What Lies Beneath…

I love holidays and I love traveling during holidays. Usually, I manage to write right through my travels. However, this year a combination of poor to no wi-fi connection in places as far flung as Mussoorie and Palghat, and an itinerary that included covering 6 states in 5 weeks, meant that my writing took a backseat. I am now back to my routine.

Recently I got commissioned by a friend, to put down on paper a story that a grandparent told me growing up. It got me thinking. My grandfather (whom I called Velliachan – big father) was full of stories. It should have been easy but it took me a while to think of a few stories that he did tell me. You see, what he really loved to tell me were stories about our home, the incidents and events that shaped our family ties and bonds, and the tharavad (family) history. As I mine my mind to remember particular details of the more traditional stories that he told me, my mind is also busy remembering all the other not-so ‘traditional’ stories he told my cousins, my brother and me.

Velliachan was like any other grandfather in the world – totally unique.  He did not have any pet names for us and believed in talking to us six grandchildren as adults. His favourite method of bonding with us, when he was not playing the fool with us kids, was to take us for a ramble amongst the trees in our family home in Malappuram, Kerala.

I loved those walks. He would patiently tell me the local names of the plants and trees over and over again, year after year. We would check if the hedges needed trimming and if the mangoes and jackfruits were ripe enough to be eaten, and the coconuts ready to be felled. My grandfather was a man who was very good at creating atmosphere. His stories brought the past alive for me.

As we walked down to the front gate, I would ask him to tell me about the well that we no longer use. This well, could be seen from the side porch of the house – the porch that ran along a bedroom wall and connected to the kitchen. Along the open porch, there was a tap and this was where my brother, cousins and I liked to brush our teeth – in the open looking at the greenery around and enjoying the early morning sounds of the birds mingling with the sounds from the kitchen where my grandmother, mother and aunts would be cooking. At least once during this early morning ritual, my eyes would run over the well (Actually the part of the grounds where I knew it was. One could no longer see the well itself) and I would feel a frisson of fear.

The house that my grandparents stayed in was built in the 1960s. The original family home, in which my grandmother grew up, was a few meters downhill. Her aunt and family were still staying in that house. During one particular summer, (I think it was while I was still an infant), my grandparents, parents (who were visiting) and uncles heard a commotion from the old home. They rushed to the old house and heard cries of ‘pambu pambu’ as they neared it. Snakes are a pretty common sight in Malappuram, Kerala, especially during the monsoon.

Entering the house, they came across an ashen female relative who somehow managed to tell them that as she had opened an old almirah (cupboard) she had seen a huge python curled up in its recesses. She had run out screaming.

All the men rushed upstairs to the room where the said almirah was. One of the men pulled the door open as the others raised the thick wooden sticks they were carrying. The almirah was empty. The fear spread thick and fast amongst those in the room. There was a python in the house and no one knew where it was hidden. This meant that no one could rest in peace until it was found. There had been quite a few incidents in the district where the pythons had feasted on goats and calves.Would it eat a human being? My grandmother’s aunt was tiny enough.

The men spread out around the house, carrying the sticks and carefully searching for the snake. But search as they might, there was no trace of the snake on the first floor where it had been originally spotted. They extended the search to the ground floor of the old house. Every single room in the house was searched. So were the cupboards and all the nooks and corners of the old house. And there were many. By then it was nearly two hours since the first cry of ‘pambu pambu’ was heard.

Defeated the men gathered together in the main living room downstairs. At the foot of the stairs leading upstairs to the bedroom, there was a very old wooden trunk. It was so heavy that when it was built, they had just decided to leave it on the ground floor instead of lugging it upstairs! Someone asked if anyone had searched the trunk. Another man laughed and said, “There’s no way in hell the python could have got in there!”

But the snake was not to be found anywhere else in the house. So, my grandfather, father, uncle and a few other men stood around the trunk. They were hoping that it was there and the search could wind down, and yet praying that it was not there as no one wants to deal with a scared and disturbed python that was strong and clever enough to get into that trunk. One of them gingerly raised the lid of the huge wooden trunk. And there it was! Coiled comfortably at the bottom of the case. My grandfather says that it was big and dark.

