How Blue Is My Sapphire?

Note: This was written for TOI’s Write India Campaign (Anita Nair edition). Didn’t make it to the top but it was good practice for when I grow up and become a writer.

How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewelers.
How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewelers. PC: Wikimedia

He was the one. I woke up feeling positive. This decision was a long time coming but now it seemed natural. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am.

Amma and I were early risers. By 5 am I would be making us tea with milk powder as soon as she had washed the saucepan. No one in our family approved of milk powder. You might as well drink coca-cola, they seemed to think. They refused to believe that milk powder could replace milk though we had no idea where our milk came from. But this was our little secret. I had learned how to make ginger tea with milk powder during my years in the college hostel. Amma had loved it the first time I made it for her and that’s how milk powder made its way into our morning ritual. We now stashed a packet behind the jar that held tamarind, in a dark corner of the store room, away from prying eyes.

As we sipped our milky tea with a hint of ginger, I whispered to Amma, “I am going to marry Manu”. She leaned closer to me, held my arm and smiled. “If that’s what you want, that’s what we will do”. I could see her face cloud over with guilt over my first marriage although that decision was made almost a decade ago. Technically, I had agreed to the arrangement but the pressure they put a 20-year-old through was extraordinary too. While they gave me “time to decide”, they booked the venue, paid the caterers, bought jewelery and printed the cards. It’s a shame young people don’t realise that their grandparents have many last wishes.

For the family I married into, I was never good enough. I wasn’t beautiful enough, didn’t earn enough, didn’t cook well enough, wasn’t obedient enough, wasn’t cultured enough. Well-brought up as I was, I began to toe the line– first his, then his family and finally my parents. It took me 7 years to get out of that marriage. I often wonder what gave me the sense not to have a baby.

I remember the day I walked out. It was a Sunday. He had been watching TV all day and had had breakfast and lunch in front of the box. When he called out for tea, something in me snapped. I think that was my 7-year-old resilience. I was done. I have no memory of what I said standing between him and the TV. All I remember is the noise in the background, “How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewellers”.

There was nothing extraordinary about this ad. A little girl was asking an old man over the counter, a question. He responds with a ring in an open box saying, “Blue as the sea can be”. The camera zooms in to their logo behind him. Fin.

Ordinary as it was, this ad always took me to my dark place. I felt hopeless. Feeling-wise, it was the diametric opposite of how Pears bathing soap made me feel. The smell of Pears soap took me to a cozy place, a memory of bathing in hot water while the rain pelted outside.

I must have hardly been a teenager then. Whenever my parents fought, which was often, they would turn up the volume on the TV to make sure I didn’t hear them. But most parents underestimate their children; forget that children learn everything by watching their parents. Children know the meaning of every note of your voice, every move of your muscle.

The lasting memory from this time of my life still makes me cringe. It’s of a clumsy big girl sitting at the top of the stairs hugging herself. She is crying her heart out in mute. Oblivious, you can hear her parents arguing in the living room. You can hear them over the loud jingle on TV. “How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewellers.”

They are still together, my parents. They are miserable but they are still together. Apparently it was all for me. Their entire adult life has been a charade of staying married than being married. It’s like no one expected marriages to be happy. Everyone was married because they had to be. And no one was divorced because they couldn’t be. So they continue to live in limbo, pickled by antimicrobial words like culture, family, society, status and values.

That’s why happiness was never absolute in my family. It was always a function of something or someone. There was no occasion for you to just be happy. You were happy only if you did something. Or because someone gave you something. Probably why I didn’t recognise happiness when we first met.

Though we worked together, Manu and I had met at a friend’s party where we got talking about jargon at work and our general work woes. “What I really want to do is work in some place like a pet store that’s full of animals”, I said. “Me too”, said he. Before the end of the month, we were spending our Saturdays volunteering at a pet shelter close to his place. Once we wrapped up work, we would head to a roadside tea stall. Since it was Saturday afternoon and I was usually free, if he had errands to run, I would tag along. Afternoons soon turned into evenings and weekends.

