Wednesday, May 23, 2018

About Writing and Other Things - My Conversation with Bill Berry, Jr, the Founder of Aaduna

Bill Berry, Jr.:

Ms. Banikya, finally we get the opportunity to chat even if it will be brief.  I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts with me and the readership.  So, you pursued and graduated with a major in Sociology and attained a certificate in poetry.  We will get to those achievements later.  Now, you grew up in the valleys of Assam.  I know that Brahmaputra and Barak are significant part of that area, but I have no idea of the way of life in those valleys.  What was your childhood like and how did the day to day living regime impact you as you grew up and before going off to college?

Prarthana Banikya:

Thank you very much for taking time out to talk to me. I feel very privileged to be able to share my thoughts with you and Aaduna’s readers!

I grew up in Guwahati, a quiet town in Assam in which most neighborhoods are scattered over hills and winding roads or in the plains, in the banks of the Brahmaputra. One of the first things that will strike you about the town is the Brahmaputra - it has a dominant presence. Growing up, I associated the river primarily with ferry rides that we took to visit relatives living in the north banks of the river. However, during monsoons, I remember weariness setting in because many neighborhoods used to be impacted by floods and people would use boats to commute.

Most of the families I knew had independent livelihoods that did not depend on the river. During the 1990s, Guwahati was a small town and most families knew one another or knew of someone who did. I grew up in a joint family of nine people and two dogs, cats, and a cow. Growing up, we had a set schedule like an hour’s nap time in the afternoons, playtime for an hour until dusk, and study hour until movie night. We had a movie night every weekday evening where the entire family watched a movie together before dinner was served. Weekends, my uncle often took my cousins and me to one of our favorite parks and sometimes, to a nearby flyover from where we used to watch and listen to trains go by. I think this kind of a specific day-to-day regime made us disciplined to do things at a certain time and in a certain way and to appreciate the little things.

Movie night!  Sounds like an American tradition.  So, what are some of the movies and how did those early childhood film impressions affect you as you grew older?  And can you share who the nine people were…are we talking about a number of siblings or an extended family? And where are you living now, and if not in the Assam, do you plan to return to that earlier way of life?  I know, too many questions.

The movies? They were mostly Bollywood movies. I must tell you that the 1990s were a time when the most clichéd lot of Bollywood movies were made. But we didn’t know that back then. Haha! And even if my family knew, they were such movie buffs that they didn’t care. The movies were mostly musicals, and typically had a similar storyline where boy meets girl and their families oppose their relationship, but the couple holds their ground and they end up happily ever after. Even though I don’t remember any specific movies, I remember the soundtracks were catchy and once they got into your head, it was difficult not to hum them. 

The nine people in my family consisted of my maternal grandparents, my uncle and aunt and their two children (who were practically like my siblings), our household help, Jonali, and my mother and I. My parents separated when I was about three years old and as a child as well as a teenager, my idea of a family was often what I’ve mentioned above.

Currently, I live in Bangalore which is known as the IT (information technology) hub of India and though I like the city and have called it home for the past ten years, life here is very different from the one I had growing up. I’ve thought a lot about going back to the older way of life, but I also know it wouldn’t be an easy choice considering living in a city has made me accustomed to its ways. It’s like I have my mind in two places! Besides, there are very few places today that resemble the way of life I had growing up. Even Guwahati is nothing like what it used to be. Where once stood our home and orchard, now stands an apartment complex with a large parking lot.

It seems that your background…family, residences as a child and then as an adult, and even family night at the movies (in America, Hollywood and not Bollywood) bear an interesting resemblance to many Americans. Have you found a profound or significant American influence on Banglore or India in general? If not, is there a prevailing foreign influence or is India and your city rooted in its own cultural mores and thinking.  Is there an Indian national sensibility, and how is that defined?

