October 29, 2014

Delhi Diary: Of Marigold Earrings, Crimson Pomegranates, and Faux Leaves

Marigold Earrings
Belated Diwali greetings, dear readers! This was my first ever Diwali in India and I was eagerly looking forward to celebrating it along with witnessing all the festivities. However, while a nagging cough meant that I was unable to participate as fully as I did have liked to, I was nevertheless privy to the sheer carnival of colors, sights, and sounds that preceded the festival. Diwali markets particularly left me visually stunned what with stall after stall in our local market crammed with miniature earthenware lamps, painted idols of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi, glitzy, glittery decorations, rangoli stencils, and flowers, saffron marigolds either heaped into hillocks or strung along the lines like dangling chandelier earrings.


I can already smell winter in the air. It smells of woodsmoke.


Patterns and Solids

The vegetable stall is loaded up with generous gifts of the earth: most familiar, some unfamiliar. I poke through massive bundles of spinach, fat, purple-streaked spring onions, ivory-hued cauliflowers, green-flecked red tomatoes, and startlingly vivid ombre hued radishes. I examine a vegetable which appears to be an offspring of cauliflower and Brussels-sprouts. I mentally cook recipes inside my head, wondering which vegetable to marry with the other. At the nearby fruit-stall, I place shiny red pomegranates inside my vegetable-stuffed bag: at home, they temporarily become photo-toys before being consumed.

Faux Fall

A year ago, I was standing in my apartment balcony in Pittsburgh, smiling in delight at the spectacle of the tree outside my apartment having turned crimson overnight. Now, thousands of miles away, as gorgeous fall postcards fill up my screen on various social media, I peer at the still, silent green trees outside my new apartment balcony. However, when I step outside, I glimpse the poetry of fallen leaves everywhere: they may not exactly be autumn leaves but as if to assuage my fall yearnings, the leaves collectively are graduated shades of yellow.


A God in Every Stone

I had been waiting to read this book for a long time ever since it was published in April this year. I first discovered Kamila Shamsie when I was searching for a good read for a long-haul flight from London to Muscat during my student days. I was on the verge of purchasing a quintessential Soutth Asian novel, redolent of pungent mango-pickles, shimmering silk saris, and jasmine flowers;) when I chanced upon her second and newly published novel, Kartography. As I read the opening lines, I knew I had found an author whose worlds and words would thoroughly involve me - and not just for the flight. Shamsie plays with words, has a facility for phrase and prose, and constantly presents a kaleidoscopic Pakistan, far removed from the universe of generic media reports and stereotypes. I have read all of her novels and even had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival several years ago. This book meanwhile hopscotches from Ancient Greece, early 20th century Europe, and colonial Peshawar, remarkably interweaving archaeology, colonialism, patriotism, history, love, betrayal, a city of flowers, the poetry of letters, and the inkiness of death.

How has your week been so far?

October 20, 2014

Delhi Diary: Of Fruit-Sellers, Mint Walls, and Bookmarked Flowers

So New Delhi it is, my new home.

Even though I have previously visited it countless times, it was quite a distinctly different feeling altogether this time round when we landed at the airport; as the taxi wended its way through the web of streets, trees, cars, people, and buildings, one phrase recurrently echoed in my head: this is home now. I recalled in the past when we would arrive in Delhi from Oman during summer holidays, how excitedly, curiously and intensely I would examine my surroundings, almost as if I was intent on inhaling the city. This time, even though it had been barely hours since I had begun inhabiting the city, I was already blasé about it: bits of ancient stone and stories peeking from the foliage, the dried leaves poetically dotting the ground, the towers of rainbow hued bangles, the exquisite gardens of mehendi patterns being wrought on ladies' palms for Karva Chauth...

The first few days have been a blur of roaming around and exploring the city, shopping, flat-hunting, falling ill and starting to flesh a house into a home. What continually strikes me is that I am a transitory bird no more, always aware of imminent departure: I am here to stay, which translates into starting to befriend the city, rather than merely gawking at and absorbing it before leaving and saying goodbye with a headful of memories and sights.

I wouldn't deny that I am a little bit homesick although it has now come to a point where I am never quite sure where exactly I am homesick for! Sometime, the sound, smell, and sight of foamy waves crashing upon the Seeb beach at dusk will flash through my mind; other days, as I glimpse unbearably beautiful images of flame-hued trees and massive leaf-carpets in Pittsburgh on Instagram, I recall one cool, crisp fall morning when I stepped outside onto my balcony only to see that the tree outside my apartment had turned crimson over night.

But then, I tell myself, this city has its own gifts to offer too. There is a slight nip in the air as the weather decides to become winter. Whether in our immediate neighborhood or the larger city itself, we see Diwali preparing to be celebrated (the first time I will be celebrating Diwali in India!) During the nights, numerous lights dress up the adjoining houses; the shops are crammed with an overwhelming buffet of color, sequin, and embroidery. And in the mornings, when I wake up, I see a different tree on either side, bracketing my room, casting their unique leaf-shaped shadows upon the floor...

