All posts by Chandra

Smoke

When I first met my husband I told him the color of his eyes reminded me of ponds in Bengal, green, blue, grey. On train rides and car rides through the Bengal countryside I have passed many such ponds these colors. Their quiet empty surfaces punctuated by rain drops that fell on them like dreams. Sometimes lotus leaves, sometimes a frog, at other times a woman with a sari wrapped around her bathing, sometimes children wading or throwing stones. Mostly empty, blue, green, grey expanses of water behind a house or on the side of the road. I want to go see if those ponds are still there or if they have all been dug up to make way for more housing. I don’t know what I dread more that are all gone, swallowed in the mouths of human consumptions, needs and desires or that they are choked with plastic and rubbish, overt markers of the same.

On sides of the roads, sometimes next to these ponds, women sit together in groups, their backs turned to the sun, their hair open, wet and black like tangled fish nets. They dry their hair like this while their voices and laughter float up to us who were passing by.

Here I am in a Cornish village seated yet again on the wooden floor, my back also turned from the sun to let my hair dry; here I am, but my memories pull me back to the villages of my childhood, especially those in West Bengal. At night the sky is full of the stars that we could never see from the cities we have dwelled in, during my early morning walks the air is heavy with the smell of smoke and mist, mingled always with remembrances of times past, of temps perdu.

Nothing

I was a tall, clumsy girl who fell over her legs in soccer and dislocated her elbow, who broke almost every finger in volleyball, who spoke in a stammer and a lisp, the latter of which is still pronounced, the former hidden unless I am nervous or speaking in Bengali. That girl is not gone.

She is hidden inside me and I wish she was my friend but most of the time I think she is not. She watches me carefully. She sizes me up when I get ready in the mornings, she watches me when I run slowly down a lane, she reads my writings, she peeps from over my shoulders and she says to me, Huh, so this is who you are? Not incredulous or loud or anything, just like a small slight shake of the head and a half muttered tsk tsk tsk.

Look what you do, that girl tells me. You sit on the ground in a patch of light, sunbathing by your bunnies and your dog, several half opened books turned on their faces, lines jotted in a journal, an unfinished PhD, a yet to be published book in your folders, around you and in storage more belongings than you need. Look at how you stare out at the emptiness in front of you, at ocean and sky and grass covered land. In the pond the golden fish are busier than you. Is this the life you built for yourself or was it built for you?

I don’t have answers for her but when I sit still and let the sun enter my body, a light so crisp it reminds me of floating on my back in the sea, she that girl I was stills her voice and becomes–me and we are both nothing.

Joey

My dog Joey is like a big black furry rug. He sits with me outside the house in a patch of sun. He lifts his face often to the sky. I suspect he is taking in the lay of the land with his nose. I am pretty much doing the same though in my case I pick the apples from the garden, take small walks, watch the gold fish dart about under water in the pond.

I let the sun enter my body through my bare legs folded under me, my arms bent over the laptop, my face leaning close to the computer screen so I can see against the glare of the morning light. Sometimes the wind gets strong and blows leaves into our faces, or clouds pass over the sun, changing the weather from warm to chilly in an instant. Then Joey and I rise almost in unison and go back inside. I close the door behind me and Joey settles at my feet. Sometimes I put my feet under his warm belly and we both stay like that, my dog and me, taking stock of what it means to be us in this moment.

Uphold but What?

The sun came out today for a bit today. Really brilliant and white in a blue clear sky. I went for an impromptu walk in the middle of the day, pulled to the sound of the ocean. And then in the evening, the queen died. She was 96.

My fourteen year old born and brought up mostly in America came to me and said she was sad when she heard the news. Why? I asked her hoping to glean some information on how she felt about her life here in the village. I thought the queen would live forever, she replied. And in her response I felt she was mourning the reality of death, that in the end even a queen couldn’t deny or defy.

In newspapers this morning, I saw the crowds huddled outside the palace and in places around London. They looked like war time pictures of the public, the masses sombre and worried, as we must all be, but not just for the passing of a capable monarch. Never has the world faced such a climate crisis, refugees being blocked by walls or promises to be shipped to Rwanda; impending poverty over the winter, displacement and the rising prices of everything.

