Friday, July 31, 2020

A Few Goodbyes

The English language is hilariously inadequate when it comes to naming your relatives, especially when you factor in familial quirks and histories.

Bereft is a language where aunts cannot be kunjimas and elemmas — younger mothers — or moothammas, elder mothers. How impoverished is a language that does not make room for an eleppa — uncle — who is actually your granduncle, his wizened figure so synonymous with the word eleppa that even his kids call him that? (Meanwhile, my maternal grandmother remains Mummy to her grandkids, to her nieces and nephews, and all their kids.) In English, how do you even conceive of a grandaunt who was beyya — grandmother — to everyone, so much so that she was called Kasaragod beyya, her grandmotherliness entwined with the district she planted herself in, offering shade for generations? Every time my Malayalam settles into Kasaragod slang, it's her voice (along with another grandmother-aunt's) that I hear underneath, a blueprint for all that is Kasaragod in me: merry-making and loudness and quicksilver temperament.


Two weeks ago, I persuaded umma to head back to an old family recipe for the morning of Bakrid: kozhikkadumbu. Tiny canoes of coarse rice dough, steamed, then marinated in a thick gravy of chicken. It takes a lot of time and effort to make, so on the eve of most eids, you'll usually find a circle of womenfolk sitting around a large vat of rice dough, scooping out a small chunk and rolling it in their oiled palms until it finds its shape, swapping stories and gossip as they worked. We haven't made kozhikkadumbu in our house in a long while, so I promised mom I'd get off my lazy ass and actually pitch in this time. I haven't been home for too many eids recently, after all. Mummy, you, me, Hiba — thalenn we'll sit together and make kozhikkadumbu, I pleaded. Umma agreed.

We didn't make it. Ostensibly, it's because we had trouble getting chicken and only managed to confirm availability in the last minute. Ostensibly, it was too much work. All of this is true. What is also true is that each of us feel like the wind has been taken out of our sails, because this family has witnessed three deaths in the last one week, three elders bidding their farewells. Including granduncle eleppa and Kasaragod beyya.

I don't think I ever really appreciated the centrality of presence, physical presence, to mourning until I paid my last respects to eleppa over video call. It was surreal. Without the hugs, the mindless reassurances, the murmur of the gathered crowd, without the people streaming in and out of the bereaved house, without the materiality of it all, how do we make sense of death? All that is left to us is the ant-march of inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiuns across family WhatsApp groups. Its utterance is perhaps the only ritual we have left in our repertoire of grief, its performance, in an age where we're splintered across mountains and continents with no way of making it to our loved ones before they become part of the earth. To Allah we belong and to him we return. 

Whether I believe that is immaterial here. Last night, Mummy yelled out in pain as she was tucking in; thankfully, it was only a pulled muscle. Sorted in under ten minutes. When we left her room, I hugged my mom and sobbed into the crook of her neck, realising just then that I had been terrified, terrified that my grandmother's cry of pain could have been the start of an anecdote that I would rehash over the next few days in a hushed, strangled voice. I was relieved it wasn't so, and I had to burst into tears. Whether I believe in a god or a divine plan or an ordained fate was immaterial then. What is irrefutable is the jagged edge of grief.


July is a month of many birthdays, and I've been mercilessly teasing my friends and colleagues about them getting older. Vayassayi, I tell them. Praayam praaraabdham okke aayi. All you muthassans and muthassis and fossils. It helps that I'm the youngest in most groups, of course.

But it dawns on me now that all the teasing was a refusal to accept that I'm also adding another year to my bones, as a growth ring to a tree. A refusal to accept that the figures of my childhood will keep fading away, one by one. That I'll have to say my goodbyes more and more often. That I've added new words to my lexicon: love, loss, heartbreak— all of which I thought I knew, but cut me open in ways I didn't anticipate, caressed me anew. That this year's cruelties were not as singular as I'd made them out to be, but also that I'll still remember them as such, because never before has the word harrowing felt so visceral.

Never have I felt so fragile and in disarray as this, constantly on the verge of tears, ready to melt down at the slightest provocation. Never before have the words 'mental health' sounded so clinical and inept and clumsy— this was no serotonin imbalance or whatever the fuck. This week witnessed my sanity in shambles, my emotional universe fraying, unravelling.

