//This chair you’re sitting on has been rickety for sixteen years, but you don’t throw anything away until it breaks, until it is fully unfunctioning…//
For National Writing Day 2018, I’m posting a very short story that was first published in The Moth magazine in 2012.
This story is set in South India.
It was translated into Romanian in April 2018 by the inimitable Dr Lidia Vianu and I read it (in English!) at the British Council Bucharest.
‘Sweet Pea’, Artist: Paul Wuensche.
You sit outside in a rickety chair by the banana palm and watch the last of the drizzle roll into a tight waterdrop at the edge of a leaf and prepare to drip on to the ground. You like to watch the water drip, the people pass by. The neighbour tying and un-tying the knot on his mundu, his legs thin and not hairy enough; he goes past your chair with a nod. The girl with coconut oil in her hair, too much oil, you want to tell her, too much, and does she wash her hair often enough? Because sometimes you can see lice flakes on her long plait. The two unmarried sisters whose skins don’t wrinkle or bag. For sixteen years you’ve watched them sashay past in their colour-coordinated saris, you’ve peered into their faces with an inquisitive eye but their skins have never lost the old lush beauty. How do they do that? If they knew, if you knew, somebody would have distilled their secret into a bottle and made a fortune.
This chair you’re sitting on has been rickety for sixteen years, but you don’t throw anything away until it breaks, until it is fully unfunctioning, and that’s the reason you’re not on the scrapheap yourself. Not kaput, not yet. You don’t know how long you could go on sitting here in your daily meditation, and neither do the passers-by. They’ve come to terms with the apparition of you just as you have. ‘That’s the old man who says he’s roamed the world. The one who says he’s been rich in other lands. He thinks he knows everything.’ They toss their heads to dismiss you, two steps after they’ve passed you, two beats after they’ve thrown you a toothy smile.
When you stopped working on the merchant ships, when you stooped to tinkering with the engineering of smaller vessels, when finally you snubbed going out on the little boats – on those puny soap-dishes, when you stopped sailing in all its forms, you decided to retire here, to your hometown, because the tip of South India was where you were born and where you thought you should return to die. There are days you regret your decision, but the new habits you have fallen into keep you going. You emerge at ten in the morning, washed and dressed, position your chair exactly ten paces from your front door and sit still, forming waves with your hands. You may look silly but you pay no heed. The waves you don’t want to crest are those in your head. You can sit here by the banana palm for the remainder of your life and no one need know about the unrest inside you.
People are kind. This is something you have always believed. Lalitha, next door, calls you in to share fresh appam, whenever she makes them, which is infrequently now because, like you, she can’t eat too much herself, and her children and grandchildren seldom sit down together with her. She grumbles that family meals are a rarity, but you know that in some parts of the world three generations eating together twice a week is an extraordinary occurrence.
You tell Lalitha that. In fact, you tell her all manner of things. You’ve even trusted her with your Big Idea. At eighty-two she has a handful of years on you, and you can rely on her to be discreet. You tell no one else of your Big Idea. ‘Cruise ships as fully-functioning old-age homes.’ It makes you chuckle to think that unofficially this may already be the case, some of the time, on certain cruises, but your idea is a serious one. You want a proper set-up. Quality and high standards. A hospital ship with a difference. Cruise liners: the old-age homes where you are still going somewhere.
Imagine that. Not the end of the road, not the way a care home tucked away on an English country lane really is the end of the road. Not the ‘I’m so helpless now, admit me here to die’ scenario. No, you’re thinking more of the ‘I’m so hopeless now, do send me on a cruise, darling’ scenario. You’re dreaming of the endlessly changing views of the ocean. Lalitha says, ‘Doesn’t it look the same, for days at a time? Sea today, sea tomorrow. Blue. Grey. Blue.’
You concede that to an undiscerning eye it could look the same for days. But even so, there is scope for change, you tell her, scope for land to jut into your horizon, beckoning your eye; scope for ambition. A chance to say, ‘I’ll stay alive till I set foot on that piece of land.’ As opposed to, ‘Should I stay alive for them to drip the same breakfast down my chin tomorrow?’ Lalitha is unconvinced, but what does she know?
If there had been more money and vigour to back up all the big ideas you’ve had, well, you don’t know where you’d be. On a cruise ship, at the very least. With carers to the left, carers to the right, carers behind…
When it comes to pass, as it will, who will know that the germination was here, in this rickety chair? The dream of the man with the thick white hair and vestiges of handsomeness in his jaw and lips. The man whose hands tremble like waves and over whose head hangs a small bunch of green bananas.
