every path unconditionally clear, and all maps readable, life would amount to little more than a long walk in the park. Pleasant for awhile, but soon grown tedious, and eventually, unbearable. Uncertainty is the price of every quest. The risk of misunderstanding who you are, where you are meant to go, and what you are meant to do.  It has always been this way and will so always be. We are susceptible to blundering. And it is this liability that renders our best efforts noble.

On happy occasion, misunderstanding can be dispersed as gracefully as a cloud of butterflies, dissolved effortlessly as a sugar cube in your cafe au lait, by a gentle word or a well-timed gesture of sincerity. In less fortuitous instances it springs out of ill-nourished soil like an enchanted hedge, intractable and laced with thorns. Or an unscalable concrete wall, studded with watch towers and armed guards. The poetry of misunderstanding casts shadows and spells, whose effects often lie far beyond the conjuring of prediction. Imagine at large in the world, a persnickety dragon beleaguered by a chronic cough. When he flares up it is difficult to say with any degree of well-reasoned certainty whether the trigger was merely a tickle in his throat, or his temper. This ambiguity leads to many singed encounters and tragicomic quantities of heartbreak on all sides.  It does not require familiarity with dragons, persnickety or otherwise, to understand how this plays out.

Meaning is implicit. The facts require reading into. A slammed door might mean the wind, or someone’s desperation. Errors of interpretation are inevitable. One day you say ‘water’ and mean ‘I am thirsty’. Someone brings you a shining glass full to the brim. It is not far-fetched to assume that someday you will say ‘water’ but what you mean is ‘My house is on fire!’ And someone will toss over their shoulder, directions to the well, as they run to catch a train, a plane, a falling star. It is natural and also absurd, that in that moment you will feel fiercely betrayed. It has occurred to you that the message spoken was not the message heard. Yet somehow this consideration is insufficient to soothe the sting. In the middle and the muddle of it all, it does not help that sometimes you will say ‘water’ when what you actually mean is, ‘I do not agree’,  or ‘What are you thinking?’, or ‘There must be another way.’ It does not help that under other people’s pleasantries and your own, you sometimes sense the slosh of deep, unquiet waters. Language is gorgeous, convenient and faithless. Perhaps it is our extensive vocabulary that complicates things. It affords us inexhaustible ways to say what we do not mean, and to hear what was not meant. The quarrels of birds are of a simpler, less exhausting sort.

Because our gaze is untrained, and our spirits sometimes perverse, we often seek what we do not wish to find. And the strange truth is, that if we are looking for disappointment, we will never be disappointed. All things will oblige, will fall short if we wish them to. A fact that is exceedingly hard to remember when the world fails to measure up. We are creatures well-attuned to dissatisfaction and not unprimed for despair. Amidst our mixed messages, our cross-purposes, our contradictions and frictions and frays, is is easy to miss the miracle.

The miracle is this: That we are ever understood at all. By anyone or anything. Sometimes you catch another’s eye in a crowd and feel reinforced in sympathy. Sometimes a child cries and is cradled, fed. Sometimes a single line in a single letter wakes a slumbering giant in your heart. And a perfect conversation is held in the hammered gold silence of friends. Sometimes we complete each other’s sentences. Sometimes we are the answers to each other’s unspoken prayers. Sometimes the colors of twilight, or the whir of a hummingbird’s wings, a thieving squirrel, or a flower that opens in the rain is all it takes to set the record straight. To right a series of wrongs. And restore the tumbled crown. These affinities are available, this communion possible.

And when properly considered, the facts are astounding. That we, who have yet to perfectly understand the one person we have lived with all our lives, are granted this kinship. Again and ever yet again. A grace so great, that sometimes we are ready to be the one who forgives before being forgiven. The one who comforts before being comforted, and understands before being understood. The one who throws open the prison gates, releases into stormy skies a brave flock of snow white doves, draws woodland animals and woeful mortals alike into a circle of love. Where all is resolved, and all refreshed. Sometimes we are ready to do these things. And sometimes we are not. But it behooves us to believe that we each do our best.

And in the end, the poetry of misunderstanding is why poetry exists at all. In a world where no true thing is utterly sayable. No sayable thing ever utterly true. It has always been left to poetry, to perfect the delicate art, of miss and tell.