But never have I also been reminded this strongly, this frequently, that I'll be fine. Maybe not today. Maybe not in a week. But I will be fine. I will feel every throb, every pulse and prick and slash of this grief. I will sit down with it. I will weep it. I will observe it. I will write it down, with whatever words I manage to scrounge from the place where all feeling clot and congeal.

Nee benne karayanda, mole, pedikkaan ippo enthaayi? "Don't cry simply, sweetheart; what was there to be scared of?" Umma comforted me last night. Mummy's fine, she reminds me. Maybe we don't have the energy for kozhikkadumbu, but we still make biriyani and banoffee pie for Bakrid. Well, my sister and umma and Mummy, mostly. Dad whips together the salad. I scoop out ice-cream for two cousins who drop by briefly. And now that I have an income, I give them perunnal paisa (aka eidi). Itha valya aalaayi poyi, says one of them.

Nothing else marks my adulthood as that moment does. Not even filing my tax returns.

I chuckle and tell the kids to fiercely safeguard the money from their parents. Zainab itha that I am, I do have some wisdom to pass on.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Looking Back, and Forward: The Sister Edition

Today, my sister starts college.

I look back at the girl she was in tenth grade, struggling with subjects she didn't like, her temper flashing at the merest mention of academics, driven to tears by a teacher who made a particularly unkind comment about her being nothing like me. Contrast that with the cheery girl who scored A-pluses in all subjects in both eleventh and twelfth, and you'd think this is a story of someone who learned to score well.

It is not.

That bit is an incidental subplot to the story of a girl who made her choices in a constructive learning environment, and worked her ass off to redeem herself in her own eyes, astonishing her family in the process.

Clearly the smarter one, she chose Commerce and moved to a government school after tenth, one which boasted of facilities at par with (or even better than) a lot of private schools in the city, having been adopted by a public-private initiative called PRISM. And boy, did she reveal her true colours there.

Finally free from my oppressive shadow, finally exploring subjects she could relate to, finally learning under teachers who saw her spark and nurtured it with care and the occasional admonishing, Hiba bloomed into a creature I was beginning to recognize again, after the soul-crushing ordeal that was her tenth grade at Presentation.

And it was not just her old self that was back; she was reforging herself in many ways. Along with a select few students, she started becoming the face of Nadakkavu GHSS at various official events, be it organizing a reception for the chief minister, skyping with students from a UK school during a cultural exchange initiative, or just emceeing for school celebrations. She helped her new friends, some previously educated in Malayalam medium schools, find their feet in the English language. She joined her school's NSS team, going on sanitation drives and rain-walks, with a winter camp to top it all off. She cheered on, without any reserve, her crazily talented classmates as they conquered sports meets and dramatics and a host of other extra-curricular events. She even joined her school oppana team, and the memory of her going up on stage at the sub-district youth festival is one I'll cherish for ages.

In other words, she shone. Fiercely. Bravely. Happily, and with a renewed faith in herself.  For the most part, my parents and I were mute witnesses to this transformation. Her teachers and friends contributed a great deal, grounding her in a community and giving her perspective, but at the end of the day, this story belongs to her.

And today, as she begins a new chapter, it is not the academic turnaround that I am proud of. It is of her resolve, of her courage, of her juvenile sense of humour. I'm proud of her hard work, of her whip-smart retorts to my oft-nagging mom, of her ability to recognize her privilege and channel it for good, with humility. I'm jealous of her almost-diabolical power to wrap dad around her pinkie finger, and her general "people skills." Above all, I am proud beyond words that she stood up for herself.

So, on her first day of college, here's a toast to my absolutely fabulous sister. May the years ahead bring you more joy, much as they will bring you grief. May you hold on to your self-worth, even as the many lives waiting for you will challenge it in ways you didn't think was possible. May you find new dreams, if life extinguishes your old ones. May you create fullfilment on your terms.

But mostly, I hope you move forward with your trademark exuberance and generosity, brightening up people's lives by that much more, staying true to your name: Hiba, God's gift to us all.

