Winter Tales

A spell of winter worth its salt can teach you a lot. For one, it shows you what a good conductor of electricity the human body is: a lesson learnt by the frequent twitchy withdrawal of your hand from a surface as innocuous as a doorknob when you are jolted by a tiny spark of current, eventually leading to a fear of all things metallic. Winter also teaches you patience – through long cold nights, through eager days spent waiting for the snow to fall and then for it to melt.

To my unaccustomed eyes, the first blizzard I ever saw was a marvel. Even as I went about my chores, I kept hovering by the windows last Friday and Saturday to watch the snowflakes careening into one another and floating to the ground, piling up in thick sheets, burying cars and plants. How could there be so much snow? How could it fall for hours on end without a break, the wind growing stronger every hour? It started carpeting our balcony and we looked forward to building a snowman once the worst of the storm was past us. We couldn’t waste this opportunity though, so we wrapped up and went out on the road to feel the snow fall on our faces. I sank calf-deep into a powdery blanket of snow that I didn’t realise was as thick. A few hardy souls went running, loath to give up their exercise even in this unholy weather. Sadly, we weren’t among them: after a few minutes spent pretending that this was a post-apocalyptic world from Cormac McCarthy, we were driven back indoors by the gritty particles that rushed into our eyes and noses.

The snowstorm was exciting while it lasted, but I cannot deny the pleasure that waking up to blue skies gave me after the blizzard ended. The whole event could almost have been a dream – except, when I looked out from my window, the downy snow was beginning to be gathered up into blackened piles, much like the foam floating out of a few of Bangalore’s polluted lakes. This wasn’t a pretty sight.

However, being cooped up at home meant extra reading time. I read Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters and resumed The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’d somehow abandoned midway (I cannot imagine why). One thing led to another, and having finished the book last night, I’m prepared to pay Neil Gaiman the high honour of likening his writing to Ruskin Bond’s. Few people understand little boys and girls who spend their childhood with their noses buried in books and write about them so compellingly.

Though my bedside table was already tottering under the weight of unread books, I decided to take myself off to the library for a while. Clearly, I didn’t really need to borrow any more, but I also panic often about a certain mood seizing me and not having something to match it. I wanted the comfort of stacked bookshelves around me. I walked gingerly on the slippery pavements, the melting snow now running in rivulets down them. It wasn’t always unsightly though; it looked invitingly pristine under the trees, a ray of sunshine glinting off its surface through the branches. It reminded me of a certain RK Narayan sentence that I think of whenever I’m attracted by something shiny: “The morning sun came through a glass tile and touched with radiance the little heap of uppumav on his plate-a piece of green chilli and some globules of oil made the stuff sparkle, catching Jagan’s eye insistently for a moment, making him wonder if he had made some strange edible gem-set for his son rather than merely frying semolina and spicing it.” (This is an excerpt from The Vendor of Sweets.)

This little moment made up for the heaps of slushy snow piled up on the roads. I didn’t think of them as “sinister” at all, an adjective I’d used when describing how I felt about melting snow to a Canadian professor at university, leaving him bemused. That, and the red “Open” sign in the library window, took the edge off any vestiges of irritation that might have been simmering deep inside. That my favourite librarian wasn’t at the counter didn’t bother me. I returned my books to the fresh-faced young man who was there instead, and asked him where the graphic novels were.

“Traffic novels?”

Graphic novels.” (Gr-ah-phic. I wasn’t going to change the way I pronounced it.)

“Graphic novels. Oh. Okay. For…adults?”

He clearly likened graphic novels to something out of Vatsyayana.

“Yes.” The tetchiness was returning. But he didn’t ask for my ID and thankfully guided me to the right shelf, where I spent a leisurely ten minutes choosing two books, then went around the other shelves, hoping to be surprised. I agonised over Somerset Maugham and Tobias Wolff, picking the latter in the end. I set off homewards recharged, a filled backpack on my shoulders, the nippy wind nibbling at my nose and ears even as the sun began rapidly dipping into the horizon. I was at peace with the world. A cosy home, a bedside table stacked high with books, the prospect of hot chocolate with marshmallows and cookies to ease the march into February: what else can one ask for?

Places and People

The gorgeous sunsets are back. After a disillusioning, grey, warm Christmas which felt nothing like the ones we’d been promised by books and cinema, we are quite ready to embrace the cold weather. January has shaken up the errant seasons: a strong wind, which I’d like to pretend comes from the Arctic Circle, is swirling the dry leaves gathered on the concrete and making people bend over as they negotiate the rough terrain of the pavements. For a little while, I’m reminded of Brighton. Of course, staid Virginia has none of the eccentricity and colour of Brighton, nor the vicious and greedy seagulls, but being buffeted by the wind reminds me of walks on the chalk cliffs overlooking the sea. (Oh what a year it was!)