I don’t like snakes, but I can’t help but feel for the snake that must have had a pretty rude awakening as the men beat it to its death. They say that even three grown men staggered as they carried that snake out. It was getting dark and they were wondering how to get rid of the dead snake. There was an unused well in the land. I think it was unused, because it tended to run dry in the summer months, and the family had dug another well in the backyard. The old well lay neglected and run over by wild shrubs and weeds. I am still not sure as to why they decided to give the python a burial in the well. But there you go! Since then, no one has ever used the water from that well, even though there is water in it.

As we walk to or from that gate, we can barely see the well, hidden as it is behind shrubs and trees. The whole area has an eerie feel. In my mind’s eye, I can still see a python lying curled up in its water, waiting for some poor sucker to draw water from that well. The house and the grounds on which the well stood have now been sold, and I wonder if the new owners have been told about the well.

In the next post, I will tell you about Pambattu Kaavu (the family shrine dedicated to… you guessed it – the snake God.)

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“Do you believe in true love?”

Do we exist in a landfill of relationship debris or is there some magic left?

Binu SivanThis last weekend, I met a young friend – someone who had got engaged a month or so back. This is the sensible generation or maybe they are just scared. They are looking at a longish engagement. I asked her, “Why?”

She said, “We need to be sure.” I almost laughed out. You are never sure. Nearly 14 years after getting married, I am still not sure. It doesn’t matter how long you are engaged. Your husband or wife will turn out to be a different person to the one you were engaged to.

As I mulled over her answer, she asked – “Do you believe in true love?”

Now, why the hell would she ask me that!

The first unthinking words almost out of my mouth were – No! I don’t. I think it is all a lie. There is no such thing as true love. Just look at the disillusionment that you find in almost all the relationships around you! We are surrounded by a landfill of relationship debris.

Even as I thought these words I knew I was missing the point; because despite the disillusionment and the neglect there was something else.

Despite my desire to be untouchable in matters of the heart (a direct result of believing that I am as cool as Clint Eastwood in his cowboy avatar), the fact of the matter is that I do believe in love. Not the Valentine’s Day shit with its cards, candlelight dinners, and roses. I don’t even believe in the we-will-grow-old-together kind of romance. Tomorrow and old age are not guaranteed.

I thought about how in today’s world a growing cobweb of disillusionment and neglect anchor and hold up the photo frames of our relationships. Relationships and marriages, in particular, seem to be made up of what is missing – small acts and gestures that we forget to, or are too lazy or angry to do for each other.

Every expert on relationships has been crying himself or herself hoarse trying to tell us that we got to work at love. ‘Falling in love’ does not guarantee ‘staying in love’. You got to work at it to keep it alive. There is no happily ever after. At best you have a “we like each other enough to want to grow old together” ever after.

So is that all there is to love?

I am not an ace at this. I never was. Time, drudgery, disillusionment, neglect, taking and being taken for granted have taken their toll. Yet I am not just a victim. I am a killer too. Love doesn’t die at the hands of infidelity and violence alone. Its butchers are many.

Like pretty much most young women who get married, I believed in true love or rather the mirage of true love as spoon fed to us by our film industry. My ever after. My one and only. A few heartbreaks and disappointments later (both parties at fault) I revisited my notions of love.

Was love the intense feeling that swept over me as they placed my new-born daughter on my chest and I knew in my bones that I’d kill for this little one’s safety? I have never felt anything close to that for anyone else.

I am married to a guy who is in finance. He loves math. I love words. He watches Bloomberg and cricket for entertainment. I watch travel shows on NG and Discovery and love to read. More than a decade of marriage hasn’t blurred these differences in our case. In fact, we can still only manage a polite curiosity in the other’s interest.

In the initial years of our marriage, he got me watches (expensive, branded ones) for three of my birthdays. The third time I got a watch, I sat him down, showed him my watch-less wrist and told him in clear terms, “I don’t like to wear watches!”

To his credit, he has been learning and has stopped getting me watches.

We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A combination of health issues and sheer frustration at juggling a highly demanding job and a growing child made me walk away from regular employment. Now I am a stay-at-home-mom and a freelance writer working on my first novel. A move I could not have made unless my watch-buying, math, and cricket-loving husband had not agreed to finance our lives.

So is this love?

