A fictional street in a real city

​When you turn the corner on the 4th crossing of Main Street, you retrace your steps back in time. It’s true – boutique hotels, underground pubs and international consumer retail outlets are replaced with hole-in-the-wall shops selling locally manufactured snacks and candies, hawkers ranging from astrologers to magazine-and-paperback sellers use the prime real estate of sidewalks to put up their goods and services on display, vintage songs in the local language waft down in raspy waves from public broadcast systems overhanging the traffic light and the entire colour scheme changes from an urban neon to a saturated sepia. People halt to stare at newspapers pasted daily on metal display boards. They pause to sample the wares at the various shops that open their doors wide on this street – the brightness of the assortment of clothes, utensils, bicycles and even pets for sale somewhat dimmed by the warm filter of light that shines on them from age-old street lamps. If you are lost and ask someone for directions, chances are that you would have caused the most interesting and (aberrant) event to have occurred on this street on that day and thus aroused the interest of more persons than just the one you intended the question for. 

Traffic on this street is the only thing that is rushed, except for the times when a tram comes snaking down its tracks and serves as a reminder to all other vehicles that they may very well outdo its ancient pace, but here, on Main Street, they will have to observe a ceremonial pause upon its arrival. After a tram – which makes its appearance about twenty times a day, has passed by, and its accompanying rumble and the din of vehicles taken by surprise has died down, life on Main Street reclaims itself. Old men continue to sit at jewelry stores with cut-glass counters that house gaudy gold trinkets and stare into nothingness, sweetshop owners fan themselves under the signages of their storefronts – some apparently dating back to the early nineteenth century. Potbellied men wearing nothing but checkered lungis resume the act of bathing in public at water outlets that open on roads in the city and gush river water into its gutters at scheduled intervals. Bus conductors hang from the doors of buses and call out names of stops – making their buses dawdle till they have enough people ready to travel to the destinations they’re selling and thereafter egg their drivers into participating in impromptu races with other buses in a most violent fashion.

Meanwhile, the houses on Main Street maintain a most dignified and slightly disdainful silence. What with the laying out of the pavement and broadening of the roads, and the chaos of the street market, it seems as if these houses have been forced to recede in the background. It takes a practiced eye to tear away from the faded madness of the street to notice them. Their shuttered windows, extended patios and hanging verandahs with cracked, red floors and even dimmer indoor lighting seem fragile, almost two-dimensional. You hardly ever see anyone go in or out of these houses and rarely will you spot a face at their windows or verandahs. The stillness of these houses is left absolutely undisturbed by visible human activity. For all practical purposes, they may actually be the hollow facades left behind during a Festival season countless years ago. For we all know that during the Festival, Main Street is transformed – every by-lane furnishes numerous makeshift temples to house the goddess who is on her annual home run, every shopkeeper bears a special glint in his eye, and every pedestrian is pushed and jostled by the endless crowds that emerge from suburban regions to shop at these shops and then visit these temples dressed in their newly acquired Main Street finery. Even then, the houses remain passive – sometimes they bear a few strings of fairy lights or receive a fresh coat of paint, but other than that they show no signs of participation in the added chaos. 

Main Street is a small yawning gap in the new design that is slowly enveloping the city in its blue and white wash of Progress, a dark spot where the twirls of glimmering, luminous cord lights do not cast their redundant and eerie glow. Is Main Street an unfortunate oddity because of that, or a welcome relief – a true picture of the city that houses it? You could ask around for an answer, or you could decide for yourself. I, however, am reminded of a time when I spotted a sergeant at an intersection trying, with all the sluggish agility he could muster, to prevent a standee from flying onto Main Street. The standee advertised a conference on Progress organised by the Most Honourable State, it was in the signature colours that Progress comes in – blue and white, and as it defied the cop’s attempts at restrain and landed bang in the middle of Main Street, it seemed mighty incongruous. And just after a minute or so of lying there, fluttering to the tune of an ageless song, it seemed mighty irrelevant as well.


How do you find thoughts that go missing?

Another one from what’s turning out to be a series. I guess I’ll call it the ‘unshruggable silence series’ : 

I’m often asked these days

In equal parts

By myself and others

About the wandering of my thoughts

And about their colour.