Things Run Out

Yamuna has run out of milk, she has run out of milk. It is 7:57 in the morning. Her bus rounds the corner in four minutes and she has run out of milk. Her coffee will be black today and so will her mood because things run out, things run out. That is the nature of things — they run out and Yamuna has never learned to accept this. She resents running out and seldom runs because she resents running out of breath – resents being reduced to a stitch in her side and a shortness straining after something as essential as air which has no business running out no business running out, but things run out and just the other day when the delivery man came to her door with a package (two extra copies of her favorite book: ) and asked her to sign on a delicate dotted line his ball point pen, that slender plastic wand sputtered a bleak blue stroke and slid into stubborn silence on the doorstep of the second syllable. Ya read her signature – a jeering incompleteness that rendered her speechless and raging inside. How dare things runout! Deep inside she knows. That it is the nature of pens to run out. Pens that give every last drop of their blood to writing grocery lists, notes in history class, bad sonnets, and special instructions to Mrs. Pinto’s domestic help, reminding her to please remember to water the orchid in the living room. Because it may have run out. Yes. Things run out when you least expect them to. Patience, options, the toothpaste in the tube. Time. She remembers running out of time with five questions left unanswered on her physics exam (her arch nemesis Pratap got a perfect score). She remembers running out of words in common with a rickshaw driver on a frenzied Mumbai morning, and running out of sugar for her guests used to five heaping teaspoons in each cup of tea. She reflects briefly on the curiosity of running out of love — like the couple on the third floor who ran out of love for each other in the middle of last week, the same day that seven-year-old Parvathi ran out of money spending the last of her birthday fortune on three sticks of green ice for herself and her two best friends Janu and Gopi. So many things are finite in this world, so many things are not enough to go all the way around, so many things stop without warning and perhaps pick up some other where like lives that enter death like a door into a different body – if you believe in that sort of thing. Cars run out of petrol in the middle of the road, as blatantly indifferent as buffalos, to train departures and interview times. A rice cooker runs out of water because a girl dreaded the word domestic and never learnt that the ratio of uncooked rice to water is 1:2 and so the aluminum bottom of the pot is black from her stubborn ignorance. She will hide it at the back of the shelf when her mother comes to visit and refuse to let her cook at home saying she wants her to try the new Chinese restaurant down the street. There are people who run out of reasons for why they are doing what they are doing. So they quit their jobs and find happiness making fine teas or running orphanages in faraway towns with unpronounceable names. There was a writer who once ran out of ideas for her story. Her heroine lived in a cottage by the beach and stared out a vine-covered window at the crashing waves for days that stretched into months and then a year without anything – not the least thing—happening to her. No flies landed on her nose, no telegrams arrived at her door, no passersby approached her to ask about the delicate scar that ran the length of her left cheek. She did not stub her toe on the edge of the bed, or grow delirious or cynical or nostalgic. Her writer had run clear out of ideas on what could possibly happen next. So nothing did. Why? rages Yamuna as she steps furiously into her slippers and fast walks to the bus stop. Why must things run out? Why couldn’t the world be infinite, bottomless, reliable, obliging? A cornucopia, an Akshayapatra, an Amudhasurabhi of matter, experiences and emotions. Why did the legends always run short of reality? Yamuna reaches the bus stop a split second before her bus arrives. She floats up its stairs on the fierce wings of her questioning and sinks into a rare empty seat behind the driver. A throb of joy takes her. She smiles defiantly, triumphantly out the window at a vanishing, exhaustible world. Life flows like a river and also like sand through an hourglass. Moments heaped one atop the other. And some of them glow in our pockets like lucky stones, like secret charms, like constellation prizes. So yes. Things run out. What of it? On this auspicious morning Yamuna has a seat all to herself on the bus. For now that is enough.


Springtime

And now there is a blue lilt to the air, a gauzy greenness an unmistakable shimmer that runs through the days. (I have lived the taste of this before in another time and place — but when and where?) Just around the bend in the road lies that fairytale ball, Spring. Every blade, every branch, every blossom in the kingdom is invited. Who can resist such excitement? See how the world readies itself for festivities with ribbons and jewels. Young oak leaves unfurling from tight casings hypnotic green, camellias tossing ruffled candy pink skirts, queenly irises yawning purple and gold, tremulous tulips breaking like dawn, jonquils and daffodils nodding dainty heads, straight-backed lavender spearing the air, starry faced jasmine bursting out of sharp-tipped buds, brilliant poppies catching sunlight like a lucky penny, wisteria with its tumbling grape-like clusters scenting the world with wisterious allure. I stumble amidst the incandescent beauty of this neighborhood in the hills. These domestic paths so familiar and full of wild surprise. I am taken by the paradox of this spontaneous orchestration. And its grand scale! The thrill of rising sap, the delicate aura of ripening, the extravagance of an indomitable force animating the particular and the universal, propelling the one and many in an ancient cycle. And why does this feel both searingly new and hauntingly accustomed? One night I wake from a dream and the darkness is a riptide of memories that pulls me back to the wide staircase of a convent college on Cathedral Road in a seaside city in Southern India. If you do not know it it does not matter. If you do, then you know how we streamed up those stairs like an improbable river of flowers, a river of stars. With our books and our timetables, our handwritten notes, our unruled foreheads. How we sat on the wooden benches of higher education as the world rained down upon us. How our minds broke casually into blossom. How we thrived on canteen samosas, coffee and conversation. The sky a brilliant blue tent of possibility. The future a languorous cat. This life an all-absorbing romance. How we floated through that time and space like dust motes, like winged seeds, like dragonflies, in a ray of sunlight. Gleaming with energies that arced far beyond our single selves, charged with prolific dreams, and inchoate ideas, untethered potential. How we lived that springtime of our lives unbeknownst to ourselves with such dazzling perfection. And now we are where we are, scattered across the world wrapped in cherished roles, older yes, wiser perhaps, another bend in the road before us. Another springtime beckoning. And who can resist such excitement? Only those who overthink it. The flower is always the bud’s undoing. Let go then. Step into the river lean into the wind let the strength of the earth rise through you. Watch your fingertips burst into bloom.


