You Cannot Have All the Answers, a collection of short stories, takes on life’s unanswered questions while dealing with issues like trauma, sexuality and prejudice.
April 25, 2018
The book was launched at Lecture Hall II, Annexe (Basement), India International Centre in the presence of Keki N. Daruwalla, Major Indian Poet and Short Story Writer, Namita Gokhale, Indian writer, Publisher and Festival Director and Malashri Lal, Writer and Academic, Former Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi at 6:30 p.m.
L-R Namita Gokhale, Malashri Lal, Deepa Agarwal and Keki N. Daruwalla
The programme started with Trisha De Niyogi, publisher at Niyogi Books welcoming the eminent litterateurs followed by the unveiling of the book.
A four way discussion took place starting with Malashri Lal asking Deepa about the idea behind naming the book. She also stated that Deepa is known for the wonderful works she…
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One day, Papa said, he decided
to give up cigarettes. From forty a day,
he came down to none. Only
on Christmas Day,
when the swarm of visitors has diminished
to a select few
sipping their rum in the exhausted drawing room
does he pick up a Capstan Navy Cut
from the carved Kashmiri box
and blow smoke rings for our delight.
While a lonely piece of cake
sits on a chipped plate
surrounded by indifferent crumbs.
The Big Day has not ended we know
we have yet to negotiate the rocky path
to the brightly lit room
where Santa Claus will distribute gifts
for a price:
poems squeezed from reluctant minds
mimic songs that have long forgotten their tune
but I cannot, I will not parrot ‘Daffodils’
not even to earn a gift. Rejected, it lingers
under the Christmas tree,
another lonesome participant in a festive rite
lies there accusingly as I lurk sullenly in the shadows.
Ishwar chho mero gwalo
kai baate ki kami raunli
The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want.
but I want, I want, I want
an unconditional gift, Lord
from the night which sucks up fading carols
and flings them among
the silent pines. Already
a ghost, Christmas is slipping away
searching for its past,
amidst the cake crumbs, gift wrappings
and the cigarettes in the carved Kashmiri box.
We will smoke them my brothers and I
alone on New Year’s Eve
we will blow foetal smoke rings
aborted by choking coughs
which drift heavenwards to join
the Christmases gone. And
the New Year arrives stamping in on frozen feet
Ishwar chho mero gwalo
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall never want, I hope
for unconditional gifts.
Papa decided to give up cigarettes
I have given up sugar for brief intervals
even forsworn alcohol—moving around
in a haze
batting away invisible smoke rings
that coil like persistent ghosts. Like
the ghosts of Christmases which live
only in the past. Without any future.
But will any sacrifice help a child
who shivers in the alien dark
too distant and too alien
for mortal eyes
does the Lord accept trade offs
as they say? Or does he cheat,
as I suspect? A fast for longevity
a fast for good health
but can a hollow belly
bring joy to a marooned child?
Questions cluster like smoke rings
stinging my eyes.
I cannot ransom the marooned child
I cannot return to the smoke filled
drawing room with its scent of rum
the chill warmth of its glowing embers
turning to ash, grey
as Papa’s hair.
When I have finished irrigating the country’s soil with
my fertile blood. Seeding new warriors.
I will turn into fodder for famished screens. Millions of my faces
will bloom upon the idiot box
increase, multiply and feed countless starving eyes.
My blinded gaze will face compassion boredom
horror terror sympathy and disgust
my 15 seconds of fame glide across the microscope’s glass
and evaporate before the arc lights’ glare
as gyrating limbs and thumping breasts
overtake my fleeting image and
leave it far behind.
What race is this I lost before it began?
or did I win it standing still? Watching
my opponent’s heels kick nakedly at the oncoming dusk.
Synthetic dusk born from the smoke of guns
as irrational as my night which lingers on and on
while indolent dawn snuggles beneath the covers
waiting for someone else to switch on the light.
But. Where is glory better sought
on green grass or in slime?
facing the gritty winds of summer
or winter’s shroud of fog?
which does blood stain brighter
desert sand or mountain snow?
And. Who lights an eternal lamp for me
as I float, an anonymous cloud
carrying the rain child of glory in my womb
a child which refuses to be born
till the storm settles.
If it ever will.
There is a place
where jewelled cobwebs
dot the hillside
my father’s smile
and the rocks
feel solid beneath my feet.
The mist swirls in the valleys
a potent sea
which my brother
conjures out of the vaporous void.
spinning a different web each day.
And yet it is I
who tell tales now.
Fishing in that timeless sea
of the past
a rotted corpse
a pearl within an oyster…
Why do we send our words out into this public space? Share some of our most painful moments, our most intimate thoughts with people who are strangers, whom we are not likely to encounter in flesh? We reach out to connect, to hear someone say, “I have listened to your voice, I feel the same way, I share your views, I empathise.”
Sometimes even the note of dissent can be stimulating. At least someone listened and responded.
Frankly, response to any form of writing, whether it’s my blog or my books is my measure of success. Those words touched a chord somewhere, which means these outpourings have some meaning, are not mere self-indulgence.