“Why would you want to go for a walk in this weather?” asks the lady at the reception, as I place my freezing hands on the counter. My face is numb as I struggle to reply. It will take a little bit of convincing for her to understand that this really is a pleasant change from the relentless heat of the tropics, from the oppressive weather of cities where heat and humidity accompany each other in unbroken circles year after year. She, on the other hand, longs for summer.

“I need a break,” I tell her. “I can’t stay in the apartment all day.”

“Read. Meditate. You can do those all day.”

My past experiences shape how I feel about the little pleasures I have discovered here. I have to tell her how alive I feel when I walk out into the cold, mild sunshine and the sight of human beings enlivening the senses. She probably doesn’t know what it is to discover that you can walk unmolested by leering eyes, that you can cross the road without having to put your hand out to a speeding car; she doesn’t feel the abandon of thumping on broad pavements where you don’t have to jostle with two-wheelers for space. Looking up from insignificant chores at four in the evening and staring into a light sky gives me an immense amount of pleasure: the kind that I discovered in Brighton four years ago. Winter, to me, isn’t the drop in temperatures; instead, it is the impenetrable dark, the setting of the sun at an ungodly hour. Shakespeare and Steinbeck didn’t talk of the winter of their characters’ discontent for nothing. And now, when I realise that it is twenty minutes to six and the clouds still haven’t merged into dark velvet, my spirit soars.

***

I got my third library card last Saturday. It is the most beautiful and inspiring card I have – it celebrates Martin Luther King Jr., an important commemoration in the times we live in. Reading about his work is on the agenda, but not right now. Unlike last time, when I tried to read mostly American fiction, I’m veering towards fiction that has been on my to-read list but inaccessible in India – Rumer Godden, for example.

The library itself is roomy and well-stocked, and in one hour there, I discovered enough to remind me, for the hundred thousandth time, of my remorse at the wastage of the infrastructure at the Anna Centenary Library. The DC Central Library encourages people to read, learn to code or to waltz; on the other hand, the library at home is mired in politics, and is about symbolising the victory of one political faction over another, without a thought for the value it can deliver to the people whose tax money must have been poured into the infrastructure.

As we finished our selection at the Popular Fiction section, the librarian asked me about my earrings – a pair of galloping horses. She was enamoured by how alive they seemed. It was a very brief conversation, but one that reminded me that librarians weren’t really frowning, mechanical people (I say this from a couple of experiences from school). In an alien country where we’d been disappointed by Christmas and the absolute desolation of the streets, the lights were being turned back on.

My usual walking route takes me past an ice skating rink and a huge Christmas tree, more bauble than wood or leaf. On a blustery evening like this, only the most hardy are out skating. The end of the vacation seems to have left many people listless and dispirited. The snowflakes on the trees and the lights strung up on balconies will come down shortly. However, in a perverse manner, I’m glad to see everyone coming back to work, to watch the streets fill up with cars again. The Christmas-jumpered librarians are back in their neutral blues and greys. Complaints about the freezing cold are getting louder. A happier winter, all hot chocolate and cosy reading, is on its way. All I’d like now is one night of snow, and my joy will be complete.

An Odd Hour of Bliss

I write for a living, but not dreamy, pretty, glorious things that remind you of tiny leaves rustling on a tar road in a vague breeze left over from summer. I don’t get to write about the black-and-white dog with the clipped tail that plays with an abandoned white canvas shoe in front of our gate, insistent on lying there even as we drive it out every time we have to bring the car in. My daily writing doesn’t allow me room for love-songs to the mountains I have seen only once and pine for, or let me weave horror stories populated by the lonely watchmen who stay up all night in tiny cabins, struggling against the cold and shadows. I can only admire, but not describe, the fragrance of damp earth float into my room as the rain begins to patter softly, then wrestle in vain against the frustration that comes from seeing the sun muscle its way back into prominence. There are everyday things passing me by, and I do nothing with them.

When you watch the woman in the pale pink chiffon saree walk home after a day’s hard work, don’t you want to know her story and write it down? When I see the light that occasionally shines from a usually abandoned room at the top of a building, I want to know the colour of its walls and the shape of the furniture inside. When I see the watchman in the house opposite unroll his mat, I want to ask how his newspapers suffice to fill up the day. This isn’t voyeuristic – this is just like wanting to peek at the cover of a book someone else on the train is reading. There are stories everywhere, and they are passing me by.

If you thought your time was money, you’d call me inane. We couldn’t be friends and you wouldn’t understand why I stare at the fronds of the palm tree every night, hoping to see the moon glimmer through them. You wouldn’t know why the picture of an old robot with its unseeing, metallic face makes my hair stand on end. You wouldn’t understand why my copy of Anne of Green Gables is in tatters and why I think seventeen is the most beautiful age to be. I want to complain about having passed the age where it is still reasonable to dream about grand things and hope that one day you will have seen the world from Tegucigalpa to Port Moresby – but not tonight, I can’t. Even though I don’t write about pretty things everyday, I feel them, and am happy to continue to do so, shushing the voice within that wants me to be practical.

In fact, I might be glad that I don’t write about pretty things for a living – because then, this odd hour of bliss when I can put words to nothingness would cease to be a treat.

Home

One of the things I missed most while in the US was having a supermarket around the corner. Walking for twenty minutes each way just to buy a loaf of bread or a bag of raisin chocolates was never fun, because it wasn’t even a pleasant walk. You just crossed junction after junction, waiting impatiently for the pedestrian sign to come on, reading the names on the grey or brown buildings. This was nothing like walking through the South Downs, where you marvelled at the rolling hills that blended almost seamlessly with the horizon, or like the short trip to the local supermarket in India, where you were preoccupied with glaring at the motorists who dared to climb on to the pavement while riding in the wrong direction. And once in the store, you tried to figure out which Alka Yagnik song was playing in the background, because the shop assistants had this annoying habit of picking out the most obscure pieces from the 90s – which, despite my thorough exposure to Bollywood in 90s Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, I had no knowledge of.

Not having tasted butterscotch ice cream for three months – it seems surprisingly elusive outside India – I was determined to get some before the rain started. Yes, Bangalore. Chennai has rain in the evening too. I don’t know if this is a regular occurrence or a welcome-home present, but I am quite prepared to gloat over it while it lasts. If there is no electricity at your place and you are fanning yourself, staring bemusedly at your phone with the charge rapidly dwindling, know that I am sitting by an open window with the fragrance of damp earth floating in, mingling with incense and a negligibly faint chemical odour.

It is good to be back in India and not have to bemoan the absence of decent sambar powder at the lone Indian store. My trip was only three months long, and while I enjoyed being in the US, I must say very honestly that I liked living in England better. This probably has to do with the diet of English writing I grew up on, the constant exposure to cricket, and the fascination with the English “accent”. Would I have perceived the US differently had it been the first country I visited abroad, had I stayed in a part of the country with more access to nature, hills and the sea? Maybe. I feel a marked difference in the way I absorb things now than I did five years ago, probably because I pay more attention to politics than I used to. However, this is a subject that I will deal with separately, especially because of some important incidents that took place during my stay in the US.

Waiting for the bus that took us to the Indian store every week, I watched a building under construction grow rapidly. I felt the last vestiges of winter dissolve indiscernibly into summer, that much-beloved season of spring shying away from an appearance. I saw the parades of Memorial Day and the spectacular fireworks of the Fourth of July, with the red eyes of the Washington Monument glowing in the dusk. I learnt to admire Thomas Jefferson and question the naming of highways after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, both heroes of the Confederate side in the Civil War.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the vast, complex country that the US is, despite its relatively recent origins. Conversations with Americans and immigrants take you deeper into the mystery, instead of clearing your doubts. Race, religion, colour, and political affiliation are not always postcolonial preoccupations. The pursuit of self-serving interests and the presumptuousness of politicians don’t necessarily help matters. Make no mistake, I appreciated free access to the library and the Smithsonian museums, the clean roads, and the convenient public transport. However, in my view, the US is far from being that perfect home many people seem to aspire towards. In terms of long-term opportunities and the chance to make a visible difference, India is not a less exciting place to be in. What it lacks is discipline, and this is the thing that drives so many of us away.

The Suburbs

I take myself off to the library earlier than I wanted to because the Met department has issued a thunderstorm warning, and it usually doesn’t go wrong. It isn’t that the four o’clock sunshine will be mild and forgiving, but it does feel more benevolent than the heat at half-past two. As expected, when I step out from the air-conditioned confines of the apartment, I walk into a wall of heat. However, a rustling, redeeming breeze rushes in to mediate, and I make peace with the weather while I turn the neat corners and stop at traffic signals. It is a blessing not to have to compete with motorbikes and scooters for room on the pavement.

