Thursday, 21 July 2011

Through the Looking Glass

June-July have a certain solidness about them, usually, that is quite comforting. There’s travel on the cards, usually to new destinations; the weather, while predictably unpredictable, still fits into a certain graph (I mean, you are never snowed in!), oscillating between a throbbing, fevered heat and unremitting rain and, sometimes, touching Gräfenberg spots of liquid sunshine and endless skies.

It tends to be a tough time at work because the theatre/performance season is ending and there are mere weeks left to scramble for co-producers and book tours and find extra funding. It is often the “Oh, I want an elephant on stage” moment when your dearly cherished artist can spring surprises on you, surprises of the 150 000-euro variety. Electric. That’s how it feels. Yet, with a lovely undercurrent of anticipation: the team put up with extra pressure because in a few weeks, we won’t see each other again (well, not for another two to three weeks), and, for once, travel will not involve looking after other people’s visas and ensuring they have functional alarms or vegan/halaal/no-carb meals on transcontinental flights. Besides, that piece with the “elephant on stage” – you know it has all the potential to be extraordinary, the artist is passionate about it, and his vision becomes yours.

That’s usually: this year, time slipped on some sunshine and slush, and regained its footing a little gracelessly – with one foot in the past and another in the future. And place, after having smirked at that little rough-and-tumble, crumbled at the edges, had its midsection vaporised and then reappeared with some grafted parts. Served it right for being so superior. But, what about me?

I went off the radar. Not just the blog-radar (very new, still unfamiliar: prose!) but the writing radar. And tried to figure some of it out. What else do you do when time and place feel like primeval ooze … oh, not because they are savage or fearsome but because they were porous and phantasmagorical and shapeshift with a panache even Mystique would envy.

I. The Red Queen
One evening, Paris – after eleven years of being more home than any spot on the globe, despite (or because of - scary thought, that!) the inordinate boisterousness, the strikes, the elusive plumbers and the lack of saffron-flavoured rasmalai* – turned stranger. No, actually, it mutated into a scarily recognisable celluloid borough, straight from Thomas Harris.

I got stalked.

Of course it is fatuous to imagine that one lives in a haven of peace and sanity when statistics clearly declare otherwise, when newspapers and radio stations shout out with graphic precision the levels of violence and perversion rising each day. Not just in distant, deserted hamlets or behind the postcard-pretty copses. But just here - in a neighbouring district, or on a street you frequent. And, yes, to people like you and me. Without “provocation”. Without notice too.

But it tends to be too dramatic, too – well, cinematic – to believe in. Unlike being mugged or accosted by drunks or desperate drug-addicts – all of which we navigate in a metropolis with enough regularity to acknowledge and beware. But stalked. Huh-huh. I guess that is just that tiny bit beyond our ceilings of imagination. Until it happens.

There’s something inexpressibly eerie about being the focus of concentrated attention. Venomous, unblinking attention. Maybe because you are looking madness in the eye, maybe the instinctive knowledge that rules of rationality don’t operate for the stalker, or the brain going on overdrive, looking for all options of escape. Tube exits, street corners, shops with twin doors, cabs. In, out. Up, down. The mental running, even as you force yourself to maintain a steady pace. The running out of options.

There is the memory of hate: steady, unswerving hate that is directed at you. Random hate. Its aftertaste lingers. Like malaria, I suspect it won’t leave: it can rise up when you least expect, in places you felt thoughtlessly secure before. I look over my shoulder now. In supermarkets. On the street. In restaurants. And I can finally grasp why espousing the right-wing security overdrive must be such a temptation.

This is still my city. But I can see how swiftly it can morph into another being. Like everything else, you could say.

II. White kNight
There is this land called safe. Oh, this safe is on another continent, an intangible one, unconnected to stalkers or muggers or snarling immigration officials or stamping, jostling crowds in buses on rush hour. For two entire decades, the first two ones of my life, it was the El Dorado I had sought. By my late teens, after eighteen times in surgery, the place I felt safest was hospital, so, with infallible adolescent optimism, I thought: wouldn’t it be just dandy if I could chose a career that would unfold within the hospital premises? Anything – occupational therapist, counsellor, babysitter, hair dresser for chronic patients – would be fine, preferably, with accommodation on campus.

My surgeon blanched when I shared that insight with him. Maybe the Buddha’s father had done the same. He muttered something to the effect that life would be unhealthily lopsided, which sounded totally illogical to me: life had always been lopsided and unhealthy: this might actually even things out a bit. Empower me to volitionally enter a place I’d dreaded the first 16 years of my life and that I considered a refuge since, so alien did the outside world seem then.

