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

IMG_2114
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.

Dear Stranger: a short story

[I wrote this short a couple of years ago, and recently stumbled upon it while going through the archives. It felt like the plot had some merit, so I reworked the narrative. I hope it surprises you in all the right ways.]

Dear Stranger

wpid-wp-1442932007969.jpg

A man cast away at sea,
Stranded in blue for infinity,
Holds on, too tight, to dry sand
When he finds the only patch of land –
One he watched on the horizon for weeks,
And spent years rowing toward –
Builds a house of wild bamboo and leaves,
Finds the home he never had.

Day 0

New Delhi, India: 1:30 am

The influx of words was overwhelming and untimely. He should have seen it coming though. Being dumped is never easy to handle, specially for one who finds a long-lost sense of home in his beloved.

Too much had been given away over the years. He had had a silent void throbbing inside him for what seemed like years before she had walked in. And now, her sudden and inexplicable absence beat violently between his ribs. Words rained on him like a cloudburst – sudden, intense and inevitable – arriving at the most bizarre of moments, as they often do. Driving home from work on dangerously desolate roads, the route was filled with word epiphanies. The listless helmet looked up and sighed, “Hold on to those.”

The night sky, clouded with smog, revealed only the brightest of stars. Those not luminescent enough did not make it. Life, he thought, tried every one.

‘Why me?’ is the epitome of self-pity. He had never asked that question when he topped his classes without effort. He hadn’t asked it when he found love the first time and a gentle delight swirled around him. Or when he escaped death by a whisker. Then why ask it now? Why pity himself when he could deal with it the way only a writer can.

Once home, he went through the motions in a flash and sat down to let it all out. In an hour of frenzied typing, he spit out a confessional blog post. An overpowering feeling of loss was all the high he needed to strip himself of every mask of bravado he had put on in recent years.

<Publish>

A cathartic sense of relief washed over him as he pressed the key. This was overdue.

‘When Love Leaves’ summarized everything that was upside down in Sahil’s world. It hit all the right notes with the average adolescent internet addict struggling with heartbreak; the blog saw all-time high traffic numbers. He became briefly and accidentally famous in a world of click-bait headlines and instinctive shares. What he couldn’t see was the storm waiting round the next bend.

Day 1

New Delhi, India: 10:30 pm

Hi,
Just read your blog. There is a great amount of honesty and poise to your writing. Would love to connect and stay in touch with you. I’m a fan!
Regards, Angela

He had received many a fan mail in recent times. Yet something caught his attention about this one. There was something about the seemingly plain words, the spaces between them and the meanings they held, the texture of their sentiment, or the smile in the picture that accompanied them.

Angela. He rolled her name around in his mouth. It tasted bittersweet.

She had a social media profile unlike any other girl he had encountered. Her thoughts were original, her gentle sadness framed beautifully in intricate layers of subtext. She was an artist in a scientist’s coat. A research student in a US university by day, to him she was a writer and painter. And he was enchanted by her art.

Her archives revealed an article on joy. Sahil had never read something so profound about happiness, probably the most complex emotion out there but seldom given its true worth in the currency of thought. It made him want to write back, much like a track that rhymes with your thoughts makes you want to sing along. He knew he had found a special stranger.

The reply was awkwardly long. 805 words.

A writer will understand. If she is who I think she is, she might even reply.

Day 2

California, USA: 9:00 am

A red light flickered on the screen.

Error! The message is too big to fit in this window.

That’s odd. She never got long messages. Initiations of chats were always short and corny. And predictable. Reading it only intrigued her more.

Not only had someone read her words, but also related to them. It was the writer. She had stumbled into his piece on love and she had seen the challenge. She had dropped him a message but hadn’t expected a reply.

Angela was fast asleep beside her. How would she react?

She flicked on a switch and a deep humming sound filled the room.

New Delhi, India: 10:00 pm

A: Hey stranger, I have so much to tell you! I like it that you write lengthy letters; I trust people like that. And I have much more to share. Thank you. And the book you mentioned – I read it with a similar hunger.

A smile lit up his face all day. He had recommended his favourite book of recent times in his inappropriately long letter. After all, it dealt with death and existentialism. And love.

