Sunday, 13 August 2017


Most of my friends know by now that I am the sort of movie watcher who almost attends a film school of her own, so dedicated am I to catching films at the Arts Picturehouse Cinema in Cambridge. It is a cosy little three screen cineplex, each screen snuggled up to the next, and all tucked into the smallest edge of a building. I visit it as you would a library - while returning one lot of books, your eyes spy a new possibility. In my case, Maudie, directed by Irish director Aisling Walsh. 

The tender biopic reveals the unamorous coupling of Maud Lewis, the Nova Scotia painter and her fish smuggling peasant Everett Lewis. Maud's life would move anyone to tears - born with juvenile arthritis that eventually crippled her, she was also betrayed by dishonourable members of her family who sold her precious newborn for money, telling Maud that her baby had been born deformed like her mother and buried immediately.

Years later Maud learns the truth. Everett takes her to see her baby, now a grown woman, happy, tending to roses outside the white and blue shutters of her home. Maud cowers in the shadow of her husband's truck, broken and healed, simultaneously.

The shadows of Maud's life are painted over by her extraordinary capacity for wielding joy into simple brushwork. Deceptively simple. Her work began to sell, began to be loved - passers by to her tiny, wildly decorated house, were enchanted. She was commissioned by the likes of Richard Nixon, then President of the United States. 

In my own little cabin in the garden, I have been wielding my brushes and paint. Every dark or gloomy corner now has a fresh white or blue coat, reassuring my eyes of light. The past week has been a complex one to navigate - I had a slender catheter surgically inserted into my vein, one end hanging outside for me to self administer liquid antibiotics, and the other end resting atop my heart. Self administration makes me respect my nurses even more than usual - so many little details to concentrate on; air bubbles and contamination to be careful of. Twenty eight injected infusions done, two to go. Unless the doctors decide otherwise.

By the end of her life, Maud was crippled with arthritis, unable to walk, but still able to hook her brush into the curled claw of her hand, and do the thing that made her utterly content with her life. Paint pictures. The whole world framed in a tiny square of happiness. To be an artist is to know suffering, but to know beauty and joy more. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017


The first was the writer, Vikram Seth. Dad called out to me to come listen. Seth was being interviewed but in between conversation he was picking out tracks of music, and not books. The combination was so much more illuminating and I was hooked. Then came the dancer, Akram Khan, and then the doctor, Atul Gawande... you might think this a particularly Indian immigrant selection, but those were the voices I remember. They spoke to me and drew me in. Now my Sundays are Desert Island Disc days. And oftentimes the discs weave into my weekdays, into the threads of my own narrative. Today, for example, is a John Agard day, moving from Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights' through Bob Dylan's 'Shelter from the Storm' towards the Calypsonian Lord Invader's 'You Don't Need Glasses To See'. And through it all his thoughts on poetry, on being the only Afro-Guyanese Queen's Gold Medal Winner for Poetry, on being part of the GCSE syllabus, on his teachers, his daughters, on being a 'joker' as a young boy...

I stopped listening to, or rather seeking out music, some years ago. Too much of my past is caught up in music and peace of mind is often a choice between memory and silence. I credit these brief interludes with strangers who become anything but in the hour in which they share a loose web of geography, history, parentage or parenting, grief, loss, enormous successes, imprisonment, exile. I have my favourites even though the list keeps growing. The archives are a well of treasure. Dip in! Whose eight tracks would you like to hear while discovering their life story? I love...

Aung San Suu Kyi, the only guest who didn't come into the studio for obvious reasons - something about Kirsty Young being in Myanmar, sharing a moment in exile with the Burmese freedom fighter, makes the entire programme magical...

Alice Walker, one of my earliest literary and poetic heroes, the one who set my voice on its path to claiming a fully formed womanist self...

Dr David Nott, vascular and war surgeon, who made me cry because he cried...

Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer focusing on the brutal percentages of incarcerated black men in the so-called United States...