I am an immigrant to England, as I was one in America and I have had the privilege to question, to belong without feeling the compulsion to adhere or obey or accept any norms, cultural or historical.

The sun was shining again yesterday, it was the morning after the death of the queen. King Charles was already on the throne. I stepped out of my house and on the brown cobbled path in front of me I saw a coin. I knelt down and picked it up. On the face of it, half covered with dirt was the sharp profile of the queen. I wiped it clean with my fingers till I could see her fully and then put it carefully in my pocket.

Kaeru

It is early in the morning, our first week in the village as residents.

There is a Japanese word for going homeward. Kaeru.

Our oldest left for boarding school before we moved here. We build our houses on shifting sands.

The word, the value at the root of our decision making– sustainable, from the Latin sustinere, to hold, uphold, the ability to continue.

I have not been to the sea enough. Yet.

Seeking the wild

The first time I went to Cornwall, what I noticed was the light. 2020 had been a year of lockdowns and in between, in a brief lull when things opened tentatively, we came to one of the Southernmost points in England and stayed in a small village. The sun was already setting after our six- hour drive from the city that day and it should have been dark already, only it wasn’t. The light pink and blue over the Atlantic hung like a gossamer cobweb over the landscape of houses and cliffs and the ocean became one with the sky in the horizon. Darkness was coming, I could see that, but in that brief moment between day and dusk I saw what had been missing for me in London. I saw how darkness was not just the absence of light. Dark contained spaces of light unhindered by the shadows of buildings and human endeavor and commercial gains. Where had this dark been my whole life? Here the darkness is not man- made. It feels like the nights of our origin.

For the first time since our arrival to England a year ago, I felt something other than the despair of lockdowns and the anxieties of homeschooling and the logistics of grocery shopping. That “something” is difficult to put into words but it is not hope that I am trying to describe, it is a darkness deeper than light.

In the last year, since our first visit, we have gone again and again. My husband and I sold our home in Seattle, borrowed money from his father and bought a home on auction in a village close to the South West Coast Path. The house is uninhabitable, uninsulated, broken windows, asbestos but the wild space around it holds apples and plums and pears and a promise that if we tilled the earth, we could grow more and perhaps we could wild ourselves.

It is now the end of 2021. We are here again in Cornwall. We leave the city whenever we can. Last week, at about the half way point on our drive over from London, the light changed. I felt it in my body as the buildings of the city fell away one by one, playthings built like lego blocks and the earth opened into the distance. It was the landscape reclaiming itself from us.

The glasshouse on our land is a collection of glass on a steel frame, the narrow entrance difficult to pass through, blocked by the overgrown bushes of grapes and blackberries and bramble. I can see inside a cactus dying in a corner and plants whose names I don’t yet know. I clear the entrance and I pull the weeds. Around us on the land and within the house lie asbestos that we only find later had not been cleared as promised by the contractor. My husband throws away his jacket and jeans and shoes after we realize that he had been cleaning out debris mixed in how much asbestos, we don’t know. But the realization of the harm we have done to the natural world is not a theoretical idea.

Dreaming of a home in nature was an idyllic creation of our imagination spurred by the pandemic that had blocked us in the concrete walls of a rented house in the city. The reality of owning one now is not just about cleaning bramble and getting asbestos properly disposed of. Our contractor has fled with the money he was given. Perhaps the darkness was too much for him. On our own, with the last of our resources gone, we have very little idea or knowledge about how to create that home in the wild. I imagine the green taking over the house, ivy in the gutter, coming out of the rusted taps, windows blown out by storms, wind in the hallways. The edifice crumbling to the forces of nature. Perhaps that is how it should be.

We are back now in London. At nights I wake to the calls of foxes that roam this city at night. I lie awake in bed listening to them until I can’t hear them anymore.

Foxes of London

Every day the world tells me I need to pay attention and so I do. I wait for two hours after I wake to check my messages and then I wait a little more before I reply to them. Then I check the news and then I wait a little longer to check for more updates. Then during the day, during my work, in between walking and eating and reading and writing and napping, I check for more messages and then sometimes I reply immediately. The world requires our attention and our replies.