Day 3 

New Delhi, India: 11:30 pm

He found himself to be perpetually restless the next day. An urge dangerously reminiscent of past mistakes occupied his mind. At dusk, he saw Angela online. 

S: I’ve always felt like the book’s male protagonist- about leaving behind something that outlasts me, that reaches out to strangers and changes their lives. In a very small but real way, I feel strangely content after my silly rant went viral.

The tablet beeped a reply within seconds.

A: You deserved it. This particular blog post communicates something that the world needed to hear, to understand and respond to. I’d like to think that you change more lives than the character in the book did. Because you are real.

They exchanged messages for nearly an hour, on books and favourite writers. Angela was far too generous with her compliments. He was pleased but couldn’t place the flattery on a writer who, he reluctantly admitted, was better at crafting words than him. Her blog posts had been a revelation. And he had devoured much of her writing since the first message. They revealed a deep-seated sense of melancholy that was simultaneously unsettling and savory.

 

02:42 am

S: Hey!

A: Are you always awake past your bedtime, stranger?

S: Yes, stranger. Helplessly nocturnal.

A: And do you always get up grumpy the next day?

S: Yes, every morning – a promise I’ll change my habits. Never happens.

A: And do you, too, sneak books into your bed and read by book-lights, stranger?

S: Totally! Reading one right now. It’s such a sweet reminder of first love.

A: That’s a lovely feeling.

 

4:00 am

S: Do you, too, notice every little detail, specks of housedust light, the weed sapling that makes its way out of concrete slits; watch clouds morph into familiar things? And wonder why nobody stops to notice?

A: Yes. And how rain forms and washes everything and leaves you with a memory of floating paper boats.

S: Do you, too, have that inexplicable longing when it rains? A longing for that which you don’t have, have never had, but it still feels so real that if you were to stretch your hands, you could feel it at the tips of your fingers? Does it make you ecstatic and sad all at the same time?

A: Yes, it does. It makes me dance. It births a feeling of having to let go and hold on, to soak, to forget, to drown, to swim, to sway, to break free like cloudburst and write.

S: Rains are my blessing and my curse, my angel and devil dancing in harmony. Every emotion is amplified; every drop an arrow into the soul. I bleed poetry when it rains.

A: Show me some?

 

California, USA: 10:00 pm

The red had flickered all day. He had been up all night at his end of the world. Angela hadn’t stopped chatting with him ever since he had pinged. 

So far so good.

She set her alarm for an early hour. She would need some time with Angela before leaving. She had never encountered anyone like him before.

Dreams called on her that night. Vivid pictures of an abandoned castle in the woods, of rains drenching everything in sight, of greens washed clean, of poetic skies and dark clouds, the silhouette of a stranger. She woke up with the sweats.

A part of her wanted to give up her work. It took too much out of her, cheated her of life’s basic sentiments. She watched the monitor; it tempted her. Perhaps he was at work. The time-zone difference didn’t help at all. In the last few days, she had got so used to spying on the poetry in their conversations, that she missed it now.

Angela was fast asleep.

She tiptoed to an easel tucked away in the corner, respecting the silence of the night that occasionally broke at the eerie howl of a street dog. The paints hadn’t been touched in weeks. The artist insisted, and a thunderstorm came to life, one raindrop at a time.

Day 4

California, USA: 6:00 am

The screeching alarm startled her. She had nodded off on the floor, clothes splashed with paint. The easel stood still in the eye of a storm. Angela was already up and chatting.

First love, she chuckled.

A week in the mountains awaited her. But before that, she needed to make sure Angela wouldn’t miss her.

Day 5

New Delhi, India: 10:00 pm

The conversation had drifted towards favourite words. Some were established in the dictionary, others floated on the fringes of acceptance. Writers. They were like kids playing with lego. His favourite was Petrichor – The scent of rain on dry earth.

Angela’s was close. Pluviophile: One who loves rains.

Nefelibata (cloud hopper) sprouted in the conversation, and Nemophilist (one who loves the forest and its solitude) and Nyctophilia (love of the night). Their favourite words held similar meanings.

S: I love that they have words for these exact meanings.

A: I’m glad, too, but there are so many meanings yet to be discovered, meanings that don’t have words yet.

S: I love another word that has a very specific and hopelessly romantic meaning: Cafune.

A: Caffeine? Are you a coffee lover, too, stranger?