I cannot say for certain if life in the 1990s in India had a strong foreign influence. From where I came, 1990s was a time when we were fairly disconnected from foreign influence. Once I moved to a boarding school, that changed and American music and movies had a strong impact on my growing up years. Our headmaster was an agreeable British man who emphasized the significance of sports, music, and art. For us, the students, this translated into long hours of Baseball games, dramatics class, and outdoor literature lessons.

India in itself is so diverse and the differences are so deep-rooted and layered that speaking of similarities across regions and states is often very difficult. Although I do think that the limited influence of gadgets and technology during the time brought about several similarities in the way we led our lives across towns and cities of the world.

In terms of the distinctiveness of regions and states, I was wondering how polarized the political landscape is throughout your country. In the US, we have the concept of red and blue states that denotes the split between Republicans and Democrats, and as you may know, the federal government is in disarray and finding political consensus is extraordinary difficult.  How does politics play out in India and are people in your age range political in terms of activism or supporting one group over another?

India has a plethora of regional parties and a handful of national parties among which the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress are two of the dominant parties. The political landscape in the country is extremely polarized and segmented. I’d read recently that the average age of a Member of the Parliament is typically over 50. So it’s no surprise that political ruling is usually limited to the Baby Boomers group. In the last few years, there have been several young leaders in regional positions of power, however, these are limited in number and in most of the cases, it’s primarily because of their political legacy. For most 30-year-olds in the country, interest in politics is limited to vehement conversations over dinner and that very rarely converts to political activism. 

And eventually those folks who rather discuss politics will be of age were more direct involvement in the intricacies of “politics” becomes a significant aspect of daily life.  Well, we have chatted about a good range of issues, and I appreciate that you found the time to chat with me.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts.  As our conversation comes to closure, I wondered what you would impress upon school aged children to give them a relevant sense of the world, and what skills they will need to successfully maneuver a suitable path to reach their goal (s?) 

Absolutely. I think that day isn't very far off. I think it's essential for school going children to find where their passion lies and to build foundational skills early in their life. I think that being passionate about things we love (such as art, music drama, dance, or a sport) helps give purpose and motivation to life, especially during trying times. It helps connect with ourselves and establishes our sense of identity.

As for skills, I think in the next decade(s), human skills are going to be of growing significance and in a world that's filled with people who are self-absorbed and self-obsessed, skills such as compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to those around us are what will set people apart from the crowd. And that's what the world truly needs.

*The conversation is now available for reading on Aaduna's blog.

Life in the 1990s

They say it wasn’t an easy time. From vehicles to seasons, from postal mail to relationships — everything moved much slower than they do today. Things took its time and rolled in when the time was right. I remember the 1990s as the golden years that I try to reinvent today. Even two decades later, its charm still lingers in its blue inland letters and the old radio that’s now tucked away in a corner storage room. 

The house I grew up in was located in an old part of town in northeastern India. It was a white-walled house with a slanting green tin roof, a courtyard lined with flower beds and a gate over which dangled a Bougainville tree. The main door of the house opened up to a veranda that overlooked the residential street in front. One of the morning rituals that my grandparents had was to sit in the veranda with their cup of late morning tea and read the newspaper, talk, or simply watch the world go by. During the time, roads were void of the hustle bustle that we witness today. But if one sat at the veranda for a while, they’d soon know a little more about the families in the neighborhood and be prepared to receive a wave or shout out every now and then. 

Most households in town consisted of extended families. This meant that we never came home from school or work to an empty house like we do today. For growing children, there’s something about the love and warmth of grandparents that cannot be explained in words. Their quiet presence and indulgence is something I still long for. On Sunday mornings, my grandmother often walked into my room in-between her chores and called out to me for breakfast as she drew out thick curtains. Afternoons were meant for her narrations of local folk stories until her words trailed off and we, the grandchildren, had faces carved into pillows in an hour-long siesta.

