Some days are like that. Perfectly normal. The sun seems to be going about its usual business of glaring down at us in varying degrees of ferocity, the stray dogs mill about on the streets looking as puzzled as ever with their mouths open, yet picking their way across roads with the care that comes of practice and bitter experience. Old men balance things at impossible angles on bicycles and ferry them with the care that comes of practice and seeing mud streets of their youth grow into four lane roadways and the bitter experience of what happens to those who don’t learn from what happens to dogs…. Younger men cross roads feigning nonchalance at the careening traffic. Most people seem to want to get to somewhere that is not here. Fruits, vegetables, restaurants wait patiently. Dust doesn’t distinguish or discriminate. Humidity seeps into crags and crevices, furniture swells. The sort of day when thirsts seek only water. The day seems perfectly normal, poised to drown itself in the polychrome of dusk. But you are not convinced. There is that strange feeling niggling you. Like a gnat. Like a particularly determined mosquito.
On a day like that, afflicted by what I can only call midsummer madness, I ventured out in my car, with the sun almost instantly leaving salt pans on my lips. Apparently, much of the city had the same idea, as people were out in full force, traffic backed up quite a distance. It felt like a pressure cooker had been left on the stove and there was no outlet for the steam. Even with the AC on at full blast, I could feel the blush of a migraine coming on. Something had to give. Something had to break the stasis.
That’s when I spotted a young man, with glorious hair riding pillion on the scooter right ahead of me. The sun was glinting off his hair, bouncing off in different shades of brown. I was mesmerized. The traffic lurched ahead and, in that instant, I enthusiastically stepped on the accelerator and rammed the scooter. In an instant, the world around me changed. The torpor I was experiencing, the migraine that was hovering about, all vanished in that moment of sheer fear.
The scooter had a broken tail light. No one or nothing else was hurt. Except my pride. I apologised and offered payment and thought to myself about the transience of life. Where one minute ago, I was actively seeking out this head of hair, now, it was bouncing around before me and I had absolutely no interest. We bid our goodbyes and went our ways, the traffic eased up. Life flowed over the temporary chasm and left no trace.
In my car, I played some music. And the very first song was Tum pukaar lo…tumhara intezaar hai (Call out to me, you are awaited)from the 1969 Hindi film Khamoshi. Sung in the soulful voice of Hemanth Kumar, the song has a very interesting play of light and shadow. The protagonist, who is a nurse in a mental care institution, has effected a miraculous recovery of her patient Dev. And has in the process, has fallen desperately in love with him. One evening, she is on her way to his room with a gift on his birthday, which is also his last day in the hospital. His parents meet her and thank her. They tell her they will come the following day to collect him and that they have arranged for him to marry the girl whose rejection had caused him to lose his equilibrium. She is shaken by the news. As she slowly climbs the stairs to his room, the shadows from the banisters create bars on her body. Her shadow precedes her into Dev’s room where he is facing an open window and singing of love and of the long wait. Of the desperate silences that seal lips, the narratives of the heart that remain untold, of the nights spent in wakefulness. We never see him. Only the shadows that grow bigger. She finally leaves clutching her gift- a copy of Kalidasa’s Meghdoot.
The Meghdoot is the story of yet another interminable wait. Of a Yaksha banished for neglecting his duties as he was enamoured by his wife. Spending his time atop Mount Kailash, he chances upon a rain cloud and asks it to deliver a message to his wife. The poem that is 111 stanzas long, is essentially the roadmap to the way home. The Yaksha narrates in loving detail, the trees, grass, plants, fountains, rivers- and everything else that the rain cloud will meet on its way. In the end, the banishment is revoked and they are reunited.
The choice of this ancient text as a gift serves to encompass the story of the nurse who fell in love with her patient and thus in an ethically complicated way, both neglected as well as overzealously performed her duties. The shadows cast on her and the walls that surround her in contrast to Dev who stands facing the breeze suggests the shape of things to come. Of the madness that waits just outside the cognitive boundaries of the mind, and which while imprisoning the body, sets the mind free of ties, memories and time. What is time if not a wait?