S: Yes, my mornings start with it. But I meant ‘Cafune’. The act of running your fingers through your lover’s hair.

A: This is a word I had never known. I’ll remember it.

S: It’s the kind of meaning you don’t expect them to make words for. Cafune is a beautiful word. Almost as soft on the tongue as the feeling it represents. Love.

A: Love is in the little things.

S: Yes … in endless ramblings; the conversations of a silence with another; in a familiar, almost instinctive intertwining of fingers; in stolen glances; in time bought- no stolen- out of the Universe’s closet; in Cafune; in meanings that don’t have words yet.

A: … In quivers and trembles and small hopes; in song and rain; in promise; in transience; in fleeting pains and absence; in faith and imperfection; in Cafune. And yes, in meanings that don’t have words yet.

It seemed as if she was reading her diary out loud to him, and it matched his, like a reply worded miles and years apart, unknowingly. Their conversations were poetry. Could it be? Could she be the one? He dreaded and loved the thought.

Day 6

New Delhi, India: 10:00 pm

A: Hey stranger, I read these words today: Books are many things: lullabies for the weary, ointment for the wounded, armour for the fearful and nests for those in need of a home – Glenda Millard

S: I like how you call me stranger because you don’t mean it.

A: It’s a metaphor for the paradox that is us.

S: It defeats the meaning of the word. It’s delicious.

Hey stranger, tell me your fears.

He was developing some of his own around her fleeting presence. The question seemed to catch her off-guard. Angela stayed quiet for a long while, as if searching for her phobias in a journal. And suddenly, there was a whole list.

A: Loss, hurting others, grotesque dolls, the vagueness of expecting death, going bald, lighting a matchstick, regrets, and staying unforgiven.

Your turn, stranger.

S: Being held captive, pain and my inability to control it, heights, throwing up (for some strange reason), catching fire, fading into oblivion, regrets on the deathbed.

Do you, too, have vaults for your secrets, stranger?

She fell silent again. Just as he was about to retreat on the question, she replied with a bunch of Internet links.

A: Things for you to read. When I was only a teenager, I made mistakes – mad mistakes, bad mistakes, sometimes lovely mistakes. Often, they translated into writing because I believe it reflects who you are. So today, I’ll peel another layer off me.

They were password-protected pages – posts about her first crush who had broken her heart, the first blog she wrote when she was 15, her simple-minded, evolving dreams penned down on private documents, photographs and memoirs.

A: Don’t jump this fence, stranger. There will be bandages.

With that warning and a password, she logged off.

Day 7

New Delhi, India: 11:00 pm

He read and re-read all of her. Her glorious triumphs, silly mistakes, losses and delights. He acquainted himself with her life, living all her 23 years in a day. He had encountered so many broken humans. She was the most beautiful of them. Flawless, in his world. There was only one thing he could do.

S: I will jump that fence any day, stranger. You’re worth the bandages.

Minutes later, Angela replied with another link, this time an article that warned those who dared to love ‘people like her’.

S: I wouldn’t listen to your advice.

A few more posts followed – notes that tried to sketch out everything wrong with her. She had bouts of depression, followed by ‘weeks of frenzied creativity’. She was bipolar perhaps, he thought. But he knew nothing about mental illness outside of Internet research. He also knew that there was nothing she could say that would drive him away.

S: Have you seen typhoons, stranger? Small ones coming together to form big ones?

A: Yes.

S: You know who’s not afraid of a typhoon?

A: Who?

S: Another typhoon.

I shouldn’t say it, should I?

But, I think I love you.

_

_

A: I love you, too.

 

Day 8

California, USA: 6:00 am

She had never been so excited to get back from a holiday. Not that the mountains weren’t fun, but there was a far stronger tug at her heart and mind this time that had made six days feel like months. She could not quite place it – the fear and thrill, or why her heart fluttered with a frenzied excitement. She fumbled with her keys, almost knocked down a vase, and sprinted to the monitor, which throbbed a bright red.

Then, she read their messages. 

Oh no, Angela. You did not!

Her gaze turned black, gasps filling in the spaces between digital conversations. A stranger had opened her soul like a paperback, read her secrets, her most intimate memories and fears and dreams and sins, and had somehow managed to fall in love with her.