Even 20 years later, early mornings from that time are still etched in my mind. Faint voices of my mother and grandmother in the kitchen reassured me of a familiar place when I was still faraway in-between dreams. At the time, eating together was an important family ritual. We ate together like we didn’t know any other way existed. Meals were usually elaborate — nothing like the express meals we have today. And most fruits and vegetables were grown at home. In our backyard, guava, banana, jujube, and mango trees grew next to vegetable patches of potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. For us children, the backyard at night turned into a world where green-eyed monsters and witches appeared mysteriously. On friendly dares, in pitch darkness, we’d walk in a huddle towards the vegetable patches and then dash back to the open kitchen door bursting into peals of laughter.

Our green-roofed home was more often than not teeming with people and pets. It had housed cows, dogs of all sizes, and cats of all temperaments. There were cats napping on muras, dogs at dusk chasing crows away, and cows grazing in the backyard chewing grass around the cowshed. Frogs, crickets, and long-legged spiders roamed freely in the backyard. 

Guests often arrived in hoards during the weekend. Short visits turned into extended hours of conversation and feasting for adults and numerous games of catch and chase for children. Come what may, guests never left without having a cup of tea and freshly made local delicacies. Festivals and special occasions carried an irreplaceable charm. There was a mounting anticipation and eagerness for these occasions as they drew to a close. Food menus were carefully set, shopping for groceries and other knick-knacks were done days in advance, sleeping arrangements for all guests was meticulously planned, and all corners and spaces of the house were dusted, cleaned, and reorganized. When the day arrived, the house reverberated with fevered activities, music, and mirth. 

These days, with the way our lifestyles have shaped up, we don’t get many visitors. The trees in the backyard have now made way for a parking lot. Where the green tin-roofed house once stood now stands a four-storied apartment building. The flower garden has been replaced by concrete floors where children from the apartment building play cricket in the evening. However, if you glance towards the main gate, a tree still stands. With its branches tangled in knots, it hunches over the gate like an old woman standing in wait like any moment now a visitor will walk in. 


First published in The Gravel Magazine in the Winter of 2017.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

That Little House in Langford Town That we Left Behind

Dear V,

I know this letter may seem strange considering we haven’t spoken to each other in two years. I have been meaning to write to you for a long time, but I was never able to translate the weight of my feelings into words.

Last week, I was passing by Langford town and it reminded me of the time we rented that five-hundred square feet crooked house beside the Cyprus tree. That neighbourhood hasn’t changed much after we left. Do you remember how every once in a while I’d panic about the house collapsing? You’d drag me outside to an elevated patch of barren land from where we could see the entire street. You’d explain that the house was on a slanting street and that was why it looked crooked. And when I’d nod unconvinced, you’d tickle me till I shrieked.

That house sure was small, wasn’t it? We’d spend all our time together sleeping late till Sunday mornings and rainy afternoons, flipping omelettes in that rectangular blue-walled kitchen, watching the neighbourhood stray dogs run havoc at twilight and reading Rimbaud and Rumi to each other until dark skies were swallowed by the sun.

I remember us being immensely happy although at the time, we didn’t know it. We assumed what we were experiencing was something we’d feel for the rest of our lives, without having to try. Sometimes, the two of us from that time seem like faint memories of someone we once knew, but lost touch with. I still don’t know what led us to grow apart. Maybe, it was because we met at a time when we weren’t geared for a lifetime of togetherness.

Omi told me you’ve met someone wonderful and that you both live in a house tucked in the hills bordering Bakloh. Very animatedly, she also went on to tell me  that your fiancée has eyes that sparkle every time she sees you and a smile that  can make a cloudy day blow away. She of course seemed regretful after blurting this out and grasping my hands, apologised profusely for being insensitive. You know how she is — she doesn’t mean harm.

I know that by the time this letter reaches you, it’ll be the end of summer and you’ll be married. Lately, I often find my mind wandering around thoughts of you and her. But I don’t want to think about your new life in the hills of Bakloh. I’d rather think of you at the terrace of our crooked house with the wind in our face, my head leaning against your shoulder, us staring into open skies with Springsteen’s voice in our ears.

