Longing

cast-away

Rain drapes everything
In a veil of wistful longing,
A yearning for something lost
Many moons ago,

About the same time
Solitude became more
Pleasing than company,
Silence, a friend, and conversation, a woe.

There’s nothing quite as soothing then
As a song on love and its follies,
Windows rolled down, the years fleeting
Amid arrows of melancholy,

Falling.
“I’ll have a cup of tea,
Please. Brewed to a burn-
The skin of lovers put out to sea.”

~Sumeet

Singalila

The rhododendron trail has a roof

Clad in hues

Of departing autumn:

Orange of the maple leaf,

Ever so elegant in its fall;

Green of the magnolia,

Eager to blush at the faintest whispers

Of spring;

The barren have long shed their green

Revealing my winter blues –

An endless playground for wings.

Death is the end, only

If you think it so;

Just ask the tiny oak nut that rebels, 

Plummets, 

And breaches the silence

Of an infinite jungle on tiptoes.

~ Sumeet

The closer you get…

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Fireflies

“Should we go outside?”

“But it’s snowing out there, hon. We’ll freeze!”

“Yeah, but it feels more Christmas-y outside.”

“What? How?”

“The fairy lights. They glow like fireflies, like a portal to another world. ”

“Sigh. Poets! Okay, but you better hope I don’t catch a cold in this alternate reality.”

Most lessons from school have been completely forgotten, but some tidbits persist. Some inexplicably random memories floating weightlessly in a crevice of the mind. Like a short story in Hindi class (or was it Gujarati?) that taught us to counter evil acts with kindness, repeatedly if necessary. Like a Sanskrit adage that translated to “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The latter rang true in my life every now and then, the first time perhaps when I became college roommates with my best friend from school. I’ve come to realize now that proximity, too, has the same effect.

Have you ever noticed how fairy lights look magical from a café’s window – almost as if the spirit of Christmas itself has manifested as a bunch of fireflies. But the moment you go outside, to have a seat under the dim lighting that promised to cast a gentle holiday glow on the soul, they lose their sheen. You start to notice little details – the one or two erratic bulbs that flicker, the flimsy wire that holds them together – invisible from across a window but now, up close, louder than the lights themselves, the potted roots of the miniature tree they entwine and its stunted fate. It’s almost as if the flaws magnify, like this café wasn’t even a good idea. Unless…

Ah! Look at those cheesecakes inside. They look soft as clouds, and the chocolate fountain sprouts ecstasy in reckless abandon! Besides, the old woman wearing the hat at the far end looks like a witch right out of Hogwarts…

“Can we go inside, love? Near the cakes? They look like they were delivered from heaven’s own little patisserie!”

“This is exactly why we don’t do date nights.”

Thank you for the gesture, stranger

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Dear stranger with the kindest eyes,

I fear I’m already forgetting you, the little details that I cherish remembering about people – strangers encountered in brief moments of serendipity, composed on a cosmic instrument that plays out our lives like keys in perfect symphony on a grand, old piano.

Yesterday night was the first time I was ferried around on a wheelchair in a shopping mall. It was a terrifying lesson in losing control, publicly. I’m temporarily impaired by an injury that will heal in a week or two, not a permanent disability. But I got a taste of what the latter would feel like. What hurt a travel writer more than his inability to walk was the almost-ubiquitious pity he received from complete strangers. A wheelchair seems to mandate a series of reactions from people – first comes surprise; then, an exaggerated effort to move out of the way; followed by a look of pity and wonder; and lastly, an aversion of one’s eyes as if this grim fate is contagious. I wore camouflage trousers, and wished I were invisible.

When I joked and laughed out loud with the two friends who wheeled me around like it was any other day at the mall, spectators marvelled at the boy who could laugh on a wheelchair! I nearly jumped out of my quasi-coffin on crutches, to prove that I was still human. Capable of wit and sarcasm, and love and laughter. As if it needed to be proved.

And then, there was you. In a summer yellow top, I think. Or was it the orange of dusk skies? I forget. It was, after all, merely a glance. I looked away from your approaching silhouette, assuming you’d be one of the scores to gift me a look of unequivocal ‘sorry’ for the day. But you stopped in your tracks, bent down, and looked me in the eyes. For the first time that day, a stranger talked to me. Me, and not my bandages which seemed to be a screaming beacon of attention. “Get well soon,” you said, almost sang it as if in a musical, emphasizing the soon, like the world couldn’t wait to see me back on my feet. Your kind eyes spoke of concern and optimism, not a condescending form of sympathy. For the first time that day, I felt that I fit in. That I was a part of the species that populated the mall and indulged in reckless shopping, and selfies, and inappropriate humour. For the first time that day, I grinned from ear to ear and meant a “Thank you!”

Friends who do not miss a single chance to pull a fractured leg joked about how a wheelchair couldn’t dial down my charm. They’re the best, stranger. They would later take me window shopping, and to a birthday party, without ever letting me feel the weight of my helplessness. But through that entire evening of being towed around and stared at, I carried the gentle warmth of a kind gesture by a beautiful stranger who seemed to know just what I needed to hear and who did not heed to the walls we build between one another.

People think changing the world comes only from big policy decisions and seats of power and money. But change is also in the little things, stranger. Smiling at the overworked staffer behind the counter, an inflated tip for the waiter with the torn apron, a bag of holiday candies for the homeless, a random conversation struck with an immigrant alienated for her dreadlocks, the girl who wishes you on a wheelchair when everyone else averts their eyes… It’s the little things that matter, it’s the little things that stay with you.

Thank you for the gesture, stranger. It made my day. I hope you know that.

~ The boy in the brown jacket

Where Forevers Begin

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I seem to have lost my words;

They left in the middle of the night-

The day I forgot to swallow my blues,

A mouthful of addiction, memories on flight.