Bittersweet

If you were to ask me what it was like, I would pause for a moment. I would tilt my head to one side, as if listening to an invisible spirit. Then I would begin to speak. Slowly. And this is what I would say:  Before this time I believed loss was just loss. Light was just light. Now I see that loss is also beauty and longing. Light is also shadow. This cannot be explained in words. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I will say, please consider this: Words are like pebbles. Small and easily picked up. While this may make them lovely to hold, it does not mean they are exact.

Language is irresistible, and often unreliable. Me and you. Black and white. Endings and beginnings. The delineations we make are functional, not always accurate. This is why I like the word bittersweet. It does not pretend to extricate what is inextricable. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I will say, please do not misconstrue any of this to be sad.

A child draws a wavy line on paper and calls it water. This is a simplification. The depiction omits depth and flow. A picture’s truth relies implicitly on the dimensionality of the viewer’s experience. It is the same with words. Happy and sad are simplifications. What we are talking about is the alchemical dimensionality of experience. Please take a moment here. To fully appreciate how nonsensical and important, how like a dissertation topic that sounds.

Sometimes it happens like this: In the blue shimmer of evening you take a walk with your husband. Like a jack-o-lantern (only kinder and much better-looking) he is lit from within. A-glow with goodness. He is also unwell. An autumn rose blooms, vivid as an accusation, over a garden fence. For the first time, you will experience the perfect beauty of the rose and the strickenness of mortality as the same thing. As inevitably one as the wave that rolls onto the shore and the wave that’s drawn back to the ocean.

There is no unknowing this. Once you have seen it, you are a half-done Midas. Everything your gaze touches will gleam both dark and bright. A disorienting, truthful mingling will take hold of your life. One day you will wake to a sun pouring molten gold over the hills, and your hand will fly to your heart as if to staunch blood from a wound. At night a distant dog will bark at the moon, and in that lonely howl you will hear a world of love and courage. Aggrieved and robbed of absolutes you will stumble into new realms of richness. You will mourn the loss of a certain kind of innocence. And you will surprise yourself by the admission, that given the impossible choice, you would not choose to cross back.

Little by little, you will learn to hold the infinite complexity of what is, with a simple(r) heart. But this cannot be explained in words. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I say gently: Fold these words into a back pocket friend, and go on your way. Perhaps they will wait there. Like so many little pebbles. Dreaming side by side… Until it’s time.


Conquest

An upstart bluejay seized the morning, just as a squadron of clouds annexed the sky. Meanwhile an imperious garbage truck took possession of the streets, and a spendthrift wind acquired the trees. Every last one. I who rose late and have commandeered nothing, watch from the window. Had I more ambition I would be perturbed.  But the spirit of conquest has always seemed troublesome and presumptuous to me. Time is not interested in my philosophy. This is is not the moment for self-effacement chides the clock on the wall. Go now. Before I beat you to it. Go. Lay claim to your life.


Why I Still Talk To You

When I try to go right you turn me left. When I say “No”, you cup your ear and feign deafness. When I hold up my hand and say, “Enough!”, you mimic my gesture and words, then burst out laughing. Like a rascally five-year-old. When I swallow my pride and ask you for something, you nod, and then proceed to give me something entirely different. Sometimes I wonder why I still talk to you. True– you are charming. But you are also incredibly infuriating. When I sweep my house you send in a hurricane. When I fall asleep you strike up the marching band. Now I see I have lived this life sitting at the chessboard. Foolishly trying to outwit you. Not realizing that the match is cleverly fixed, and always has been. In my favor. Your move.


What To Call It?

What is it that you sometimes lose, and then find, that turns the day from bleakness to splendor in an instant? What to call it — that nameless flash, that infusion of un-summoned energy that flies you across a chasm believed uncrossable? On this side, a very capable gloom takes hold of your ankles and refuses to let go. Like a child throwing a tantrum on the floor. Its stubborn weight makes it difficult to walk with any semblance of grace. On this side everywhere you go, you drag an invisible, horizontal sadness with you. On that side, your feet have wings and whatever is so much as grazed by your glance, sparkles. Joy floods your being, gathers at your fingertips, stands ready to be released in the world like a spell. On that side, you live as royalty. Each moment unfolding like a red carpet in front of you. What transports you from this side to that, is a mystery. Nothing calculated or studied does the trick. It is triggered by things that are, but did not plan to be. Like the sight of a hummingbird hovering above a riot of purple flowers. Or a child’s hand stretched towards the moon. Yes. A thing so slight now electrifies you, draws you up, returns you to your proper home. Flouting the laws of gravity and time. And how to explain this feeling? Imagine a blighted apple falling in reverse. Raised up from muddy, trampled ground and reattached, round and whole to its green bough. Free to shine again. A small red sun. It feels…like that.