4/30/21

New | Prose | Kalyani Raghunathan | Hole in the Hedge


                                                           

Until I returned to Delhi after five years away in idyllic upstate New York, I hadn’t fully appreciated the luxury of having grown up in a house with a garden. I should have known better, since as a very young child I have lived in the kind of house I live in now, one flat in a block of flats amid many other blocks of flats; no garden close by that was safe for a young girl to play in unsupervised or after dusk, not even the standard colony compound with a paved badminton court and central patch of compacted earth and a few straggly bushes, and certainly not a lawn and trees one could call one’s own. But the intervening years completely spoiled me.

My parents taught in Delhi University, and had generous vacations that lined up nicely with school holidays. As a result, we spent several weeks in the summer at my grandparents’ house down south. Theirs was a mid-sized bungalow on a mid-sized plot, but unlike some south Delhi homes the house was set back from the boundary wall and surrounded on three sides by a garden. Not much grass, the fiery red Andhra soil didn’t seem to acquiesce to such frivolities, and  there certainly wasn’t room for a lawn. It can best be described as a 100-metre long winding path through fairly dense, planned undergrowth, fruit trees scattered here and there, from which coconuts, custard apples and red fleshy pomelos were collected as they fell to the ground.  My grandmother also had an entire terrace filled with pots – maybe upwards of a hundred – many of them bougainvillea and cacti, the only plants that seemed to thrive in the harsh, direct sun. I was to learn later that my father had inherited his green thumb from my grandmother, or maybe they both acquired it independently, either way they both loved gardening.

At that young age, coming from our Delhi flat, my grandmother’s garden was simultaneously delightful and dangerous, but the danger was of the sort where you secretly hoped the worst would happen, at least once. The worst, in this case, was encountering a snake. Grass snakes were common and harmless, but I was told by my aunt that a cobra had once been spotted from the back door of the central bedroom of the house, the one that led down two steps into the back garden, close to the garage. A second cobra was later found on the vine growing above the little open-air grill-surrounded room attached to the back of the kitchen, where dirty plates lay stacked in a stone sink, waiting to be washed. We hadn’t been visiting on either occasion, but the possibilities were thrilling.

After snakebite, the second worst thing that could happen to a child that stepped unaccompanied into that back garden was also worth serious consideration - she could be kidnapped by the house help who lived for some years in a room alongside the garage. Or so we were told. I don’t know if this was really true, or whether it was a complete fabrication to keep us kids inside, but my grandmother told us in all seriousness that this household help was ‘cunning’ (her word for anyone she felt had an undisclosed agenda) and posed a threat to her small grandchildren.

The strategy for dealing with danger number one was fairly straightforward. We were taught that snakes felt vibrations, not voices, and so we stomped gaily through the garden, sometimes with a stick in hand for extra protection. My own personal strategy for dealing with danger number two - which even then I didn’t quite believe, but hey, who wants to take chances – was to avoid the garage area altogether. I would navigate the garden path three-quarters of the way from the front gate of the compound round to the diagonally opposite corner, just outside the window of the room my parents occupied on these vacations, then turn around and retrace my steps. Much to my relief – and secret disappointment – I never saw a snake. Nor was I ever kidnapped.

At that point, this house had two of the most fascinating things I had encountered in my short life – the wondrous garden, and a dog. On occasion, one of the several golden Labradors my grandparents owned during my visits to the house would accompany me into the garden, but that was usually in the evenings when my grandmother was watering the plants. At other times – especially through those hot summer afternoons when all the adults were sleeping – the garden was all mine.

I have an elder brother who was always with us on these occasions, so this might seem strange, but many of the games I played in my grandparent’s home as a child were solitary affairs. He was almost four years older, and a boy, so of course we had little in common. Thinking back to that adult-filled house with an old television that only played Sun TV, placed in front of an uncomfortable sofa covered in dark brown rexine that stuck to the backs of your legs, peeling off like a band-aid as you stood up, I cannot for the life of me remember what he did with his time. Sometimes we played Monopoly, sometimes we lay draped across adjacent chairs reading the P.G. Wodehouses we had had the foresight to bring with us, but most afternoons I was on my own, exploring.

One of those summers I had been reading something – Anne of Green Gables, perhaps – and was quite taken in by the story of the protagonist befriending trees. I made four quick friends that summer – young saplings scattered at different corners of the garden - I remember there was an Emily, and also an Elizabeth (my tree friends were modelled on the children from the books I read) and two others whose names I don’t recall. I must have been lonely, because I went to see them multiple times a day. I talked to them, I told one the stories I heard from the other, and as we were leaving, I bade them farewell, even dramatically squeezing out a solitary tear for the smallest and most fragile.