When deadlines were due, I usually worked long hours. On one such occasion, when he hadn’t heard from me for almost two weeks, he turned up at home just as I was heading out for a walk. Evening walks soon became our thing. Over two years, we became inseparable.

Now I recognise happiness. Happiness is ordering mint-flavoured ice cream without having to justify myself. Happiness is wearing my most comfortable fashion-retard dungarees and not being scoffed at. Happiness is growing an identity for the first time. Happiness is the lack of expectation; living in the moment. I had all of this with Manu.

If you met Manu in a room full of people, he would be the one chatting up the awkward person in the corner. Sent away to residential school at a very young age, he had grown up to depend on no one. An eerie sense of being capable of anything, emanated from him like radiation. If he was unsure of anything, he didn’t show it. He was always calm as a lake and uncomplicated as a binary.

Never before had a man treated me with such respect. When I mentioned my first marriage to him, it was in passing. We were over at a friend’s place, and he was surprised at my party trick–opening bottles with my bangle. And I said, “I used to be married to an army man”. And that was that. That was the most I had told anyone about my marriage. And he respected that.

I don’t know when he began picking me up but I was now waiting at the end of my road. Feeling footloose, I wondered if I should post my decision on Facebook later. Of course I decided against it. I would not know how to follow it up with a picture, a date, details, anniversaries. I had no patience for baring my life online.

In that fleeting moment, standing in the shade of the giant rain tree on that August morning, I felt joy. The world was not a bad place after all. As if in a vision, it was revealed to me how it all made sense. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I hoped that when the weight resettled, it would be lighter, shared between us.

“I have made up my mind”, I said, as soon as I got into his car. He turned to me and scanned my face. He knew what I was talking about. We knew it had taken time but we had gotten there. We couldn’t stay away from each other. We both knew that we found peace in each other. We agreed that marriage was the logical next step though we had never spoken about it.

We were not renegades who belittled the institution of marriage. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am. With him by my side, I still had faith in the possibility of a successful marriage.

He eased the car onto the side of the road. “Are you sure?”, he asked, holding my hand as his face lit up. Before I could answer, the radio jockey took a break. “How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewellers.”

What Should I Read On A Roadtrip

I am researching what to read on a road trip. This, I presume, will help me process the fact that I will soon be on the mother of all road trips–The Great Indian Drive featuring A&T. It’s going to be epic as always!
Here’s my road trip reading list
All the lists I referenced strongly suggest that I read this one. It’s what got wanderlust into Americans.
Tamil writing, it seems to me, possesses an earthy connection that is comforting in its openness and lack of posturing. I foresee those would come handy as I negotiate the great Indian hinterland.
Cobalt Blue came to me by way of my obsession with Jerry Pinto’s writing. The plot revolves around a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man! How in the world is this book not more popular? And what more exciting to read in unknown territory?
My holidays always end on a high. If Fault in Our Stars is anything to go by, Paper Towns sounds like just the teen heartpulp I need!
Surely, I am not going to read any more than these. But I would love to hear from you. I still have time to change my mind on some of these books!
What you would read on a roadtrip?

A Coffee Table Book

I remember, it was a Saturday. What should have been my day off the clockwork city was wasting away in that most crowded mall; one that I would have easily mistaken for CST or Grand Central or some such-not that I’ve been to either. By then, I was used to waiting for her; her time was never linear. It was more like a sheet of paper-fold it and put it in your pocket and it disappears.

Her pocketed time left me staring blankly at the maddening crowd wondering how quiet my toilet was; after all it’s truly the only place in the world where one could be alone in peace. When the 2nd coffee drained my wallet and in fear of my contents tipping the scale further, I chanced upon a couple at the far end of the room. They sat directly ahead of me but behind a wall which made them curiously inconspicuous. And they were engaged in the most unusual activity that nobody seemed to notice.