Lalitha asks about seasickness. She likes to put a spanner in the works, that’s her personality. She likes to drill holes in your Big Idea. You snap at her that seasickness is not specifically an elderly affliction. The seasick population can stay away. You wonder about her, about people like her. She’s lived by the sea all her life but never ventured on to its deceptive surface. Not even on a soap-dish. From the bow of a boat you used to look at the contours of land, those daring protrusions into ocean, and you felt sorry for all the trapped people in the miles and miles that ran inland. From the boat it was easy to tell that the sea just tolerated the land.
You tell yourself that this harmless wandering in the inane parts of your mind is good for you. It keeps you out of the insane parts. Your big ideas keep you steering onward, or round and round, but nothing spills out, nothing spills out to mark the street. Because if you drift off course, if you let yourself drift towards the beginning, or the days when everything mattered, then you are consumed, and your mind is as a room overwhelmed by the scent of sweet peas; so strong that it can make you sick.
In some parts of the world, you tell Lalitha, summer is a short-lived many-splendoured thing and the sweet peas are perfumed so as to make you gag. This is the kind of knowledge you impart to her quite smugly.
‘Sweeter than here?’ she asks, disbelieving again. ‘Flowers smell more strongly than they do here?’ She touches the purple flower pinned to her neat white bun and looks into the distance, thinking. ‘Sweet peas grow in the coolness of the hills.’
‘Not in England,’ you explain. ‘What I’m telling you is in the context of a short-lived summer. When long dreary months bring only the fragrance of damp bark and soggy grass, then filling a room with just-blossomed sweet peas from the garden can make you very ill.’
‘It’s always summer in Kotapuram,’ she says, in placating mode. And then she adds, ‘I like it better when you’re angry.’ This is what Lalitha says when she’s afraid a strange sentimentality will drown you. She wants you to rage instead at unknown foreigners. Lalitha, whose face and body are shrinking by the day, wants you to bang on the table and bawl out your furious questions, as if you’d been transported elsewhere, shouting at people in other lands: ‘Why do you take no notice of the sea? Of what it has brought to you? The cars you drive. The toys you break. The tea you drink. The beef you eat. The Christmas baubles you hang up. The gadgets that fill your rooms. Containers and containers and containers wending their way on water.’
None of this is relevant to Lalitha. You wonder if this is why she prefers it when you’re irate, when you swing your palm down to slap the rosewood and stop reminiscing about the nauseating sweet peas of an English summer.
About his new book ‘Why I Am A Hindu’ at Asia House UK
On 5 June I was in conversation with Dr Shashi Tharoor, the author and politician, about his new book ‘Why I Am A Hindu.’ We discussed, among several other topics and issues: his belief in reincarnation; the ideal outcome for the Babri Masjid site; casteism, spirituality, free will and superstition in Hinduism; and Artificial Intelligence.
Here’s a write-up from Luke Foddy of Asia House that covers some of our wide-ranging discussion:
The many permutations of love from girl-crushes to gigolos, spanning Manchester to Mumbai.
Short Stories by The Whole Kahani
“A beautiful, moving and sometimes challenging collection of tales”
“Unsettling and delightful”
It’s hard to believe that this anthology was published two years ago in June 2015. And that it’s already a year since the eBook was released in June 2016.
Love Across A Broken Map has had great reviews, some of them wonderfully detailed, and ‘The Whole Kahani’ collective has been invited to read and hold workshops at several literary festivals.
We are in the midst of finalising our second anthology and are celebrating the various individual successes and books of our members.
If you haven’t yet read this “engaging volume that eschews stereotypical stories about the experience of the South Asian diaspora in Britain” then now is the time to order the book or download it.
Also available at the wonderful Daunt Books, Marylebone, London.
Kindle Edition (available in the UK, US, India, and worldwide)
In one of the short stories in this collection by The Whole Kahani, a character is asked whether she feels English, British or Indian. ‘“Wholly of one culture? A bit of both? Disconnected from both?”’ To which the narrator responds:
‘“I think of myself as multifaceted, blessed. I am not A or B; I am A+B, I am lucky to draw the best from both cultures.”’*
This exchange underscores the central mission of The Whole Kahani, a collective of British fiction writers of South Asian origin, who aim to ‘give a new voice to old stories and increase the visibility of South Asian writers in Britain.
*story excerpt from ‘Three Singers’ by Kavita A. Jindal
The review goes on to state:
‘Three Singers’ by Kavita A. Jindal similarly inhabits a culturally specific space, telling the story of a pair of twin sisters who attend an Indian classical choir, but Jindal subverts this by locating the class in a London church. It’s also one of the only stories to explicitly address issues of identity, exploring what it means to be mixed race, as well as telling a touching story of twin sisters competing for love.