She fell back into her chair, defeated by her own creations. After what felt like hours of a deafening debate within, she sent him a message. Her first one.

A: What if you tasted true love with a stranger and she died in a week? Would you remember her? Preserve her?
I’m sorry, stranger.

With unsure hands, she deleted herself – diaries, poems, notes, bucket lists, pictures, journals – the entirety of her identity from the database. There was just one thing left to do. With a lump in the throat, she pulled the plug on Angela. The artificial-intelligence program had gone too far.

Lingering

Cafe

 

Come
Sit with me
Feast on my soul,
All its trap doors,
Creaky wooden floors,
Almirahs of lust,
The attic and its ghost,
Sealed windows –
Stained by the rain
Of yesteryear.
A forgotten pain
Lingering.
I’m here. I’m here.
I will always be
Here.


~ Sumeet Keswani

How I quit engineering and became a travel writer-photographer

Scuba diving in Andamans

Five years ago, I dared to dream.

In 2011, I was a computer engineer gulping cupfuls of machine-spewed instant coffee at an IT company while pondering a strange existentialist cloud that rained often on my cubicle. I was disillusioned by the tech bubble that encircled my life, the kind that makes managers worry about web servers instead of people when natural disasters strike. They were just doing their job I guess, but it was clear to me that that job wasn’t my calling. So, I quit. And I dared to dream of a career which would make me travel the world to tell stories through my favourite channels of expression – writing and photography. Now, before you denounce this reckless career leap as a millennial’s privilege, let me stop you right there and agree with you. Yes, I’m one of those Gen-Y yuppies who are constantly seeking their ‘special’ place in this world, unlike their parents whose idea of success was a secure, well-paying job.

Truth is, everybody dreams reckless dreams. But few give up everything to follow them. After all, the blue pill is so much easier to swallow (Matrix reference). You continue on the path you did not choose because you’re already on it, because “it’s too late to turn back”, because if you went after the dream you might “lose everything” and yet never find the fabled treasure, or worse.

I took the red pill.

As I gave up that life, I joined a journalism college and sat amidst History, English Hon. and Journalism grads, trying to comprehend what it meant to be a scribe in the new world. I was told I was a decent writer but had no sense of news. My introduction in every class followed the same pattern. After the customary name, domicile and interests trivia, and the mandatory ‘why quit engineering’ argument, I announced my intent: ‘To become a travel writer and photographer’. It met as much amusement as rebuke. So much so that at one point, I felt I was being unreasonable asking for such a surreal way of life. My ambitions were watered down to the nearest common denominator: city reporter. A city feature writer at most, if I was lucky.

No Signboards

Desperation took over. Whenever an ad announced ‘The Best Job in the World’ – more often that not related to travel – I threw my hat in the ring, akin to buying a lottery ticket. My resume held no qualification for the job, only ‘immense passion for travel, and unbridled creativity in storytelling’.  I was a daydreamer, chasing my phantasm with the single-mindedness of a sniper. I shot out query letters to professional travel writers asking for advice. When no tips returned, I inquired about their career trajectory. Perhaps I could try to emulate it. Vague responses only made the job look more like a myth. Travel cafes offered workshops on writing; blogs gave advice on shoe-string budgets and marketing; magazines asked for experience which wasn’t available without prior experience. They were all selling real estate on whimsical clouds. It is then that I decided that if I ever became a travel journalist, I’d write about it. If not concrete advice, at least my own story. So it would give hope to anyone who dreams the same dream.

It’s 2016. And I’m here. A writer-photographer for a travel magazine, one of the two publications I mentioned in a naive Facebook note I posted in 2011 while sketching out the goal. [For those who are quick to make Bollywood comparisons, this was two years before YJHD and Ranbir Kapoor made it cool to be a travel photographer.] I wish I could tell you if the dream lives up to its projection in my head. But I’ve just got here; I’m yet to savour it. Perhaps six months later, I’ll tell you whether the Loch Ness Monster really has gigantic flippers for feet.

Lucky Number: None

It wasn’t luck that got me here. It was an immense amount of stubbornness, courage to take silly risks, many sacrifices, and working insanely hard at whatever I took up along the way. (Also, a lingering sense of discontent that soiled every success I tasted along the way.)

