Paris, mon amour

So here I am

Leaving you behind –

The train lifts its skirt and runs

Before I can change my mind –

Wondering who,

If anyone, can ever conquer

This memory of you.

 

I’d stay and save

Myself the mediocrity.

If you’d let me have

You for eternity.

But you’re a fickle lover,

O Paris, mon amour,

Let’s not linger

On this goodbye.

My time is up! Au revoir!

 

The canals in the new town

Reflect my parting blues;

In a concert of cities

Who would want to follow you?

O Paris, mon amour,

Let’s not fake niceties now.

It’s not me. It is You.

 

You invited me over

For a drink or two;

Before night fell, I was in love,

You had had your someone new.

Your streets are full of lovers gone mad

Artists, they call them,

Victims of cobbled-street voodoo.

O Paris, mon amour,

Let me go

Before I’m a prisoner, too.

 

No corner cafe will ever smell the same

The streets won’t sing again

Church bells will never promise

The stunning spell of Notre Dame.

What have you done?

O Paris, ma chérie,

My heart is now a homeless refugee,

My soul is yours to claim.

 

I’ll be back another night

For one more forbidden affair

Between my pen and your rues.

Until then,

O Paris, mon amour,

Grant me this final farewell kiss,

Bid me a fond adieu.

 

 

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

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

A class in nostalgia

For starters, let me confess something. I enjoy the occasional drink of nostalgia. I indulge in the melancholy that memories bring. Perhaps that is why i sometimes seek out places that exhume moments long gone by. They may not even have been among the best times i’ve had, but if i remember them and the emotions associated strongly enough, revisiting them feels a bit like time travel.

So, to relish a slice of a long forgotten past that was bound to sting the tongue, I set out for my school, St. Xavier’s High, one of three i attended in my life. (However, this was the only one i had managed to get attached to.) It had been 12 years since i had been there, since i had walked out of Class 10 thinking i’d just passed my toughest exam. So I anticipated the bout of nostalgia, almost looked forward to it. But i hadn’t expected the stage of my childhood to have stayed almost entirely the same, thereby enshrining those days. Right from the colour of the walls where i once busted my knee while chasing a friend over a joke, to the basketball court which back then felt like the only happy spot in the school, to the notice board which once hosted my first (and atrociously lame) poem, and even the tree fences that we sat on during breaks, everything had retained its composition – as if saved for this very moment when i’d visit, my adult disguise betrayed by a pair of moist eyes.

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I often wonder why we miss it, the past. Is it because our present does not match up to it? Hardly. I’m lucky enough to say most of the things in my present are of my choosing, and hence make me very happy. Close friends who are insanely understanding, a mind that knows its thoughts from its emotions, freedom to live on my own terms – a lot has changed, for the better. So what exactly do i miss when i sit in my old classroom with a broken window that overlooks the basketball ground? Why do i miss the yearning, when, now, i am no longer bound by class rules and don’t have to wait for the tolling of the bell for a shot at the hoop?

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Maybe it’s not the yearning we miss. Maybe we don’t miss the place at all, but who we were while we inhabited it. The kid who sat gazing out of Class IX B didn’t exactly like being there; he was full of doubts and wishes, but was also full of life. He had no bad memories to recall, only an unshakable belief in a gleaming future; he had no money to call his own, but he also never worried about paychecks and bills; he never had the freedom to play at will, but when he was on the court in the ‘Games period’, he ran like the world depended on it; he had no qualms about his own existence and its purpose; he had no cynicism to rob him of his faith; he had no real nightmares, just ones of monsters that didn’t exist.

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Maybe I didn’t visit the school at all today, maybe i just visited me. The 10-year-old introvert who was equal parts excited and scared shifting to a “tough school” in Class 6 but eventually made the exams look easy, who spent every day looking forward to the basketball game at the end (and sulked on those that didn’t end in the sports period), who worried about his grades but only on the last day, who sneaked a glance at his crush in every ‘recess’ and believed love would find a way (and heartbreaks wouldn’t). Maybe for one day, i had the itch to bend the space-time continuum and inhabit that boy who believed, without a speck of doubt, that his life would be grand, and whose biggest worry was if he would grow tall enough. Maybe i wanted to find my way back to a peculiar version of happiness which was unadulterated by reality.

And I found it lying untouched, in a class cupboard that still smells of moss and childhood secrets.

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Not a Goodbye

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Melancholy is a strange visitor. It walks in uninvited, without the courtesy of a simple tap on the door, and leaves as it pleases, in the dead of night or amidst the din of daylight.

China was supposed to be a solitary exploration trip, even though I was part of an official delegation of 200 people, who had been “selected” by the government to represent the youth of the country and have cultural exchanges with those in China (more on this in another post). Travel is almost as essential to my being as love, and i get the most out of a trip when i’m left alone in my own mind to observe and tap into the soul of a place. So this trip, my first outside India (apart from a journalistic adventure to Nepal), meant the world. It was my first taste of a completely new culture and its people. I expected myself to space out and explore China, while my soliloquies and camera kept me company in a country which didn’t speak any tongue I was familiar with.

