The Ghost of Christmases Past

 1.

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

singing,

Ishwar chho mero gwalo

The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall never want, I hope

for unconditional gifts.

 

2.

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.

 

3.

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.

A PEARL WITHIN AN OYSTER

There is a place

where jewelled cobwebs

dot the hillside

my father’s smile

never wavers

and the rocks

feel solid beneath my feet.

The mist swirls in the valleys

a potent sea

spewing stories

which my brother

conjures out of the vaporous void.

A magician

spinning a different web each day.

And yet it is I

who tell tales now.

Fishing in that timeless sea

of the past

finding

old shoes

a rotted corpse

but sometimes

a pearl within an oyster…

Grandma & Grandpa

www.deepaagarwal.com

Putting together a collection of memorable writing that would appeal to children, I couldn’t help but notice that at least three pieces were about grandparents. There was a story from Shankar’s all time favourite Life with Grandfather, and reminiscences about their grandmothers by Sudha Murty and Khushwant Singh. What a rich lode family relationships offer, I thought, for writers to draw upon! There must be hundreds and thousand of stories about grandparents, perhaps as many as the numerous collections titled “Grandma’s Tales”. Grandparents are a primary source for story, whether narrating them to their grandchildren or providing inspiration.


I must confess that I felt a little envious, since I did not have the privilege of my  grandparents’ company, no memories to share in stories. As a child I puzzled about this a bit. But not knowing what it was like to be pampered by a grandparent, did not feel particularly deprived. Of course, I was curious about them. But my mother lost both her parents in childhood and didn’t have too many memories about her own mother. All she could tell me was that my Nani had hair that came down to her ankles, and that she came from Pune. Both pieces of information were mystifying. It didn’t seem possible for anyone to have hair that long. And how did she manage to marry my Nana if she belonged to a place so distant from our home town Almora? I feel sorry now that I didn’t probe further.  It just didn’t occur to me while my mother was alive. I knew a little more about my Nana, my mother’s father. I was told that he was six feet tall, something very unusual in our area, and a worked for the government.


My father’s parents are much more clearly sketched out in my imagination.  My Dadi’s photograph occupied a prominent spot on the walls of our drawing room, more prominent than my Dada’s. My father lost his mother while he was in medical college and that was the first time he tasted whisky, he said. He also mentioned that she was the best mother in the world, the best cook and that while he respected his father, he loved his mother. This created the image of a stern figure in my mind–a man who demanded respect but did not evoke affection. But that was what fathers were like in those times. All the same, my older sister did share a scant memory of our grandfather once–of his playfully pulling her back with the crook of his walking stick just as she was about to pluck one of his precious roses. And a cousin recalls finding him in a room surrounded with baskets of apples from which he selected a juicy one and gave it to her. I remember the bower of roses–it survived him for many years, as did the apple orchard.

I have some facts about their rather eventful lives too. My father’s parents came from backgrounds as dissimilar as those of my mother’s. Dada was a rebel who converted to Christianity as a young boy and was consequently cast out of his community. But again, I don’t know where he encountered my grandmother, the daughter of an indigo planter and a Nepali lady, and how he got married to her. 

So many question marks, no tangible memories of my own…but enough material, I felt, to base a novel upon…the novel I have titled “The Hanging Tree”. Because, when you’re writing a story, I feel, too many facts can sometimes hamper the flow of your imagination. 

But how have family memories worked for you? I’d love to find out.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12985888-life-with-grandfather
http://www.penguinbooksindia.com/en/content/how-i-taught-my-grandmother-read-and-other-stories