While we sleep
The stale, rancid stench of them lines the sides of the streets,
Strewn with those that think they know us,
Trying to keep up with the pace, falling back and losing ground.
The city is always alive – buzzing – full reeking of them
Their odour mixing too easily with the perfume of soft innocence.
Running blind under bright city lights
Waiting, pushing their way forward through the barriers
of trust and hope, breaking down the resistance
of self reliance.
They win the land and crash forward into eternity,
While we lie in utero,
hoping to find the space to crawl out.
Blood boils over,
spilling into streets with vengeance,
seeping unseen into empty drains,
Drowned out by the cries
of misplaced morality.
We’re in boxes now.
Little boxes that we peer out of, waiting.
Rhea C Dhanbhoora
I’m glad you have no sorrows.
That your life is like a rose in bloom.
That your laugh flies up to meet your eyes
And your lips curve upwards.
Contrasting gently with my mellow mood,
As I carry my burdens around
with me in the pockets of my soul.
When Fancy fled
King of the concrete jungle,
almost Juan-like in his
persistence but hung heavy
Amidst the smog of life.
Awaiting a momentary escape
to a long gone image of the
green, green grass of leisure
And the time to peer through fluffy clouds
of mountain skies.
Embroiled in the heated wars,
Raging bigger and more frightful
than Homeric odes.
Unable to see beyond
the seconds hand
On the steady, ticking clock of life…
As each victim of war is claimed
and the funeral bells toll.
Master of the races,
one step ahead of the rest
and still running,
but there’s no finish line
Ideals and dreams cut up
Into little pieces of mockery,
Visions popped for reason
and realism as faith
The last round goes to the skeptics.
Face turned toward the sun
and still shrouded in the darkness,
Enlightenment lost with
the magical spells of
Fancy flitting by to
rest awhile amongst the
old English graves,
Rhea C Dhanbhoora
They say there are five stages of grief. Seven maybe. Either way, I think I can say I’ve been through about four. Or am going through them – they’re going back and forth enough for me to be unable to pinpoint which stage I’m at, right now, at this very moment, yesterday – who knows?
After the first few months, I just stopped counting. I stopped listening. If you look hard enough and want it enough, there’s advice everywhere. But I don’t. Once the tears have dried and you’ve managed to move past the disbelief (which I’ve heard is just about the first step) I think we just do what we think is right and sensible. We pretend we’re moving on with our lives. Things will strike out of the blue, conversations will pop up and the past will be hard to let go. But we’re doing just fine. We think. I think. And then, I reminisce.
The crackling of corn on an open flame, a mixture of salt and limboo with a sneaky dash of chilly powder and a mischevious glint in his eye as he handed me the bhutta… That’s one of my earliest and fondest memories, one that stayed cemented in my mind long after the bhutta’s ceased to come and I got too big to swing my legs off the kitchen counter. In fact, I was soon too big to even jump up on the kitchen counter. They’re still the memories that come to me first.
What comes in at a close second are the smells of sukhad and the taste of malido early morning. So many quintessentially Parsi customs are intertwined with memories of him – everything we ever wanted to know about our faith and our culture, we turned to him for, listening to him talk as we stared out the wide, open windows near his rocking chair. One we fought over countless times as children.
Memories of my Navjote aren’t complete without remembering advice from him, jokes, laughter and meeting so many of his friends – I don’t think I could remember even one, unfortunately. I wish I did, he introduced each with a speech, never forgetting anything about anyone. He taught me how to walk down the tables, interrupting my Birdie Dance to teach me how to say Jamjo ji and getting me extra saria from the kitchen to make up for it. I’ve always been grateful for him making sure the sev puri we all craved, as odd as it may have been at a Navjote, was present at my brother’s.
Every time I go to the fridge to sneak a cold cutlet out, I think of who first taught me how to do that. When I stand near his cupboard I remember peering in and selecting his cologne from the hundreds he hoarded there. Watching him fold notes neatly to put in separate pockets. Standing in the room as he hushed us in when no one was looking (usually right after lunch) to give us a treat – often a 10 rupee note that was treasure to us at the time.
We used to move the table aside together when we all sat down for a family lunch, typically on a Sunday afternoon. He would disconnect the phone and I’d pick up the table to swing forward – it seemed like such a Herculean task at the time, but such an important duty assigned to me as a child. That table was where I learned how delicious plain rice could be if you gently separated it with your fork and spooned steaming mouthfuls of it up. It’s also where I learned how much fun it was to poke at a fish eye at the edge of your plate. And how much more hilarious it was when it turned out to be your own tooth instead.