(Once) yours,

*First published by Women's Web as a part of the eight winning entries for the blogathon contest, Letters to my Ex (February 2018).

Friday, August 25, 2017

Losing Aunt Runa to Alzheimer's Disease

We were standing under a tangled bougainvillea just outside our house. It was afternoon and the summer sky was white. My aunt asked my mother, “Lina, why can’t I remember my address? How will I reach home?”

My aunt sounded quietly desperate. From where I was standing, I could not see my mother’s face or whether she was able to mask her concern. She didn’t reply immediately. But when she did it was with urgency. She said, “Let me come with you. Don’t worry. You’ll reach home before dark.”

During the time, most people reached home from work before dusk. If they didn’t, it was a cause for concern for families. And when that happened, landline phones were rung in friends and families’ homes to check if they knew of the missing person’s whereabouts.

This was a long time ago in Guwahati in the 1990s. It is funny how we remember certain moments with defined clarity and forget so many others that we’d rather remember in their stead. This must have been a disquieting conversation for a 15-year-old girl, but I often use this memory to take me back to the happier years spent at Aunt Runa’s house.

One of my earliest memories was of Aunt Runa steering into the driveway in her little blue car after work. Hearing the sound of the car in the evening, my cousins and I’d peer through the bedroom window and then frantically start cleaning up so that everything was in place by the time she entered the house. But no matter how hard we tried, she’d look at us and instantly know if we had completed our schoolwork or had spent the afternoon dawdling.

Aunt Runa had the kindest set of large black eyes. Her skin was hazel coloured and her wavy hair was often tied in a bun at the nape of her neck. People said she had a restrained kind of elegance, a quiet grace. The kind that takes a while to be recognised in a crowd, but once identified, it made people smile when they thought of her.

Aunt Runa’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s showed when she had barely entered her 40s, but at the time, none of us knew that such an illness existed. Most family members and relatives associated the symptoms with a mild case of forgetfulness. Often, the reactions involved rationalisation, “You know, it runs in the family – this absentmindedness! Runa is just a little more preoccupied than us, that’s all!” Or mild exasperation. “Oh, Runa! Tell me you didn’t forget the house keys again. Why don’t you keep a spare set with you when you know this is bound to happen – you know, the forgetting?”

Aunt Runa took most reactions in her stride. I don’t recall her getting piqued at anyone or saying a hurtful word. My grandmother said she was like that even as a child. She didn’t get into fights, hardly ever argued or threw a tantrum for special treats or toys like other children. She studied hard for school tests when other children had to be dragged from the front yard to return to their books. She was more of a listener than talker, unlike most others in our family.

Some people said that it was this quality of hers, her not being able to talk about her feelings, not reaching out to others during difficult times that had got her to the state she was in. But someone said in an agitated response, “But talk about what really? You tell me. If your husband was seeing another woman, would you go around talking about it? All of us deal with pain differently. That was Runa’s way of dealing with it.”

The 1990s was a time when very few women in our town worked full time or drove to work. Aunt Runa was different and that surprised no one. She worked at an architectural firm, managed her own finances and baked the best gingerbread house cakes I had only seen only in glossy pages of thick cookery books. So when the doctor first diagnosed Alzheimer’s, no one among our family or friends accepted it. One relative announced, “This is all hogwash, I am telling you. These doctors nowadays make up pseudo names for make-believe illnesses so they can make money from it!” Another relative agreeing with him added, “Yes, and Runa is an intelligent woman, an architect. There’s no hint of a chance she could be suffering from a mental illness. Mark my word.” The denial went on for weeks and months. Then when it rolled onto a year, all the talking stopped. By then, even when we tried, we couldn’t ignore the symptoms of the illness.