Planned by someone in love with the time-wasting tactics of an open-office floor, this coffee shop was just a space cornered against a wall with nowhere to go. While they were lucky to have the coffee counter guard the other free side, the last side was what I came to believe was the “view”; of hundreds of people buying random things they will never use simply because there seemed to be so many of them for one paise cheaper. That’s to make you appreciate better that overpriced coffee you just downed.

There were children, the annoying sorts, crying from exhaustion, grumpiness or purely bad upbringing; tech-savvy iphoners trying to “catch” range with their voices in this basement floor; families whose decibel levels were not monitored by anyone, others who just spoke loudly because they were kindred spirits and to top it off announcements that everybody heard but no one understood.

Amidst all this, the couple sat at that low table on cushions facing each other and between them was a red notebook. One would write something and pass it on to the other. Then the other would read, think, scribble and pass it back.

Siblings. I was sure they were brother and sister whose mother was a force to reckon with. She liked her home best when it was quiet. And she liked her home best, always. These two DNA mutations, like all of us, had their share of quibbles but didn’t dare make a sound. They had taken to writing utter filth to each other. And after their ferocious pen fights they refused to talk to each other; in that silent house indifference had easily gone unnoticed. As children they fought a lot because no one had intervened. But they had been silent for so long that they forgot they could speak to each other. They grew up but never shunned that habit. All their conversations were written. And it was a joy to watch.

This week’s writing exercise, the trainer at the workshop had spoken in his animated ecstatic voice. You will pair with the person to your right, go to a crowded place and write a descriptive narrative of the scene. You will write in different coloured inks and each of you will write one line. During the course of this exercise you will refrain from talking to each other or lingering too long over the scenario. This is partly a word association test.

They really like each other’s company. But he or she was being childishly ridiculous. They knew each other since high school. She had befriended him because they both loved cycling. The real reason was that he looked friendless and she was friendless too. They had clicked instantly; they watched Dexter’s Laboratory, hated oats for breakfast and resented the PT master. She was the one he called in panic after he had slept with a friend in college; he was inconsolable. She had called him and bawled incoherently when a friend she had avoided had died in an accident. And now after all these years, here they were sorting out this insurmountable hurdle. They were both as stubborn as a mule. They had hung up on each other and she had texted to meet here. Bringing the book was his idea and they wrote endlessly about how the other was a moron for being blind to the alternative. The swelling crowd, it seemed, helped circulate the air around their heads, for otherwise, they surely would have exploded.

He and I work together as associates. I hate his fucking guts. Like I care that he hates me too. The trouble began when our animosity came to a head at a meeting with our boss. I don’t remember what really went down; I was red with rage. He had made a condescending comment at my work. As if she were the only one who worked on it. It was my project too. We were supposed to work on it together. I hate her fucking guts. The meltdown had cost them their ego. The Boss had put them up to this task. Take the Saturday off, go to the nearest mall and finish writing that newsletter copy. You needn’t speak to each other if you can’t mind your language. You could write it, yes, only write it. These minions of marketing had no choice but to act out this charade. They didn’t stand a chance to hoodwink the Boss. Had they tried, the other would most definitely tell on them. Also a Saturday off was an impossible privilege for these twenty-four-seveners. They were in a fix.

Is that invisible ink they are writing with? Are those UV glasses that read invisible ink? They had to be with the Intel services. No wonder they had found that spot behind the wall; out in the open but away from the cameras. Of course they were writing in a book. It was the most low-tech technique in their skillset. Yes, right next to chopping vegetables in morse code. They were discussing the government’s underground bioweapon trials. Yes, it was true. A country as battered by epidemics as ours was indeed testing Chikunguniya on its unsuspecting slum dwellers. They were scientists and lovers. They wanted out of this maddening research that took innocent lives every day. But there was no safe house where they could talk. Talking was out of the question. They had briefly written on steamed up mirrors and cubicles in their bathroom. But that was mighty dangerous with the security arrangements. This was a spot far away from their canopied university, writing in a book wouldn’t alarm civilians and they could easily destroy evidence.