Around the time I turned four-and-a-half, we finally moved from our little flat to a larger one on the campus in Delhi where my father taught. It was well-proportioned; two bedrooms, a large living room and a small kitchen in the window on which a squirrel gave birth to tiny furry babies, year after year. But best of all, it was on the ground floor and surrounded by a small garden with a lawn. There were flowerbeds and vegetable beds, and a harshingar tree that dotted the grass with its little red-stemmed white flowers in September, heralding the end of the hot weather. I was shown how to string a thread through the stems and turn the flowers into a garland, a wonderfully painstaking activity that kept me busy for whole afternoons at a stretch, much to my parents’ relief.

There were other kids on campus and the college basketball court and football field to play in, but that garden, my first, gave me many hours of pleasure. I remember stealing a bit of chalk from the box my mother kept to draw out the patterns of the kurtas she stitched, going out to the patch of earth where the sweet pea vines with their purple, pink and white blossoms shielded me from view, and writing the lyrics to The Beatles’ Obladi Oblada on the wall of the house. I invented an ingenious real-life version of PacMan to be played along the grid created by the retaining walls of a row of flowerbeds. On the few occasions the school bus dropped us off early and no one was home to receive us, my brother reluctantly agreed to play this game with me – he would chase me down these walls, if he caught up to me I ‘died’, so I had to choose my turns wisely. My parents bought us a couple of those tiny plastic crazy balls that ricocheted alarmingly off surfaces, and I spent many hours alone on the lawn, pretending I ran a Ladies’ Crazy Ball Academy where I taught young girls like me how to catch and throw. I watched wriggling earthworms after the rains and marvelled at the little mounds of earth they left in their wake; I climbed the trees and rescued a ginger kitten; on one occasion I even bullied the neighbour’s daughter into licking a slug. My father warned us of hookworms, but I hated wearing shoes, so when standing in one place, I would instead dance from foot to foot, never pausing on one long enough for the dreaded worm to find purchase.

Now, surrounded by concrete and struggling to nurse back to life my three lonely potted plants, I find my thoughts turning to those gardens of my youth. Much as her garden was for my grandmother, that first garden was for me a welcome source of comfort, of solitude and quiet reflection. In fact, the most endearing memory I have of my own self, aged maybe seven or eight, was in my Hole in the Hedge. I discovered that the hedge surrounding our garden had been planted in two parallel rows, and at one spot there was a naturally-occurring space between the tiny branches, large enough for my little white cane chair and myself. On my left was one of the lanes leading out of the college campus and onto the Delhi ridge, on my right, the house, and unless someone knew exactly where to look, I was invisible. Lying as it did on the boundary between the world outside and my home, this no-man’s land was mine to lay claim to. Predictably, the first thing I did was to write up a rulebook – called the Hole in the Hedge (HH) rules – that delineated what was allowed in the HH and what not. No adults, obviously, not that an adult could have fit in that space anyway. I would take my journal in and write stories, or sing to myself, or listen to the conversations of people passing by, unaware they were being spied on. Once in a while my father would come out and knock on the ‘door’ to the HH headquarters, asking if I was ok and if I needed anything.

We moved out of that house when I was about fourteen, to a bungalow on campus that also had a large garden with a beautiful purple-flowered vine above the front door and a ber (wood-apple) tree whose fruit our cook would turn into a refreshing summer drink. A few years later, we moved again, to the last and largest home we’d occupy before my father retired, with lovely twelve-foot-deep verandas and a tecoma tree that dropped its yellow blossoms on my mother as she lay reading in the winter afternoon sun on a mat underneath.

I never did get to say goodbye to any of these homes. In between my leaving to get my terminal degree in the US and my return five years later, both my parents retired and had to give up their on-campus housing. From far away, while wrapping up my thesis and applying for jobs, I would listen with a heavy heart to my father’s stories of their search for a place to rent. Their options once again seemed limited to little concrete boxes, with small balconies and perhaps (if lucky) a terrace. After all, which Delhi resident lives in a house with a garden these days, except the uber-rich and government servants? After several months of back and forth, one of those concrete boxes was selected, and my parents packed up their belongings and moved them into their new accommodation.

Of course, there was no way to pack up our lovely garden, and the two hundred pots of chrysanthemums whose large heads I would cradle between my hands were finally uprooted, much like our family. But the first house with a garden that I ever lived in holds a special place in my memories, and within it, my little hole in the hedge remains very dear to me. Hidden from everyone, this in-between space was my little escape – where I could imagine away the outside world, and even the egregiousness of my parents always taking my brother’s side in domestic disputes seemed to fade. I could just be me in there, Queen of my Hole in the Hedge.