Here are some visual notes from my diary:


Walking towards Sarojini Nagar market, I spotted this beautifully arranged platter of fruits: reddish ed berries and lime-green star-fruit. I asked the fruit-seller if I could take a picture; he interpreted it as photographing him and immediately commenced to make himself presentable, removing his cap, brushing his hair with his fingers, and positioning himself upright. After taking a picture of both the fruit arrangement and the seller himself, he beamed upon seeing his picture. "I look very fresh in this picture, right?" he said, grinning.



The walls in my new home are mint-colored; however, depending on my mood or if they catch the texture of the newly wintered saffron light, they are just as liable to turn pistachio.

One of the first things I did after moving into my house was to buy flowers - and even though I first picked my traditional favorites, roses (just opening pink and white buds, which contrast wonderfully against the green), I also bought a bunch of white, intoxicatingly-scented mogras. When I was living in America, my mother would text me pictures of fat, fluffy mogra blooming in our garden in Oman; even though I was surrounded by summer flowers of all dazzling shapes and textures, I still yearned for the mogras. And so, when I spotted the bunch sitting atop a hillock of orange marigolds, I immediately bought it - and drenched the house in a fragrance redolent of low-hanging clouds, crumbling havelis, and the monsoon rain's first embrace of the parched earth.

Bookmarked Flowers
I have always found myself employing the image and notion of the unwritten journal as a favorite metaphor of mine whenever I have envisioned the future, perhaps owing to the fact that the my journal has always been that significant and precious space in which I have mapped out the coordinates of my life. As I begin this new chapter of mine, mogra-bookmarked, I wonder what journeys and adventures await me...

October 2, 2014

A Tourist No More

As I start settling down into India, learning to name it home, I found myself thinking about how that's influencing the way I am seeing the place and subsequently, altering the texture of my photography and writing. Earlier, I experienced a constant need to document moments, significant or quotidian; if I wasn't photographing them, I was writing them down in my journals or daily planners. It was as if I feared that if I didn't make the effort to memorialize their existence, it was if they had had never happened: memories thus metamorphosed into impaled butterflies, pinned down and shut up in glass cages of photographs or diaries.

While I had been journaling for many years, I only regularly started taking photographs though when I got a digital camera. I still remember the first ones I took of Pushkar on a winter morning: the trilingual sign-boards in Hebrew, English, and Hindi, a street dog sitting sentinel on the sun-soaked whitewashed ghats, the famed, heaven-scented pink Pushkar rose cradled in my palms, yellow mustard flowers paint-daubing the fields... Even though I knew I would return to India and would always do so annually (or sometimes, even bi-annually), I would greedily stock up on capturing photographs, akin to a squirrel hoarding away nuts in preparation for the long, bleak winter. Back home in Oman or wherever I happened to be living at that moment, I would scroll through the photographs and notes, both admiring and yearning for that foreign country, the past, briefly transported to that particular coordinate of time, place, and my thoughts. 

The other day, a friend asked me during a What'sApp conversation about how did it feel to be living in India now that I was no longer a tourist. As I mused about how exactly to reply to that, I idly scrolled through my camera roll on my phone, looking at the pictures that I had taken since I had moved. It then occurred to me that I was not as avidly or prolifically taking pictures as I otherwise would have been wont to. Earlier, when vacationing in India, if I saw an arresting sight or mentally framed a great shot while zooming past in a car or in middle of a conversation, I would have regretted the opportunity of not being able to take it: that unphotographed photograph would forever linger in my mind. However, now, I told myself that I had all the time to see, explore, process - and photograph and write about it. These images would no longer be postcards or souvenirs from a trip; they would be the weave and color and embroidery of my every day-life.

So what have I been seeing and photographing in these initial months? Here are a few visual and written notes...

Eye-food: Jodhpur

Eye-food: fuchsia merging into saffron into pink. Fallen chunky gold hair-ties resembling errantly discarded gold bangles. The night air smells of pregnant rain-clouds. Dessicated leaves decorating my feet. Banana leaves angrily tearing apart the sky. Mother Mary in a green sari. 

Reflecting the World: Bangalore

Frozen headlines on a lemon wall. Mirror-smooth, polished granite tombstones stacked atop each other. Chickens crammed in coops. A smashed carnation. A Mickey Mouse with a human head. A little girl in a fairy costume with a dahlia growing out of her crown. Tilak-smeared fat, furry, old dogs. 

Flight or Fight: Cubbon Park, Bangalore

At the park: pigeons fly into trees and become leaves. Three Marwari women gossip about hair-cuts. There is a wildly eccentric tree growing in the middle of a suave park. Black dog in front of gods. Post breakfast: mathematically perfect cones of dosas. Ice-candy stolen from a blizzard.

Long, pock-marked seed pods, glossy, polished nuts and red cotton-silk blossoms. Pelicans swimming in a jade-thick lake. Flowers illuminating a shy morning.