Well, I don’t know much 

But I know where I’d like to look for them – 

I’d like to slip into the little slit

That I imagine a sharp knife would make on my thin wrists

I’d like to ride the hardness of a warm gun

All the way to my spleen, my gut, my very heart and look for them there

I’d like to look for them in the eyes of frosty mountain peaks

And in the depths of dark oceans

I’d like to look for my thoughts in these places

And these places specifically.

And I don’t know their colour

But I know I’d recognise them in an instant

I’d know their lonely silhouette 

Huddled up in their favourite crouching posture

The baby, in the womb, they always seemed to need.

Or the vagrant wasting away on an old park bench

Or a commuter stranded on a platform, waiting, endlessly

In seeking them out these would be my usual suspects. 

I don’t know my thoughts

Or their whereabouts

I’m clueless and empty

And I receive and stare and take in

Everything and anything that stands in front of me

A computer screen with squiggles and things

A friend I’ve known long enough

A book with its words all loud and open

A street with its cars and people and its peddlers and hawkers

I take in everything

And offer in return

In equal parts and without discrimination –

Blank stares and a vacant expression.

Choosing storms over silence

If you’ve ever been engulfed by a silence that refuses to budge, you’ll probably relate :

I’m trying to stir within myself a storm

Because something akin to the silence that precedes it

Has been brewing inside me for long

And as it has gone on its rounds 

It’s turned every shade of colour into a balanced greyscale.

Not a dab of black or sparkle of white

Tips its needle on either side.

It does not let me plunge into complete darkness

Or allow me to emerge in bright light

It leaves me to breathe in the viscous penumbra of shadows in twilight

Blurred, undefined, barely a silhouette against a grainy background

I struggle to move out of this two dimensionality

And move, really move, get some displacement. 

Put a physical distance between myself and this shadow

Do something that causes it to diminish in size

Or trick it to lengthen itself into a ridiculous height

But I manage none of this. 

I manage nought.

Nothing of my thoughts get sold, nothing gets bought. 

Only the silence proves to be successful

It advances, it moves beyond sound and conquers space

And by absorbing all movement, it graduates into stillness

A stillness that wishes to convince

That nothing existed before it

And nothing can come after

And so I’m trying to summon a storm

That will take this all engulfing stillness by surprise

Creep up on it when it least expects it and

Reduce its thick glassiness into immutable dust. 

And so I call onto the winds that sustain me

And the gravity that holds me back from reaching out for help

And I shake up the skies in the hopes that I can favourably align

The stars that are sewn on them

In a pattern that will unlock

The doors through which storms can walk

Into this world of stillness and tear it down

So that I can begin the work of building it up from scratch

For I’m good at that, I’m better at it than shrugging off this spell

That has me all caught.

Geometry for “Grown Ups”

Words in boxes,
Thoughts in (mail) chains,
Feet on the line –
Walking the co-ordinates
Between work, home, and somewhere safe.
Our conversations – flat, crest-less waves
Our minds – tangent to the same
Our hopes – iridescent, like prisms
Still reflecting some errant rays.
Our fingers fettered by little squares,
Our eyes ensnared by obtuse stares
That struggle to make sense
Of the endless spiral of days on days
And our lives, themselves, an illusion
Of concentric circles
In which we try to seek the origin,
But fail.

A long, long time ago, I met Bhutan. This is how it went

Too many notifications from Facebook memories have brought me here. About a year back, I’d been playing around with these pictures from a trip to Bhutan that took place two years ago and made a silly photo-story out of it. I’m just putting it on my blog now, because more than any other place, Bhutan is one that can’t be captured in words alone. And because, well, I miss the mountains. (All pictures in this post were clicked either by Gopica Dhawan – who is a great at clicking pictures! – or by one of us bunch of buffoons who happened to have held her camera for a bit.)