Love.  In my mind, it is a gentle, soothing breeze… something that underlies and supports, and is supported and nurtured in turn by consideration, kindness, generosity and passion. A breeze that wipes away our tiredness and soothes our tired eyes and heart. A breeze that brings with it anew a slow bubbling hope. A breeze that needs a soul to brush against, slowly raising its shrouds… awakening it to the joy, peace, angst and pain that is the accompaniment to love.

A breeze that blows against a rock face or wall will not raise any shrouds. It will just be a weak wind that falters and fades away. Love is like that. One day you are the breeze, the next day… hopefully, your partner. But if you, or he or she, are the rock all the time, then eventually the breeze will die.

When young, due to my movie and Mills and Boons fueled notions of love and romance, I believed true love can be achieved only with one person. Now I know better. You can fall in love deeply many times over. You can be in love with more than one person at the same time. Love can evolve into like, hate and indifference. You can fall out of love with a person and yet love that person.

The magic of love can touch you at any time, across the labyrinth of space, age, societal mores, and even reality. You can be in love in your mind and the world would have no inkling. You can even be in love with an imaginary personification of all that you desire. This love of the imaginary person (that you are yet to meet or may never meet) is like an underground spring that waters your soul and keeps you alive.

You could be in love with a woman’s never-say-die spirit, a man’s kindness, that woman’s smile, that stranger’s eyes… you know that nothing will ever come out of it. For a few weeks or maybe just for a few days, they will add an extra spring to your step, a smile to your lips, an ache to your heart, and a song to your heart. You are not going to disrupt the status quo of your life for this smile or eyes. But just for that magical little while, love and romance brush by you again and you are alive. Just an intense crush, but for those few hours, days and weeks, this imaginary love-story in your mind is stronger than any relationship that actually exists in your ‘real’ life.

And then one day you wake up, freed from the bondages of this crush… you are out of love.

So what the hell is love? To be honest I still don’t know. I am constantly redefining it.

Do I believe in true love? I don’t even know what the hell true love is! But I can tell you this – I am a romantic.

The word romance conjures up different images for most of us – usually dictated by our age and experiences. In our teen years, it is a red heart-shaped balloon and a misspelt love note. In our 20s a public declaration of everlasting love on Facebook and Instagram. In our 30s, a partner who is willing to wake up to take care of that baby who is hell bent on driving you to an early grave.

But now I am in my 40s, and for me romance has broken the limiting walls of relationships. Let me explain…

I had always liked to think of myself as a realist – someone who sees the world for what it is and accepts it. But the truth of the matter is that I am not a realist. I don’t see the world for what it is. For me the world we see is an opaque veil, that conceals the truths that I instinctively believe in, and even know to exist. Even my personal religion and concept of God is based on this.

I believe without proof. Yet I also believe in the theory of evolution and have a deep respect for science and the fantastic mind-bending journey it, and we are on. Maybe because of this respect (and not despite it) I also believe in things I cannot see.

So how can I not be a romantic!?

Not just a believer in romance in its most commonly understood sense… but also the romance of life itself. When I smile instinctively at another person during my walks and they smile back at me, when my daughter walks into my room early in the morning and cuddles up with me, when I watch two young lovers trying to maintain decorum and distance as they walk together, jostling against each other with every step… I am more in love than I have ever been. Not with another person. But just in love.

When I read the wistful, elegiac words of poets like Rumi, Parveen Shakir, Keats, and Ghalib, I cannot help but wonder… How can this feeling, this aching yearning for another even arise in our hearts, if there was no romance!? How can it exist if there was no quest for that one love? How can someone write words that reach out across centuries and lands and grab my heart with such intensity and force? Am I not falling in love all over again when I read them?

Then there are things in this world that make me believe in a love that feels deeper and truer. When I am walking along a deserted beach, when I am watching a full moon shine brightly on snow-capped mountains at 2am, I sense something rare and fragile to my touch, just out of my reach… brushing delicately against my fingertips. It teases me into being more aware. An almost ephemeral awareness, it is by its very nature of being elusive that much more valuable and worthy of being pursued.

Right now, as I learn to live consciously and intentionally, taking steps towards certain dreams, instead of just waiting for them, my notions of love and romance are abstract.