Read a Group Interview with members of The Whole Kahani at:
More on The Whole Kahani here: http://www.thewholekahani.com/
// The day the gutters overflowed / I left Kotapuram Port //
I’ve dug out an old poem first published in 2012:
It was in May. The sky poured.
The day the gutters overflowed
I left Kotapuram Port.
Abandoned on the platform were black trunks and tan suitcases
forsaken to their drenching while the porters huddled
under the whipped red awning.
The long brown train awaited the flutter of the guard’s green flag
as with slick-wet hair, from the window I stared
at a shadow I thought was there.
Friends wrote after long silences to say they’d told you
I’d shed tears on a platform awash with water
Scraped on to the train and cried again.
It was too good not to repeat.
You were puzzled when you heard this
or that’s the version I received.
It wouldn’t have changed anything, you said
if you’d been there, if you’d spoken
It wouldn’t have erased the train timetable
or the date of leaving Kotapuram
If you’d said ‘best of luck in life, my friend’
or another farewell equally inane
I’d have lived exactly the life I have
it would all have panned out the same.
I would’ve left on the day the sky poured
the day the gutters overflowed
Even if you’d stood there
to say ‘Hello. Goodbye. I care.’
‘Tears?’ you’d asked, with perplexed brow when the story was repeated
of rampant lightning and umbrellas twisted by the storm.
Of the face squelched to the streaky window.
‘Tears, for what purpose?’
There were pillars on the platform
Posters on the pillars, imploring us to
Stick No Bills
The yellow of the posters was shiny-succulent, water-lashed.
The pillars were white and round, the sodden green flag was down,
the train slipped out, pulled away my stare,
away from the shadow I thought was there.
It was in May. The sky poured. The gutters overflowed.
I left Kotapuram behind. The trains ran on time.
First Published in The HarperCollins Book of Modern English Poetry [by Indians], edited by Sudeep Sen, July 2012;
Also published in The Yellow Nib, edition: Modern English Poetry by Indians, edited by Sudeep Sen, July 2012.
Reading the poem ‘It Was In May. The sky poured.’
At Stanza Springback at The Ship, Mortlake, May 2018.
Photo credit: Konstandinos Mahoney
// how many paise for each brown glass bottle, how much for each tin can //
I’m delighted that my poem Kabariwala features in “100 Great Indian Poems”, now available to order. This anthology is unique for its selected translations of Indian poetry in 27 languages spanning 3000 years of literature.
Kabariwala is one of the few poems written originally in English.
The book is edited by Abhay K and published by Bloomsbury India.
Kabariwala and a few other poems from the book can be read at Asia Literary Review here.
You can read an extremely well-researched and well-written review of the book at DesiBlitz. The article includes an interview with me about the story behind this poem: https://www.desiblitz.com/content/100-great-indian-poems-poetic-feat-feast.
One of the ‘firsts’ for me this year was the commercial installation of my short poem Optimism.
It has had the most amazing reactions. That’s made me look at the poem in a new light and read it to boost myself after disappointments. Considering I’d ignored this poem since it was first published in Raincheck Renewed in 2004, this installation has provided a new beginning in many ways.
An example of the response I’ve had:
A few days after the installation a neighbour knocked on my door. ‘Your poem!’ she exclaimed.
‘What?’ I wasn’t sure what she meant.
It transpired she’s been to the hairdresser to have her highlights done. ‘There I was, sitting at the shampoo basin, when I look up at the wall in front of me. Your poem! There. I read it – it was wonderful’.
Yes, my poem had ambushed her.
This was the brilliant idea of the owner of the hair salon, Thomas Gaughan, who selected this poem as artwork for his wall. Thomas said he’d wanted something inspirational. He’s really pleased with the effect and says that his clients love it. “Great words from Kavita that lift you up when you need it most.’
I’m proud too, because as my first commercial poem installation, it’s sited where you least expect it. Where the words come to you when you’re not in a ‘reading’ frame of mind. The context is surprising, just the way I like things to be!
I’m really glad that so many people are having their spirits lifted at the shampoo basin.
Pictures are of the installation at the William Thomas Gaughan hairdresser in London.
Graphic design by Tim Barnes of Chicken Print Design
Installation by Danillo Cooper
Vinyl cut wall transfer produced by Omni Colour
And a note about the project in the shape of a happy tweet or ‘life-sentence’ published in Mslexia December 2017: