Calls from Beyond

It had been a quiet, peaceful, uneventful, everyday sort of day. I had been winding up the routine chores around the house, clearing the last pile of laundry in particular, as I remember. The phone rang and I reached out to answer it in an immediate instinctive reflex, a half folded shirt in my hands. My father’s voice came through, “Hello! Rohini?” and I answered as was my wont, “Hello, Dada! Tell me?” Only, it wasn’t him, but an old family friend who had been trying to reach my husband. The spell was broken and I talked to the friend. Coherently, I believe.

 

My father had passed away years ago but at that moment it had been his unmistakable voice in my ear. Gruff, strong, assertive, distinctive. Not that friend’s. I tried to shake off the oddness of the incident as an auditory illusion and returned to the ordinariness around me. But something within me had been jerked alive. A tingling, unsettling sense of the extraordinary. And as I worked through the rest of my day a question flitted in and out of my head: Why would that friend’s voice which I was familiar with suddenly come masked as my father’s?

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That evening while sitting down to my customary riyaz, I embraced nostalgia like a warm, comforting shawl. Bandishes that my father had loved listening to surged through in my consciousness and I wallowed in them as one would in memories that are both vividly and vibrantly alive yet steeped in swirling sentiment. Dada had been a staunch Bhimsen Joshi fan, and the maestro’s Sakhi, Shyam nahi aaye in Chhaya Malhar was much loved. He would point out to my mother excitedly, “Do you see how he calls out to sakhi? A different approach every time!” and they would both listen to that old LP, over and over again, completely enraptured. I too tried to emulate Bhimseji’s sakhi but, of course, there is none like him and his sakhi was also equally unique. But that evening I came as close to him as was possible for me, remembering and reproducing the fine variations he introduced every time he sang the word, the lilting love, the sense of urgency, the insistence, or then the resigned acceptance of Shyam’s disappointing non-appearance. Hope and loss playing hide and seek, Shyam’s sakhi and Dada’s daughter swivelling from the one to the other, back and forth on the tides of unrestrained emotion. That night after dinner I ate a small bowl of mango ice cream, again a firm favourite with Dada. It felt appropriate, feeding myself, feeding that dearly beloved parent of mine who had reminded me once again that he had never really left.

 

Well, both my parents have passed on. I miss them, of course. That is the inescapable quotient of attachment and bereavement, being reminded of what once was when one’s dearly beloved were still by one’s side. In fact, I miss the air that they breathed with me, the sunshine that would bathe their skin and mine, the mildly fragrant breeze that fanned the summer evenings in our garden, the song of the koyal that we heard together. The sun rises and sets as always, the seasons follow each other as before, gardens bloom and birds sing, and I appreciate it all every day, yet there is that fine edge to all my experiences and emotions today, an awareness of the difference in the seeming sameness. The undeniable presence of loss.

 

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Both my parents, Ai and Dada, lived full lives, loved each other, their children and life itself to the fullest. In retrospect, I know and accept that their passing was inevitable, perhaps timely too. But I remain their child, a greedy one at that, still hankering for that one more moment of togetherness, wanting to bury my head in Ai’s lap, inhale the caressing love that she exuded with every breath, hold Dada’s hand and step out into the lane outside our old house where I grew up, step out into the world as it were knowing that he would always have my back. Hear them call my name. Hear their response when I called theirs’. Hear them talk, laugh, hear the sound of their footsteps, the rustle of the newspapers they read, the sound of their TV, their rhythmic breathing when catching an afternoon nap. Smell his eau de cologne, her fragrant hair oil. See the faint depression on the sofa chairs they vacated. Pick up the phone to call them, talk to them. Drive over to their place and see her standing on her balcony, waiting in welcome. Not to be. Not anymore.

 

But is it all really final? There are instances when I feel that all I need to do is close my eyes and call out to them and I know that they will be there. Friends tell me that spirits of people live on, that death is certainly not the end. There are philosophies I have explored that are based on the continuing existence of the soul, of cycles of birth, death and rebirth, where the body is the garment that the soul wears during a particular life period, that garments change over the cycles of birth and rebirth, but the true spiritual essence, the soul, lives on. Until it is absorbed into the infinite, supreme, divine power that is God. That nothing is final, that death is just a separating façade, that we need to look beyond it. That all is a continual ceaseless flow, that the sentient and insentient may metamorphose and evolve, but never disappear. That just as matter and all that is material is constant in its sum, the spirit is equally indestructible.

