Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I arrive in Benares with a trunk full of Bengali storybooks and an all-consuming sense of loneliness. The loneliness will never really go away during my one-year stay there. I’m six years old and we live in a tiny first floor flat at the end of a small street. The patchily paved road in front of my house gets flooded and muddy every time it rains. Sometimes, while coming back from the small experimental neighbourhood school, I try to jump over the muddy parts. Later, when I’ve made friends with Shilpi didi, our landlord’s daughter who lives downstairs and owns two bad-tempered dogs, we try to jump over the muddy parts together.

 Shilpi didi is two years older than me. She is a good soul.

 I’m friends with a lot of Bengali kids around my age—they are all sons and daughters of my father’s extended group of friends. But Hindi-speaking kids generally give me a cold shoulder. The reasons are many. I have a funny accent, I cannot speak their language fluently, and I don’t bring parathe and achaar for lunch. The queen bees in my small, second grade class are Rishika and Janani. During lunch break, they go around the schoolyard with their arms around each other, whispering mysteriously among themselves. Desperately lonely, I try to follow them at a distance, trying to hear what they’re saying. One day, Rishika doesn’t turn up and I’m asked by Janani to be her partner in going around the school yard. I’m thrilled, and I give her all of my lunch for this honour. Then, the next day, she demands that I do her homework for her, and that I give her all my lunch again. I refuse—partly because I’m hungry and partly because I’m not sure I can do two sets of homework in one evening. I’m promptly dropped from the school yard companionship the next day. I’m heartbroken, and spend the five rupees that my mother gives me sometimes, on drinking a bottle of Coke for lunch. Even that young, I instinctively turn to my taste buds when confronted with a broken heart.

There’s a big party for my seventh birthday. My pishemoshai cooks mutton for the seventy-odd people attending and I get tons of books as gifts. I run around the house in a pretty red dress, but almost all the attendees are Bengalis and I don’t invite anyone from school. I don’t have any friends there.

One afternoon, when I’m playing cricket with Shilpi didi, I try to say something like ‘I was thinking’—only it comes out as ‘main bhaab rahi thi…’ I’m mortified, but cannot remember the Hindi word for ‘think’. ‘You mean, tum soch rahi thi’, she says in a normal voice, and we go back to playing cricket again. I’m indebted to her for a long time for this small act of kindness.

My pishi lives in Benares too. She is part of a joint family and they all live in a crumbling house in Sonarpura, in the heart of the city. I’m fast friends with my cousins. Didibhai is three years older than me, and Roop bhai is three years younger. We spend countless Sunday afternoons lying on the red cement floors, watching the weekly Hindi movie on TV. On Dashami, my parents drop me there while they go for debi-boron to the neighbourhood pandal. We’re bored and want to go out and Chhoka (my pishemoshai’s younger brother) suggests that we go to the ghaats for bisorjon. We spend a long time walking down the narrow bylanes and backlanes of Benares, dodging cows and monkeys, trying to get to the ghaats. When I reach, the entire place is lit up and I sit on the steps with my cousins and watch Durga slowly making her way home. When the last of the ice cream has been finished, and my ears are ringing with ‘thakur thakbe kotokkhon, thakur jabe bisorjon’, I look up at the sky and I look down at the river and I look at all the excited people around me and decide that I like the city after all. 

Even if I am a little lonely.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Then practice losing farther, losing faster...

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
("The Art of Losing": Elizabeth Bishop)