All posts by Chandra

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?

Object

In the land of the living there are lights and those lights are slowly coming on, one by one in the shuttered stores of my London neighborhood. Used to the dark store fronts, I sometimes want to stop and admire the heads of human beings. I spot them inside as they organize and arrange their establishments, getting ready to open their doors to customers again. This morning a black cat with shining green eyes, much like the lights that emanate from within these dark stores, stood near a tombstone in the cemetery I was walking in. I should feel pleasure in this land that is coming to light, where tables outside cafes sell coffee and pastries. In the cemetery there are flowers and dog walkers, squirrels and bees, cats, birds and weeds. The grass grows tall in some places and sometimes I stop to read names that are almost erased from old stone. In the evening today while walking in the park, a red helicopter hovered close to the tree tops, finally descending unto the skatepark stirring up dust and leaves and the interest of people. While leaving later with my children on scooters, they tell me how a boy had fallen from a tree. An ambulance, police cars, a red helicopter. Objects mark the land of the living. My heart is heavy like a stone for a boy in a park for whom these vehicles waited. In America a man could not breathe. A knee on his neck till the lights went out.

Walk

Our first summer in London will now always be about this virus. Today while walking by the Thames I got a whiff of India in the air. The same summer heat rising from the ground, the saltiness of the water hanging on every surface, the same languidness that only sultry afternoons seem to possess. Sometimes these days, being in the present is a concentrated effort of willing. So I will myself to read the inscriptions on the empty benches facing the river. Dedications to lives lived and done. An old lady with two walking sticks shuffles through the grass. On the water a speeding boat, men in orange life vests. Runners push against the dry earth. And me in my grey fedora hat and sunglasses moving ever so slowly through them all. White fuzz from a tree falls in downy clumps making it improbably feel like snowflakes falling in summer. A few more airplanes than usual pass by overhead.

The vegetables we have planted in sacks on the cement patio are rising up daily. There are tomatoes, courgettes, beans, brussels sprout, herbs and some other things I don’t know until they fruit, because during lockdown I ordered these plantings, almost whimsically and arbitrarily from the local nursery where the waiting line to enter the site was anywhere from two minutes to twelve minutes. I would feel I was in a sacred queue waiting.

There is a lady in an oversized shirt on one of the benches, her grey hair covers her eyes, a black mask covers her mouth. She has laid out in front of her a sheet with musical notations, quibbles on a sheet that she is scribbling more upon and then gently strums her guitar again and again.

I ride my bicycle

The bike ride to the Indian grocery store in Tooting was the first time I had ventured more than two miles away from my home in six weeks. Since we moved to London, I had been holding a fear of double decker buses bearing in on me while bicycling. Now, we have bigger, more urgent fears.

Discovering new lanes and tunnels and parks, bicycling by skateparks, following directions from my phone, I rode by Wimbledon Commons, one thousand acres of countryside in the middle of Wimbledon. I felt again that pang of guilt at the beauty of this city where the parks have been kept open. The Commons though not full had plenty of people keeping space between themselves and kicking ball, playing, running, exercising, walking in the early summer sun.

In India, an uncle of mine spent an entire day in an ambulance trying to find a hospital in Kolkata that would take him in for a respiratory distress, earlier misdiagnosed for two weeks as typhoid. In a small town in Andhra Pradesh where another aunt and uncle live with their daughter, the apartment building is now in quarantine after a resident in the building tested positive. It has been three days now and the uncle is running out of his diabetes testing needles and my aunt of her blood pressure meds. They eat dal and rice, they have run out of tea. They will not be able to leave their apartment for twenty one days and no one has yet figured out how or if they will receive their meds or any more food. The stories of migrant laborers from India to Singapore are painful to read.

I will stand in line at the Indian groceries and after I buy my chilis and rice and okra and dal, I will bicycle back home with them. Afterwards I will call uncles and aunts in India and talk to them and relive again being the child I once was to them.

Eating that strawberry

It was always out there. Danger, possibility of it. Now it has a name. The name of a virus.

When we dropped our children to school and got our hair cut and when we drank coffee in a shop seated near the door, looking out at the street and passersby, when we stood at the bus stop and climbed up holding on to the rails, on a subway back to back with other commuters, sharing the cramped air, our bags and bodies almost touching, headphones on our ears.

