Ghosts of grief

When I started reading Ghosts of Meenambakkam, I was very curious. The narrator stood at Meenambakkam airport while meditating on death. Despite all the flights I’ve taken and the amount I have thought about death myself, I doubt I had spent even a fleeting moment at an airport thinking about it. Maybe I feared if I did that the flight might deliver that swift wish. The narrator’s visits to the airport and his thoughts about death, however, were part of a process of mourning; his daughter had died in an unexpected plane crash several years ago. A wound he had barely let heal. He spent those moments outside the airport reliving those difficult last moments while pondering about the things that he could have probably changed.

At the airport, the narrator spots an old acquaintance Dalpathado, a movie producer, who swerves his life that night into a whirlwind of chases and hiding. The secrecy, the danger, the unexpected outcome of all the hush-hush planning make the book a very engaging read. The stormy night makes for an interesting detail in the story; much of which I spent imagining these three men crouched on their fours and whispering to each other in a hut. The danger continues to build around these men which keeps the reader moving forward quickly while imagining an explosive end.

Ghosts of Meenambakkam is written by Ashokamitran and translated by Kalyan Raman (who I was fortunate to have studied under). The writing is crisp and focuses on a lot of details of the surroundings and the night itself adding to the appeal of the book. The life and heart of this book is the underlying sorrow. Sorrows of the past. Of those lost and others forgotten. Of those part of tragedies, both created and accidental. I read it around the time of the passing of Layla. The grief he describes is a grief I understood all too well. Parts of me imagines that he describes these stories in such detail as to detract us from focussing too hard on the larger situation. The story for me was comforting as well as disturbing; like all good stories should be.

[I have had several drafts of this sitting around. But I was forced into thinking about these books and these characters when I heard that Ashokamitran had passed away. He was 85 and a legendary writer of everyday stories that were relatable.]

Thoughts after reading A Handbook For My Lover

We are used to reading about a sanitised love. A love that is packaged for consumption. Especially on social media. The messiness cleaned out and removed. Vulnerability wiped away. Gore hidden from the naked eye. It is one of greatness. But not a greatness I understood.

Something felt not right. Incomplete.

I recently read Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook For My Lover. I hesitantly picked it up at the literary festival. The cover wasn’t appealing enough for me. I was just coming out of a heartbreak (I might say this for years), I couldn’t imagine I had any heart left for an erotic book on love. It sat in my unread pile and collected dust. I flipped through it and closed it in a hurry. Not ready, I muttered. I picked up my old copy of Anais’s diary to reread. I realised deep and painful was what I needed. (This was before I knew Rosalyn was a fan of Anais. Talk about coincidences.) I began the book; it felt like a walk along a long, difficult and tedious path strewn with emotions, chaos, love, lust and sex. I savoured every word. Re-reading pages. Photographing bits that sounded like my thoughts. I will admit it triggered a lot of memories and forced me to deal with a lot of my own pain.

I confronted you about my strange condition. You said, with the air of a professional, that I was exhibiting an early symptom of that disease called love. I was confused. Last I checked I’d bulletproofed and bubble-wrapped my heart so that I’d be immune from such infections. I told you flatly that this had to end.

Several times while reading the book, I heaved sighs like an old lady. I would shut the book and stare at my spinning fan instead. I was overwhelmed. I have trouble talking about what I feel. I hesitate, use vague words, beat around the bush and never say the messiest things loudly. And here was a book that addressed that mess head-on. A vulnerability in my drowning confusion.

When I sat down to write this, I noticed many excerpts of the book online. But the parts that stuck with me aren’t among these. (We all do relate to books in very different ways.) This book and I travelled a journey when I was ready to dismiss the excruciating missing, the irrational love and the vulnerability of feeling exposed as my own foolhardiness. I couldn’t manage the composure I was exhibiting anymore; silently falling apart on the sidelines of a failed relationship.

If I had to say it publicly, I wouldn’t be able to. But I miss him. His shaved head, his grizzly peppered beard, his confident gait, his quiet vulnerability, his reassuring touch. I don’t want to hide it. I don’t want to be ashamed by it. Mostly, I don’t want to feel it. I try not to be shamed by the world’s need for aesthetics in love and my complete lack of it. Cause the truth is I don’t have a liking for that. Everyone speaks of composure in both love and heartbreak. Yet, my love is messy, chaotic, contradictory and non-linear. It cannot fit into neat packages to be presented as examples to be replicated. It defies even my own demand for clarity and sanity. My love is all over the place; it splatters on the walls of my life and it parades its non-conforming arse. It’s painful and surreal. It is one where there are no straight answers and great depth. It is quirky, weird, abnormal. Add another exclusionary adjective of your choice. Yet, instead of taking pride in it, I often felt shame. My heartbreak was no different.

And here was Rosalyn, speaking of her love, pain, lust, emotions and fears, and her and his imperfections so brazenly. It was real; I could run my fingers over it and recollect rather than imagine. I don’t know if the word to use here is brave. It could be called that. For me, A Handbook For My Lover was what I needed.

I have finished the book now. I feel an emptiness that the loss of a great friend leaves. I have been intensely mourning its finish and still returning to the book. I didn’t want to forget. Both the words and how it felt.

It is a recommended read for those of us who can’t help but feel a bit too much.

Discovering Neruda

In the bookstore with endless possibilities, I found a gorgeous, old copy of Neruda’s poems, complete with a lovely note from ’76 inside. What strikes me most about his poetry is the blend of emotions and the marvellous imagery. The introduction is also pretty spectacular in this edition.

“On the edge of the final silence, Neruda writes his own best epitaph, the epitaph of an ‘animal of light’ who has exhausted all that can be said in words:

And today in the depth of the lost forest
He hears the sound of the enemy and runs away
Not from the others but from himself
From that interminable conversation
From the chorus which always accompanied us
And from the meaning of life

Because this once, because just once, because
A syllable or an interval of silence
Or the unstifled noise of a wave
Leave me face to face with the truth
And there is nothing more to interpret,
Nothing more to say; this was everything.
Closed were the forest doors.
The sun goes round opening up the leaves
The moon appears like a white fruit
And man bows to his destiny.”

I have been struggling with a lot lately. I went to the store with a mission to find poetry. Poetry comforts and heals. It is a balm for the pain and a medicine for the wounds. Neruda moves so swiftly between the personal, political and for some reason the sea.

Pact (Sonata)

Pablo Neruda

By now sometimes it is not possible
To win except by falling
By now it is bit possible to tremble between
Two beings, to touch the flower of the river:
Fibres of man come like needles
Procedures, fragments,
Families of repulsive coral, torments
And hard steps for winter
Carpets.

Between lips and lips there are cities
Of great ash and moist summit,
Drops of when and how, vague
Comings and goings:
Between lips and lips as along a shore
Of sand and glass the wind passes.

Therefore you are endless; gather me as though you were
All solemnity, all made of night
Like a zone, until you are indistinguishable
From the lines of time.

Advance into sweetness
Come to my side until the fingery
Leaves of the violin
Have gone silent, until the mosses
Take root in the thunder, until from the pulse
Of hand and hand the roots descend.

Some of the poems even have small notes from him. My favourite one has to be:

This poem was written in 1934. How much has happened since then! Spain, where I wrote it, is a belt of ruins. Ah! if we could only placate the world’s rage with a drop of poetry or of love – but only the struggle and the daring heart are capable of that.

The world and my poetry have both changed. A drop of blood fallen on these lines will remain alive within them, as indelible as love.