To Warmth and Imperfection

GEZELLIG
(adj.) Describes much more than just cosiness- a positive warm emotion or feeling rather than just something physical- and connotes time spent with loved ones; togetherness.

 

If there’s anything 2018 has taught me, it’s to savour the moments of gezellig that present themselves. Savour the moments of warmth that are spent among people made from the same stars as you. Who knows how often they’ll come by.

Moments where you feel like everything is ok, because it always is. A lot of things depend on perspective, happiness too. I have learnt very late into this year to choose happiness every time.

Life isn’t easy for anyone, but just because it can get hard, don’t let it get sad. What’s the point of a sad life? Where’s the gezellig in that?

Feb 18th, 2018: 00.00: New Delhi:
The speakers suddenly fall silent, the Bollywood tune has been smashed into oblivion. As if recognising the strangeness of the tune, even the speakers present the next song reluctantly. 99% of the room awkwardly shuffle off the dancefloor leaving 4 people to dance. 3 of them know the tune, a famous Kenyan song from the late 90’s/early 2000’s, the 4th person there just because she likes the way it sounds. You have never seen 4 happier people before.

Feb 20th, 2018: 23.50: New Delhi:
I checked into my hotel room, unable to stand the thought of falling asleep in the house while my grandfather’s body lay on the floor in the sitting room. I put the kettle on, and went into the shower, trying hard to wash the day away but it just wouldn’t go. I got into bed, left all the lights on because there was enough darkness already. I thought about my cousin and his new wife. What must they be going through? Receiving the news of the death just as their wedding came to an end, only to tell them not to come home.  I could hear his voice so clearly in my mind. I could hear his laugh, I could hear his stories. My favourite storyteller, the muse of all my words. He could never come to an end. I felt a spark of warmth in my heart. As long as they were words in the world, he would never come to an end.

August 27th, 2018: 23.59: Jalandhar:
Tired feet, tired backs, tired waiters. That moment when you look around the room, and everyone is happily tired. The bride-to-be still has that too-cool-for-school bounce to her step, your brothers have somehow agreed to let the DJ get back home, suddenly remembering they have their phones to continue the music, your mum is silently buzzing to a song only she can hear, and everyone is happily happy. One minute left to the next day, one minute of boundless gratitude and joy to be among the most beautiful people in your life. Whatever tomorrow holds, you’re all together. That’s all that matters. You’ll brave the hangovers and sore-throats with the delight of stumbling upon “the Java of Jalandhar”.

October 4th, 2018: 16.45: Kisumu:
In a split second the heavens started to pour, it gave us no choice but to leave the crematorium. As we drove to the gurdwara it got even heavier. We got the message loud and clear- “I’ve reached, I’m good, go back home!” How can someone be gone and still be there? Only those with the most life can be alive beyond the realms of death, time, and space. I look around at the family he’s left behind, and nothing has ever felt so unfair before. The words he uttered 2 months ago come to my mind- “fix things before you’re only seeing each other at funerals.” So, let’s fix things. You and me. Let’s fill the cracks in this relationship with gold. Let’s make it more beautiful than it’s ever been. Let’s not leave words unsaid and hugs unhugged, and thanks unsaid.

November 23rd, 2018: 16.00: Nairobi:
I had convinced myself that she’ll make it through this- one of the fiercest women I’ve met. This could not be the end, this could not be true. Thousands of miles away, dispersed around the globe, so many people grieving her loss. But do we ever really lose anyone? Isn’t she still around me? As beautiful, as radiant, as caring as she was every day? Life’s a bitch, and then you begin to live.

December 12th, 2018: 15.00: Nairobi:
They say a red unbreakable string ties together all those who will ever be a part of your life to you. The string stretches, tangles, spreads across oceans, but never breaks. As you sit in this immaculately decorated tent, the most beautiful thing is having those handful of people tugging at the strings tied on your finger, and to your heart. You think of all the times these strings have been tugged and you’ve never been more present. You’ve never been more happy. So full of promise for what the future holds, because you know these strings truly are unbreakable.

 

2018 has taught me a lot about gezellig. About holding close all that matters, and that all that matters is the people who love you, through thick and thin. In a few hours we’ll be stepping into the unknown adventures of 2019, so let’s try to be there for each other. We can’t go through this life alone, and we don’t have to. Here’s to 2019, the year of wabi-sabi!