Once early in the morning, it was 3am I think, the neighbor’s cat found her way to my husband’s pillow and when we woke up and found her, we yelled and jumped out of our beds and later while my husband changed the sheets and after I had chased the cat out, I stood on the patio facing the main road, and I looked down and a fox looked up at me. We stared into each other’s eyes and time stopped and stilled and all was silent for a moment before she ran away into the dark and I went back inside my bedroom.

This bedroom that faces the main room causes me many angsts. During lockdown when the pubs were closed and the cars were gone and people were indoors, I forgot that I lived on this road that was always full of cars and buses and people. And then the pub around the corner opened again and Friday and Saturday nights my husband and I wake to the yells and laughter and calls and screams and cries and whistles and hullabaloo of people who have had more than one drink and are expressing themselves fully, more fully than their lives allow otherwise. I wish them well but in the dark blue of midnight, the sounds mingle with my dreams and I wake to a fugue and a fatigue unlike any other I experience. This is not waking to the baby crying next door or to the dogs who howl and fight under our windows all night in our home in India. This is a fatigue that carries with it the weight of all our human failures and sorrows. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to live on this road. But sometimes I remind myself that before the buses and the cars and the screams and the drunken singing, in a gap and silence between all of that the foxes still roam silent. I have to do everything I can in my days and nights to find them.

The house is on fire

Greta Thunberg has used this line, “Our house is on fire,” numerous times to speak about climate change. In the last few weeks, as England wavered over its policies, increasing lockdown tiers like a screw being tightened with excruciating hesitation, I have been trying to educate my daughters and myself about climate change and what we needed to do. Since they are the ones to inherit the earth and all the environmental chaos our consumption and lifestyles have created, the least we can do, I have understood much too belatedly, is to educate them and ourselves in the science of global warming and how we can take positive action. 

And then yesterday, as we watched from England, the Capitol building in Washington D.C being overrun by mobs, windows breaking, smoke in the air, shots fired, I felt along with Americans and non-Americans alike, a disbelief. Disbelief at the tweets of Trump, of Ivanka who called the mob “American patriots.” Disbelief at the center of what is supposed to the world’s oldest continuous democracy being taken over by white men with guns. Where were the police? How many black lives were taken this year by police violence, how many police stood on guard to protect the Lincoln memorial during Black Matters Protest this last year and so few to protect both houses of the Congress as they convened to certify Biden’s win? But then I realized that my disbelief itself was a part of the many lies we have been telling ourselves, in the way ofour global neglect to take urgent action against climate change. 

In the four years since Trump came into power, we have witnessed an increase in racism, hate crimes, and domestic terrorism. We have witnessed, reported, excused, but we knew what we were witnessing – politicians concerned with their own seats and power, to the extent that they will side with a lie rather than stand with obvious truths. Lies have a way of knocking at our doors. In the very ways we are burning our planet down, the domestic in-grown terrorists have broken down the barriers to the Capitol. 

Yesterday was a sad day for America and democracy, but it was not a surprise, not a sudden apocalypse that arrived at the doors of the building with guns. We knew this day was coming. We preferred to ignore, we preferred to “hope.” Hope will not save American democracy, in the same way that it will not save our planet. In the words of Greta, “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Thin Space

There is a poetic injustice to praising open spaces in a pandemic. They have always been there but we had chosen so far to live in narrow cities, grey roads and walls, determinedly tiring from the ceaseless endeavors we were sure we are meant to pursue. Next to me now, the Atlantic stretches in swathes of blues, blacks, greens and grays as the sun rises and even on days with gales of wind like today, I find spaces to sit on the side of the cliffs, my face lifted to the sun like a bird. The Celtics have a term “Thin Places” for places where a person can meet God. For me, I found my thin space on the side of the ocean in Cornwall. The surf rises and crashes on the narrow strip of beach near the place we have rented and it is too cold for me to bear sometimes but then the sun comes up and the wind and ocean spray sting my face and eyes and I let myself learn how to find stillness. The children play in the sand, the dog chases after them and then finding a dry cuttle fish bone gnaws at it. There are a few brave surfers in the water throwing a frisbee to each other, near me on the sand the remains of a dead seal decomposes gently, every day a little bit more of him gone. Often in the distance, a rainbow frames the sky until it fades from view. Earlier in the year, in a lull between the lockdowns, we had travelled here and found a place of peace, in the turmoil of my mother in law’s death from ALS, our migration to England and then Covid-19. Can these open spaces, as swept as they are in the wind, gales, rain, mud and ocean spray, protect and heal us? The children slip and fall often as we walk bits of the South West Coast Path, England’s longest national trail, 630 miles long. As the sun lights up my computer screen from behind me, my eyes are drawn away from the computer to the seagulls and kites floating on a wing in the wind. If there is a meaning to our lives, if there is a way to learn how to live deeply and truly, surely it has to be here somewhere on these cliffs by the ocean. We throw our stale bread to the gulls and I stand watching them circle us and the crumbs on the ground. For them, perhaps both are the same?