God knows we could all use a space like that this year.

 *Artwork by Edward Munch, Two Women in the Woods at Ekely (Wikimedia commons)

4/21/21

New | Poetry | For the Dark Times | Hamraaz



Reel for Delhi in Springtime


When I tell you what it means 

to me to live in Delhi,


I won’t use trending music

or a dozen flashing photos


approved by the Ministry

of Tourism


just a few words 

to conjure images


that pair of young women 

brushing shoulders 


as they sip tea on the edge 

of the dusty maidan


or the thin, strong man

in the next lane over


who right now

is stripping off his shirt 


as he assesses a growing 

pool of stinking water


and on a good day,

this might be enough


to get you to consider 

one or two simple ideas:


we can remake this world;

we can, and we must, my friends.



Abolish the Delhi Police

-for Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita


Maybe it’s just habit,

but even all these months after

they locked down the city

and took away friends of your friends,

sometimes you still float away 

at that moment when light’s fading 

and the first bats are flying;

and when you wake with a start

it is already dark

you’re not sure where you are,

but you hear the door bang

and then you’re relieved 

to find it’s a friend 

who wants to play cards

or the newspaper man,

bringing the bill

not someone who’s come

to take you away:


we don’t need police,

they spread only fear.



Gently


You cradle the purring cat 

like your mother cradled you 


in the old photo 

you keep by your bed


you know the cat 

is not a child,


and neither are you,

but often in April,


as the ceiling fan 

gently spins you,


you remember her 

tender hands.




Questions I Don’t Need to Ask


Do you struggle against 

the deepening dark

because you read 

Marx or Ambedkar?

Or was it the bus 

driver who leered

and hissed in your ear,

or the teacher who failed you,

or the neighbors who 

forced you to say, 

‘Everything is fine’?


Or was the way 

the world treated your parents

or was it the way 

they still loved you?




Excess Demands 

(or Why Such a Shortage of Justice?)


Do not call us terrorists

for protesting bad laws,

or jail us for laughing 

at gods or Amit Shah.


Let us love those we love;

don’t tell us how to pray;

and when we do equal work,

give us equal pay.


In jail, grant us straws,

if we tremble when we drink

warm blankets when it’s cold,

and books so we can think.


Do not molest us or beat us

(in jail or in undisclosed locations

before you take us to jail.)


Do not torture us in any way:

no broken bones or bruises,

no solitary confinement;

we need space and time to sleep,

water and soap to wash.


Tell our families where we are.


Do not take us in the night

to a field or flyover,

and then shoot us before our trial.


Do not shoot us in broad daylight

and then call us terrorists.


4/20/21

New | Poetry | Dale Cottingham

Claude Monet - The Magpie (wikimedia commons)

 


This Icy In-Between

 

                                                This evening, during the blizzard, on my way

to check on you, while snow fell in streaks,

 

horizontal and quick, driven by wind

in utter fidelity to the current, blurring my view

 

of the dirt road I drove slowly down—

guided by a solitary light on a hill’s low crest.

 

The light shone like an outpost, its dome

illuminating in blue light the snow, each flake

 

not specific, but in mass, a slur glittering

in their hurry, as the CD I played,

 

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings,

reached the long crescendo, violins

 

moving up the register without interruption,

voicing my emptiness, leaving me

 

gapped and torn, edging along a precipice,

in a blizzard of unspoken words.

 

But I can’t say that was all.

I can’t say it was only snow,

 

I can’t say if it was longing

or the adagio I felt,

 

my car slipping on unseen ice, that I

must navigate, turning the steering wheel

 

counter to my slide, but carefully,

the crescendo ongoing, the precipice

 

threatening, or tempting. Snowflake

of my soul, coursing on currents.

 

I’ve blown through money and time;

borrowed prayers, faith, gestures,

 

glances, and some blues I’ve sung.

Aren’t I both subject and object

 

on this road? The crescendo

cascading now, descending

 

                                                to one more sorrowful resolution,

                                                the snow still falling scouring

 

the icy road, some piling in the ditch,

                                                some on field

 

beyond the blue of my sight,

like souls I’ve seen but not touched,

                                               

while you wait, knowing

I’m in this icy in-between,

 

                                                that I strive while you wait anxiously,

you sitting in your chair,

 

phone, remote, Bible at hand.

O, prayer of my heart,

 

let my spoken and unspoken words

                                                be enough, my arrival in a blizzard

 

saying everything necessary, offering

                                                a slippery concept, what I call me.  