 

WABI-SABI
(n.) A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully its natural cycle.

 

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On Becoming…

My mind goes back to lazy afternoons in primary school. A voice is being muffled by the dance of dust before by eyes, as I sit mesmerized by the sun’s rays following the dust around like a spot light.

A few words linger on in my memory as they always do… words about butterflies and their life cycle. Words about the painful metamorphosis of the caterpillar until it finally becomes a beautiful butterfly.

Are human beings really any different? Don’t we all have our stages of painful metamorphosis? Don’t we all become something?

What have I become? Or am I still becoming?
Perhaps I am still looking for a place for my chrysalis. A place so beautiful, the metamorphosis won’t hurt.
Perhaps I may never find that place… perhaps I already have.

I think it’s not becoming that is painful, it’s just not knowing.
Not knowing whom we become or how it happens. After all, we never really feel any change, do we?

We don’t feel our hair grow, or our friends moving further away. We don’t feel remembering new words, or forgetting our fathers’ voices.

All of it just happens.

Like catching a glimpse of a stranger looking at you through the window. Something about the stranger’s eyes feels familiar. You stand there, staring at an abyss of memories, until you realise you’ve caught your own reflection.

What is it about human beings and our insistence on knowing everything?
Why are we always searching for answers to questions that we haven’t even asked?
Why are we always asking questions that we know have no answer?

Just as I’m doing now…

Maybe it’s just part of the process of becoming. Asking questions to build our chrysalis. Searching for answers to bring it down.

Where does all of this end? Where is our grand reveal?
Will there be a theatre full of people, clapping and cheering? Will my mother’s face be among them, her eyes filled with tears of joy? Or will the reveal be stuck in the memory of a 7 year old, lingering in the form of muffled words?

What will our becoming be?

On Belonging

Originally published on the Storymoja Festival blog.

Belonging is a funny thing. We spend our whole life searching for it in different places, but it’s never ours to take. It’s always something that must be given to us. Early on in life it’s is the most natural – for those of us lucky enough, we find it with our parents and families. For me, it lay in the food I ate, and the nooks I choose to hide in. It was captured by 3 feet high scribbles on walls and my grandmother’s favourite tea set.

Then it started to become more difficult. Has a classroom ever given anyone a sense of belonging? Fifteen years wasted in the pursuit of it through bangs, and highlights, and atrocious wardrobe choices. Even my body didn’t feel like my own anymore. I looked in the mirror, and everyday there was something I didn’t like. Suddenly the boy who laughed at me during P.E had more power in his taunts than the voice of my mother which a few years prior, could instantly stop my tears.

I was fortunate to find a permanent place of belonging one afternoon, at a barbeque I almost didn’t go for. Belonging walked in tall and handsome, with a face that felt so familiar and hands that felt like they’re meant for only me. He didn’t make me feel like a stranger in my own flesh. Belonging stayed.

But there’s still a part of me that is waiting for it. Yes, I have always had my family, and I have found my people as well, but we can’t only find it in human beings for it to feel complete. There must be a place too. Where is this place?

A girl of Indian origin, born and brought up in Kenya, where do I belong?
I want to belong to Kenya. If belonging were mine to take, I wouldn’t feel this dismemberment. I want to belong to Kenya, but all my life I’ve been told I don’t. I’ve been told I don’t belong by matatu drivers, and custom officers, teachers, and even people from my own family. I go to India, and I don’t feel it. My lungs don’t open fully, still locking in a piece of home. Yes, Kenya is home. I can stake my right on that word. Whether I get belonging or not, Kenya is my home.

Belonging feels like it’s mine when I think of the past. Not my past. The past of unknown people. People walking through lush fields of mustard in Punjab. That’s mine. The smiles on their faces bright, the hope in their eyes unspoiled by the horrors of the 1947 partition. The Punjab I belong to doesn’t exist anymore. Spread out across India and Pakistan, ruined by drugs and politics, today’s Punjab isn’t mine. The people aren’t mine, the air isn’t mine.

Why can I only see my belonging in sepia tones? Despite being recognized as the 44th tribe of Kenya, why can’t it be as vivid as the sunset in the coast, or as loud as the rain in Nairobi? Why doesn’t it prickle me like the February heat?

