While talking about why she didn’t write linearly, Virginia Woolf asked, “is life like this? Must novels be like this?”
When I was 7, I would pluck flowers, and get scolded by the aunties walking in the park.
Nargis taught me how to cycle. On late April evenings, Naanu would reveal his unimaginatively designed shoes from under the deewan. Every day, I would ask him, “Why do you wear ugly shoes for walking?” And every day, the loose skin around his teeth would mould itself into a smile and say, “Because they remind me of Nargis.” With a yellow shoe lace that ran through the heart of the shoe, its ivory crust was always scratched and tattered. These were shoes that were tired of walking. He would then look at my bright yellow bicycle, only to find I’d turned it to a four wheeler destined to crawl. Swiftly, he’d place his palm under the two extra wheels, and pluck them. Meanwhile, I’d place my palm under a plant in my garden, and pluck nargis. Its ivory enclosing within it a dazzling amber, as if the sun could be protected. With nargis enclosed within my sweaty palms, and a nargis holding Naanu’s sweaty feet, I would angularly place myself on the bicycle. Naanu’s fingers would hold the bicycle’s seat with the same fervor I clutched my toes to the ground, unwilling to let go, too scared of movement, displacement. Only trusting Naanu. And Naanu ready to break my trust, letting go of me as I pedal forward, his voice melting into a song, “dagmag dagmag dolay naiya, paar lagao toh jaanun khevaiya”. Nargis singing me into cycling.
When I was 14, I would pluck my eyebrows, and get compliments from the aunties in the park.
Nargis Beauty Parlor
At a beauty parlor, you always have potential. Sometimes it’s the potential to be fairer, at other times, it is the potential to be glow-ier, the potential to be skinnier. The beauty parlor identifies your life with every dead corner of your body – your hair, your skin, your nails. In this sense, I’ve always found beauty parlors morbid. This one I frequent more so because it has a portrait of Nargis Dutt, craning her neck as if almost to invite you inside the parlor. She is not there, but her ada and andaaz echo within every woman who steps inside. Right in front of Nargis’s stagnant, un-ageing photograph for a face, a row of gamlas hold wilting nargis flowers on a parapet, each craning its neck against the caresses of the wind that wants to bring them back to life. On the shiny glass case of the portrait, nargis flowers cast their crude reflection. Is this what Narcissus saw? When I walk inside, I enter a room made up of mirrors – a palace of illusions. I sit and look at myself – crooked here and there. “Itni growth kar li?”, she’s talking about my eyebrows. I close my eyes and recline. Meanwhile, a pair of hands scrapes away at my skin with a fast-moving thread that feels like a weapon. The next time I look at myself, I am admiring the illusion of my face. I cast a longing glance at Nargis. I am acknowledged by the drooping flowers.
At 15, the lotus was the national flower of India.
It all began with A for Apple, B for Ball and C for Cat. We were soon learning, “Tiger is the national animal of India.” “Peacock is the national bird of India.” When language is rehearsed in school, it translates to an impulse in adulthood. Whatever thought escapes language, often expresses itself as the feeling of familiarity with something without ever having known it. I’ve often felt ideas at the tip of my tongue without the vocabulary to articulate them. For instance, talking about this Lotus. I seem to recall it in fragments. My father telling me, “Do you know a lotus grows in keechad?, and me asking him, “Is it cheekad or keechad?” The memory of the remaining conversation evades me. I can only recall it in fragments. I don’t know what to think, my impulse tells me, “Lotus is the national flower of India.” The line reverberates through my mind like a chant. Sometimes, my brain cannot stop chanting. I turn to Google to form a narrative. There are articles, dispersed all over time. One dated 2016 raises a question “Can the BJP continue using the national flower for its Election Campaign?” Another dated 2019 reads “There is no national flower of India.” There are 10 open tabs, each saying different things. And then there is my memory, my brain, which cannot stop chanting. No longer knowing what to believe, it is repeating, repeating, repeating. I search over and over, almost as if the teacher tyrannically commanded, “Write down this line 10 times: Lotus is the national flower of India.”
At 21, I live in a country obsessed with purity.
