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love has space and time

There is a poem from Kurunthokai which I find captivating. It’s a classic moment of separation of two lovers. They meet, they are in love, but now they must say goodbye. She fears that this might be the last time they see each other, and he reassures her with beautiful lines of poetry. What’s not to love? So many Tamil movie songs have used these lines and my mother liked it so much that she chose to print this poem on my wedding invitation.

From the Old Tamil Poetry Blog

Something about the translator Chenthil Nathan’s explanation of the context of leaving a loved one has stayed with me. (Read his full explanation and translation on his amazing blog Old Tamil Poetry). Each time I read this poem, often in the context of my own pangs of separation and love, I see the man leave his inconsolable lover with promises that their story has the weight of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He says they are like red earth and rain water, inseparable once mixed together. Each time, I want to ask how he can be so sure:

love like ours is like red earth and rain,
we are no longer who we were before we met,
with some love, (or most, what do I know?)
the people you love are a part of you,
but you know,
red earth does not stay wet forever,
water sinks deep but also floats high.

…I suppose this is why I am not a poet.

Anyway, I simply hate goodbyes, they blind me from seeing that feelings don’t stop at each farewell, but that they take other forms and shapes. I don’t know how many times I must have had some version of this conversation with A–

‘Isn’t this ramen amazing? We should come here all the time!’
‘Yeah, we should try making this at home next!’
‘Getting away from work feels good’
‘Hanging out with you feels even better’
‘It’s the best!’
‘so…when are we going to meet next?’
Silence
‘I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out’
‘When will this get better, there’s not enough time to even fight properly’
Silence
‘We can still keep chatting on the phone?’
The absurdity is too real, we burst out laughing.

For long distance lovers with no definite end in sight, love is an act of faith and belief more often than not. We tell each other that we’ve come so far, we couldn’t have planned to be in this place even if we had wanted to, that next semester we will find the time and money to visit each other, next weekend we can have a long conversation, maybe next summer we can tell our families we want to marry each other, next year will be nothing like the time we almost gave up, the next month will be nothing like the past year of near total exhaustion.

I am writing this at a moment when life feels uncertain all over again, but it strikes me that I’ve been here before, this relationship has been turned inside out and come out okay, for now it still brims with care and laughter. I’d end by asking if it’s worth it, but the hopeless romantic in me thinks that maybe this is not the point at all. What is love if not a promise made in the present about the future, an affirmation of our destinies, or our choices of the past, or of dumb ephemeral luck that led us to each other?* We tell each other that the distance has many gradations and many textures, just like the rain falling on red earth has different stages of wetness and dryness, and we will explore the contours of them all, and this is also love, at every step this is love.

*I know I promised to myself that I won’t write about professional work on this blog, but it’s hard not to notice that my own life narratives shape what I notice in the lives of my interlocutors. We both seem to be attuned to the temporalities of our lives varying from the everyday, mundane, the past, the anticipation of future, destiny, change, et cetera.

Sensing Absences

Right now I am obsessed with the ghost of a rat. I look around at my apartment that has been scrubbed clean of any trace of rat and cockroach infestation, and I note the conspicuous absence of my mother. She just wouldn’t rest until she had turned every cupboard upside down. Meanwhile, I had crinkled my nose, made a lot of faces at the smell and tried to gingerly clear the mess away. Amma smiled. (Had this been anyone else, I would’ve written “she rolled her eyes at me”. But Ma just didn’t have the patience for my pottering around, and was firm and kind about it at once.) It was more of a, “oh you’re trying to do something, but we both know you don’t have the stomach for this”, kind of smile. I was a little ashamed but mostly relieved. “Amma why don’t you take a break, let’s finish lunch first”or “here, please first drink this juice”, I offered now and then, trying to be helpful. She indulged me a little but just worked on. She had to get this done and get back to work tomorrow. She hitched up her sari, tossed out things too far gone, sorted through others, and YouTube-searched how to get the smell of a dead rat out of a room. She left me a spotless house to resume my work and life that has been on pause. I only see her in every word I am now able to type, sitting in my dust-free chair, and my room smelling like fresh coffee and lemon-scented Lizol. I see the rat’s ghost alright, I see its single minded focus, eating into the Vietnamese currency notes I had carelessly stashed in my desk drawer, probably leaving ingested currency-note-rat-poop all over my fieldwork documents. Do ghosts continue their last actions on loop? I see Amma bent over the pages of my papers wiping them carefully clean with white vinegar. I also see the rat, now bored of these four walls, gnawing at the door, now frustrated about the tiny vent that didn’t quite fit its bloated belly.