I belong to Kenya’s 44th tribe, but where does this tribe belong? I want it to be in these streets, but that isn’t mine to take. Who will give it to us? Why is the boy in the playground back, his voice louder than the verbal recognition of my belonging, laughing at my readiness to grasp it?

On Fossils

I got married 2 months ago and it was incredibly fun. I almost had everyone who means anything in attendance, there was minimal drama (shocking for a Punjabi wedding), and most importantly, I married a wonderful person whom I actually love and admire.

But besides all the happiness, there’s a very profound feeling of loss that I’ve been left with. The loss of a life that was once mine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply happy and in love with my current life, and my “new family” is making adjusting to this “new life” very easy for me, but I still do hold this loss of what once was in my heart.

For the first fifteen years of my life, I lived in a joint family setting. We had a huge house, and it was always full. I’d have cousins coming in and out of our side, and I was going in and out to their sides. I had a close bond with my uncles, and aunts, and of course my grandmother who held everything together. I never even knew what the term “cousin” meant for the longest time. All 9 of them were my brothers and sisters (and still are).

My father passed away when I was 9, and my uncle passed away 6 months later, and then my grandmother passed away when I was 14, so loss is a concept I’m very familiar with. But leaving the family house was the beginning of a very long and complicated journey of my relationship with loss and what it means to me.

I couldn’t believe it when I was first told that we were moving out. It didn’t seem possible in any way that I could live away from that house. My brothers, mother, and future sister-in-law really tried to make the idea fun for me, but it still didn’t feel right. I remember crying and crying and crying. I remember the physical weight of that pain pressing down on my chest. It was not just moving away from a house, it was moving away from my childhood and moving away from the only physical memory left of the three people I had lost. Especially my father. In retrospect, I never quite got over the death of my father until I moved out of the family house. But that’s another story for another day.

So, home was different now. It was quieter. It was new. It was a beautiful place, and towards the end I did warm up to the idea of being there and decorating it together with the 4 people who now consisted of my immediate family. I still had some of my cousins coming over, and we still met my uncles and aunts, so it wasn’t extremely lonely.

My brother got married, shortly after my niece was born, and there was a new energy to the house. It felt familiar. The noise, the mess, the fullness of the space. It’s funny how someone so small managed to add so much to our lives. We were now 6 of us.

A while later my brother moved out with my sister-in-law and my niece. And while there was no negative reason for it, and he moved to a place that was very close, and we were still seeing each other regularly, the space became empty once again. The walls were too far apart for only 3 people. I now realise that it wasn’t a matter of physical emptiness. It was just having to deal with the concept of what home and family actually meant.

From the beginning there was only the idea that home is where you live with all your family, and your family are the people you live with. But it wasn’t like that anymore. It was scattered all over the place. It went from being 18 people in 10 rooms, to 4 people in 3, then to 6 people in 3, and now I had no clue what it was. Family couldn’t have just been the people you live with, and home couldn’t have just been a physical space.

As the years went on, and as I continued to develop these concepts in my heart, it reached a point where it was clear. Home was where my mum was. Wherever in the world she was. If she was standing with me in the middle of Nakumatt, home existed there. If we were on a plane to see her parents, home was being transported. This was ok. I could work with this.

But then I got married.

And now, 2 months later, I find myself asking the same questions I asked 8 years ago. Where is home? What does it mean? I feel at home in the physical space I’m living in now, I’ve begun to refer to it as home. The people who share that space with me are my family, and I’m happy.

But what is home, really? What is family?

I find myself thinking a lot about the house I grew up in. I get hit during the day by pangs of nostalgia, and I get transported to the 12-seater dining table, with the smell of tulsi tea and freshly fried samosas enveloping me. I hear the voices, and the laughs, and I feel the warmth, but I can’t reach out for anything. I can’t lick the icing from the cake box, I can’t pick the fallen telephone diary. But I keep going there. Again, and again, I reach out to memories and smells frozen in time for some sort of answer.

I go back to the word family. What does it mean? Of course, it includes all the people who love me and care for me. The people I know I can rely on. I know this. But what about the face I saw the other day in the supermarket? The face that once lit up with warmth and love, but now puts up a barrier. The face that I saw all the time as a child, but wasn’t there the night of my wedding when I was saying goodbye to my childhood. Is that face part of my family too, even if it doesn’t want to be?