I have loved the idea of the wait. The many meanings it acquires. In life, in poetry, in art. Dom Moraes writes in Merlin
Centuries I waited to be called.
I am now sleeping in a maiden,
Bruised with kicks, the cruses of my eyes
Once filled with holy oil by Arthur.
Brimming with mucus and tears.
The Pendragon said I would never die.
This is no longer good news.
Which took me further back to the epigraph of The Wasteland, to those lines from the Satyricon by Petronius where the Sybil of Cumae having erroneously asked for eternal life without eternal youth, waits to die…hopes to die.
The wait is a very certain part of our daily lives. From waiting for the mundane, banal things to happen everyday to waiting for a prayer to be answered, to have a miracle happen…we all wait from one heartbeat to another. While living in a fourth floor flat in Mumbai, I have heard the sounds of the wait in the hollow cough of our taps before the day’s water supply trickled in, having meandered its way up three floors and several families. I have seen the wait become a sinuous, winding organism at the approach of a fast local train at peak hours in Mumbai. The wait is present in flights as well at arrivals in airports. And in some cases, at the departure gates as well.
It takes a very old soul to treat the wait as an ally. To turn away the frenzy that mortality induces. To find circuitous routes to the soul. As AK Mehrotra points out,
Filled with insubstantial things,
We dream to make up for lost time.(Summer Notes)
This is also what interests me about Nishi Pulugurtha. The sense of peace that pervades her poetry in the face of the loosening grips on realities, on claims to the self, on places. Reading her verse makes one feels like she speaks from a very alien plane that is confoundingly rooted in our everydays.
There seems to be a stillness
No breeze, a sombre silence
That is undisturbed
A pause, a break.
The wind decides to hold on
A bird here and there
Not a sound
Dead leaves, twigs here and there
Broken pieces of glass
(Pauses, published in Muse India)
The structures of her poems, generally jagged, with spaces denoting pauses, are complex. They mirror the workings of the mind. Lucidity and sharpness characterize her lines. The day to day business of living preoccupies Nishi.
But it is while writing about memory or the slow slide towards its involuntary erosion that Nishi is at her best. When asked about this, she revealed the extent of her commitment. “…when I am writing about Alzheimer’s – I write about my personal experiences as a caregiver, about the changes that came in my mother over the years. My aim here is to create an awareness about it. I decided to write poems on it because it affects me a lot.
I should also mention here that I am an Executive Council member of the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India, Calcutta Chapter. I have written on the subject for various magazine, newsletters in India and abroad, edit the newsletter of the ARDSI National and speak on the subject at various conferences on the subject too.”
They are white
I like the red
I like the other colours
Some have small holes in them
I look at them
Take them out, unfold them
They lay spread on my bed
I leave them there
I am looking for something
They must be here inside the almirah
Why is it opened?
Someone must have opened it
Why? Was someone looking for something in there?
I think someone meant to take away mine.
I take out some more sarees
I need to put them away safely.
(Clothes: A Poem, published in Mad in Asia Pacific)
The state of things left as they are, with no memories to qualify them, with no associations that bring their history is a painful one. One that Nishi poignantly conveys. Her keen sense of observation has made the world she occupies into her subject matter. She writes of railway stations, of electricity bills, of festivals and even the humble bitter gourd. But she transforms them into entities that are waiting to germinate. To seek new soil to grow into their promise. Her verse promises a redemption. That the stasis we see around is but a short lived one. It is this promise that keeps her world on its axis.
These promises, big and small, kept, broken, continued…help us keep a hold of our days and nights. The promise of a crystalized day dissolving into a Byzantine night is what we look to the heavens, to the clocks and to our watches for.
In the end, what is time if not a promise?
Sonya J. Nair