After a very, very long time, I decided to set out on a journey. Last month. I have been in the habit of going on long drives these few months, but that is always with someone. Those are journeys I might evoke on another day. Today is about the sort of journeys I rarely make.
I had no idea where exactly I was headed towards, how long it would take and if my route map was even right. All I knew was that I was setting off. A friend of mine was staying at a place of healing that was nearly 70 kms away. And this visit was to spend the day with her. I checked the map on my phone and set off just when the crisp morning air was beginning to warm at the edges. The sun was just right and the roads were reasonably empty- the world had not yet made up its mind about what to do for the day. It seemed that for a few kilometres at least, I was on my own.
Highways are strange places. The architecture of a highway as well as those of its peripherals-such as shops and roadside eateries always seems to encourage you to drive on. There are invariably a number of workshops offering you tyre changes, car showrooms – in case you decide to change your car midway, tender coconut stalls for a quick pit stop, eateries that serve real good food at blink speed, set up such that you eat in your car, watching others go by in a manic gust of speed, supermarkets that facilitate a quick getaway once you have bought those obligatory water bottles, chips, chocolates- and magazines for the co-passengers. Everything suggests movement. The hoardings along the highways advertising wedding sarees, jewelry, cars, hotels, resorts ask you to keep moving- to get to another life- one that involves tangibility of a different sort.
I got on to the highway and waited for the directions. The Voice said, “now drive straight for 45 kilometres.” And I loved it. In these highly volatile times, where everything is such an effort, the simplicity of the directions and the matter-of-fact way that it was handed to me was pure joy. And so, I drove. And drove up hills and drove down the hills, passed places of historical and tourist interest, including Jatayu Para- the Jatayu rock- the place where, the bird, Jatayu tried to stop Ravana from abducting Sita and died valiantly. Jatayu first reasons with Ravana and asks him to consider the gravity of his actions. When that fails, he is said to have attacked Ravana’s chariot, killed his charioteer and mules. Ravana in retaliation cuts off Jayatu’s wings and leaves him to die on the mountain top. Sita drops her jewelry on Jatayu in the hope that Ram would find them.
Ram does find Jatayu, hanging on to the vestiges of his life, so he could tell Ram about Sita and also to point him to the army he would need to enlist help from. Thus, Jatayu forms an important part of the narrative pivot of the Ramayana. Atop the mountain at Chadayamangalam, is a 200 feet long, 150 feet wide sculpture of Jatayu, fallen on his back, wings slashed, claws clenched. And beneath the sculpture is a multi-dimensional theatre system and other recreational activities.
I suppose, this is why I have never felt the inclination to visit the place.
Driving on, I came across a number of sprawling nurseries that announced plants ranging from orchids to chrysanthemums and poppies. I made a mental note of poppies. They are addictively pretty is what I heard! The solitary highway flowed into the molten noise of a big town that threw its chaos in four directions at a traffic intersection. The map calmly told me to turn left and then I came upon another junction, where there was a fruit stall that hung on its façade, enormous ropes of apples. The ropes made of apples were at least four feet long two feet thick and I wondered who would buy so many apples. And if the shopkeeper would have the heart to decimate his work of art. ‘Apple Junction’ led me to quieter roads, where one would come upon yellow and violet flowers caught in a surreptitious embrace- in that sea of green, this riot of colours was an interlude. My car was not a machine, it was a travelling eye.
The undulations gave way to a short stretch of flat lands where, situated right in the middle of a vast plot of land was a temple. There were no boards announcing the deity, nothing really to suggest the existence of a temple except the architecture. And a tree from which red pennants fluttered. Every branch, including the topmost one had red strips of cloth tied to them. In many temples, these are tied for wish fulfilment. Sometimes, these pieces of cloth are offerings to the Naga Raja and the Naga Yakshi Amma – serpent deities. After the rituals, the cloth must either be burnt or be left to the elements. Tying it to a tree is the best method of letting the cloth disintegrate as the cloth does not get polluted through contact with the garbage on the ground. There it was, a tree full of vermilion prayers trailing in the wind. I drove on.
I finally reached. And spent a very pleasant, memorable day, drove my friend up the wall with philosophical questions and in the evening, turned homewards. The journey back was rather crowded- the traffic, the people, on coming vehicles, I sought the tree- it looked magnificent in the light of the setting sun. The murmurs of the fabric of prayers falling slowly silent.
It suddenly occurred to me that I should get down and visit the temple- closed though it be due to the pandemic. But the anxiety of trying to make it home by nightfall made me drive on. I drove past the junction with its apple ropes, past irate vehicles angrily belching smoke in the effort to get home, and onto that straight stretch to get me home. All the while I was thinking about my decision of not getting down at the temple. Of not taking a risk. Of playing it safe. I wondered if it summed up the way I lived my life. If I had ever been young and foolish. I looked at the road I was driving on and realised that the edges and the lines marking the lanes were not in straight lines as they usually are. They were zigzag! Jagged lines along the national highway…on the path that I was supposed to drive straight for 45 kilometres! Perhaps, here was the Universe telling me, the crazy sits perfectly snug in the seemingly sane. That sometimes, being young doesn’t mean one is foolish and that one doesn’t have to be young if one wants to be foolish. Grinning to myself, I stopped at the nursery selling poppy saplings. They told me very somberly that they had stopped selling them years ago. It was just too expensive to change the board is why they let it remain there. I walked by the beds of plants, ponds of lotuses, huge tubs of roses and asked for a white hibiscus. They said they had hibiscus saplings, but didn’t know if they were white till they bloomed. I then drove on and stopped at three more places and they too told me the same thing. In that entire stretch, not a single white hibiscus had revealed itself to nursery owners!