I am not fond of paan. I eat it on some occasions, mostly none. I know about paan only because Ma likes to have a paan at the end of long drives. But I appreciate paans. They’re detailed and elaborate. But mostly, I appreciate paans because it is difficult to know their history. On this long drive, I’ve decided I have to know where paan came from. I ask the paanwala at Odeon in CP, “Bhaiya, paan kahaan se aaya?” He gives me an awkward smile and says, “Humaray Pitaji laayay thay!” In a temple in Old Delhi, I ask a pandit ji from Vrindavan the same question. He gives me a history of choona, kattha, gulkand. He doesn’t tell me who decided to put them all together. At a secret Dargah in the depths of Delhi, the peer says, “Aaya nahi tha, bas Nizaam tak pahaunch gaya.” I like to believe the paan has meandered. It is displaced. In moving from pandit ji to the Nizam, it got lost, and somewhere along the way decided it will live wherever it is offered a home. Perhaps, that is how the paan reached the Nizaam. And perhaps, that is how you and I reached where we live. When I ask my family a history of where we came from, they don’t know who I am asking about. On the radio, they’re talking about something called the NRC list. How do they know who came when? The next ad says, “Patanjali Gowmootra, baniye shuddh Hindu – staani.” At Kamal Paan, Ma sees a huge lotus. She tells me maybe the lotus is the national flower of India because we’re all ashuddh, churned out of the hotchpotch of the keechad. That’s where we came from. I ask her, “Where did your paan come from?”
At 9, whenever I would try plucking a rose, I would be warned: it stings.
In the movies I would see, a gulaab was always closed, standing with an upright posture, clustered within itself. It reminded me of Ma at a dinner party, wrapped in her red saree, holding herself together with safety pins and a tightly tucked palloo. In my garden, the gulaab is undone. It opens itself up for an inquiry. It reminds me of Ma and I, at home, in each other’s solitude, sitting without posture. “Go pluck four roses from the garden! We’ll make rose water for our skin and eyes!” And I would flee to my garden, just in time to listen to. “Be careful! It stings!” Ma would take the gulaab from my palm, and crumble it – slipping and re gaining her balance between gentleness and ferociousness. The petals would then be left to soak. In the meantime, I would sit down on her lap, pulling at her memory. “Did someone ever give you a rose?”, “Why does Naani’s house have cups with roses on them?”, “Why does Maasi serve Rose Water and Neembu when we go to meet her?” She would answer some, some she wouldn’t know. Some answers are best displaced in time she would tell me. But some, you need to remember, always. And in her movement between time, she would move to the kitchen, take the bowl of gulaab water and begin patting it on my closed eyelids. Gently, she would whisper, “It’s so good for your eyes that you’ll become like a camera. You’ll remember some moments, like a photograph!”
At 16, a rose was a moment lost to love.
Gulaab Ittar Sh
The photograph in my hand is a token of memory. In navigating through my photo albums, I encounter a school trip to Purani Dilli. Three friends, hands braided with the nonchalance of Delhi’s streets. Two of us looking, directly at the camera. One of us longing for something the camera has failed to capture – a rupture: between the moment displaced in time and a moment I need to remember. Her head is titled, having an argument with a board pointing to a direction inside a repressed lane. It reads, “Gulaab Ittar Sh →” The three of us know which shop this is now, back then, we didn’t. Memory walks with callousness, a certain lack of direction, discovering and recovering. And in the process, it disturbs everything it touches, creating a ripple effect. It works like a lover who thinks in excess, which is different from overthinking. This lover knows each pause, each sigh, each glance, each gap, each tone. This lover sits to listen to a song about her lover’s face, ends up rippling into yearning. This lover, right now, is my friend. “He asked me to meet there at 5. It didn’t sound right.” We looked at her with a face black with lack of experience, giving her false comfort. “He’s probably just upset about something or the other”. At 5:00, she leaves. At 5:02, she returns with a bottle of gulaab ittar, and a letter in her hand. He is leaving for the States. She smells the ittar. I looked at her face. In my mother’s voice I recalled, “It stings!”