I can see the face clearly in my mind, and it glows with the power of a hundred suns. But no, that is not the face I saw in the supermarket.

The face I can see was part of a different time. A different life. And things are different now, the way they always are. Things are different, but I remain sitting on the swing in front of the red brick wall. My feet going in and out of the sunshine. I still walk the corridors, from the wooden tiles to the black and white squares. I still hear the tune of the clock, muffled by 23 voices of the past.

I’m still there.

The first home I knew.

The Inheritance of Displacement – lessons from Lahore to Nairobi

70 years ago, in 1947, ten-year-old Jeet Khanna and his eight-year-old brother Kishan Khanna left Lahore to go visit their aunt in a village near Kasur. He remembers sitting on the upper level in a compartment of the train carriage he was in. He looked around at familiar faces from his days in Lahore. Before reaching the Kasur Railway Station, the train carriage was stopped in the middle of nowhere. An angry mob stormed into the carriage, and indiscriminate slaughter began. A man wielding a sword as long as Jeet’s arm locked eyes with him. As he inched closer, Jeet clung to his brother and began to cry. The man got Jeet and Kishan down from the compartment.

He carried Kishan on his shoulders, and held Jeet’s hand as he led them out of the carriage, into the rain. As they got out, Jeet laid his eyes on a 15-foot-high pile of dead bodies. The unbearable stench filled his nostrils. He looked around at the crows, vultures, and stray dogs feasting on the bodies, unbothered by the heavy rain. The man put Kishan and Jeet atop a smaller pile, and told them not to move. He left them to the mercy of the dead, the scavengers, and the flooding waters of the Ravi on one side, and the Satluj on the other. As Jeet and Kishan sat there, paralysed by fear, the scene burned itself into Jeet’s memory.

As the British prepared to leave India, disagreements between the two major political parties; the Congress, which had a majority of Hindu members, and the Muslim league which spoke for the minority Muslim population in India, caused tension and raised questions of the stability of the nation post-independence. To quell these disagreements, it was decided that the country was going to be partitioned into two separate nations. It was decided that the states of Punjab, and Bengal, would be partitioned to create a separate nation for the minority Muslim population of India, where their rights would be safeguarded.

Sir Cyrill Radcliffe was summoned from London, and was given 5 weeks to draw the borders between the Dominion of India, and the Dominion of Pakistan. Radcliffe had never visited India before, and therefore was considered the best candidate to conduct the job without seeming biased. This division caused the displacement of about 12 million people from both sides, and left over 2 million people dead.

So, is the partition the cost of freedom, or the cost of religion? Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, who lived together harmoniously for centuries, began to destroy each other in a matter of months. Where did this hatred erupt from? Why was it so strong, that it caused neighbours to turn against neighbours? People who grew up together, walked in and out of each other’s houses, began to hide from one another. Love turned to hate, and the waters of the Ravi, and the Satluj, turned to blood.

People left their houses, their gold, their lovers, and their brothers behind. Forever. Although many managed to rebuild their lives from scratch, this displacement is something that has stayed behind. Instead of inheriting the gold necklaces or the silver plates that were dug near wells for safekeeping, we inherit this displacement. Stories are passed on to every generation to say, remember. Remember the horrors that the quest for power left us with. Remember the blood that was shed, enough to call upon the forces of nature to wash it away, and remember the stains that remain. The stains that the most powerful flood can never manage to wash away.

Even today, 70 years later, my grandfather, Jeet Khanna can clearly remember the swollen bellies of the bodies that lay around him. Men, women, children, all pregnant with death.  Even today, the stench of decay hasn’t diffused. Even today, as he talks about it, his eyes reflexively widen with fear. Even today, he longs to walk in the streets of Lahore once again, but he can’t.

My grandfather managed to survive this ordeal and build a life for himself in Delhi. He managed to carry the burden of his past for 70 years, and sitting here in Kenya today, in the country I call home, I cannot bear to think of what were to happen if a displacement of that sort were to ravage my home. I cannot bear to think of myself 70 years from now, longing every day to come back to Nairobi and breathe its air once again.

