Emden

The year of First World War grandfather bought a house
draining his savings, with no inkling if the property was war worthy.

There were rehearsals of black outs – blankets draped on windows,
lights turned off, vegetable oil lamps flickered with frayed hopes.

The night Emden rained projectiles, for half hour Madras held its breath –
breeze carried smell of kerosene from Burma ships into my mother’s sleep.

Grandfather packed his family into a train bound to Mayavaram,
thence to his village. No he would not join them, who will guard the house?

In the village grandmother pulled out the aerial, tuned the radio everyday.
A month later the static crackled with noise, filled the room with glad tidings.

She rejoiced, snapping her knuckles in celebratory anger –
finally that son of a bitch ship has sunk in some distant shore.

My Mother

The room bursts with blue from the wall,
the prints of flowers fluttered in the wind
like dancers under the open sky.

The gaze on me from the years gone by,
stirring from catacombs memories that
explode with colours like dyes in the vats.

Breath that stays close to my neck
like a kiss of a lover, murmur of breeze
but mistiness blurs as cataract of the eye;

wipe the window with a piece of paper to see
life like spilled beads roll on marble floor –
glasses of colours, my kaleidoscope

that gathers shards of beautiful images:
my mother as her hair blows,
eyes reflect the blues of the wall, sky.  

Day 23
Poetic Asides – write an "only one in the world" poem 

Lemon Blossoms


The neem tree at the corner of the garden lays out a florescent carpet, the smell of the flower reaches me in my room every time the April breeze tosses them. My room is painted an electric blue, from my table beside the window I cannot see the sky, the arches of coconut fronds keeps me floating in a green cave of light. 

I pull the box from under the table, a coarsely carved wooden box with dust settled in the grooves. I open it and look at the letters neatly folded and tied with a cheap satin ribbon that goes back to twenty years, frayed and faded at the edges.  I undo the knot and open the letters,  I expect my throat to knot with the memory of the walk on the warm beach and the quiet streets as I held his hands. But the seat in the garden of my house warm in the afternoon heat carrying the scent of lemon leaves comes in my mind’s eye, and in the frame are my parents the trusting people who walked with me and have shored away all my memorabilia, each one important, letting me make my pick after they are gone, which one I want to stay with.

I can picture them in my room in the coolness of the bluey afternoon sifting through my books, my papers, photographs; sorting them and keeping them in sari boxes and wooden boxes. They would have handled it carefully, the shattered pieces of glasses of my life that I painfully gathered and put away in the corners of my room to be forgotten and abandoned. They want me to take them, hold them and put them away after making peace, and that is why I am back home.   

Story A Day – Go Home Again

Neem Blossoms

The part of the year I like the most is the warm summer months of Chennai. My recollections of the best summers are my years at my mother’s house before my marriage. The days were marked with the different fragrances that filled around me. In the cool and bright mornings I was greeted by the  smell of neem blossoms that formed a carpet on the yard before my mother’s house. The afternoons were filled with the heady smell of ripe mangoes that my mother  sliced and served for lunch. In the evenings the flower seller placed on my palms a string of jasmine rolled carefully into a ball. My mother had banned my smelling the flowers before they were offered to the gods. “I will not hold the flowers close to my nose, but I cannot stop the fragrance from filling the room,” I said to her teasingly. After offering the flower to the gods, my mother gave me long strand of jasmine that I wore on my hair in such a manner that it fell on my shoulder. I held the ends of the jasmine strand close to my nose, as I stayed awake late in the nights reading books. And in the nights my pillow smelt of the flowers.
 
During early summer the neem trees put out blossoms. The gentle sea breeze that set in at late noon on summer days, tossed the neem leaves and the spray of blossoms fell on the ground forming a yellow–green carpet. The early evening air got filled with the smell of neem blossoms.
 
There were quite a few neem trees in my neighbourhood. This I got to know through smelling them out during my night walks through the dark streets. In the darkness of the night stirrings of blossoms in the breeze indicated that a neem tree was somewhere close by.
 
A neem sapling is not taken seriously when it sprouts out of the hard earth. The cotyledon sits as a crown on the sapling; two tender copper-green leaves sticking at the frail stem. Just a look at the shape of the leaves is enough to confirm that it is a neem sapling. The sapling can sprout in unbecoming places – in cracks, at the edges of pavements, under the garden seat – just about anywhere.
 
Generally one is not inclined to pull out these self-invited neem saplings. It is the others like the tamarind, the mango and the banyan that meet a different fate.  Once spotted the banyan and tamarind saplings are pulled out. The banyans are famous for growing on cracks in building. Even when pulled out they are resilient, a new one is seen growing in the same site. It is a common sight to see house owners climbing on windows and sunshades to pour acid that is used for cleaning toilets into the cracks to kill the seeds of the banyan. 

The tamarind tree is very rarely grown in gardens. They grow on roadsides and are believed to house ghosts. The mango sapling is replanted in a more convenient corner while it is the neem sapling that is allowed to stay, as it is felt inauspicious to yank it out. One shouldn’t pull it out on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, the elders warn. On the other days the sapling is forgotten and that is how it remains.
 
