Friday, August 25, 2017

Losing Aunt Runa to Alzheimer's

We were standing under the 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.”

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 used this memory to take me back to the happier years spent at aunt Runa’s house.

One of my earliest memories was of 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 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 loquacious 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 else in 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 my aunt’s symptoms.

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 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.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bagurumba Girl

She had green eyes that spoke
the nine languages of love.
Her lips, the soil of earth,
opened to hymns from above.

Her misty words were born
in the cold hills of Diphu.
They danced to sun-dipped songs
of love that silently grew.

Through lone valleys that dive
into meadows of green,
With every step she washed
the soul of the village clean.

One summer when the sun
was burning leaves a crimson red,
She stood at our front door
under a vine dangling shed.

They said her name was Noi.
She would be helping with chores—
cutting grass, feeding cows,
cleaning windows, shelves and doors.

Next day, when her chores were done,
we asked her to play hopscotch.
“I have no time,” she said
glancing at the mantel watch.

“But I’d like to show you something”
she said, leading us to the courtyard.

With a shawl across her shoulders,
she bent down on her bony knees.
Swaying her arms in circles,
a song quivered from her lips.

Under melting grey clouds,
Her dance traveled dark corridors.
It gushed against windows
in echoes and roars.

Days later I watched Noi
lost amidst kitchen clatter;
the sound of dish washing
drowned by running water.

And then something familiar
glistened like dust against light.

From her narrow hip spread wings
waiting for a chance
like those of a restless bird  
to transform into dance.

Background Note on the Poem: Bagurumba is a folk dance of the indigenous Bodo tribe in Assam, one of India’s northeastern states. The Bodos used to reside in the foothills of the Eastern and southern Himalayas which are forested areas and the dance form originated as an inspiration from nature.

*The poem won the second prize at the Orange Flower Awards.

Letters from Balipara

The room opened up from the mouth of a dark corridor and light streamed in through frail white curtains. Reaching out to the roof stood makeshift shelves lined with books. Against one of the walls, a rectangular wooden table was buried under stacks of dusty diaries, glue sticks and stamp pads. It was in this room, my grandfather’s study, that I first discovered the love of letter writing.

The room was the only space in the entire house where I could do something without being interrupted. Others had people dawdling in during any time of the day. The door had a makeshift latch which needed to be pulled laboriously to fit into a hook. But even when you latched it, it would leave a wide gap. On occasions when my little cousins were in a particularly intrusive mood, they’d push against the door until the gap widened and the middle of their faces jutted out like a bunny rabbit jumps out of a magician’s black hat.


I remember it was a winter morning when I wrote my first letter. Sitting on a large wooden chair with a netted back, I wondered for the longest time what I should write about. The letter was supposed to be for my cousin who lived faraway in a school tucked away in the hills. I’d promised I’d write to him the very day he left home. It was already ten days since.


With legs dangling in mid-air, I tore out a sheet of paper from one of the writing pads lying on the table and gave in to the flow of blue ink. I wrote about how grandmother prepared his favorite meal and how we all missed him. How Bo, our dog’s new pastime was to scare the milkman each morning. I wrote about school, art lessons and how we could take a trip down to grandfather’s farm across the Brahmaputra when he came home for winter holidays.


That morning, it took me over an hour to write that letter, but as I was sealing the envelope and pasting the stamp with sticky fingers, I knew one thing. I didn’t want it to be the last time I was writing a letter.


During the spring of 1995, I moved to a boarding school in a sleepy town in Assam called Balipara. Life in a boarding school can be much like living in a world where the sun never sets. During the time, mobile phones did not exist. Landlines did, but phone calls were reserved for emergencies. The only way to communicate with your families and friends from out of school were through handwritten letters.


The school was amidst Balipara’s lush tea gardens. The corridor had tangelo-colored benches on which we could sit astride such that one foot touched the warm grass and the other, the cold marble floors of the corridor. After lunch breaks, the girls would sit here and unwind before wretched classes began. Some would listen to the Walkman, some would play five stones and others prattle blithely.


During weekends, the same corridor would become a quiet space where we wrote letters back home. Hunched over writing pads, some would scrawl while others poetized with ink pens in hand. Many girls used humor in their letters and others reported the day-to-day activities in a factual manner. More pages would turn out when something eventful had happened like a new student or gap teacher had joined school, a gymnasium had been built or fervent inter-hostel competitions were running.


We wrote about lunches at the hostel, sports and most importantly, grades that semester. My parents were never too concerned about grades. They just needed to know that I was well-fed and happy. So my letters mostly circled humorous incidents at school, extracurricular activities, art classes and cultural evenings every Sunday. My mother kept some of my letters in old trinket boxes and during my trip back home last winter, I found one that dated back to the year 1996.


August 12, 1996


“Dear Mama,


Last week, as a part of our community service work, we were taken to a school in a village not far from our campus. We met a bunch of five year olds and taught them the alphabet. You should have seen how gleeful they were throughout the class! We also helped them draw pictures of their favourite things and most of them drew a brightly coloured sun shining down on green hills much like those that we see from our classroom windows. We had such a wonderful time that we didn’t feel like coming away even though it was getting dark and we were soon to return to school.”


Writing a letter was, well, one part of it. But the best part of it was when you’d receive one back from whomever you’d written. For us hostelers, this meant that the matron would walk into the hostel corridor with a bundle of brown colored envelopes and call out names one at a time to whomever the letters were addressed. Some of us would try to droop over the bundle and get a glimpse of the handwriting to see if we’d received one for ourselves.


Many girls not able to contain their excitement, would stretch out their hands and turn over some of the envelopes on top of the bundle so they could get a peek at the ones below them. This would result in the matron slapping the hand in question and mutter in admonishment, “Wait your turn, will you? No patience, this young generation has!” Those who’d receive a letter, would shriek in a state of frenzy.


Often, after receiving a letter, I would hold on to it until dinner time, dying to open it and at the same time, not wanting to get it over with. The anticipation of reading a letter sometimes can be similar to a child waiting to open the grandest present from a box of other little ones.


As I moved out of boarding school, some of the people I grew up with became a hazy memory that breezed in each time I opened my tattered slam book or listened to music from the 1990s. And similarly, with time, letter writing became a lost art.


Recently, as I was going through my shoe box of mementos, cards, old notes, song dedication books and cassettes, I came across a letter from a boy named A. At the very end of the letter was written, “On our very first date! Here’s to a lifetime more of dates to come. Yours forever and always, A.” I went to the next room and said to my boyfriend of five years, “Do you remember this letter?” He smiled wistfully and then A and I crouched side by side on our russet couch to read the two-paged letter from the summer of 2003.


*First published by The Aerogram, August 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Summertime love

Ahead of you, her words sway
to the sound of the wind.
Murmurs and whispers,
they carry the smell of wet
grass by the pavement.

Her laughter dances around
and fills the limpid air
where lovers once blew
their first playful kisses.

Smoke from her cigarette
makes hooplas round and bold.
They float across the midday sky
before the summer air
swallows them whole.

You watch her from afar
with her wavy, auburn hair
while she blows into her coffee,
staring at the distant pier.

You wonder if you should
walk up to her, talk about
books and the weather,
but instead, you sit by
and sip on your chamomile.

Rain patters on the café roof
and fogs your glass window.
You read a wistful ballad
while a man walks in through
the wooden café door.

You pretend not to see
as she melts into the arms
of her lover, the rain from his hair
coloring her cheeks crimson,
like a midsummer afternoon.

*First published in Aaduna's 2016 Spring Issue.