Poets, activists, philanthropists like Bill Gates (whose choice of wife is really what inspires me about him!), Sigrid Rausing, journalists Alex Crawford and Christiane Amanpour, musicians, physicists... in a world where media is desperately trying to colonise our minds and make us afraid of each other, Desert Island Discs provides a counter-narrative, casting us towards one another rather than isolating us. I find the gift of the Bible at the end an interesting moment - yes, occasionally a Sikh will choose the Guru Granth Sahib or a Muslim will choose the Quran, but no one really resists this aspect of the programme. What does it say about the programme that in a determinedly atheist society, a Holy Book is one all castaways are cast away with?

Have some music while you're here... this is South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba with 'Pata Pata' ('Touch Touch' in Xhosa) and if this doesn't get you dancing with a smile on your face this rainy day, nothing will! Turn that volume up and let's dance!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

MOONLIGHT (a review)

In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue. This was the original title for Barry Jenkins' Oscar winning film 'Moonlight'. The film was based on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I missed it during the pre-Oscars season buzz, so when I saw it playing for one day only on a random June afternoon, I jumped out of my lethargic skin and dove into the empty cinema. After the film had started I was joined by a group of three strangers, but I pretended it was just me and Chiron. And some popcorn. (It wasn't a popcorn eating type of film, but hey, where else am I gonna eat popcorn?).

Moonlight is a triptych. A piece of art. The sound of the sea begins the film, and a seaside palette of Provence blue and daffodil yellow bathes our eyes at unexpected moments, so you begin to float, suspending fear, anxiety, prejudice. You are 'Little' Chiron, held loosely but safely in the hands of Juan. Mehershala Ali won that Oscar because even though his character mysteriously disappears a third into the film, you feel his ghostly presence throughout. Weaving in and out on classical strings, Cuban and hip hop beats. 

But at the same time that sudden absence also made me tighten up, and I couldn't relax into the lyrical beauty. I wouldn't let myself cry until the film had ended, the credits were rolling and I realised Barry Jenkins had kept us safe throughout. I don't think I've ever talked to a film director in my head before, but I was willing Jenkins not to let me, us, fall through all the cracks we already know exist for Chiron and his kind of invisible blue blackness.
'Moonlight' is as serious as it gets and as loving. The two faces of woman in the film aren't polarised through moral judgement. They are just being themselves - human, fallible, trying. Failing, losing, surviving. Loving. Speaking of love, I think I'll watch anything with Janelle Monae - she has such a fierce, feisty, authentic presence here as in 'Hidden Figures'. And Naomie Harris - from Bond woman to crack addict - a powerhouse performance.

There is a moment at the beginning of the film when little Chiron looks up at Juan - a side along gaze that asks with big eyes, 'Who are you?' Why should I trust you, say those eyes. When Chiron's mother meets Juan for the first time, she looks at him, eyes heavy with suspicion. 'And who is you?' Juan replies: 'I'm nobody'. And finally, towards the end, the second love of Chiron's life, Kevin, asks the same question: 'Who is you?' And with that question, there is a chance for Chiron to not answer: 'I'm nobody'. He is being offered a chance to be somebody. To someone. 
'Who is you?' is the heartbeat of the film, echoed, mirrored. We grow up and into ourselves, and some of us get to be loved by people who ask that question of us, who listen for the answer. Who wait for the answer. Even when it changes. 

Saturday, 17 June 2017


In the middle of a YouTube interview with
Zadie Smith, and therefore the middle of
my own imaginary conversation where it's
really me interviewing Zadie Smith or being
interviewed beside Zadie Smith, I pause.

Birdsong is emanating from my father's room. 

(C) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Sunday, 4 June 2017


for Richard, who misses my blog posts

It seems strange to speak of joy, or write of joy, when all around us joyless events directed by joyless people rip at the fabric of our lives. Every day I look about me and give thanks for clouds in the sky, and not drones, for roses beginning to climb our trellis, and not militia, for my mother loudly shooing away the muntjac and a squirrel I've named Nutkin, rather than... anything else. None of these are small things. They constitute the biggest thing of all - freedom. A word that almost feels sacred now. Almost like superstition. Better not utter it out loud, in case those that lurk in the dark places encroach upon your light. 