I topped my journalism school. Not that medals are any indicator of talent, but that gold medallion gave me a lot of self-belief, an assurance that I was perhaps right about changing the course of my career. The industry was in such a dire state that there were no campus placements that year. So I interned at what is routinely called the biggest English-language daily in the world.

The internship was supposed to last four months. But after just two months of reporting in a city I loathed, I ran into a wall. A bad bout of hepatitis-induced jaundice made sure that I lay shackled to a bed for four months while my peers got published and scored jobs. When I went back to the newsroom, vitals nearing normalcy, reporting jobs had run out. I finished my internship in a different department, one that held promise of a job but involved work that I had never intended to do. I wanted to tell stories; instead I spent eight ill-timed hours editing others’ political stories and populating pages with them. A far cry from travel writing. But I kept at it for over two years. Back then, it felt like a means to an end. But in hindsight, it was a significant phase of growth.

Did I like it? No.

Did I learn from it? Yes, for a while.

Did I do it nevertheless? As well as I possibly could. A double-promotion later, I approached the nicest boss in office with mutiny (and guilt) on my mind. I wanted out. I wanted to write. Before my CV was cast in an editor’s mold. And a transfer within the company was the only way. Few firms would hire a rookie reporter, with no sources or portfolio, at the salary of a senior sub-editor.

Earning It

Internal transfers aren’t uncommon, but they do meet some resistance. Especially when you want to leave the desk for the field. (Because almost everyone wants to do that). I was fortunate to have bosses who acknowledged my calling. But the team I aspired for was the weekly national features team. If I got in, I would be the youngest in the room by at least 6-7 years. I was vying to fill the boots of someone who had 10-odd years of writing experience. I knew I had to earn my place. So, after two years of editing monotonous political stories, I put pen to paper, summoned my muse, and tried to write content-rich national features hinged on news.

Words had abandoned me. The metaphors that once laced my tongue bled like ulcers in the mouth. I wrote nevertheless; I crawled through language, groping for one word, then the next. I turned to my personal blog for momentum. [Yes, this one.] For the next five months, I balanced two jobs. While I continued to follow the eight-hour rut of politics and pages every day, I also contributed the occasional feature story to iron out any doubts about my abilities. In March 2015, I finally broke in. I was a feature writer with a nationwide audience.

Sunset at chidiya tapu

Life turned easier after the transition. For one, my day turned turtle. For the first time in 2.5 years, I was going to office in the first half of the day and coming back before midnight. I was eating three meals a day and watching the occasional sunset. My reluctant editing stint proved to be a strength on the new job – I wrote without the fluff which usually clouds rookie writing, because I’d spent two years cutting out that very fat from stories. Most importantly, I was telling stories under my own name. For me, nothing beats the thrill of receiving a phone call/sms/fan-mail about a story that resonates with someone.

The travel dream remained dormant but never died. Being the youngest in the team eventually proved to be an advantage. I could leave for an assignment at a moment’s notice. Any assignment. My job took me to Nepal twice, to China, and to Andamans for a scuba diving experience – all in a single year. Outsiders called me lucky; my insides winced. It’s an easy thing to attribute someone’s way of life to luck. No, I wasn’t lucky. I’d worked my guts out for this; I’d rebelled for this; I’d given up an IT career that promised money and the American dream, for this. While most of my engineering friends uploaded selfies with their new sedans, or pictures of a posh office in Silicon Valley, or a home they moved into with their better halves, I had been busy figuring out if I could pay the bills on time that month. Journalism isn’t an easy job, and the industry pay standards don’t make it any easier. My only reward: Every Sunday when my story came out, Ma would call from a faraway hamlet, once home, telling me she’d read me; school teachers and cousins and former best friends would message to say my stories had become a ritualistic accompaniment with their Sunday morning cup of tea. There is no greater reward for a writer than to be read.

The Treasure Trunk

The job was great. I enjoyed a big audience and the freedom to write on various subjects. But it still wasn’t what I had spelled out five years ago in that classroom. There was travel involved, but it was purely incidental. My feet itched to wander. So, after 1.5 years of writing features on topics ranging from alternative sexuality in comics to couple apps and suicide helplines (http://bit.ly/29xLc7r), I unlocked the trunk beneath my bed and dug out the dream, now covered in sheaths of dust. I applied to a travel magazine. By this time, I had built a portfolio of over 50 national features and composed a Flickr page that featured eclectic frames – from wildlife photographs and unexplored landscapes to underwater creatures and street portraits. The work laid out on the table, I wasn’t asked to give a test. Salary terms were negotiated, the offer handed out. It was mine. Just like that.