As I stared at the couple, I imagined it was him and me. There in that crowded madhouse, submerged in a sea of voices that smelled of coffee. We were writing to each other what we could never say better. I had the annoying habit of repeatedly asking the same questions. We were trying to capture the essence of these questions on paper before he grew tired of answering them. I wrote the first question and passed it on. He answered it diligently in half a sentence. Then he stalled, thinking. I will never forget that smile he smiled. His smile continued to fill that almost-fresh page with his thoughts. I knew he saw the joy he had anticipated on my face. The written word was an incredible high for me. Then he wrote a question. And it was my turn. But I love reading better than writing. At one point, I made him draw. I imagined and he drew. Then we both drew on the same page, facing away from each other’s halves. It was a banyan tree with our dreams etched on every leaf.

Right then, enters friend running; her curls laughing wildly and uncontrollably; a private joke perhaps. As she hugged me tight I forgot about the couple, their space I had invaded to create my own and that my time was folded in her pocket. She was just what the doctor had ordered; a ball of energy.

Short As A Flash

Wrote out a wordy post. Deleted it. The point is to keep it short, they say. Been put off flash fiction by this Guardian article. B-)

But was inspired by Hemingway’s Six:

For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

My debut flash fiction effort:

I didn’t think we’d last forever. Now, we say, “I do”. Here on, every new day ought to be shorter than forever.

Please rate it: 1-10

Puke: A Valid Response?

The validity of a physical retching sensation in response to life and all things it entails.

There are days, many more these days than acceptable, when I lay awake in bed overhearing the tiresome morning sounds of a geriatric household.

The deaf one is shouting at the lost one; he simply stares back, a stoic sculpture of incomprehension.

The authoritarian know-it-all is being himself, snubbing even the lizard under the dining table with derision.

It’s dark. Lovely cool darkness.

It’s early. Too early for me.

Snow Crash.

I am awake, my late-night long forgotten, sleep has slouched away not once complaining of insufficient attention. I want her back. Back in my blanket. As I try to shove my face down into my pillow within the darkness of my blanket, I want her to kiss my eyes back to peaceful oblivion. But she won’t hear of it. She is gone, long gone. I will myself to switch off instead.


In and out.

A throbbing thought loops around my mindspace like a news ticker—I wish I were dead—it’s on repeat. Along with its monotonous drone, unawares to my senses, there is a rising discomfort; now in my throat. I wake up to the realisation that on early mornings like this one, life makes me want to puke.

I don’t mean puke metaphorically or metaphysically. I don’t mean it in a shouting-from-atop-my-literary-high-horse sort of way. I mean the physical response of throwing up when met with highly disagreeable content.

That can’t be normal. Or maybe I just like slow, peaceful mornings. And I don’t remember the last one.

Wordless Poetry

A post arrived this afternoon. I rarely receive unexpected mail so a smile opened the door to the postwoman. Strangely, it wasn’t addressed to me. Playful as always, rain had smudged the sender’s name to an unrecognisable blur. What he had done to the mailing address was worse. Only the phone number remained. It’s what I like to call elemental drama; for no particular reason. Postwoman, a hopeful new entrant to the field, who was still committed to the sanctity of snail mail reaching its destination, argued for the cause citing the evidence of the salvaged phone number, which clearly someone had gotten wrong.

Needless to say, I was willing to be cajoled into accepting it; I could barely stay still while I signed for it; I was thrilled to bits. My jobless mind had already filled a worksheet with possibilities, rationales, elaborate narratives and more. Aside: In small-town homes like mine, bombs arriving by mail aren’t even considered a threat. Who would want to kill You?-being the logic.