1. Just some mountains to get you started

1. Just some mountains to get you started

2. And a burning lamp2. And a burning lamp

3. And a makeshift vase with flowers3. And a makeshift vase with flowers

4. And what looks like a Tiger’s Nest
4. And what looks like a Tiger's Nest

5. Wait, let’s get a closer look
5. Wait, let's get a closer look.JPG

6. And… closer, yes that’s the Takhtsang Lakhang, Tiger’s Nest to you
6. Closer, yes that's the Taktsang Lakhang, Tiger's Nest to you.JPG

7. Merry flags on the climb up to old TN
7. Merry flags on the climb up to old TN.JPG

8. We have our own DIY shrines
8. We have our own DIY shrines.JPG

9. And lots of DIY jewellery9. And lots of DIY jewellery.JPG

10. And cherry blossoms10. And cherry blossoms.JPG

11. Yes, see11. Yes, see.JPG

12. Yes, in different hues
12. Yes, in different hues.JPG

13. CHERRY BLOSSOMS! You thought only Japan or Shillong had ’em13. CHERRY BLOSSOMS, you thought only Japan or Shillong had 'em.JPG

14. Our graffiti’s way cooler than yours
14. Our graffiti's way cooler than yours.JPG

15. And so are our cats15. And so are our cats.JPG

16. There’s a good kitty16. There's a good kitty.JPG

17. Wait, you said Delhi has wide roads, is it?17. What, you said Delhi has wide roads is it.JPG

18. But does it have such rivers running along them?18. But does it have such rivers running along them.JPG

19. So clear…19. So clear.JPG

20. Yes, rivers20. Yes, rivers.JPG

21. And such sunsets!22. And such sunsets.JPG

22. And such vast expanse of open space23. And such vast  expanse of open space.JPG

23. And Buddha statues like these24. And Buddha statues like these.JPG

24. And such houses25. And such houses.JPG

25. We make our own paper26. We make our own paper.JPG

26. All handmade!27. All handmade.JPG

27. From this to soft papyrus, yeah!28. From this to soft papyrus, yeah.JPG

28. Branded, of course…29. Branded, of course.JPG

29. We like our doorways like this –30. We like our doorways this way.JPG

30. And our buildings made of heavy stone31. And our buildings made of heavy stone.JPG

31. With the sills done up all prettily32. With the sills done up all prettily.JPG

32. (Dragon tails are pretty too)33. Dragon tails are pretty too.JPG

33. And so are our babies34. And so are our babies.JPG

34. And our (baby) monks!35. And our baby monks.JPG

35. And our people…36. And our people.JPG

36. And our dried cheese – nope, that is not paneer!37. And our dried cheese - no, that's not paneer.JPG

37. Oh, and I forgot to mention…37. Oh and I forgot to mention.JPG

38. We eat foreigners.38. We eat foreigners.JPG

39. LOL, jk!39. LOL, jk.JPG

40. We’re a happy country40. We're a happy country.JPG

41. And when we’re happy and we know it41. And when we're happy and we know it.JPG

42. We play holi!42. We play holi.JPG

43. Ting!43. Ting.JPG

Let me know how you liked this little encounter with Bhutan.

A note on my chronic thoughtlessness

There is this spot in Shillong, close to the IIM campus in Nongthymmai, where I went whenever I felt any extreme emotion. On many a quiet afternoon, I’ve sat at the spot and watched the sun go down and take my anger with it. I’ve watched the sky change colours and let my sadness choose its hues from its palette. I’ve let my lighter thoughts move with wisps of clouds and on other days, I’ve allowed the darker ones to be washed away by unexpected showers. The spot, at the top of a steep lane with rows of houses on either side afforded a clear view of the hills in the distance. There was no uniformity about the houses in that lane. The colour of their walls, the shapes of their windows, the make of their fences, the slant of their roofs were as different from one to the other as people in real life are different from one another. It was a lane full of houses with character. Each dwelling held its own. These were not houses whose individualities had been tamed in order to be allowed a number in a row in a gated society, no. They seemed to have settled down on either side of the lane out of their own free will. Perhaps these haphazard, proud structures shared a taste for the view much the same way that I did. 

I do not know if having made this decision of settling down there the houses or the people who built them felt at home in the lane. 