One afternoon, during my cousin’s pre-wedding get-togethers, the family was huddled over a Chinese Checkers board. Aunt Runa was rummaging through one of the bedroom cupboards. Someone asked her what she was looking for. She paused from her search and turned to us to respond. Instantly, a blank expression crawled across her face. She wasn’t able to mask her surprise at her own lapse of memory. When my older cousin asked whose turn it was to play next, we pretended not to notice -- her forgetfulness and how her face had turned pale when she realised she couldn’t remember.

“At weddings, it was worse. On seeing aunt Runa after a long period of time, neighbours and relatives would excitedly walk up to her to say hello and on not being recognised, they’d pretend that they spotted someone in the crowd they needed to meet and hurriedly disappear into the deluge of people. Later, they broached it to us, the family, and on finding out about her illness, they’d hold the news giver’s hand; with tilted heads, they’d provide consolation in muted voices.

When it dawned on us that it wasn’t just Aunt Runa who was losing her memories, we were slowly losing her to Alzheimer’s, we began talking more often about the aunt Runa we once knew. I suppose that was our way of holding on to what was left of her, her memories. I’d listen to family members'  conversations trying to figure if I had any of her traits in me. Although I always liked aunt Runa, I had grown even fonder of her one winter during my school’s annual cultural day. It was the most awaited event at school. Most children had started preparing for it weeks in advance. Since I was ten years old, I was supposed to accompany my older cousin, aunt Runa’s daughter. Hours before the event when I reached aunt Runa’s home, I overheard my cousin telling her that she couldn’t take me along with her because she had other plans with her friends. The announcement led to a heated argument and minutes later, my cousin stormed out of the house leaving me red-faced in the next room trying to hold back tears.

Aunt Runa glided into the room and said, “Forget about the event. We’ll have more fun here, okay? How about we watch the new movie you were talking about the other day?” A video-cassette of the movie was procured from the video store and snacks were whipped up. I don’t remember what that movie was or whether it was actually a fun evening, but I will never forget her kindness to me.

* * *

It has been two years since I last saw aunt Runa. As I sit with my mother in my aunt’s house, the house I spent so many summers as a child, we talk in hushed voices about things that don’t really matter, what my mother would cook for dinner and how warm the weather has been lately. That’s when the nurse brings her in. Aunt Runa clutches the nurse’s arm with both hands and inches her way sideways towards the bed. She keeps her head lowered such that her chin touches her chest. Her eyes dart about the wooden floor. Her hair is in a carelessly tied ponytail, not her old, elegant knot.

My mother says in her best cheerful voice, “Runa Ba, how are you?” No response. “Look who’s here with me?” she persists.

I force a smile and prepare myself for her to look at me without recognition. No response. She then turns her head towards us and looks through us to focus on the open window that overlooks the residential street. My mother slowly places herself next to her and holds her hand. As I sit facing aunt Runa, I try to find traces of the person I once knew. In her faraway gaze, her dark black eyes, wrinkled skin and upturned lips, I don’t find her. What I find is an emptiness I sometimes feel in myself. So I let the sound of the ticking clock fill the silence in the room as she stares out of the open window we once peered out as children.

*First published in The Ladies Finger Magazine in June 2017.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

8 MM

You see him
through a broken window
as he glides in
through the door.

Love is a black dog
in a video store.

You’d like him to say hello
but hope he won’t hear
your new shoes creak
against the marble floor.

Love is a black dog
in a video store.

Nothing of the sort happens;
he pays swiftly
and walks out
while it starts to pour.

Under the roof of a garage
next door, he stands
and smiles at you.
You know there’s more.

Under a lopsided beret,
his eyes are a dark brown;
they say a word or two
but many a secrets they store.

Love is a black dog
in a video store.

On a torn piece
of typed paper
he writes his number
and name “Salvador.”

In the shade
of your study lamp,
you open the piece
of crumpled paper.

Salvador now is a blotch
of blue and white;
the numbers are hazy
A nine may really be a four.

Love is a black dog
in a video store.

*First published by Aaduna in April 2017 as a part of the celebrations of National Poetry Month.