While the first half a day or so went exactly as planned, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a few crazies. And before I knew it, we were together everywhere. Be it scaling the great wall of China, haggling to the extremes at flea markets, making ready-to-eat vegetarian food and masala chai on the 28th floor of a five-star hotel that overlooked the magnificent Guangzhou, making fun of other unruly youth delegates, singing English songs (with a blend of desi rap) to a clueless yet thrilled Chinese audience in a karaoke bar, biking on the Xi’an wall, or making sure everyone was up in the morning in time for the bus, we did it all together. From different parts of the country, the eight of us revelled in one another’s eccentricities. Theplas were passed around in tour buses, Marathi slangs learned, Kolkata praised and scoffed at in equal measure, Sindhis disowned and adored at the same time, college-like gossip spread; the beauty of a country that makes you stick out – it makes you stick together. Having said that, it wouldn’t have happened with anyone; it took a very special blend of wonderfully weird people to form a family out there.

The saddest thing about goodbyes, I read somewhere, is not knowing whether they’ll miss you or forget you. I’ve always been awful with separation; so I escape it, with a joke or two while gasping for breath inside. But turns out I’m not alone in being over-sentimental about goodbyes. This peculiar set of people, who had met one another only a week ago at a nondescript (and sweltering hot) orientation session, cried their eyes out at being separated. For the first time, I know I’m missed, as much as I miss you all.

Defying my plans, the trip turned out to be about the people, more than the place. I’ll remember China well, and what’s even better, I’ll remember every incredible place we visited with some weird shit we did together attached to the memory. For a boy addicted to a perennial sense of sadness, this has been a welcome break. Jesse laments in ‘Before Sunrise’ about never having been to a place where he himself wasn’t there. While at first that might not make any sense, I relate to that feeling quite often. I’m almost tired of being with myself, of having every experience under the sun in the company of my own cynicism. There is no place I have visited, nothing I have done, where I wasn’t there to ruin it for myself. Until China, that is. I didn’t quite understand it then, but in retrospect, when I look back at all the memories we made, I thankfully do not find me in the frame. Instead, there’s this 16-year-old version who loved every moment he lived, and did not quite ponder over the pointlessness of it all. I had lost touch with him over the years.

As I return to my writer’s desk, I feel like I’ve suddenly been pulled back from a magical world of dragons and terracotta warriors and intimidatingly high walls to my boring old closet, filled with woollens that suffocate. But for what it’s worth, that alternate universe lingers on in our collective memory. And the people in it continue to defy the goodbye we didn’t say.

Who says only love stories must end in forevers?

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My tryst with the tiger

It started way back in November 2011: My love affair with the tiger. On my second-ever wildlife photography expedition, I had gone to Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, India. Although Corbett is rich in avian biodiversity and is blessed with a breathtaking landscape, the lure of this forest is its striped cats. The tiger is always a heart-stopping sight – so I’d heard. But I was going to make up my own mind about it. So, for five days, we searched the woods, tracked pug marks and listened to alarm calls by spotted deer, sambar deer, and monkeys. Ironically, a more elusive big cat – the leopard – showed up with its midday meal – a spotted deer- hung up on a tree. It was a memorable (and rare) sighting. But the tiger continued to evade us.

On the last safari of the tour, luck finally seemed to favour us. While tracking the big cats, we zeroed in on the location of a tigress and her cubs. They were behind behind some bushes near a path aptly named ‘thandi sadak’ (cold street).  On one side of this rugged path was the grassland abound with unsuspecting prey and on the other, the dense forest that hid our precious family of tigers. Tigers were known to cross this ‘sadak’ to get to their prime hunting grounds- the grassland. Cameras were mounted and aimed, test shots were fired to gauge the light, settings were put in place. We were locked and loaded.

The little ones’ hesitant footsteps on the dry leaf carpet, the monkeys’ frantic alarm calls and a paranoid jungle fowl’s shrieks only added to the anticipation of the big moment. We waited, and waited and waited. Meanwhile, I clicked every bird that flew by, UFO-shaped cobwebs, even the tourists waiting in anticipation.  News about a potential tiger sighting spreads like wildfire among tiger-trackers; jeep after jeep comes roaring in to the spot; and the tiger, to no one’s surprise, often takes the first route out. This protective mother tigress knew the threat too well and receded back into the forest with her kids. The wildlife expedition was over. I hadn’t spotted a single tiger, let alone click it.

Fast forward 16 months, it was March 28, 2013. I was finally in the jungle again. This time in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India. The national park flaunts the highest density of tigers in India. The tour promised a lot of tiger action and the subject in each safari was the striped cats, not landscapes or birds.