At ‘sleepovers’ we’d wake up early to help my grandmother make tarts, whispering so we wouldn’t disturb his morning prayers and knowing we could talk loudly again when his cheery voice boomed into the kitchen as he entered to poke his finger in the pastry and steal a bit of jam, before taking credit for the entire thing – something that amused us to no end as children. It was one joke he kept going right till the end.
We were never in want of anything when he was around. He spoiled me to no end – but in a subtle, most affectionate way that never let us take anything about him or his generosity for granted. He’d let me have the last piece of malido, or take all the blue gems or lemon sweets out of the bottle if I wanted to - and he always made it seem like more fun than it should have been. Of course, I had to pay him back for it later; usually by walking on his back.
He was also the most talkative member of our family. He spoke to people on the phone with vivacity I’ve seen few others match – and then he spoke to people in person too. He never tired of telling us about every friend he’d ever had, every naughty thing he’d ever done… we could picture his childhood when he was telling us about it. We knew the history of every bit of furniture in Bulsar, every nook and cranny of Devka… there was never a dull moment.
On occasion when I want something or I’m worrying about how to get something done, I can almost imagine his slight nod, quick hand raise and assurance that it would happen. Everything would happen. We weren’t to worry about anything. And we really didn’t. He made everything seem possible.
Sometimes I can’t believe he listened to the Spice Girls with me, with such patience. Or how he laughed and played along while we cursed my brother for hitting a single ball against the wall, over and over and over again till the noise drove us mad.
He sat with us at weddings, away from the ‘grown-ups’ while we cracked down on the spines of the banana leaves, relishes the saas-ni-machhi, spooned up topli paneer and pocketed the Godiwalla after-dinner towelettes.
We argued about technology, which he never got his head around and he joked about throwing an old computer we gave him ‘Out the window.’ Just before he bought my grandmother her pretty red Dell.
He was good to people who weren’t particularly good to him, generous when people needed it and always willing to do something for someone else – even if it was fixing a television or sorting out someone’s accounts when he needed the taking care of, a quality I really hope we’ve all picked up. There are so many things we will always remember, but not everything can be written down. And, as I’ve learned to accept, not everything needs to be.
His last birthday, in between eating more salted wafers than he should have, he never let the exhaustion show, sitting there as long as he had to, his smile as wide and his voice as cheerful as he could make it. He passed away the same month, on the dreariest Friday I’ve ever known, after a particularly bad Thursday night that I always will wish I hadn’t left to go home so early on.
There was nothing more heartbreaking than every moment he said he was going to fight his cancer. Nothing more admirable than how he refused to let go, to let it get him down. He was trying to make it easier for us – without ever letting us know. And he did.
There are not too many days that go by when I don’t think of how some of the last few things I spoke to him about were what we were going to do next week, how he was going to be in higher spirits when I saw him next and that my mint nailpolish was a nice ‘bright’ colour. It’s the little things we remember.
I’ve heard so much about how to be grateful for how little he suffered, for how rich a life he had, for everything we have to be grateful for. But anyone who’s ever lost anyone knows that’s not easy to do. Closer to impossible.
Every year we got a birthday card from him, with money and a one rupee coin; his unmistakable handwriting scrawled on the front of the envelope. I hardly realised that my 22nd birthday card was the last I’d ever get.
So there you go. That’s about as raw as I’ll ever be. Unless I find a way to say everything I really want to, in the way I really want to, which I don’t think I ever will. But after all this time, this is a good start.
My grandfather was an exemplary man. And as is the case with all exemplary men – it’s never easy to explain how, or why. Or how much he meant, to how many people. But, I’m sure wherever he is, he knows.
Try and slow down before the
crash, before the end –
Try and move backward
toward clearer memories,
away from the black holes.
Before the sky opens up
and swallows you whole,
Before time sprints forward
and damages your soul.
Lightening strikes softly,
before the whispers get
the sound of thunder –
only in your head.
Move back a pace before the
collision, before the termination –
Move forward quick before you
miss it all –
Then stop and hold it close,
Till it seeps through
Rhea C Dhanbhoora
There was one story he would always remember, more clearly than the others slowly fading from his memory. It was an epigrammatic tale of king sized proportions, but he could never have retold it – it was after all, not his story to tell. But still, it ran over in his head every time he heard the simple chiming of the bells, as he looked over the bridge into the sunset from the sweeping windows he was leaning his back against.
She had liked the curtains closed all afternoon, she hated the sun.
They were carelessly hanging loose now; he liked the sun streaming across the room, even if it did mean he had to hop over certain tiles so his toes wouldn’t be toasted for tea. She would have given him that trademark scowl if she’d seen him sauntering around the room, slippers overturned by the side of the chair, feet uncovered and soaking up dirt from the red and white speckled tiles.