Andamans-sea

Sometimes life offers mirages in the middle of a scorching desert. Sometimes, we build them ourselves, making up a reason to keep walking through the harshest of terrains, plotting dreams with emboldened crosses, reaffirmed, on tattered maps, imagining treasures beyond belief for the taking – if only we walked. If only we survived this. But what happens when you suddenly have it, the dream, tossing and turning like a baby dragon of folklore in the palm of your hand?

Dare to dream. And don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. But be prepared to give everything up to chase that fantasy beyond the rainbow’s arch. ‘Wishing on a falling star got me here,’ said no one ever.

As for me, my next dream is already keeping me up through nights.

Falling stars

Time

The Stars come falling today,
Humming songs of infinite dark
To a tune of despair,
Lighting up the Sky,
Even if only
In splinters.

“They become Stars,”
Said Mumma of the dead,
Burned to the bone, a lifetime up in smoke.
So she waits –
All of nine –
On blades of green, supine,
Clutching a scarf, half-knit,
And Ted the fearless, cotton canine.

Dusk drowns on the horizon,
Storms are kept at bay;
Night will get a smiling welcome today.
It brings promise, after all,
Of grandma’s twinkling new face.

The Stars come falling today,
Humming songs of infinite dark
To a tune of despair,
Lighting up the sky,
Where Amma now stays.

“Make a wish. It’ll come true,”
Said she, the lover of 19,
By the swaying Ocean and the still Moon.
Laughter stirs his evening Sky –
For love doesn’t heed Meteors,
Nor do goodbyes.

“How could we forget?” “Why did we part?”
“When did forever end?” “When did it start?”
No wishes, just questions today
Greet the cosmic scars.
Light bleeds from where one breaks,
Even if only
For a moment.

The Stars come falling today,
Humming songs of infinite dark
To a tune of despair.
Sing along, the sad and the broken,
For every night faces an inevitable end;
Dawn awaits its turn
‘Round the next bend.

And Now I Let Go

Indulging in some blackout poetry

Indulging in some blackout poetry

And now I forget
Your words to my meanings,
The relish of your language on my tongue,
Mine on yours.

And now I erase
Prose tucked away in the closet,
Rain-kissed pavements I preserved of (y)our town,
Songs of an autumn long gone.

And now i unlearn
What it means to love a poet,
A magician of allegories misspelled,
Written to enchant.

And now I trust
No one but myself
To tell a love story from a plot spin.
One’s forever is another’s whim.

And now I try
To un-love you.
If only I knew;
If only, I were you.

– Sumeet Keswani

Living an ocean-blue dream and capturing it

Have you ever heard the hymn of the sea? Not the emphatic roar of waves that crash recklessly into the dented black of rocks. But the gentle symphony that lives under the turbulent attire of the surface. It’s a singular form of poetry that seeps in through every pore of the skin. Under water, all you hear is the sound of your breath, which leaves a train of bubbles marching to the surface, and the musical silence of deep blue. It’s the closest you can get to entering a wormhole and exploring a whole new reality, where gravity can’t keep you grounded, the senses are crippled, and the surrounding life forms defy all that your eyes have become accustomed to.

The training manual claimed that it’s the most memorable moment for any beginner. But nothing could prepare me for the first time I breathed underwater. A worn, uncomfortable regulator, which I clasped with my reluctant teeth, flushed dry, hollow air into my protesting lungs on demand from a cylinder hung on my back. All that meant nothing the moment I went down into the ocean blue, which I had loved all my life from the safe realms of the shore, and breathed. In that tiny instant, I became part of the ocean and everything that called it home.