 

I seem to have lost my blues;

They left on a train of thought

While I was willfully drowning

In a fight I had never fought:

 

The light of your caramel mornings

Seeping into a world forgot.

 

~ Sumeet Keswani

Minefields

The steps are smaller

Than my nimble feet remember.

I climb them two at a time,

Skipping memories 

Like minefields.


The koels are still here

With their songs;

Masked bee eaters, spoonbills and sunbirds-

The season’s flavour-

Now add to the evening clamour.


Termites have built abodes 

With the dust of abandoned dreams

And unused melancholy 

On derelict walls –

Nostalgia has the nicest friends.


The house still stands tall but

Home has misplaced its landmarks;

There lives an abstract familiarity

Where a boy once scraped his knees bloody

On the landscape of possibilities.

~ Sumeet

Madmen

The world is inherently ugly,

Dull as the thud of death

Muddled in everyday indifference –

 

The very reason poets

Look to the sky,

And madmen (like I)

 

Cannot stop

Scratching the surface,

Scarring parchment skin,

 

In hope of striking scarlet gold,

Buried away by leprechauns

With sorrows old.

 

Bleed.

Bleed now,

My dearest.

 

For the world depends

On the declotting

Of this sentiment.

 

Silk

What are we
But waves abandoned
On a silken shore,
Feverish in our attempts
To find home.

What is love
But this pristine
Silence
Between vowels frothing
At the lips of nameless lands.

I found mine in you-
The belonging of a nomad
To a castle of sand.

~ Sumeet

The Squab

flower-death

Darkness descends
Eventually. Inevitably.
The empty day is swallowed whole
By dusk, emptier still.

What do you call a baby pigeon?
(The cavalier question floats into the night)
A diminutive feathered corpse lies motionless
Peaceful in this last light,
Eyes never opened- not once.
Not even to witness the end.

Death arrives in the most precise
Moment.
Not a second early, not one too late.

But what of those that never
Get to live, to age, to wait.

10-year-old Giulia in Italy,
Buried alive by a quake;

Omran, 5, of Aleppo
Covered in the grime of war and prime-time fame,
13 other kids bombed
In the country with no names;

A little girl blown to pieces
In Afghanistan fields-
Landmines don’t get along with soccer;

Hundreds of migrant childhoods
Washed ashore- lungs filled with the ocean,
The only kingdom with shelter to offer.

Death arrives in the most precise moment.
Not a second early, not one too late.
But what of those
Left behind to ache?

A punctured tyre, Delhi autowallahs, and memories of Spiti

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It’s an average day on the streets of Delhi (read: hot, humid and ceaselessly chaotic). I’m on my way to office and an hour late when the worst decides to happen. The auto-rickshaw I’m riding in veers to the very edge of the Barapullah flyover and wobbles to a stop.
“It’s a puncture.” The dreaded words seem to reach me from the farthest, deepest realms of hell.

My first instinct is to inquire how long it’ll take to replace the tyre, as the autowallah fishes out his tools and a spare. It’s then that I realize – my own words ringing in my head – how selfish a question that is. Behind this epiphany is my last travel assignment.

A few weeks ago, I was in Himachal’s Spiti valley, a singular place where everyone seems to adore everyone else. There are few means of public transport, if any, in this remote, treacherous hilly terrain. So hitchhiking is the norm. A stunt I would never pull in Delhi. It took me by surprise first when we were on our way to the valley from Manali – a grueling 11-hour bumpy ride in a shared Tata Sumo. As some of the passengers got down at Lohsur, the first village of Spiti, we finally had some breathing room in the SUV. Much to my ire, the car stopped only a few miles further at the gesture of a local Bohti woman, a farm hand by the looks of her luggage.

“Here we go,” I thought, used to the business acumen of urban transport service providers. “He’ll make the most out of the empty seats.” However, these seats weren’t traded for money, but given out free of cost to locals looking for a ride to their villages. I readily scooted to my cramped end of the jeep as soon as I realized this unspoken protocol between the drivers and the locals. It was a gesture I wouldn’t dare expect from the fast-paced cities I’m used to treading. Nor would I have ever thought of lending a hand to someone on the road myself. Be the change you want to see, they say. Perhaps, we can all learn from Spiti. (I got more glimpses into the bond all Spitians share over the next few days as a yak owner insisted on hosting me for tea after completing a four-hour trek alongside me, and a rope twiner explained how a whole village gathered to help a family prepare for their boy’s birthday bash, where the whole valley would congregate. )

Cut to current day, we’re standing atop a scorching flyover in the heart of India and my auto driver is struggling to replace a punctured tyre on his own, sweating profusely on the sizzling tar. Autos do not carry a jack so the punctured tyre itself is used to prop up the vehicle while the new one is put in its place. Of course, this requires the auto to be lifted from one side briefly. The driver, who looks guilty of imposing this situation on me, hesitates to ask me for help. “I got this,” I tell him and recline the auto for him to do his thing. With adept hands that know their job from years of habit, he unscrews one and installs the other tyre. In the meantime, as I prop up the auto with some help from the deflated tyre, another auto-rickshaw slows to a halt a little further up the road.

Finally! Someone to offer help in Delhi, I think. But this man is in no mood to lend a rival a helping hand. Instead, he delivers the most surreptitious of nods only autowallahs can pull in his rear-view mirror, inquiring if I want to abandon ship and ride with him instead. When I reject his benevolent (not!) offer, he drives away without a second glance. A mere 10 minutes of teamwork later, we’re on our way again.

Places you travel to, change you. And you, in turn, change them back. Among other things, Spiti taught me to lend a helping hand when I can. Have you brought any souvenirs of the soul from your travels? Tell me in the comments below.