Friday, March 23, 2018

To My Baby Cousin

And in the face of new worlds, each more bewildering than the last, we hold on to each other. Cling, even. We survive. We create. We live.

That's all there is to this story, and all there ever will be.

Of course there is death and destruction, and it will come, but first there is the living. The breathing. Your tiny chest falling and rising against mine, not at all in tandem. The smiling in your sleep. And god, the learning! It's been just five months and you already know that the sound 'Azrah' has something to do with you; head lifted, eyes curious, you turn towards your mom, your sister, the horde of delighted cousins calling out to you again and again, just to watch you perk up.

That Azrah is your name, and that it wields the power to shape much of your life, you will learn later. For now, all that matters is you know those sounds, the ah and the za and the ra, woven and unwoven and rewoven, somehow belong to you. You will settle your being into their crevices and spurt through the many cracks, and you will make the name your own someday, navigating the warp and weft of it as you do with the world you find yourselves in.

Sometimes none of it will make sense to you, this beautiful name, your terrible world, this lovely world, your horrible name. It is astounding, your survival, a  lump of tissue and fluid and wildly beating heart, in a world where the sky never ends, the earth runs deep, and loneliness rings the edges of the known universe.

You will be born into new worlds as old ones burn down, freeze over, crumble around your feet, or merely fade away like a season. From the ash and dust and memory of each world, a new one will rise, as you once did, caked in blood and hope. Fragile, fierce.

And in the face of these new worlds, each more promising than the last, we hold on to each other. Cling, even. We survive. We create. We learn. We love, in an unconditional that cannot pretend to be anything else, in conditionals that think themselves unconditional.

We live. Fierce, but fragile, we live.

That's all there is to this story, all there might be.

Right here, right now, in the quiet of a house on the threshold of a shared dream, that is all there is.

I rarely write prose these days, save for the very sporadic journal entries which will never see the light of day if I can help it. What prose that I do put out in public are mostly captions that sometimes end up as long-form-ish pieces. This one was written for a photo that my sister clicked a few months back, of my baby cousin asleep on my chest. I decided I'd share it here because it remains very close to my heart.

Monday, October 23, 2017

An Anatomy of a Star-crossed Lover's Heart

It lives. Observe,
the first faulty
                        scales of justice
                        rusting away
in cobwebbed corners
of knowledge made flesh. No ledgers
tally here: yearning
is always mired in red –

observe, now, the deep vivid warm red
in this antechamber
                       of churning dreams, flushed
                       with furious lust,
fire raging in its belly
as it scampers up the trunk
of the tree of life

seeking out
every last leaf, every farthest
branch, every lurking bract

mapped on this body
mapped on this fragile, fierce body

quivering with a hunger
willing to shatter
all known laws of the universe

merely to meet another deep vivid warm red
if only at the fingertips.

What the first faulty scales of justice
doesn’t know
is that even faulty scales tip over

and sometimes
a thirsting aching dreaming yearning

is a weight the universe cannot bear,
will not bear, for fear
of learning
its laws to be empty words.

The universe writes new laws then:
to dream is to love disaster, to yearn is
to court aching, to ache is to ache more.

Now see how your red falters. See how
it retreats from cheek and lips
and loins and breasts, see
its fire and joy and promise

veined with the blues
of a world
built on stardust and dream-ash
from charred bodies
of lovers
who dared defy stars and planets
and names
engraved upon once newly-clean

ready to bear out new destinies
treading the same old trajectories:

tell me, what’s
in a name but the entire universe
sitting in judgment

seeking a blood price
for scripture and stricture

And so life-blood pounds, lifeless, against
bloodless walls, seeking life –
from right atrium to ventricle to lungs
torn asunder in two

where blood meets breath meets hope

new futures pulsing and flaring
well-worn paths buried beneath scar
and skin

and it is written, and it is so:
lub dub lub dub lub dub
vivere, vivo, vivus

Tapping out, in non-code, against
remorseless rib cage
the song of bone and blood, muscle
and sinew:

I live. I live. I live.

Written for IIT Madras' inter-hostel creative writing (solo) contest, based on the prompt "It was like a vivisection."

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Family Portrait

Cream pooling
on her now-cold tea, mother
holds her ceramic tea mug


of the hairline fracture
along its handle, and

quite used to sister's sunsign
tattooed along its curve:

a rather fat fish, forever
orange, grinning
a slightly loopy grin

and forever apart from its twin

on my sister's mug. Pristine,
fractureless, fewer tea stains,


twenty eight years' worth
tea-drinking —

almost doppelgangers, just like
their owners.

Father drinks tea by the gallons,
and his tea-cup grips
could fill a dictionary I might write.


For now, there's a careful grasping
of steel rims
of steaming hot tumblers, thumb

                                        half a world apart

                          from his forefinger

there's a palm
folding into an umbrella
over railway station paper cups

there's four fingers curling around
a handle, thumb
sticking up sorely

there's also that casual
       of his tea – as varied
       as his mudra-like grips –
                   into the eager hug
                   of a neighbouring glass

the fall easing the fever.

I look at his hands

if he could ever have been
a dancer, this man who lumbers
along and mocks my gait
for being too much like a boy's, and
laughs at my love

or lack thereof

for tea. Former heretic
coffee-drinker, I have now


to the fold of people who swear
by tea for everything: hysterics

or hernia or even heartbreak. But

prodigal daughters, I think, don't
con themselves

into believing
things could be the same

as before: so here I am, odd
one out, black sheep,

drinking black tea

and dreaming of brewing that perfect
cup of lemon tea

and taking it
in a coffee cup.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


And therefore
this poem attempts to
critically analyze the various
modalities of alienation -

Hold up.
Right there.

Have I told you how,
in my nightmares, words
swallow me up?

The ocean used to sing
in my veins once: now it scorches
the seams of my lungs, first
a slow
trickling in,
and then a flood —

I float and drown, drown
and float.

And as I always do,
I wash up ashore
on this strange land where
names become adjectives,
tales narratives,
and words clump on themselves to become
New Words
choking on their self-importance.

I wash up on the shore
of a strange land with New Words
and stranger rituals, in a land
of ivory towers
built on the decaying bones
of footsoldiers
who dreamt of a seat at the table
only to find
the table didn't want them.

It is a strange land, this,
with a strange alchemy that brews poison
from lifeblood.

Have I told you how, in my
I live a poisoned death, my lungs
bursting from the weight of words?

Are those my nightmares?
Are those yours?
I can't tell.

It is a strange land, and its alchemy
turns gold into lead. You, me -
it doesn't matter
much. We'll all be asked
for proof. For a source.

And when you're asked
for a source,

recall the razor-sharp
of all the words swallowed,
in your intestines, blunt now, reeking
of rage and regret,
and journal them in the annals
of your memory

enclose your whole (paltry) life in

later, enlist yourself in the
of fixed, frozen dreams
in the following fashion:

reduce your name - mangled
by time and strange tongues and familiar
faces alike - to a mere initial

remember this moment
right here
now - and put down the year

"Forget Me Not: A Witty, Even Flamboyant,
Makes You Look Cool(er)"

and as your hands begin to shake,
as even your storytelling
and spins and spins
into free fall
at the sheer artifice of it all


Your memory is not a  
Weekly Monthly Quarterly
built on loud noise
and louder silences

Your memory
is a cacophony of ancient voices
strung like beads on a great chain
of being
and becoming,
threaded into your skin and vein
and vocal cords

until you can't tell where
they end
and you begin.

And in that brittle
battle-hardened voice of your
mothers and grandmothers
and great-grandmothers, in that quiet
voice that quivers with a lineage
of mistakes and misdeeds
and howling misery

but also of laughter
and hope
and fire in our bellies, in that lonely
voice, my love, shout:
Cite me.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


on my tongue, tasting

of glossy cookbooks
with grand names

and lists of grander ingredients
at me from the store shelves.

My mother
refuses to believe
what Google says
cilantro is.

And I can only remember
coriander leaves
tasting like the folded

of her diary,
where jotted-down
still dream of daylight

and the wall
behind the gas stove, sweating
oil and ghee

for years.