He grimaced as his toe stubbed the side of an upturned tile, the start of a tiny hill in the center of the room – a little mound that was growing taller every day. He’d have to bring someone over to fix that. He remembered bits and pieces of the story of his ancestors, but not enough to tell anyone.
He was old now and there was no telling how long he would be drawing back the curtains on his own and visiting to pay his respects to their memory every month, even though no one else came anymore. They’d stopped coming before she’d gone.
Her children were overseas; they’d spread their wings and taken off as soon as it had seemed permissible to do so, without catching the wrath of being irresponsible or uncaring. But they’d always been flighty, even as little ones, unable to commit to anything that wasn’t easy enough for them. He always blamed her for it, not that she could have helped it in her condition.
No one would blame them now; they were praised in small circles for their ability to move on. He didn’t see it that way. He saw it as giving up. Something he wasn’t going to do. After all, that was the point of the story wasn’t it, giving up meant losing the battle. They were here because someone hadn’t given up once.
He screwed up his eyebrows, trying to concentrate, trying to remember the details. Where they had come from, why he was here. What they’d learnt as children, sitting at their grandfathers feet while he told them about the ships that had rushed them to shore, of the old times when they had to pray under wraps in a country that didn’t even exist anymore. How lucky they were to be able to run free, how he had saved them from the fate he’d had to watch his wife suffer after they were found out.
Why were the details so vague now? He wished he had someone to tell. She had been most affected by it; she had been able to tell the story in her sleep. It had meant more to her. But it had made her hard. Too hard to have children; in his opinion. They had fought about that too, as they had about everything. He couldn’t remember any other conversations, not any that hadn’t led to a storm in any case.
He remembered her livid face as she stood there, her first child in her arms, swathed in protective layers of cloth and sleeping peacefully. Her tears had dripped on his bald head, her voice barely above a whisper, but still unbreakable and angry as she ushered him into silence, insisting she was going to be a good mother. He had been insensitive to rain on her parade at the time, but time had proven him right. It hadn’t won him any votes with the husband, a man as flighty as his children turned out to be.
So many regrets. Did everyone have them?
She would have ignored the question. Had she any regrets? Did her mind go to the past as often as his did, wondering how things could have been different? Of course not.
He willed himself not to succumb to fanciful notions such as those. She regretted nothing. Her mind wouldn’t have had the room to feel regret, pain. Or did it? He couldn’t tell. He wouldn’t know now. It had been too long.
She told her children the story. Every time they were at the dinner table. By the time they were teenagers, they’d perfected the art of closing their ears every time she brought up the chips. They didn’t want to hear anymore – they knew too much already. It didn’t matter to them, in their big house with their comforts. These were people they didn’t know, people who didn’t matter.
Her face would turn red with fury when they refused to shed a tear over her poor grandmother and her poor mother. When they refused to sympathise with her about the ships and how she got here. She’d visit to pay her respects every month, he did too. They had been taught to do so by their grandfather. Her children never came.
He picked up the papers from the floor, one for every day of the week – arranging them neatly in the cupboard under the stairs. There would be so much news to catch up on; he wanted to make sure it was all in order so there would be no confusion later. She hated papers that weren’t in order. She refused to read them during the week. It interrupted her, she’d say.
Every Sunday she would sit by the window, curtains drawn to keep the sun out, reading one paper after the other, in the correct order. There was no use reading the news every day, it was all the same anyway, just different names and places. He’d keep them for her, like they never did.
He was tired, but he would come back again next week, even though no one else did. They all gave up after the first year was up. But he knew her. Hadn’t she done this before? He would see her again, he always did. He sat back on her chair, remembering the first time she had run away. She had been locked up in her room after she was told the story. She hadn’t wanted to know about their grandmother. Or their mother. They had not known then. How could they. When their dog turned up dead in her room a few days later, they assumed she’d run away to avoid dealing with the grief.
They buried him in the garden. She built her new dog a kennel on his grave. Her way of dealing, they had said.
The second time she ran away was when her son drowned. Neglect, some decried. Fate, others said, sympathising with her. He had assumed it was all too much. She’d needed time off. She was gone an entire summer this time and when she was back, she’d sat up in her room for days, reading three months worth of newspapers like it was all hunky dory. Never shed a tear.
The fridge emitted a putrid smell when he opened it. He knew he should have cleaned it out. He would have to do it next week. And re-stock it with vegetables and meat. She couldn’t eat a meal without meat. Her flighty husband had been a vegetarian, but she’d never had a single meal without meat. It was one of the more minor reasons he’d left her to bring up the children on her own. Another reason they fought to be the first to leave the minute they could fend for themselves. She was a hard mother; she’d never had a motherly bone in her body.
Her youngest had wanted to put her away. “How will she fend for herself when she grows old,” he’d said on one of his rare visits, reaffirming their reluctance to have anything more to do with her than they had to.