 

There are times when I am sorely tempted to imagine that the souls of those I have loved and whose earthly presence has ended, linger on around me, like a nurturing loving wrap or a protective guiding ambient light. But I stop short of belief. For I do not know. I remain a hopeless sceptic. But, and this is just as important, I do not disbelieve either. For while I accept that souls, rebirths, god, salvation and so on are concepts born of the human intellect driven by a striving to pierce through the limiting walls of our pitiably finite knowledge, to make sense of this world and our life in it, I do not know for a fact that they are fallacious. My Ai and Dada may still be there, floating somewhere in this infinite universe, hopefully blissfully. Or, they may not. The dear young nephew I lost a few years ago, and my dear dear sister, my dearest confidante, friend, philosopher and guide, who followed some months later, may still be floating too, perhaps still invested in those that they tragically left behind. Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is that I do not know. And I am mostly okay with that.

 

For the essence of who and what they were still lives on in me. I carry them with me in everything I think, feel, do. As time passes and the jagged edges of memories get rounded and smoothed, comfortable and mellow in warm sepia, those that live on therein grow more loving, more forgiving, more endearing. And I grow increasingly loyal to them, fiercely possessive of every word they spoke, stoutly defending or even espousing every value, moral or ideal they lived by, tenaciously guarding every single thing they left behind for me, be they letters, books, photos, sarees or memories.

 

There have been days when I have been preparing something in the kitchen, a recipe that Ai had taught me, and I call out to her. Aloud. Ai, dearest, come and taste this, tell me if this exactly how it is supposed to be. No, she doesn’t answer, but that has never really mattered. For I still hear the echoes of all her previous approvals and affirmations, her genuine heartfelt appreciation of every single thing I ever did, whether it was a cake I had baked or a plateful of pakoras I had fried, a Raga that I had been singing or a story I had just written. There are days when I look at my reflection in the mirror and I see my mother’s eyes smiling at me. I wave out to her quietly, happily. And we both smile. That umbilical cord that once tied me to her still holds on.

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I am still awash with the impact of an incident that occurred soon after her passing. Pune had been reeling under exceptionally heavy though late monsoon showers, I had been driving to my French class, the wipers swinging furiously to and fro, the radio playing old Hindi songs, and my eyes streaming unstoppable tears of overwhelming grief. In the secluded privacy of my car I hollered out to her. Ai, how could you leave so suddenly? How could you not even wish me a goodbye? This is so unfair! Where are you, Ai? Show me where you are. Now! The radio crackled and a rather inane song that she had been inexplicably fond of started playing, dheere dheere bol koi sun na le. Speak softly, else … My heart flooded with gratitude.

 

Memories, illusions, moments of willing delusions, there is nothing tangible or measureable about them, is there? It’s all in the mind, as they say. An intense yearning to reach out to those who have left, a bullish resistance to accepting that they are no more, a bewildering vulnerability in their absence, a refusal to accept that death is unshakeable or a wild hope that there may be ways in which we could outsmart it and continue to communicate with those it has taken away. Any or all of that could be responsible for the games that our minds may play with us.

 

But just because it’s all in the mind, is it less real? I agree that my random moments of connection with my deceased parents could well be mere illusions, but does that negate their validity for me? When Darcy insults Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I fondly and perhaps foolishly believe that the tears that gather in my eyes are actually my sister Pratima’s, the ones that she had shed for the wounded pride of her loved and admired Austen heroine. That may be completely irrational. But is the heartache that I feel irrational too? Is it unreal? That erupting anger against the arrogant young man, is it exclusively mine or is it laced with what was once hers? Every girl and woman who has read and watched this classic wants Elizabeth vindicated, I more so because Pratima wanted it too. And Pratima is not sitting here with me feeling angry or wretched or sad or relieved or happy or satisfied. No, she trusts me to feel all of that by myself and on her behalf too. That may be my self-deluding assumption, but is my enduring love and longing for her to reclaim her earthly space a delusion? No.

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Parting and grief teach one as much about togetherness as togetherness itself. More, I suspect. Loving intensely makes losing that much harder to bear. But we survive, don’t we? Beautifully and gloriously, I think. For there is then wrought in us a refinement of our very humanity. Our capacity for empathy and compassion grows. Our appreciation of all that life has to offer is keener, heightened, for we know that life itself is ephemeral, our experience of loss and sorrow has handed us that wisdom. We value and cherish all those who stay on with us, holding our hand, leading us from crushing grief to a lightness of being and then on to an embracing of our everyday joys with as much lust as before. To be ready to love and lose again. And again.