 

 

 









A Little History

 

                                                Watching the river in flood,

each exhale huffing over the one before,

its red, swollen reality waking imagination.

 

Dismembered tree limbs,

                                                water logged, sodden, submerging, 

re-emerging for encores of helplessness,

 

tumbling in the roiling flow.

A tire, worn and wet, rolling in the current,

upright, overturning, swerving

 

in free-fall downstream,

to a fate I can’t see.

From my perch, I read

 

my family history, part native American

forcibly removed from their homeland

in a torrent of movement,

 

and sitting apart, part White

settled here from somewhere else,

each an immigrant trying

 

to swim amid the flotsam

in a swirl of meanings

jostled by the flood

 

each with a history as I pass through  

like a ghost as I live my own,

that teeters on being swept away

 

in this torrent of time, events,

each iteration combining

into a larger one, gaining 

 

a force of meaning, emotion—

what will I remember

from this pause on my walk?

Will this be one focused moment

in a series of unplumbed events,

swept away with other debris,

 

or will I glean new insight, leaving

with the memory of sun lighting

a storm’s watery aftermath,

 

the power in this most fluid element,

my synapses sparking as I watch,

seeing branches, trash bags, silt anew,

 

as they course by, submerged,

like my ancestors to different degrees

in the turgid flow, some afloat,

 

some drowning as I watch, none

I can save from the churning river—

the willow on the bank, caught in the flow,

 

clinging by roots as the scourging flood

scours the soil, the willow still grasping,

with each billow less able to stand—

 

leaning, so that even if it holds 

amid the change, it is changed,

and will not remain unchanged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Home Ground

 

                                                The ground rises before me,

fallow and open, ghosted

 

by my ancestors, both Native

and White , last year’s stalks,

 

dirt-spattered and weathered

by snow, by frost,

 

                                                corn husks once luscious and florid,

that rose in summer sun,

 

prone, picked over

by birds, like readers

 

seeking stray kernels

in the scribbled margins

 

of second-hand books.

The wind ribbons through,

 

                                                fecund, bearing pollen, spores,

humid enlightenments,

 

                                                the expectation of rain.           

A lone car passes, heading to town,

 

whose far warrens

of urban entertainments

 

of the body and mind,

hold no attraction for me.

 

                                                Hoe in hand, I seek a soulful way.

As the car crosses over the next hill,

 

                                                rolling dust over the empty plains,

                                                I can’t say that I am more than breath,

 

                                                as I scrape metal against pliable earth,

                                                sensing the always-feeling-an-absence

 

                                                present, the sehnsucht,

despite the presence of so much:

 

dust, roots, spores, humidity—

I stand at the field’s edge,

 

                                                gawping as if a ghostly pageant

passed by, the wind persisting,

 

shuddering the dry stalks,

                                                this dust, this solitude,

 

my angle of repose,

                                                this odd jealously rising,

 

                                                my ancestors immigrants too,

never close enough to the land—

 

                                                It is an other, it is other,

as I carve furrows

                                               

in this land I stand on,

                                                whose grit collects on me,

 

as I attempt to translate

the wind’s soulful whispering

 

to earth, which seems

to understand in ways I can’t.

                                                                                   

 

 

 

 

                                                The Joining

 

                                                Listening to the piano, each note

joining the next, precise, and expanding,

 

soothing with melody, lifting us,

while she played Appalachian Spring,

 

                                                in this widening illusion. I watched her

                                                from half way back, playing

 

without sheet music,

song filling the sanctuary, her fingers

 

flawlessly striking keys, sharps, flats,

following Copeland’s score,

 

                                                but adding her own supple emphases,

                                                softness-es, delays—she leaned

 

into the keys, then swayed back,

eyes closed as if in prayer,

 

                                                pouring herself like champagne

into the music—no,

 

the sunlit music effervesced

through her, thrilling our ears,

 

resonating through pews,

                                                notes rising, falling like breath,

 

the notes rising, falling like breath,

singing me so thoroughly, I didn’t see

 

the others waiting for the wedding to start,

listening to her impromptu performance,

 

the notes continuing, gaining,

then losing intensity.

 

I lean my head back, my silent voice

reaching to meet her. Can’t I be

 

both subject and object—nuances

and lilts—chances taken,

 

or fates? Notes lofting, then

losing intensity. How can I deliver

 

my self from my individual will,

from outside this moment, free of need?

 

Each note in its little jacket of tone,

a mix of script and impromptu play,

 

my eyes on her, her eyes still closed,

head back, but leaning into the piano,

 

not one note lost, the music wafting

and waning—and henceforth,

 

wafting—my body turned medium,

the music lifting me,

 

lifting me as if my redemption

depends on it.