Once, I caught sight of a girl reading a book in a verandah in one of the houses. Its walls were a pastel shade of orange and it had a bright red iron door. “What are you reading?” I asked her. “Shakespeare” she answered, “I have an exam coming up.” She informed me that she was in school and would make up her mind about college only after the exams. I did not ask what work of Shakespeare’s she was reading, or if she liked it. It somehow made me content to know that in that lane full of houses with character, lived a girl called Mary (yes, that was her name) who sat and read Shakespeare and was prepared to not give any thought to the question of college until it became an absolute necessity. 

Another time, I had made myself comfortable on the raised platform under the window of a house when suddenly the panes rattled and from behind the wire-mesh screen with a small cut-out at the bottom, like at a ticket counter, a small store opened up to the world. It sold momos and soup and lemon tea and biscuits. As the woman behind the counter acknowledged my presence with an expressionless glance, I mumbled a sorry and walked away. She stood there, stoic, in her jainsem, her jaws working away the khwai that stained her lips, awaiting her first customer. In a lane with no sign boards but a splendid view of the hills, stood a shop with its windows open to the world.

The lane also played host to passers-by, of course. It was not a private lane, nor was it dingy, it was steep, but it was inhabited after all, and there was no reason for it to not have passers-by. Not all of them were of the nosy, lingering variety like me, however. School children walked by without so much as looking at the surrounding hills, chatting away amongst themselves. Women carrying cans of water ambled up the steep incline, absorbed in the effort. Groups of young boys, sporting snug skull caps and loose-barely-clinging-to-their-waists denims walked by, leaving the traces of a whistled tune behind them. The lane was not a busy one, but its footfall was not disappointing by any standards, in both – number and variety. 

Amidst its houses, its view, its shops-in-windows and its passers-by, I was often a curious addition. 

I was not stationed there long enough to belong, but I was no passer-by either. The lure of the view, my haphazard thoughts and my own individuality, however half-baked or misshapen it was, sought to claim a permanent address on that lane. It didn’t have a name, but my thoughts had decided to call it home. In the brief period when I lived in the city of Shillong, they pulled me there in person any number of times. I moved to a new city. No hills, no Mary reading Shakespeare in the verandah of an orange house with a red door. Uniformity. A lot of it. In houses. In people. In days. All of this accompanied by long absences of any and all kinds of thought from my mind, leading to a uniformity of another kind – of boredom, from everyday life. It is only now that I realise that unbounded by time and space, when they go missing, they must be there. At home. Unpacking. Dispensing sadness in colours, washing darkness in the rain, watching anger burn out with the sun and swaying giddily to the tunes of leftover tunes whispered by the winds that have been breathed in by the hills. My thoughts go to a beautiful place when they leave me. I can’t complain, I’d do the same any minute, given a choice. 

A post-dated rant

For quite some time now, I’ve been thinking of the ways in which social media has changed our lives. There are too many things to it. One’s wishes and aspirations have gone from being part of a #bucketlist to becoming #goals set by someone else’s reality. Our morning read is probably a listicle or something ‘inShort’. All our outings are material for Instagram posts and may or will be used that way. We’re always discovering new ways to use social media, for new things to share on our handles – we’ve mastered the art of publicly exhibiting the finer aspects of our lives while keeping the more mundane ones under the darkness of convenient privacy settings. We’ve also been using social media to compensate for a certain thing called ‘being connected’, or maybe we’ve come to redefine it and we tell ourselves that that’s how it is these days, and that’s okay. Well, it’s all okay. Or so we tell ourselves.

I don’t mean to write this as a tirade against social media and probably, like the buzzfeed article on urban poverty that went viral and that got me thinking quite a bit as well, not everyone will relate to what I want to say, so may be I should write this in first person.

Maybe this is the impact of social media on my life. And my reaction to it. And my learning, too.

There’s nothing wrong with learning from others’ experiences or reading concise articles that sum up all the complex and crucial information that is always whirling around us like a hurricane, it is great to cherish all that is good and happy in our lives, but perhaps when there’s thought after thought, #lifegoal after #lifegoal shared flippantly on social media followed by no action plan to get there, or no intention, or worse still, no ‘time’ to get there in the first place, just a moment when we felt we could relate to the post, then we have a problem on our hands.