They wanted to sell the house now, transfer and divide the money and move far, far away. But he wouldn’t let them. He was going to see her soon. He could feel it.
He was older than he looked now, his hands shaking as he poured himself a cup of tea, mixing in the lumpy sugar and pouring in the milk. He left it by his side to cool as he reminisced, sitting in her favourite chair, wondering why some memories were so much stronger than others.
“She is not right in the head,” her daughter had said, shaking her arms in frustration as he had stood by her side, willing to vouch for her sanity. He knew she wasn’t but why make it an issue? She had survived so long, what would a few more years do? It was only the poor pets who bore the brunt of it in the end, but no one had to know.
He remembered the first time he found out, when he found her sitting in the dark, crying over her second dead dog, her arms only just slackening from their hold around his neck. Then she was gone again, for weeks on end.
When she was back, she had sat at their grandfather’s feet again, asking him to retell the story of the ships and how they got here.
When she wasn’t sitting at his feet, grandfather would recount other tales. More cheerful ones of his life as a boy and festivals, of big feasts and playing in the fields. He left those tales for the boys, the brothers who one by one, had left as well. Then it was only the two of them as they grew older, fending for themselves and for the poor old man as the story grew shorter and weaker – and more inaccurate. She began to recite it then, like a lesson she had learnt as a child.
For weeks she sat there in that room and as he grew weaker, her story grew stronger.
When he was gone, she left for months. She returned with her flighty husband and a babe in arms, determined to start fresh. And she hadn’t had a pet since.
He stirred his tea absently, moving aside the film that had settled on top, wondering if he had remembered to place the forks upside down and put the spoons in correct order.
Were the plates stacked up size wise and had he opened up the balcony grills to let the dusky evening light through?
She hated things stuffy. Evening air was her only joy as her children left her, one by one. She’d sit there, telling her tale to no one, till her last one ran off to college.
He’d sit with her some evenings, till one evening, six years ago, she wasn’t there anymore.
But he was going to see her again, he could feel it. He always knew when he was about to see her again.
His tea grew cold as his glassy eyes stared across the bridge into the sunset. The film settled over it firmly, the milk slowly growing lighter, the lumpy sugar floating to the top. Leaves whistled in the evening breeze and with each whistle; he knew she was getting closer.
The sun set slowly and the bells chimed across the courtyard as the story played over and over in his mind, exactly the way it was supposed to, but with the details hazier each time as he pictured them both sitting on the floor, arms folded and heads lowered as they learned of their ancestors and the ships that brought them here.
It was the only story he ever remembered, the one about the ships and how he got here and what happened to his grandmother and his mother. Childhood memories are the strongest.
But he never retold the story like she did. It had never been his story to tell.
Rhea C Dhanbhoora
Time’s overreaching as life murmurs to a close,
A dialogue left incomplete before the season’s changed,
Forced shut before the year drew out.
Stripped of age and run dry of an era,
An element of emptiness dripping down
On those left behind.
If hearing stretches beyond mortality
And the firmament sends waves like whispers up
To meet your open ears,
Gratitude to fill the skies must overflow,
And I must add my morsel to the meal.
To tell you life is richer, finer…
Because you once were here.
As all settles to dust
And the winds grow calmer even through their
I’m hopeful whispers reach beyond the skies,
Just to help you hear a thank you.
Back & Forth
The clamour of footsteps
Buzzing of television sets
and distant prayer calls.
Brain teeming over
with emotion; A break -
a pause - A mind on holiday.
Numbness sets in.
Car engines sound
like guitar strings scratching
against chipped nails.
But softer - calmer -
now they purr like kittens…
Red, green, blue -
quietly dissolving into a hazy swirl
The smell of coffee and cinnamon -
strawberries and pickles.
The emotion eases,
Heart floating now -
lighter, devoid of a burden.
Anger fading into a song
and dance image -
With lampposts and Audrey Hepburn.
Yellow umbrellas floating,
Smile easier to pull out -
Mechanical - almost gruesome.
Like cement laid down
in pasty blocks under the sun.
Numbness wearing off -
The cars are noisy and annoying again.
(c) Rhea Dhanbhoora
Drip faster, dip down low,
Let the sun rise and fall as the diamonds glow
Beautiful rays, gleaming soft
Beneath the light of everything you’ve lost.
Symbols of what you’re leaving behind,
Moving on, trying to keep up with
Let it go, let them all fade,
They’re hurled back at you,
Slipping through the shelter of your shade.
Stripped off complexity,
Brittle, bare bones –
Waiting for everything to crash and burn.
Empty and asleep, stirring so slight,
Waiting for light to break,
Watching streaks peek through
(c) Rhea Dhanbhoora