By then the road markers had gone on to being straight and dusk had fallen. But I was happy. The world I had seen when the morning was a blush on the horizon, I was now looking at in the shadows cast by the moon, and it all seemed so different. If the morning belonged to sight, the evening belonged to instinct. When I read Aaliya Baba’s poems, this was the feeling I got. That she occupies the worlds of sights and instincts. That the land she comes from, its histories, its geopolitics has shaped the way she thinks, dreams, celebrates and travels. The land and the destiny it seems to be writing for itself permeates her identity and colours the world in the hues of violence and resistance. She writes,
The sacrificial Eid is yet months away
Yet Ishmael is dangled on the cross
The angels keep
their censored silences
and pour them into our hearts.
It isn’t even Muharram
But sisters wrap mourning
over their torn cloaks, and wipe off
sweat from the cold bullets
settled in the brows of their brothers.
Yesternight the guilty moon
wouldn’t show up.
All night it asked of me:
What joy could I shine upon
On all those slaughtered Eids?
I supplied no answers
the dread in my eyes furnished them.
(Eid ul Fitr in Kashmir)
Baba interrogates the self by pinning it against the ravaged land and the promise of what could have been. There is no bitterness, instead, an anger flows through that does watch for the elusive glimmer of hope. Her voice rings with a certain fearlessness as she hacks her way through uncomfortable truths. There is immense strength in her words and her themes encompass a wide variety of subjects such as the conversations around writing, the semantics of resistance that inform her writing and the ways that the discourses of the mind shape that of the body.
We live only one season
In the life of a tree.
It lives our lifetime
In just one cycle of seasons.
(Man and Trees)
These lines made me reflect on the tree I left behind and of the bird sculpted atop the hill. I thought of the ways the non-humans carry our baggage, our anxieties and seem to exist to enable us to carry out our tasks of revenge, lust, greed, salvation. The anthropomorphic in us just doesn’t seek permission. It slathers significations, attributes love, enforces loyalties and createsexpectations. Nature, however, tries to survive. We will never know if within all these tales there is Jatayu’s untold tale of revenge- a revenge he was willing to die for. One that he passed on the baton to an ideal king and sent him on his way to commit another heinous crime- no less in
magnitude to the kidnapping of Sita. The murder of Bali. And thus, set in motion a chain of events whose cataclysmic effects were felt for several births and generations thence. Karma is merely a synonym for chain reaction. It’s a way of telling us that nothing in this world goes by
without making its presence felt. That a tree standing in an open field in Kerala can come back through the verses of Aaliya Baba who lives in Kashmir. That one doesn’t have to visit a bird who is for posterity, etched in pain on top of a hill down which people can rappel or take cable
cars from. The bird flies down and looks over your shoulder as you read verses of sacrifice, lament and bravery.
Elsewhere, a tree looks to loosen promises tied into blood knots.
I stitch my small dreams
like wounds that
I am a bundle of
deep memories that
stick to my soul like magnet…
A little me
smiling in the distant fairly tale
wondering, how I came this far…
Life is a rulebook
following its own verdict
reluctant me, turning with the pages!
POETRY IS WAR
And when my despair will grow violent
It might explode in symbols
Or diffused metaphors
I shall do no speaking!
One shouldn’t when obsessed
I shall pose for pictures
Near the autographed pieces
Of my bleeding heart
Enrolled in shimmering shroud,
Some scented foreign ink.
If war means this,
I fight it everyday!
Leave to me what is left of my solitude…
Few pieces of peace are still here!
The spill over of pain
shall be carefully poured out into unpreserved words…
The bravest for me was to embrace myself…
I hid under your shadow, not knowing the journey stopped in the darkness…
Me, the shadow and the night look one here at this place
I shall regain voice to tell them apart!
Leave to me what is left of me!
I must paste silence…
spread it evenly across corners
of all pagesthat have metaphors engraved by me.
Images like loud horns, screaming unawares
grabbing one in the desperate frenzied moments
that had crashed and violated
the stillness of my mind.
I must paint white over the black-on-the-white,
to make it all look peaceful and serene
And leave no record
of tears or blood or the heartache…
A soul that knows forgiveness
mustn’t commit violence
against silent pages
And cage them into perpetual agony!
they plucked one moon from the dark
and hung it over my roof top
calling it a festival,
tinkling human voices grew louder
greeting me on this wind chime of a moon
I rose still to usual pale sun
until noon kept working on the red clots in my memory
with a homeless chap’s desperation
to appropriate my smile
to the pictured portrait of the last night’s moon.
Born And raised in Srinagar Kashmir, Aaliya Mushtaq Baba is pursuing her PhD from University of Kashmir on the politics and philosophy of Autobiography. Her poems have appeared in journals like Miraas, Sheeraza, Kashmir Lit, English Studies in India and Setu (Pittsburgh, USA). Recently, her poem “Equality” was published in the anthology The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess Within/ Indian Women’s Voices.