 

And every happy or bizarre experience that reconnects me to those of my family and friends that I loved and continue to love dearly, those whose love for me survives in the memory of every cell of my being even after their physical presence has faded away, is like a precious gift. My lurking cynicism warns me that I am probably gifting these experiences to myself. Maybe. But I see no reason to refuse those gifts. If there were to be another time when my father was to miraculously speak to me on the phone, I would not turn away from him or remind him that he’s dead, just a sentimental memory I am clinging to, a vestige of my attachment taking refuge in my head, and that he has no earthly business to call me from the beyond. If there is a beyond.

 

The beyond may not exist. But are we sure that the here and now is not an illusion too? All is Maya as our sages insisted through the ages. Well, give me the Maya, I say. Any day. Every day. It is my inalienable birth-right as a human, the Maya of fulfilling love and of equally fulfilling illusions. Then death shall not do us apart.

 

The Days of Abandonment

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT

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A Review

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 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.

The Sense Of An Ending

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

By Julian Barnes

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A Review

I remember falling in love with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when I’d read it a couple of years ago. I also remember realising as soon as I’d finished, that I needed to read it again (which I did for a book club), slowly, carefully, with more attention to every word, understanding and savouring the ideas that Barnes subtly, almost insidiously, puts across. Ideas and concepts that I had probably let slip by in my hungry pursuit of the narrative.

 
Well, the narrative is what it is and I’m a firm believer in all possible sorts. Your story can be anything. It’s how you tell it that matters. Convince me. Barnes did. Retired, well-settled and, perhaps, a tad placid Tony Webster receives a letter and a bequest of money from the departed mother of his ex-girlfriend from college, Veronica. And this triggers a chain of memories from his distant youth, each unfolding gradually in its interpretive shades and details as we read on. Memories of the prodigally gifted and deeply reflective Adrian. The somewhat unreadable Veronica and his weekend with her judging family. Her mostly reticent and yet once curiously chatty mother. And, of course, the suicides. The earlier one from school founding the basis of understanding and comparing with the one from later on. All characters, all turns and twists in the plot, all interpretations and re-interpretations of events, chains of causation, utterances, attitudes, expressions, all seem completely plausible. And through the remembering and recounting of them all is Tony’s sympathetic but pragmatic ex-wife, Margaret, listening to his ramblings, shrewdly pinning the source of his agitation and smartly moving on. And Tony continues to sift through his memories trying to fit them coherently with the reality he sees today.

 
We all know time to be malleable, sometimes treacherously so, as we are forced to learn during moments of huge emotional turmoil. We also know our memory to be fallible at best, patching together the snatches and snippets that filter through time’s subjective sieve, leading us to construe or misconstrue according to our own predispositions. We know that history is written differently by victors and the vanquished, and again by the survivors of any period of turbulence. We know that each experience of every relationship determines not merely the progress over time of that particular relationship, but of all others as well, for we are but the accumulation of all that we have experienced. We know that while we could fantasize about life imitating art, many of us let life simply happen to us, that our innate inertia leads us to choices that render us peaceable and comfortably settled.

 
But here is a writer that takes all of this and more and pushes the envelope further and further and even further, until we are gasping drenched in the power of his ideation.
Every word, every observation, every analogy, every metaphor is apt. Just so. And they all impel you to question yourself, to cross check against the parallels in your own personal history, in your own sets of predilections and prejudices, in your own dwelling over personal pettiness and thence missing the larger picture, your own shuffling and reshuffling of cards from your memory to come up with a hand that suits you best at that particular moment.

 
Barnes’ style of writing is deceptively simple, chatty, homely, but it packs in huge punches, especially when you’re not looking. There’s dry humour, recourse to satire, and an ability and willingness to look at people and things, ourselves included, square in the eye. To me, Barnes is like a wise old owl, nestled comfortably and seemingly stoically in his favourite tree, staring into the darkness around and deciphering nuances in the night as only owls can. He peels the darkness that we hide within us and then pierces right through. Illumination.

 
Well, this slim little book, more novella than novel, is packed with power and will probably prove to be timeless in its appeal.