I believe in the romance of the moment. It is a fleeting moment – sometimes submerged in the minutiae of life, buried amidst the debris of our busyness and distractedness. But that one fleeting moment can keep that flame of magic and life burning. And it is not necessarily a moment with your partner or spouse. It is the kind of romance where you are in a moment, either with your spouse or a friend (whatever be their gender) or your pet or a stranger, and you are with that person fully. It is the kind of romance that inspires you even when you are alone.

Right now, love is this very moment.

My newly engaged friend stared dazed at me as I went through my disjointed spiel. “So does this mean you believe in true love?”

“Yeah, yeah I believe in true love.” She will have to figure this out in her own way and time anyway.

 

 

Excerpt 2 – A Dialogue

Excerpt 2

 

My second excerpt from Second Chances. It is the working title of my novel. Manna (short for Tamanna) is my lead. What do you think of this dialogue? Do let me know if it resonates with you or if you find it clunky. Does it give you any insight into what kind of a person Manna is? Do share your thoughts.

 

 

Before I headed out on that trek (post on it will be up in a couple of days), I had mentioned that I would be putting up excerpts from, and thoughts related to my novel-in-progress for your feedback.
I have tried presenting it with the aged paper and old fashioned fonts look because I like all things ancient :)).
Please do read, comment and share.

Excerpt 1

Acceptance

My first post for the year – :). An update into the last 21 days if you will.

2016 has been a ho-hum sort of year so far. Professionally I am doing well – enough writing and editing assignments to keep me busy. A bit too busy to be honest. But the world continues to nose-dive into oblivion, as though hell bent on destroying itself before some meteor hits it. Global markets crash, students commit suicide, terrorists kill innocents, more soldiers die. I could have been talking about last year or the year before that. The news update is the same. We are going to the dogs from the looks of it.

However, on the personal front, I like where I am going. This is the first time that I have not bothered to go through the sham of making resolutions. I have anyway never kept one beyond five to six weeks at the most. But I have started out on things that have been on my to-do list for way too long.

I am going to be a year older tomorrow. There are slivers of wisdom that have pierced my decaying armour of youth. Not that it makes much of a difference. I am still repeating old mistakes and making new ones on top of it. But there has been some growth too.

After nearly 13 years in Dubai, I am finally learning Arabic. I know… shame on me! I should have done this much earlier… but my motto in my 40s is – better late than never.

I have read The Land of Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal (will be reading that one again), Wild by Cheryl Strayed (highly recommended for lovers of treks and hikes), The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall (I liked it a lot… the way she writes especially) and have started on The Public Intellectual in India by Romila Thapar. While the Sanyal book was a carry forward from last year (I just had one chapter to read in 2016), everything else was done in the last 20 odd days!! I am amazed.

The Dubai Poetics group have accepted two of my poems for their anthology. You can read my submissions Stay a While (https://binusivan.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/stay-a-while/) and Don’t Send Me a Memo (https://binusivan.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/random-musings/) on my blog if interested. Will keep you updated on that.

On the novel front – it did take a back seat to my bread and butter writing these last three weeks. I feel like a procrastinating heel. But am back at it with a vengeance now. Sada – thank you for those links and encouragement.

Sometime last year, I began to enjoy cooking… for about a month. That feeling soon passed. Nothing has changed in 2016. I still don’t enjoy cooking. I think my cook is the most important man on earth. Apologies to the husband, father, brother, Modi and Obama. And off late, I am beginning to hate even regular housework with a vengeance. My new cleanliness motto is… actually, I have two – ‘Chaos and mess beget creativity’; and, ‘It is not dust; it is star dust’.

Incidentally, I have stopped colouring my hair. I am letting it go grey. I want to know how I will look.

So, hopefully, 2016 will be a year choc-a-bloc full of great books, poems, writing, freelance jobs, and maybe, just maybe, a deeper acceptance of who I am.

Changes

What a day! It is 10.30pm. Another hour and a half and I would have missed writing my 500 for the day. Truth be told I’d much rather be sleeping right now. I am that tired – mentally and emotionally. But writing has always helped me unravel the knots of my mind.

A weekday, today, has been as busy as any other day. My 24 hours have stretched and grown and shrunk throughout the day. And then for 15 whole minutes it stood still. I was tucking my 9 year old into bed but she just could not sleep. And then the tears started sliding down those cheeks that still remind me of a helpless toddler. Her best friend in class was leaving the school tomorrow for another one. It was the end of this great friendship.