The first safari had me beaming, like a kid opening his long-awaited Christmas gift. By the end of it, i felt like one who hadn’t been in Santa’s good books that year. While most jeeps came back empty-handed, one had spotted a new bunch of cubs with their mom, and one had captured five different tigers. Five! Still optimistic, I pinned my hopes on the evening safari, trying to believe that i was perhaps destined for a ‘special’ first sighting.

The second safari of the day soon stripped me of all the excitement. None of the jeeps had seen anything remotely striped, the light was fast fading and it was almost time to exit the jungle. My optimism had turned sore. “There’s a nightjar sitting out in the open on a curve up ahead,” one of our mentors travelling in a different jeep told our driver when our vehicles crossed paths. He gave us directions and hence, a heading. Since we had already given up all hopes of seeing a tiger, we decided to take his word and make a frame of the nocturnal bird. Nightjars are beautiful creatures and i’ve captured them before, but i had been too excited about tigers to be craving nightjars.

As we swerved around a corner on a dusty path in the woods, the guide riding shotgun asked the driver to stop and reverse, in what i can only describe as a hushed scream. On the morning safari, i would have taken this as a clear tiger sign. But the cloud of pessimism loomed large over my head. “What? You saw the nightjar?” I asked him. He looked at me with disbelief and said the one word i had been dying to hear since the Corbett failure: “Tiger”.

I jumped up in the moving jeep, holding on to two cameras as the driver reversed. I do not remember longer seconds in my life. As we came to a screeching stop, the guide pointed. But I did not need directions. I could already see it: A magnificent tiger resting on a rock in a pool of fallen leaves.

My first instinct was to point the camera and click. I had just got through a frame-burst when i realized i hadn’t even clocked the settings into my DSLR for the low light in the frame. The pictures came out very,very dark. I set the numbers in as quickly as i could and went through another burst, with an average telephoto lens, then the bigger prime lens, attached to two different camera bodies. At some point, in the middle of all this, I heard someone say our creature of interest was a He – a 2.5-years-old male cub of a tigress called Banbahi.  I asked for a name later in the day, but apparently, he didn’t have a territory yet, and hence hadn’t been named.

After the initial reflex had subsided and the first few mindless bursts of pictures fired, i really saw him. He wasn’t totally unobstructed; I could see his eyes pierce the foliage between us, and he stared right into my lens. It was at this moment that something held my finger back from pressing the shutter again, something that lowered my camera, something that made me look into the eyes of this innocuous yet intimidating and grossly misunderstood creature.  I found myself in a dilemma i hadn’t been prepared for: to live the moment, or to capture it.

He did not stay there for long, just over a minute, during most of which he looked away, distracted by the sound of rustling leaves in the distance. But he looked our way just long enough for me to make one decent picture: a souvenir that will always remind me of my first tiger. For it was in this moment that i realized – any sighting of a tiger is special.

The first. Banbahi's male cub: Over 2.5 yrs old now, he looks set to be a contender for the throne of Bandhavgarh

The first.
Banbahi’s male cub: Over 2.5 yrs old now, he looks set to be a future contender for the throne of Bandhavgarh

In the course of the next three days, we saw six more tigers- crossing our path in the golden light of dawn, stalking a prey, lazying around in the open and even leaping over a boundary wall! Bandhavgarh delivered all that it had promised, and more.

Some parting pictures from the land of the tiger:

Green bee-eater

Could i be any cuter?
(Green bee-eater)

Long-billed vultures

A family portrait
(Long-billed vultures)

Spotted deer

Run
(Spotted deer)

Against all odds.  Vijaya aka Kankati. This one-eyed tigress has defied all rules of the jungle, ruling over prime grassland territory and raising three cubs all on her own

Against all odds.
Vijaya aka Kankati. This one-eyed tigress has defied all rules of the jungle, ruling over prime grassland territory and raising three cubs all on her own

White-eyed buzzard

This tree is taken
(White-eyed buzzard)

One of Kankati's cubs (over 1.5 yrs old). This one was waiting right by our safari route, hidden from view by a bush. She was perhaps thinking of crossing the road when we almost drove past her. As we skidded to a stop, her first instinct was fear - took a few steps back, hid behind the bush, only to sneak a peek later, perhaps to see if we meant any harm

Innocuous
One of Kankati’s cubs (over 1.5 yrs old). This one was waiting right by our safari route, hidden from view by a bush. She was perhaps thinking of crossing the road when we almost drove past her. As we skidded to a stop, her first instinct was fear – took a few steps back, hid behind the bush, only to sneak a peek later, perhaps to see if we meant any harm

Langurs on a palash tree

Baby’s day out
(Langurs on a palash tree)

A lesser adjutant stork takes a walk

The evening stroll
(Lesser adjutant stork)

Kankati's female cub (over 1.5 yrs old now) graced us with the perfect timing for this walk. The golden light of early morning lights up this magnificent creature

Golden Stripes
Kankati’s female cub (over 1.5 yrs old now) graced us with the perfect timing for this walk. The golden light of early morning lights up this magnificent creature