I am determined to deposit my books at the counter of my local library and return home without a look at the shelves. My bedside table already has two delectably thick, hardbound books to be read: Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia, Etc.’ and Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Painted Drum’. The first one is supposed to give me a glimpse of the country I last visited and adored, while educating me on its history and politics. I picked up the second to indulge my fascination for Native American culture and traditions, of which I am shamefully ignorant. We never learnt Native American history at school; in fact, the gist of what we were taught is that Columbus sailed to the continent and mistook the inhabitants for Asian Indians. We were never taught much about the brutal colonisation of other territories – which, I would think, was important for a country that had itself been victim to imperialist ambitions.

***

This street looks like a scene right out of Revolutionary Road. Neat houses with trim gardens line the road, and it isn’t difficult to take a trip back to the USA of the 1950s and imagine suburban fancies creating themselves, while also imploding. On a still afternoon like this, I can see a housewife doing the laundry and cooking for her family, having reached a stage beyond the anguish that stems from the rejection of carefully nurtured dreams. She walks around in her printed dress, ennui enveloping her features, movements mechanical and strained. She could be Richard Yates’ heroine, or Sinclair Lewis’. However, this is a theme that fascinates more than oppresses me – probably the reason why I am setting out on an American literature spree again.

Blame it, then, on the flag-draped porch banisters and the incongruous fire station in the middle of a very suburban street, where firemen practise their routines in a languid manner. I wend through the shelves in the library to the section marked ‘S’ and pick up The Winter of Our Discontent. I keep waiting for the right moment to go back to John Steinbeck, and today this model street of low houses and parked cars has inspired me to do so. This isn’t schadenfreude, but an attempt to understand that mysterious phenomenon of middle age that is slowly going to creep up on me, on the people I grew up with, when the vivacious dreams of adolescence will be laughed at and stowed away, only to be taken out stealthily on rare occasions. I don’t even know if it is fair to associate suburban America with the purported security and stability that middle age and twenty years of work bring. However, I sense that it is only the object of ambition that must have changed – become bigger, costlier, and shinier than it used to be – and that the story of the pursuit for it remains the same. Twentieth century, twenty-first century, it really doesn’t matter.

Foreigners

I’m riding the train from Arlington to Washington DC, reading and waiting for the moment when we will emerge from the tunnel to chug by the sunshine-sprayed grass mounds near Arlington Cemetery. This is a day made for indolence. I’m off to lunch at a Thai restaurant with G., his Singaporean boss S., S.’s Japanese wife, and G.’s Chinese-born team lead. See, this is the stuff my dreams were made of in small-town India, and it gives me an enormous amount of hope for the future (while also boding well for my tiny collection of stamps).

Having finished a lovely lunch and sung praises of Pico Iyer, I see everyone back to office and set out to explore Dupont Circle on foot. This is my first solo walk in Washington DC and I’m rather excited, especially because I intend to forage in a couple of used bookstores Google has helped me locate. Gone are the days when I used to draw a rough map on paper to guide me along unknown streets, or leave my discoveries entirely to fate. I’m happy to know where I am going, but somewhere, deep down, I wish I didn’t. So, my purchases completed, I turn back towards the buildings on Massachusetts Avenue that are calling my name.

***

For some reason, I thought of Mayfair in London as I entered Dupont Circle – a fairly accurate connection, given that this part of Washington DC houses Embassy Row. The shiny-eyed International Relations student of three years ago wanted a job at a place like this, and still does. As I never really thought I would spend some time in Washington DC, I’ll take what I get, if it means only walking through the leafy neighbourhood, listening to a hundred different accents, and admiring the flags.

The buildings are clean, formal and official, but endowed with individual ornaments to characterise the countries they represent. If deep thought has gone into matching buildings to countries, I’m oblivious to it. I pause to squint at the plaques on various buildings: the one from Luxembourg expresses gratitude to the US for helping it into existence; the Hungarians acknowledge their citizens who migrated to America centuries ago and whose descendants are now among those who shape the politics and the policies of the US. It is sad that issues of race continue to dog a country whose very identity was put together by the efforts of a diverse population.

I spy a tall, white figure through some branches and my heart skips a beat. I inch closer to find a graceful white-and-gold statue of Saraswati towering over me. A gift from largely Islamic Indonesia to the USA, it reminds me of our trip to Bali, where similar statues appeared regularly in serene villages and bustling towns alike. Indonesia has not been in many countries’ good books lately, thanks to the recent execution rows, but this statue reveals a different side of the country, one reminiscent of the terraced paddy fields and tiered shrines that popular culture has made famous. I’m carrying Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia Etc.’ in my bag and have been reading it for a week now, which makes this encounter seem particularly coincidental.