 

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I also watched Riteish Batra’s film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending. I was extremely sceptical as to how such a reflective and nuanced piece of writing could be faithfully translated to visual celluloid. But I was happily surprised. Batra has, of course, tweaked the storyline, ironed ambiguities into definitives and fleshed in a character more than in the original. Well directed, well scripted and well performed, it was a rewarding experience. Of course, less so than the book. But I’m not really complaining. Batra has impressed with Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night as well. And am happy that we have a young director who handles human sensitivities with such grace. And quiet confidence.

Hamid

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Oh! What a twisted and tortured world it must be out there in modern day Kashmir. Where truth and lies overlap and blur and lose themselves in each other. Where everyday breaths are stolen against the everyday din of screaming bullets and pelted stones. Where the lakes freeze over the memories of stifled lives and the flickering hopes of those that yet live. Where blank eyed women queue up in front of their local constabulary or their visiting ministers, holding placards of missing sons and husbands. Where men of God become men of insurgence and violence and where mosques are centres for both prayer and propaganda. Where the echoes of clarions from the plains beneath and beyond rouse men, women and children to their patriotic duty. And where the chinar reaches out higher and higher to the skies, carrying with it tragic cries for help, for shelter, for peace, and for that ephemeral, traitorous or glorious azadi, only to fling them all back unheard on the blood soaked ground beneath.

 
Hamid is a cinematic ode to this present day Kashmir. A tale of cruel, irredeemable loss. Of a local boat maker, Rehmat, who goes missing one night. Of a father and husband who leaves his boat, his wife and his child suspended in limbo. Of his forlorn wife, Ishrat, who staunchly averts her face from the grim prospect of widowhood, losing herself instead in a frenzied search for her missing husband, forgetting even how to be a mother to her little boy. Of that little boy, Hamid, who telephones Allah at a miraculous configuration of the magical number 786, berates him soundly for his sorry situation, and orders him to return his father, Rehmat, to his rightful home and family. Of that telephone connection that crosses political divides and stirs concern and compassion in the beleaguered and tired CRPF jawan Abhay’s heart, spurring him to play along as Allah, offering sympathy, help and advice to the little boy. And keeping him afloat.

 
But above all it is a tale of lost innocence. As the seven-year old Hamid steps up to take charge of his life, his mother and their home, he simply squares his shoulders and grows up. He learns his father’s trade and completes the boat that he had been crafting. And then rescues his mother from the abyss of blind denial, bringing her back to life, teaching her how to be his mother again.

 
The beauty of Kashmir is breathtaking, but we see it as in a mirror cracked, the shards reflecting remnants of what must have gloriously been. The gentle splish-splosh of oars paddling along a peaceful lake, the hum of wood being sawed, the tender thrusting gold green of the chinar, the narrow roads winding through steep mountains and verdant valleys, the firans and the walnut, the light eyed Kashmiris and their peculiar sing-song intonation, the smoke billowing from wooden houses and the snow piling in the distance. The picture postcard of yesteryear now creased with barricades, soiled with gun powder and stamped equally as terrorist and terrorised.

 
Hamid stole my heart completely. Reshi as the little boy is heartbreakingly endearing. His confusion, his impatience, his stoicism, his humour, his beliefs and his doubts, all come through so cleanly and clearly, it’s hard to believe that this is actually a child acting. Rasika Duggal, whom I’d loved as Manto’s wife in the Nandita Das film, impressed me yet again as his distraught mother. Sumit Kaul makes your heart leap with love and joy in those tender nostalgic scenes between father and son. And Vikas Kumar as the stressed out jawan chafing against the killing of his comrade and aching to go back home to hold his newborn baby girl, makes me want to hold his hand and tell him to just breathe. All such mesmerising, eloquent performances.

 
But the one who stands above them all is the director, Aijaz Khan, who pins you down to the narrative of the little boy, to his dilemma and his resourcefulness, and his innocent heartwarming conversations with Allah. The strife that tears through the region remains firmly as the backdrop. There are no loyalties or partisan sentiments that are stoked, no jingoistic calls parading as patriotism, and no glorification of the call to azadi either. The canvas is what it is, and the lives painted in the foreground are those of Hamid and his family.

 

 

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The cinematography is vivid, making the lake pristine and pure or dark and secretive, the mountains menacing or friendly, the people opening up or clamping up, all as the mood of the story may be.
The music is haunting, and the Kashmiri song that the father and son sang together, plays on as the credits roll and leaves you ruing the loss of the melodic serenity of that land.

 

Oh! For what may have been. If only.

Oh! That it may still be. Inshallah!