I believe that words have a lot of power, and it is through words that our fate is decided. Although, I do not have the same power as our political leaders do, I have my words. And my words today are, please… let us learn from our past, and the past of the world we live in, and let us build a better future. Let us not leave our great-grandchildren with the inheritance of displacement, loss, and horror. Let us not leave them with a feeling of never belonging anywhere. Let us not leave our destiny in the hands of people who put power before peace, and divide us in ways that have never divided us before. Let us use our own words to determine our own destiny, and let us do so together, with peace. We are all we’ve got.

 

(photograph by Margaret Bourke-White for LIFE Picture Collection)

The Crimson Conflict

The 9 day Hindu festival of Navratri is dedicated to the Mother Goddess- Durga.
On the 8th day of the festival, families invite 7 little girls to their houses. Any girl who hasn’t had her period is believed to be a form of Durga. She is revered.

As soon as a girl gets her period, she cannot take part in the festivities as a form of Durga. In most households, girls while on their periods, cannot participate in any way in religious practices, or visit the temple.

Periods are considered impure.

The colour red, is a very auspicious colour for Hindus. It is used as the vermillion powder placed on foreheads during rituals, used on idols, and dedicated to God. Brides wear red on their wedding day, and it is a colour believed to be favoured by Durga.

Can a Mother possibly not know anything about periods?
Can the Mother Goddess, be impure and untouchable for 5 days every month?

 

11 –

They call 7 of you,
feed you, give you gifts.
They touch your feet
and seek your blessings.
After all,
you’re a form of the Mother Goddess.
The circle they place on your forehead,
bright, deep, red.

12 –

They call 7 girls,
feed them, give them gifts.
They touch their feet
and seek their blessings.
After all,
they’re a form of the Mother Goddess.
The circle you see on the bathroom floor,
bright, deep, red.

32 –  

You call 7 girls,
feed them, give them gifts.
You touch their feet
and seek their blessings.
After all,
they’re a form of the Mother Goddess.

Your daughter cries in the next room,
she wants to see her friends,
the little Mother Goddesses.
But the circles on her mattress are
bright, deep, red.

If the Mother Goddess
was so revolted to red,
would she place it on our foreheads,
in our clothes,
on herself?

The Maharaja’s Monologue

Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab, and the son of the mighty Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, was taken away by the British from his identity at the age of 10. This separation from his family, language, and religion led him to convert to Christianity, and at the age of 15 he was exiled to Britain.
In Britain, he was integrated into the upper class and was viewed as an exotic addition to Queen Victoria’s entourage. She referred to him as her “black prince”.
Towards the end of his mother’s life, they were reunited and she came to live with him in Britain. During this time Maharani Jindan, his mother, reintroduced him to his true identity. Unfortunately, her life with her son only lasted two more years after their reunion. However, she ignited a flame in him to search for himself.
He kept trying to return back to Punjab, but the British never let that transpire. After reconnecting with his cousin and being exposed to Sikhism, he was reinitiated into the religion.
At 55, he died alone in Paris, and even after his death he was refused a Sikh funeral and cremation. He was buried as a Christian in England by the British, and there he remains today, away from his land and religion. 
The tragedy of Duleep Singh’s life was that he was never allowed to be whom he was supposed to be. This monologue from his perspective explores his desire of reconnection.

 

I have these dreams all the time.

I am riding on a horse, a sword in my hand, and I can swing it effortlessly. Its movements flowing like five rivers.

I see my shadow and I am adorned with a turban.  Five and a half metres of strength and pride.

People look at me, and they know who I am. My turban, the turban of kings and warriors, makes it clear to them.

They don’t fear me, or the brownness of my skin. I am not a black prince for them, I am a mighty maharaja.

Then I wake up, no turban on my head, no sword in my hand. My hair is shorn and my shadow is indistinguishable from those who think I don’t belong.

Do I belong though?

Perhaps somewhere else.

Let me tell you where I belong. I belong in the land of the five rivers that keep calling to me. I belong where my turban is my crown.

Take me there.

Take me to the mud that coloured my skin, the water that gave it shape.

Take me to mornings filled with the sound of the dhol, and sunsets the colour of my mother’s phulkari.

Take me where the moon shines brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, and where the air I breathe doesn’t sting my soul.

I look at the strokes of Gurmukhi, and I know if I could read them, they wouldn’t pinch my tongue.

I look down at my right wrist, and I know it misses the weight of iron.

I look in the mirror, and I am incomplete.

Separated from my land, my lord, and my language.

I am incomplete.

Take me back to my Punjab.