“Ma, you’re leaving me alone..” I trailed off into the space as I booked her a cab to the railway station. She looked up, half surprised or amused or just zen, who knows. And I finished my sentence, switching to an indignant tone that I knew better, “Ma, you’re leaving me alone with the ghost of a rat in this house!” We both laughed. I secretly thought to myself, are you so emotionally stunted, you should have said thank you, or something more positive and nice, why can’t you speak full sentences? Ouch. She knew my neuroses too well, she was spent, but left me with a kind word anyway—“start slow and get back to work”. I made a mental note to send her a thank you in the morning. Amma, this is for you! ❤

I called my partner up that evening and couldn’t stop talking about the ghost. He told me about rusty bolts in his room that he thought was a ghost, and then something or other about a toilet. He was full of random thoughts about mundane things that evening. It’s exactly the kind of thing that cracks me up. How wonderfully vague, I know. Anyway, we were in peals of laughter for no apparent reason. I also made up conversations in my head where I chatted with my friends about the ghost. I thought about how I would tell them about feeling icky about a bloody rat, or about how the handyman Anna who came in to help was so amused about my disgust and fear about something so simple. He was kind to call it fear of rats, but it gave me pause. I suppose this is how caste ideas of dirt and pests work. My friends would have laughed at my travails and they would also have understood when I said these were internalized ideas of purity and pollution at work. Almost in a flash, I couldn’t help but think of absent-others who would feel fully entitled to their discomfort. Not all absences are fondly missed apparently.

absence/presence

I don’t even know what this is about. But I also do. I am suddenly back home after months and nothing is the same. Neither me, nor the house, and not even the many critters that co-habited my space with me. My mind is also playing at being some kind of shape-shifting, time-bending creature with a life of its own. One specific moment and person seems to stretch out to hold other moments, other persons and other times. I sense too many absent presences in this empty house, and am trying to hug them all closer through writing.

Today, I asked for hot sambar

Him: “Madam idly soodu panna mudiyathu”
Me: “Parava illa, sambar ah soodu pannunga, soodu pathala”

We stared at each other for a few seconds. Without saying a word, he took the entire pot of sambar to the kitchen. The rest of the customers looked confused at the sudden loss of access to sambar. They made do with their chutneys and I waited.

I am a picky eater at home, but an inconspicuous one at hotels. I am typically the person cringing when someone sends back a dish because it’s not *quite* to their liking. This is not your personal kitchen, is it? I am also the person silently fuming at being served last in mostly male restaurants, but I’m almost never successful at making demands. Not today, though. Today, I simply insisted on being served hot sambar for my sambar idly. Then I sat there overthinking all this, surprised that I had such strong feelings about food temperatures. I was partly happy that I had made this tiny eatery enough of a home that I could make that request and that they were happy to oblige. Ah, the little thrills.

Change has always been hard for me. I take the leap and do what it takes, for sure. But I don’t readily embrace what comes with it. I moved countries to study, without giving myself the time or space to think about how I would feel about the nitty gritty of living elsewhere. I moved again to do fieldwork, and set everything up without adequately considering what this meant in terms of my everyday, personal life and well being.

Now, retroactively, I am trying to make space for myself in all these decisions. I am learning to dwell more comfortably in my own skin. Perhaps then I can recognize when I make progress on asking for that sambar. I’d acknowledge the wonderful and new connections I have been making here, there and everywhere. Maybe I would find peace in the unexpected relationships that stand in for home each time.

Here’s my hope for this blog:

  1. I really really really want to write, and write well, and develop my writing voice. It’s something I do in my private journal, and inconsistently at best. And I almost never make time to write for pleasure anymore. Here’s to more writing.
  2. Here I will write to remind myself that life is not all about professional work. (Writing is work, but you know what I mean.) To tell myself that through it all, I have thoughts, hopes, heartache and joy that far exceed the pressures of productivity. I really just want this to be a way to hold space for myself and others. There’s something about recognizing one’s own and others’ interiority that appeals to me as a way of engaging with the world. I hope this blog can be a space to explore that, whether it is through a poem, a photo, a letter, or an opinion piece about something in the news.

Welcome to the beautiful void, friends 🙂