It must have been just after the time they wheeled me into the wrong operation theatre (my roommate, born with a limp, was to have her left leg extended; I had to have an oesophageal dilation) that I decided that hmmmm, no, hypothetical safety was not a priority anymore as my very real leg took precedence, and while I didn’t – and don’t – enjoy being just an inch or two away from midgetism, surgically lengthening my limbs had never been a desired solution. My roommate arrived at a similar conclusion about having endoscopes and balloon dilators thrust down her chest, incidentally.

It’s an odd thing, safety. We find it in the funniest of places and times. The last time it arrived and belatedly settled down for the night, just before daybreak, was during a really bad bout of spasms, far away, in a city where I have not really had a medical safety net after kindergarten. It was a bad episode, the kind where breathing, staying halfway-conscious becomes such an effort that letting go – choking, throwing up, blacking out – looks deceptively attractive, even if some tiny watchman on a rampart of the brain knows otherwise. The kind where all medication seems held up somewhere else, maybe in some other dimension, quite indifferent and ineffectual, like a stage manager I’d once met in a Mediterranean theatre who kept extending his broom over the same square foot of stage, and flicking it from time to time. Why are you even here, I’d wanted to ask him, and it was what I kept screaming inside my head to the vast quantity of chemicals in my system.

Yes, odd, then, that a steady, unswerving gaze can keep you alive when nothing else is working. That a pair of hands can coax breath back.  That a voice can tether you to an earlier, and later, world with some semblance of normality. That even in the midst of brain-numbing pain, knowing someone is there – even if there is little he can do other than prevent you from knocking your head on the wall – and breathing with you, actually retrieves sanity. Pain can quite literally drive you out of your mind.

The saddest, oddest thing, though, is just how incapable I am of finding the right words to say just what it meant to be safe. Momentary as it was. Thank you would be so inadequate. How do you thank a part of yourself, almost your lungs or thought? Would you say, thank you, dear breath? Or attempt to explain it doesn't matter that the safety wasn’t physical or real since it removed none of the dysfunction; what matters is it was immediate, vital, with the meaning the French give to the latter word: literally, generating life. How do I say that in the worst moments to come, I will go back and hold that fleeting sense of safety, of rootedness, in the palm of my hand. And when life ends, even though that safety won’t be there, its memory will. There is no bigger gift you could give me.

III. The Hatter
On a flight from Delhi to Trivandrum, I slipped out of my 38-year-old skin and the confines of Indigo’s gelid aircraft (whose attendants are doing a fine job in saving the planet by scrimping on heating) to meet my 13-year-old self in Shillong, a much-loved city in my childhood, the only place – out of roughly a dozen – I wanted to put down roots and live forever. It was a time when forever was a believable notion, much like Narnia a few years earlier.

The time machine that powered this journey was Anjum Hasan’s remarkable collection, Street on the Hill, which I had been gifted a few days before. I read it on the five-hour flight. And then reread it, poem after poem. Over and above the precision and quiet, very quiet, beauty of the poems, what struck me most was their fidelity to a specific, usually indescribable, time and place; their ability to capture a certain wabi-sabi with just a throwaway phrase, which wasn't throwaway at all, but poised and agile: balletic.

Anjum Hasan returned part of my childhood: the best bit, the Shillong years, with the noodles and music shops and the "hills in our blood" and the oak doors and the endless array of windows with white veils and awakenings – and, most of all, one of my favourite schools. I do not know whether the school she refers to in some of her poems, in particular, in Coming of Age in a Convent School, is actually the one I went to, or if there were other schools in Shillong that experienced similar, perhaps parallel realities but the resemblances with names and memories were startling. Much of that evocative, effortlessly memorable poem sang to me. I remembered the sex education class with the films in the library that she weaves into the poem. I remembered also Sister Monica, whose verve and forthrightness had been such an impetus. And the end, the end of the poem, marking the advent of adolescence, made me smile through the icicles in my teeth; it was the only thing which had irked me about that lovely convent, after a lifetime of attending co-ed schools and growing up with a handful of male cousins constantly around the house:

“This is the year I realize there are only,
only women in the entire school building,
and am astonished at the thought.”

* there is a much longer list of "becauses" for Paris being home, which one day - when I can keep it short, simple and coherent - will be divulged on this blog. Walking across the Villette at midnight in summer is one of them, perhaps the most inexplicable one.