I felt a far away tinge of sadness or guilt, I couldn’t fathom which, for the beloved whose eyes should have been the only ones beholding the contents inside. Nevertheless, as outwitting fate wasn’t my hobby, I closed my eyes, breathed in the pleasantly stale travelled smell of mail, imagined myself to be that beloved and opened the package. Oh, and I remembered to shut Reason out of my head the minute he began with his taunts of how I knew it was a gift to a beloved! Pah, live a little!

Inside, written in illegible scribble was a proclamation of love; a whole book of it. Signed in someone’s endearment, it was the most amazing gift anyone in love could receive. It was an offering of love from someone, I imagine, to whom words did not come easy. Someone to whom the earnestness of his ‘I LOVE YOU’s didn’t fade with use. Someone, who therefore didn’t understand the concept of mixing it up for variety.

For him, his inability to write creatively was just a technicality. He wanted to write her something and he had decided to woo her with sheer hard work. The book contained Neruda poems copied by hand. It was a labour of love and my heart soared at the affection, though usurped, of this thoughtful lover.

His handwritten book was an immense work of poetry where the poetry was in the gesture than in the words. I guess he did manage some ‘creative’ writing afterall. It was the humble submission of someone who knew he couldn’t top Neruda when he says,

“love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep”

And he didn’t see why he should try.

From the new curves of the altered ‘r’s, the intentionally dotted ‘i’s, loops closed as an afterthought and many such inflections, the effort to make it legible lay thick on the paper with exhaustion. I know he re-read it for all the missed words, thumbing the corners where I now hold.

Ecstasy is silent in accepting from a lover, poems as a gift of wordless poetry. Not ‘a’ lover; he is my lover, for who else could have chosen ten of my favourite poems?

Of Stories Like Rain

Glass Boys, the book I am currently reading, was picked up for its resemblance to family feuds I’ve grown up with. Until the first time I heard about this book, in my head faraway places like Newfoundland, Canada could not possibly have family feuds.
I’m barely 20 pages into the book and each page with its bleak yet hopeful imagery, seemingly simple language and dextrously written dialogues makes me want to write. Write about how the wind blows outside my window-playful- how the elderly fans talk to themselves- loudly-how a certain philanthropist barber in my neighbourhood spouts English when drunk-friendly- how electricity hides in the dark when lightning plays hide and seek with thunder in the sky above my house-coward. But I’m out of adhesive; what will glue my lines together to form a cohesive chronicle?
Lines, strangely, brings me to rain. Where I come from, rain is a celebration. A yearly purging of the land, necessary to offer a clean welcome to a new generation of Spring.
It’s now the dying vengeance of summer; it’s blistering, parching and scorching, the heat. Even in the middle of the day, when sunlight blinds your eyes, bakes you wrapped in your own skin and that last litre of water you drank seems to have died in your mouth leaving your innards stuck together, I am sure of rain. I know rain will find me in a week or I will find rain. Then for months there will be a humbling of everything other than that immense downpour; a rather literal dampening of spirits so as to bounce back resplendent with the first new leaves of spring.
In the pop culture of my constitution, rain is a miracle, a symbol of hope and new beginnings. It is open-throated singing, the song of the gods and unapologetic pleasure. It is also nature’s fury, a purifier or a dramatic interlude. Most importantly, it is prosperity, a way of a life and always welcome in any measure granted. By contrast on the other side of the equator, I have found that rain is often described as being morose and despondent, poking fun at miseries, falling in icy sheets or adding insult to injury. I often wonder how my jubilant rain could do something so out of character.
I wish story ideas would come to me with the certainty of monsoon, easy and natural, unending and prosperous, like a habitual season, providing for all my needs.
The only idea I play catch with is family. Their eyes, their words, their hands, told through my eyes, my words, my hands. In writing about them, I stand to lose my only idea; becoming a one hit wonder who will never outwrite that lived narrative.