My heart broke, because I know how final it can all seem. I muttered the usual platitudes – you will meet again; I will organize play dates; you can talk on the phone. My girl looks at me at says, “But ma, it will not be the same.”

No my child, it will not be the same. Things change. Always. We can go mad trying to stop them from changing, but change is relentless. This is one of the toughest and most necessary lessons of life and I wish there was an easier way to learn this. I wish I could gather her in my arms and protect her from all those changes that threaten to hurt her.

Luckily for her, wiser consul prevails. That and the fact that I really can’t protect her from all the changes that she will have to deal with in her life. These little battles of life make her tougher and more capable of handling the even tougher changes that will occur in her life – puberty, leaving home for college, heartbreak, realising that one can fall in love more than once, the challenges of a workplace, working towards achieving your dreams, marriage, parenthood… God!

Sometimes memories of a younger me slip in through my protective, well-guarded walls of adulthood. And I remember the child that was me. I feel the tears well up as I realise how brave a kid I was. I realise how brave my daughter is. How singularly brave every single one of us who chooses to become a parent is cause, watching our children walk, trip, fall down, and get up, to only trip and fall over again… is one of the most heartbreakingly vulnerable acts out there.

Ah forgive me… I am whining and rambling at the same time. I think it is because I am feeling so raw today. I can handle my child crying because she fell down and scraped her knee badly, but when the tears are because her heart is sad… I am at a loss.

For now, I am going to go and lie down next to her and cuddle up to her. I have a few more years of that and then she will be a teen and, from what I have heard, will change and not want to cuddle so much. Goodnight.

500 Words A Day

This is the first of my 500 words a day challenge. https://www.facebook.com/groups/my500words/. I hope to start doing the 500 words as writing for my novel from tomorrow. But for today, this is it. My motivation for taking up this challenge is to get into the habit of writing every day. I need to work on my discipline and consistency. On one day I would write 2000 words and then not touch my laptop for the next 4 days!

I consider myself a writer but feel rather fake at the same time and I think it is rooted in the fact that I don’t write every single day. I was watching (or listening) Jeff Goins webinar about writing and it was quite an eye opener. I realised that I needed a lot more clarity about what my blog was meant to do. I need to divide my blog in to sections and focus on my pieces on traveling, my poems and my life and motherhood articles and features.

I need to link it up with interesting websites also. I should ask for help from some technically savvy person. *Hint hint* people!

And then there is the email list that Jeff spoke about. I am not so sure about it, because it feels like promotion. But if I want my blog to speak for me and my writing and hopefully help me get a publishing deal then this is something that I will have to consider.

I also like the idea of guest posting though it is not something that I have ever considered seriously until right now. But he is right. It is a community out there. And if I want to belong to a community I have to participate. This is so different a way to approach creativity from the way, say, Joni Mitchell, approached it. She wrote and sang to please an audience of one – herself. She listened to her critics, but at the end of the day her work was dictated by her own insights and opinions. http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/22/joni-mitchell-in-her-own-words-malka-marom/

But we live in a very different world. Even writers have to network… shudder… That 7-letter-word is more of a swear word than some four letter words out there. But like Jeff, maybe I need to look at networking differently. In my head, networkers who use the internet and social media are often likened to a spider sitting all alone in a corner, weaving a web that reaches out and traps the poor unsuspecting victims. Instead of limiting it to ‘a selfish pursuit and wooing of individuals who can be of assistance and benefit to you,’ maybe I should think of it as offering your services to fellow creatives and building a web of mutual support. Maybe I should replace the word network with web-work.

Whatever you call it, it doesn’t change one all-important basic fact. In this age of self-publishing, marketing, book tours and blogging, writing is no longer something you do all alone. I love the imagery and idea of Henry Thoreau and his cottage… the physical isolation and heightened emotional and intellectual connection it fostered. I imagine my hero R.W. Emerson sitting in front of a cheery fire and churning out his essays with an almost spiritual sense of solitude. But I live in a world where my mobile beeps, pokes and vibrates. I am so plugged in, tuned in and connected that I am surprised that my head hasn’t sprouted a power station! And I need to find a balance. And peace. And discipline. 500 words a day.