In my mother’s house, a neem sapling bearing dreams of growing into a large tree, sprouted close to the barbed fence separating my house and my neighbour’s. It was conveniently tucked in the corner of the garden, so it did not predominantly occupy our thoughts. My grandmother was more worried about  the parijatham shrub that had pygmy flowers and she spent hours wondering why the lime tree growing right in the center of the yard did not become tall but spread its branches closer to the ground as its stem got stockier. She later resigned to the fate of the impotency of the lime tree, and culled the fragrant leaves to make a spiced podi that we mixed with hot rice and ate with fried appalam. Through all these ruminations and engagements with the lime and the parijatham the young and enthusiastic neem tree was rarely noticed. 
 
The neem sapling grew into a handsome young tree. It wedged itself comfortably between the fence and spread its branches across both the gardens. Oblivious of the discomfort, the tree grew energetically, blotting out from our bedroom view of the road and the sky. The outer world was for us a frame of green. On a blazing hot afternoon, the green of the neem grew into us; the heat that went into our heads created soothing images of deep green seas.
 
One beautiful summer the tree put out blossoms. We first saw a fine layer of yellow dust on our garden seat, in the yard. Sprigs of pale yellow blossoms were hidden on the top reaches of the branches. The smell of the blossoms wrapped around us as soon as we stepped out of our house. That was the summer that we spent most of the time outdoors in the cool shade of the tree, in celebration of the blossoms. We did not want the tree to think that we loved it less. So we served tea to friends at the garden seat, we drank our fresh lime in mid mornings and cool lazzi in late evenings outdoors.
 
My grandmother did not allow the yard to be cleaned. The blossoms formed a prickly carpet. Then one day she spread a clean towel on the ground and placed small stones on the corner to hold the towel in place. The neem blossoms fell on the towel. At the end of the day she gathered the blossoms in a large plate. After she had gathered a substantial quantity, she put the plate out in the sun everyday to dry the neem blossoms. Once the blossoms had dried enough (this my grandmother tested by feeling the brittleness of the blossoms), she poured them in a glass jar. The glass jar occupied a prominent place in the wooden almirah where she stored her annuals like naarthangai, vadumangai, salted lime and vathals.
 
After that, vepambu rasam became a weekly ritual. Wednesdays became vepambu rasam day. I got up in the mornings to the smell of vepambu fried in ghee. I had a plate of hot vepambu rasam sadam before I left for school. My grandmother mixed my plate of rice very carefully, ladling out the rasam without the vepambu: “No vepambu, paati,” I ordered, “They look like black ants.”
 
My mother’s house has been sold away; the tree is still within me just as all the memories associated with my childhood and my mother’s house. The tree in my mother’s garden has spread its sense of being into all the neem trees that I see around me. I walk in my quiet neighbourhood for hours to smell the neem blossoms –  my neem blossoms. The sweet smell stirs deep within me memories of a home that I have lost forever. 
 
  

Blue House

Most of the time a place is in the mind, for instance my mother’s house – I say my mother’s house because it went away after her. Now the house is in my mind, the rooms, the furniture, and the colour of the walls.

The walls were at one point painted blue, the blue chosen very carefully from hordes of shades of blue. I fancied blue because it is the colour of sea, skies. In those days, people went for lime washed walls, or coloured each of the rooms in different hues or chose blue just as one of the colours and not because they wanted to bring the sea and the skies indoors. My mother partook in my dream of bringing the sky into all the rooms – the living room, the bedrooms, even into the kitchen.

The blue we chose seemed the right colour on the shade board. Prior to that we had an apple green living room, sea shell pink dining room, and washed down lavender bedrooms. Slowly as the first coating was given, the blue paint washed out the multiple colours that I had grown to hate. After the second and final coating of blue, I did not know what to do with my blue house. It was a disaster. I reckoned that the skies and seas were the best where they were. I do not know how my mother felt, but the blue poured into me through the pores of my skin. My father wouldn’t have had any opinion about the colour of the wall. It would have been a job well completed for him, and for another seven years till the walls became blotched with dirt and oil stains there was nothing to worry.
 My mother and I went shopping for sofa covers and curtains. We chose a fabric in blue with a spray of pale white flowers. We used the same print for the curtains as well. Once the wall gets painted blue, nothing much could be done, we felt. We could only add more blues. Now after all these years, I think I can handle blue walls more imaginatively. I might throw in whites to give a stately finish, or bold pinks and purples to create drama. But not so in those days.

On a holiday to Dehradun I bought a beautiful lamp made of seesham wood. I found in one of those dimly lit and subterranean antique shops that Dehradun was famous for. A shade in raw silk made the picture perfect. I packed  the shade and the lamp carefully. I visualized the lamp at different places in the sitting room, visualized the warm glow that the light would throw.

On our return to Madras, I cleaned the house that had remained locked for the three weeks that we were away in  Dehradun – swept the floor, cleaned the thick layer of dust on tables and shelves and polished the glasses and mirrors. I wanted my blue home to be ready to accept the new lamp. It did accept the lamp —  it took the lamp in so much that the seesham wood and the raw silk got drowned in the howling blue of the walls. I gave up after that.

And so memories of my teens float through a mist of blue!