Yes, I am striving for this kind of success as a blogger. If I wasn’t I’d confine my thoughts to the diary that is meant for my personal private perusal…
When “Anarkali”, the popular movie about the tragic romance between Prince Salim (later Jehangir) the son of Mughal emperor Akbar and the court dancer Anarkali finally arrived in our small town, I got a summons from my aunt,
‘You will come with me to see a film today,’ she said.
I was shocked. I had never known my somewhat stern aunt to ever watch a movie. But I had never had the guts to disobey her either, so I dutifully agreed. Of course, I was curious to find out too, about the movie that could make her act so out of character.
It was a two mile walk to the dilapidated cinema hall. I must add here that not having any other form of conveyance, we relied on our own two legs to transport us everywhere.
I’m not sure how old I was then, definitely below ten. But the movie, particularly the last scene in which, condemned to death, Anarkali is being walled up, left a strong impression on my mind. So strong, that years and years later this poem emerged from somewhere…
When the walls rose up
Her heart unfolded
In paeans of joy
(So the movie says)
Her song soared up
Even as the last patch of sky
Was bricked out
But life is long
And love short
There was consolation…
There was Noor Jehan
The slave girl
When she dared to love
The walls of love
They shut out the sky
The air inside
Is breathed up
But the song
And even that
Is often lost
By the winds of time…
The young woman struggles to maintain her composure as she talks about her parents, who have gone missing in the cataclysmic flash floods that occurred in June in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand. A month has gone by and the government talks about abandoning the search for the approximately 6000 people who are unaccounted for, devastating for their families.
‘They might have sought shelter in some remote village,’ she says in a tear drenched voice. ‘Why can’t they ask the army to search?’
In the end she adds her own message to the numerous others people have put up on a wall for their missing loved ones. In a beautiful, rounded hand she writes: ‘Mummy-Papa, jaldi aa jaana. Hum intezar kar rahe hain.’ (‘Mummy-Papa, please come back soon. We’re waiting for you.’)
Her story, like that of the other affected people holding up photographs on the TV show is heartrending. A father who has lost his son along with his wife and grandchild, another who has lost several members of his family. These are the ones left behind, who are engaged in a search made cruelly frustrating by the inefficiency of the bureaucracy handling the disaster.
As I watch, their belief that their dear ones might be alive somewhere seems unrealistic.
Then suddenly I’m reminded of the time my older sister Shanta was reported missing in a cyclone that hit the east coast of South India. She had gone to Chennai on official work and the car she was travelling in was swept off an inundated road some distance from the city. When we got the news, I refused to consider the worst.
‘Someone must have rescued her. She must be in a hospital somewhere…’ I told my husband confidently. And I firmly believed it. How could my sister die?
When her body was recovered, however, I was forced to accept that she was gone.
Affectionate, ever cheerful despite her many problems, Shanta di had been an enormous support in the confusing early years of my married life and now she would never come back. It was extremely difficult to come to terms with this fact. The worst was she left an eight-year-old son behind, a child for whom it was hard to comprehend what had happened, and a shattered husband.
We grieved and as time passed we came to accept the inevitable. We were compelled to find closure and move on with our lives.
But what if her body had not been found? We would have gone on hoping and waited for her to reappear miraculously. It would have been too difficult to give up.
This is the predicament of the families of the missing persons in the Uttarakhand disaster. One hopes that some are indeed alive and safe somewhere. But till they are found or it is established that they are no more, their families will remain poised between hope and despair.
That I think is the cruellest thing that can happen to anyone. And I pray sincerely that their ordeal is not prolonged and they can find solace somehow.
The mirror in which I sought myself once
sought me in turn, when spurned,
its emptiness grew too vast for it to face.
Emptiness, that black hole into which we must fall
each one of us. The mirror pursued me
even as I fled it
time’s wrinkles embedded deep in the
coils of my being. I fled the truth
imprinted on its shining glass.
The truth of countless lies
that rustled like the fugitive wings of birds
evading the trapper,
not knowing how futile my flight. Because
the world might be large
but mirrors are everywhere. And truth,
the chameleon, finds many places to hide itself.
In the starlit eyes of a lover perhaps…
the trusting warmth of a child’s palm,
the adrenaline burst of the winning post,
or the murky pool of failure. Even in
the flashing pane of a neighbour’s window
or the reckless flow of your pen across a page.
I could not escape, and yet how long is it
since I have known that the face in the mirror
is not my own. Not the girl who wept in the dark
once. Or boarded a train on a winter morning,
basking in the sun’s warmth.
The woman who found babes in the wood
under a coverlet of fallen leaves
or listened to the urgent summons of a conch
bellowing in the dark behind hidden doors.
Who knows where it is, the face I would call my own
if not in the mirror that faces me?
It is enough that it exists.
Whether flowing secretly in the veins of a leaf,
blowing in the dust of a storm,
or gleaming in a sunset cloud…
So, do not weep lonely mirror
Nothing is as complete as emptiness
Nothing as loud as the silence that speaks.