Fugue

Some mornings are like walking in a fugue created by a combination of your self and the movements of the world. While returning from walking the dog in the park, a couple of currency notes came flying in the wind and fell near my feet, already restless and ready to move on, so I scooped them up quickly and looked for an owner. There was no one near me chasing it down, not even anyone in the distance, looking forlornly for something they had lost. A lady across the road with dogs razor thin, pointed and one dimensional kept staring at me, and I felt self-conscious. It wasn’t her money, it was clear to me, but it was also clear to me that she was waiting to see what I would do with it. This particular lady I had encountered already a few times before. She was one of those with a natural haughty face etched in the landscape of her nose and cheeks and mouth and forehead, like a mountain destined for disdain and looking down at others around it. Blond brown hair swept to the side of her face, red lipstick, sporty vests and those thin dogs with ears pulled away from the face, such thin bodies that they threatened their own existence.

“Give them to the shop over there,” she yelled now to me from across the road. “Maybe the owner will go ask them for it.” Since there was no owner in sight, this sounded like a ridiculous plan. “I am going to go find someone homeless,” I said rather haughtily and she gave me a dubious look in return that said clearly, “Hah! As if…” before she walked away shaking her well kempt head. So, there I was this wintry morning clutching a bunch of notes in my rapidly numbing hands looking for the homeless.

I knew there was one who sat outside the Tesco (yes, I live in one of those types of neighborhoods where the haves and have nots are well demarcated and noted) but he wasn’t there this morning. There was another man who slept near the railway station, so I set off that way. He wasn’t there either. Where are the homeless today? I tried to joke to myself still clutching on to the money, all my extremities now rebelling. The next tube stop was a little less than a mile away. There is a young girl with short hair and blue eyes who sits outside that station holding up a faded sign asking money for food.

I headed that way and was almost to the entrance of the station when two old men on a big motorbike skid to a halt at the traffic light and fell down with a huge impact of bodies, metal, glass and concrete. A few of us standing on the side walk ran towards them. Broken spectacles, a green plastic bag now torn with packaged meat and liquid detergents and few other such sundry items lay on the road. The two men sat stunned on the road next to buses and cars stopped at the light. Someone struggled to move the bike muttering to himself, I don’t know to do this. A few of us tried to lift the men up and succeeded in leading them and their belongings off the road. I can’t find my glasses, one of the old men said, his bald head shining with sweat and one of the passersby handed him a slightly broken pair that he placed quickly on his nose. The crowd had now grown a little larger and I moved away from them. I had slipped the money into my pant pockets and looked now for the homeless lady but she was not there either. I stood on the sidewalk amidst the rush of morning commuters and felt myself sink into the wall. Then I turned around and started back for home. The homeless man outside the tube stop near my home had meanwhile set up his standard blue tent and it was zipped up from inside. I felt victory in the air as I hurried towards it. ” Is anyone home?” I called out and he answered yes from inside. A zip opened, a white hand appeared, money was transferred from mine to his. I sped home looking for hand sanitizing stations on the way.

You pay attention to your life every day looking for portents and signs and there is an acerbic sense of unease in the human world today. There is all the drama we see, all the drama we are a part of and then there is also beneath it all a separate angry current, as though the tides of the natural world has finally turned against us. It is the hour of our reckoning. Will we wake fast enough to change the course?