I read a parable yesterday. A woman is being chased by a tiger. She is running away as fast as she can, when she sees a rope hanging on the side of a mountain. She jumps off and holds on to the rope but when she looks down she sees there are more tigers. Near her she sees a strawberry plant, a few bright red strawberries. When she looks up, she sees a mouse biting the very rope she is holding on to. She looks up, she looks down, she looks at the tigers and the mouse. Then she picks up a strawberry, puts it in her mouth and eats it slowly, enjoying it thoroughly.

Our life has always been this way, dangerous. Only now it feels we aree more keenly aware of it and the only way to keep sane every day is to focus on eating that strawberry.

Loving memories

The cherry trees in the cemetery are shedding their petals. On my morning run yesterday I found the narrow pathways between the graves covered in pink. After a couple of warm days, I was not prepared for the wind and the cloud covered grey skies.

Running in the cemetery comforts me though I can’t really explain why or what it is about these mostly ancient gravestones that ground me. Maybe because it seems they contain by their very essence the mystery of what it means to be alive?

Boris Johnson left the hospital and is recuperating in his country home.

The cemetery had only a few occupants, mostly dog walkers, a few exercising amidst the stones marking lives once lived. A girl did drills with a band, a camera posed precariously above the gravestone, her clothes and a bag lay the head of the stone. I wondered if it was someone she could have known that allowed her that level of intimacy.

I could hear the birds in the trees, flowers and leaves coming to life as winter nears its end. When the paths merge into the grass, I always turn around and start a new loop. It is a small cemetery. Most of the inner small paths end at a gravestone or two. I see as I keep running from the corner of my eyes the words Loving Memory carved on many of them. Grandma, mom, sister, brother, father, grandfather, child.

I had seen yesterday morning an aerial photograph of a gravesite on a New York island where coffins are being buried of Covid-19 victims. It is a long shot of an empty stretch of land, in the backdrop a long building. No words carved in stone for them.

I look for something positive, generous, kind to hold on to every day. Some days I find it in myself, some days in the news, on social media, in the supermarket or in my home. Some days I find it, the days I don’t, I despair and convince myself that I need to look harder.

When I am back at my desk later in the day, the girls come by to sit on my lap, tell me a story, complain or settle a fight. I breathe in the scents of their wriggling bodies and hope to create in my own bones and flesh an imprint of their youth, a remembrance of this time.

The Aftermath

They say we are awaiting a new world order, after this pandemic passes and we rush off into the busyness that constitutes our modern life, we will find that the world is not the same. The enormity of a virus invasion is bigger than we can envisage, jobs lost, broken economies, broken homes and so many dead before their time.

Cloistered in my own home with my children, husband, brother and dog, we have reconfigured our days to a slower rhythm. During these Easter holidays the children don’t have access to their phones or laptops. We watch movies together as a family and when my husband and I are working at our desks, we give them the time to figure out what to do with theirs. It is a luxury they have never had before.

As modern parents we have filled their days with school and after school classes. We have wanted to give them the best lest they fall behind. Over the last few days after the initial annoyances and sulks resulting from not having the internet, I have watched them lie on the couches reading for hours, the oldest gives an inordinate amount of attention to colors. Her art is a psychedelic dream of neons and shimmers. I feel I am peeping into her teenage heart. They play pretend games and help us clean the house and prep meals and clean up after. Their fingers linger on the piano keys.

The privilege of our isolation does not escape me. Sometimes I stand on the narrow patio of our home that faces what used to be a busy road, now quietened of traffic and I watch the people pass by. There are gloves and masks and mothers and children. London has not shut down as completely as many other European cities. Occasionally I go for a run and dodge other pedestrians. It is a like playing a game to veer away from people only I have always been that way.

I do not miss school drop offs and pick ups, I do not miss having to do small talk and small smiles with people I don’t know. I don’t miss all the things that we have to do in a world where outward action is more important than our isolated moments of meanderings. I have long been looking for a home. In the last ten years we have moved eleven times, from house to house, job to job, one state to another and countries and continents. I am complicit in the current human condition of overuse and abuse. The earth has begged us to stop in a way we cannot ignore.

Today when there is no choice, when all travel plans have been canceled, I sit at my table and am glad for a sky empty of airplanes and look down at the tiny backyard where the children find patches of sun to sit in and picnic. I watch carefully the many seeds I have planted come to sprout, blueberries and raspberries and tomatoes and lettuce, radish, beets, carrots, strawberries. They will not be rushed. They peep out bright green from the soil and then slowly they bend towards the sun. This is what I hope for us too. A gentle turning towards the light and no need for anything more.