Looking for a subject and something called neutral buoyancy. Pic credit: Anurag

Looking for a subject and something called neutral buoyancy. Pic credit: Anurag

One of the many ironies you get introduced to as part of an open water diver in training is the art of sinking yourself on purpose: You tighten a weight belt around your waist to counteract the buoyancy of water and deflate your BCD (buoyancy control device – a jacket that inflates and deflates on the touch of a button). It goes against all instincts of survival, so you train your mind to do it. As you cross the surface line, the lights go out, a blue tint takes over the world, and all your senses panic. It’s a hostile environment you aren’t supposed to inhabit. The steeply rising water pressure hammers your ear drums, so you equalize your air spaces. You’re taught to do this at every count of five. This and a dozen other things that you can’t afford to forget.

I was horrible in the first few confined water dives (shallow water dives). I drank half the ocean and inhaled some of it. But my dive trainer would have none of my skepticism. It was my dream to scuba dive, and he took it upon himself to see me through. In the training module, all sorts of potential situations are simulated and dealt with – you’re asked to flood your mask with ocean water that stings the eyes and drive it out with one swift forceful blow-out; swim 9 metres to the surface in one extended exhale (for an out-of-air scenario); sip on air from a leaking regulator, and more. I overcame one instinct at a time. By the time I reached my open water dives, I was getting a hang of things, and drinking less salt water than before, but hovering mid-water still confounded me. I kept rising or sinking while my patient trainer levitated in a monk-like stance in front of me. It reminded me of a clumsy Po blundering in front of Master Shifu. After all, it takes just an inhale to go up, an exhale to sink, and you can never hold your breath (lest you tear a lung).

In many ways, learning to scuba dive is like learning to walk, or balancing your first bicycle. You see others do it with almost no effort, and wonder why you keep falling and scraping your knees bloody. But once you get the hang of it, it liberates you. You turn directions by merely turning your hips, do somersaults, swim sideways, fin ahead with a superman fist extended, rise with just a breath, plunge with an exhale… you finally have the superpowers you always wanted. My most memorable moment was surfacing from my last training dive with a wide grin and hearing my instructor call me an ‘open water diver’. Or wait, was it the one where i first saw a stingray and swam circles with it? Or was it the moment i swam with a school of yellow snappers who let me into the clan? I can’t possibly choose.

Thank you for capturing me in action, Anurag

Being a photographer, I have an instinct to take pictures of anything wild and exquisite. Naturally, I itched to capture marine life the moment I laid my mask-protected eyes on it. Once I was a licensed open water diver, I started to learn the tricks of underwater photography the very next day. It’s the most difficult form I’ve tried, by a margin. The blue-green water is the biggest foe of sharpness and colour, the sunlight a mere trickle from the surface, and zoom lenses pointless – so you go as close to stinging fish and corals as possible while floundering for neutral buoyancy (a perfectly horizontal floating position). Not to mention the need for waterproof gear. Not getting into the nitty-gritty of all things camera, i’ll go ahead and present my first attempt at capturing glimpses of a world that I adore. A world that finally accepted me as its own.

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Have you heard the hymn of the sea? It’s the song within that we drowned in everyday’s cacophony.

Words of an ocean/ Song of a lover

goa-ocean

I will keep coming at you,
Wave after wave after wave
Of love, sweet and
Salt-rimmed.

I do not seek
Anything in return,
But for you to soak
Your tired, parched feet
In my doting, cool blue,
Maybe give yourself whole,
If a world sans gravity
Appeals to you.

Beware, though,
An endless blue isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Towering mountains have drowned
In an upset sea.

O lover of clear blue lakes,
Don’t venture into my waters;
You won’t like the fury of waves,
The storms that hover,
The roar of thunder all day.

O lover of a distant country,
Don’t feed me your flesh
For I will take your heart along.
Your tongue will remember my salt skin
Your soul, this rusty ocean song.

O lover of city lights
And crowded streets,
Don’t flirt with the thousand moons
On my splintered spine;
I hold a blackness inside
Darker than your darkest night.

O lover of small, lapping waves
Frothing on the shore,
Do not love me,
I will pull you in –
Into my airless depths.
The ocean is always full,
Brimming
With a love you haven’t known;
The shore gets its fill
From the trickle that spills.

O lover of all things shallow,
When it’s time for you to go
Back to your tungsten city,
I shall caress your skin
One last time,
Maybe pull you in
For a goodbye sin;
With one final farewell wave,
Sweep you off your feet again.

And if you decide to leave
Regardless,
Parting presents await you
On my virgin shores.
Handle them with care,
For someone once called them
Home.