(Across the road from Saraswati stands another familiar figure – Gandhi, brown and bent in the hot summer sun, plaques commemorating his contribution to India’s freedom movement and sharing his words. No surprises in this choice of a representative figure for the Indian Embassy, I’d say.)

Further ahead are the embassies of Luxembourg, Turkey, Egypt, and Togo. I learn from the faded sign outside the Greek Embassy that Greece is called the Hellenic Republic; a nod to a history that is now celebrated through the ruins of ancient monuments and ceremonies before the Olympics (which, I learnt today, were actually started by the Germans). I have often wondered how things would have been had the Greeks continued to worship Zeus, Athene, and their various other gods. Would their mystical aura have diminished, and would we not have enjoyed Homer’s epics as much?

Colombia, Estonia, Turkmenistan. I must stop now and come back another day.

***

The train trundles down the bridge over the green Potomac, its motion in stark contrast to the steep descent of the white aeroplane over Gravelly Point, on to the runway at Reagan Airport. In a few weeks, we will be making our way home from a different airport, to dive back into the chaos of another kind of diversity. I look at the receding scaffolding-covered dome of the Capitol and continue to be enamoured by the amount of power that is centred in this single city, at how it determines the fates of millions of people around the world, for better or for worse.

Nostalgia by the Potomac

“It’s just water!” a teenaged boy calls to his friends, as they step reluctantly out of the shelter of a clothing store on to the pavement. Everybody seems utterly unprepared for this cloudburst; the weatherman predicted a sunny day, and has hardly been wrong in these two-and-a-half weeks.

We first saw the violet-grey clouds approach as we sat in the overgrown garden of the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in Washington, DC. It was built in 1765 as a two-room cottage, and two floors were later added to it to accommodate three bedrooms and a decent-sized dining room, the way it has been preserved today. Old houses in strange places tend to be disconcerting, and this was no different. A slightly sagging bed, children’s playthings on the floor, and blackened utensils around the hearth quite created pictures in your head. You could see the African maid stirring a broth in the large cauldron, while the lady of the house, Cassandra Chew, entertained guests in the parlour. Aproned children spilled the sticks out of the little case upstairs, and a gardener toiled outside to provide vegetables for the family’s meals. Are they still around, and do they miss being here?

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We loitered in the garden for a bit, admiring the flowers and the rich greenery: for a largely commercial area, this well looked after house is an absolute delight. This is about as English as you can imagine, a far cry from the official starkness of the Federal Triangle.

***

Georgetown is like a slice of Europe in America. The grey pavements lined by red brick structures, many of which seem to date back to the nineteenth century, are heavily reminiscent of the Lanes in Brighton: not quite so quaint or eclectic, but endowed with character in their own way.

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Brightonian?

We head, perhaps in the way of most tourists, to Georgetown Cupcakes. Now this is a Wimbledonish experience, because you have to queue for half-an-hour before you can enter the shop and be bewildered by an array of colourfully iced cupcakes. Our selection goes from four to six, and we carry our pink box like two happy children to the banks of the Potomac.

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The Potomac river separates the town of Rosslyn in Virginia from Georgetown. So, when on the waterfront, you arrive fresh from the joys of a quaint little town to a contemporary glass-and-concrete skyline, relieved by a lush island on the river. We watch boats bob by. People lie on the grass and go jogging beside the adjacent Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A board tells us that this was once a busy thoroughfare for goods carriers, and that this posh shopping district was once, in fact, an industrial area. The blue skies on this placid evening were probably once filled with smoke, and the buildings housing designer wear home to gaunt clerks poring over ledgers.

We eat a cupcake apiece as we watch massive white pillows of clouds mass overhead, almost seeming to drop on the top of the bridge across the river. This town was once the home of a few Native American tribes. In the span of a few centuries, it has changed unimaginably, witnessing various wars and upheavals before being absorbed into the capital of this powerful country. Plaques commemorate a Masonic Lodge, the Star-Spangled Banner, the flourishing of a port town, all clear evidence of a colonial past. Conquest isn’t always fair, and I do not condone the displacement of the Native people, but the growth of America has been nothing short of marvellous. As somebody ignorant of the intricacies of American history, I’m very intrigued about the stories every inch of this area seems to have to tell.

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