May 15, 2016

What Writing Nature Diaries Have Taught Me

The other day, I read this piece in which the writer describes the lively antics of a blackbird seeking to make a nest in the English countryside; it was featured in a column entitled, 'Country Diary' and the title made me think how many of my daily entries in my own journal have lately been largely dedicated to nature and observations about nature. All through spring, I wrote about the trees, which bloomed, which stopped blooming, the new ones that bloomed. I described my blog as a garden of sorts in the debut post and my journal too has became a figurative garden in which I write about physical gardens.

I also wrote about the birds that I saw: jade-sheened black humming birds drinking from kachnar orchids, an orange-mohawk bird contemplating the trees from our window sills, a tiny black bird which could have fit inside my palm nibbling on peepal fruit, palm doves performing trapeze-artist theatre on the parabolas of wires strung between buildings. I wrote about the sparrow that flies from our window as soon as I open it towards the opposite end; it was the World Sparrow Day sometime ago and I was sorry to hear that these humble birds have become an endangered species. I wrote about the marauding ants navigating the undulating terrain of visible tree roots, turquoise and black butterflies dancing on concrete, and of course, the street dogs, some extroverted and tame enough to proffer their handsome tapered heads for a pat while others skitter away at the sight of you, burying themselves in a damp sand hole.

Today, as I leaned out of my window, I noticed that a spider has built two webs in between the grilles and that the kachnar tree is leafing in sporadic spurts, unlike the enthusiastically blooming gulmohar or the silk cotton tree with their exploding seed-pods, cotton spheres floating in the wind before resting upon the ground, like unmelting snow. It's all a matter of looking and looking carefully; for all these years, I was looking but I never really saw. I was ignorant of the flowers blooming, birds building nests, termites constructing homes, dragon-flies shimmying in the air, and invisible armies of ants. I only became aware when I had to be, when my world collided with that of the natural one, when I once saw a dead dragon-fly flutter down at my feet or the blooming mogras' gorgeous scent called out to me. 

Now that I have begun to see, really begun to see, what will I get to discover?

May 6, 2016

Friday Poetry: The Poetry of Silent Trees

which had been silent
all this while
have now decided to speak:

their poetry blooms under my feet,
and I listen carefully,
not wishing to miss
a single

May 2, 2016

Of 'The Girl Who Ate Books,' Bookstores, and Browsing

Last week, I finally got around to ordering a bunch of books I had been wanting to read for a long while; one of them happened to be the acclaimed journalist, author, and columnist, Nilanjana Roy's book, The Girl Who Ate Books. I had heard a great deal about Ms. Roy and had even seen her in person, moderating a panel which included Taslima Nasreen among other authors at the Times Literature Festival held in Delhi last December. Yet, it was one thing to hear of and read an author in a column and another to read their book, which happens to be a series of superlative, elegantly written essays about being a bibliophagist (and quite literally so!), house of books (in her case, her grandmother's ancestral Calcutta home, where books were scattered, stacked, and shelved in every possible space), reading, encounters with authors and poets, her own writing, sensitive, thoughtful notes on plagiarism and more. The last time I had read such a nuanced treatise and musings on reading was when I read Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, which incidentally is a book that Ms. Roy also refers to in her own.

It made me deeply think about reading: how and why I read - and of course, books which have played a central role in my life. Reading about Ms. Roy's childhood reading experiences and bookshops she frequented over the years, I journeyed back into my own childhood in Oman and how I acquired my books and satiated my voracious reading appetite. I read a lot and there were only so many outlets from where I could replenish the constantly diminishing stack of books I consumed. There being not much of a reading culture in Oman, there was only one local bookshop chain, Family Bookshop, where the limited range of books in the few branches gleamed shiny, new-smelling, and very expensive, as everything imported in Oman was. While I borrowed a huge number of books from our school library (one year, the librarian informed me, I was the student who had borrowed the highest number of books that year: 333, to be precise!), we also had the option of ordering books through publishers' catalogues such as a British children's imprint of Penguin, Puffin and an American children publishing house, Scholastic. The books arrived by sea-mail and took months to arrive and I almost forgot that I had ordered them until a huge box would turn up in our class room - and you remembered all those books, awaiting to be read. I would devour the books within hours of acquiring them before immediately re-reading them, a habit that still persists till this day with many of the books I read. They would finally be given a precious place of honor in my shrine of books, the book-shelf  - and indeed, many of the books I read as a child still remain in my bookshelves at my parents' home.

Other than that, I bought a lot of books at school fests or book sales or especially when we traveled to India or abroad, where I literally had to be pried away from the bookstores; for example, when I was thirteen and a cousin of mine took me to Borders bookshop in a suburban New Jersey mall, it took me a long time to delightedly comprehend that there was a store where you could sit down and read  books - and no one would be around to shake their head or ask you to stop reading. It was probably my most favorite store that I encountered during that trip.

What always pierced through me while browsing at the bookshops was the dizzying incredible realisation that there were so many books waiting to be read and I had gotten around to reading just a few. There is a scene in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy where the two protagonists, Lata and Kabir meet in a bookstore and Lata and Kabir's eye collide when Lata, who normally gravitates towards poetry, particularly Tennyson, is lost in the mysteries of mathematics; Seth particularly emphasizes her awe at the multiple continents of knowledge waiting to be discovered and explored. As I grow older, I have to admit that I have a disappointing habit of stubbornly remaining within my reading comfort zones; however, once I do venture out of them, I happily lose myself into a novel which delights in playing with toys of language or transplants me in a meticulously re-created historical era and ethos. A few years ago, when I was still living in Oman, a group of neighborhood ladies and I would meet for monthly book-club evenings, where we would bring our favorite books and exchange them with the others; given the paucity of bookshops in Oman, it was a god-send to discover authors and books that I would never have otherwise heard of.

I have to confess that it was not until recently when I was reading about the demise of some much-loved bookstores in Delhi that I realised I had both forgotten the act of browsing as well as the joy I derived from them, thanks to so much online book-shopping I now indulge in and which is my primary mode of purchasing books nowadays. When I lived in Pittsburgh and greedily ransacked the Carnegie Library every week to borrow books, I would still browse but didn't linger too much, always eager to rush home and start reading the books I had borrowed, knowing that I would have to return them soon. However, when I found myself in bookshops, knowing that I was going to actually invest in a book, knowing that it would be mine and which would decorate my shelves or bedside table for years to come, I would deliciously linger over the browsing, taking my time to leaf through the books. And so, when I had some time to myself weeks ago, I slipped into a bookstore and took my time walking around the store, pulling out a book or two, flipping through the pages, allowing an eloquently written passage to brand my memory. I had taken this luxury for granted, unknowing it was a luxury until it became one.