And yet of course this is the paradox of a life like mine: if you keep small, and hide away as much as possible, tending to the bird feeder and sorting through your books, you wonder if after all you ought to be trying for the other life, the one with the spotlight and the megaphone, denouncing hatred, fighting for rights, yours and those denied others. Then your body reminds you of its tumultuous nature - scar tissue, antibiotics and a twenty year long fight to stay alive.

Into my small but sweet life, a fellow patient gave me The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. My friend is Italian so the book was actually called Il Magico Potere Del Riordino. It was her personal copy, with notes to herself inscribed in pencil. It has taken me a few years to actually begin the process of tidying up my life in the specifically thorough way offered by Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo. The KonMari method.

There are two books, actually. The second is called Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying, and this one is filled with delightful illustrations. There is a certain order to the process but always the same outcome - to spark joy from the tiniest of your possessions. Gather your belongings into their particular categories. Hold each object in your hands, and consider it. If the time has come to send it on its way, thank it before you despatch it. [The first edition was given to me by my friend Angelica, and the second guide by my sister Angelina. I take my angels where I get them.] 

I find myself telling people truthfully what I am 'up to' - facing that dreaded question of 'What are you doing now? Have you published your book yet?' If only writing a book and publishing it were as natural a pair of siblings as we imagine when first embarking on that book. I have tentatively begun the second - never mind what it's about - but first, I have a date with a woman named Marie, who is leading me towards a certain joy. 

Friday, 5 May 2017


Butterflies attract butterfly catchers;
Young men with invisible nets
Seek to imprison young women
With the desire to fly.

The ability to escape from such perils
Is an advantage acquired only by time,
(Not wisdom, but experience). Such men
Must be eluded at all costs.

If butterflies must be caught -
And really, why must they? -
Better to do one's own catching.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Artwork: Catching Butterflies, French, late 13th century & Berthe Morisot (1841-1895): 'The Butterfly Hunter'.
Poem linked to Dverse Poets for their Open Link Night. 

Saturday, 29 April 2017


If I were in here much longer,
I think I'd request a paint box
To attempt the shades of blue and green,
And all the seasons in between.

They ultra-sounded my heart, my lungs,
And needled their way in,
And out of scar tissue - old walls,
Built to protect me, crumble.

Traumatised trauma sites -
You could paint me by numbers;
Here vermillion, there magenta,
Everywhere kingfisher blue.

Those were the paints my parents used,
Depleted now. Except where their daughter bruised.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

I was curled up beside the window, on the word 'vermillion', when one of the rheumatology registrars came by with news of the ultrasound of my heart, latest blood test results and the possibility of parole. Much later that night, blackbirds and wisteria welcomed me home. Outside my bedroom, Mum's 'Kingfisher' approves my return...

Artwork: Kim Glass 'Much Better'
Perveen Tayabali 'Kingfisher' 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017


'Put me into one of your books,' orders Laura. We have been neighbours since Tuesday 18th of April. I know her first, middle and last names and she has never once asked for mine. I'm usually 'You. In the corner.' Or 'S'cuse me.' It only takes her a turn of her head and a command and I obey. Mostly. I did not obey her demand to be taken down to the concourse for a walkabout. She hasn't left her bed for weeks. The responsibility! She is keen to be discharged to get back to her little flat and herb garden so yesterday she perked herself up and got out of bed with a jam doughnut in hand and slid round my curtain to prove her improvement. I jumped up and pretended to waltz with her. 'Not strong enough for that,' she chided. Then she disappeared. Next thing there was a commotion outside by the nurses' quarters. Laura had keeled over and bruised her elbow and head. I felt instantly guilty. I ought to have accompanied her. But how could I know she'd attempt a sudden jaunt outside?

She knows she is good material. The other night the new patient and I were told off for chit chatting with our lights on. 'You're both young,' scolded the nurse. 'She's old. And needs her sleep.' Referring to Laura. I, submissive obedient, flicked off my light and plunged myself into a darkness I was not ready for. I was scribbling an email to my beloved friend Mary in the dark when pungent clouds of cigarette smoke wafted across. A smoker! At half past 11! I mentally accused Maria, my new 18 year old rebellious friend... sorry Maria! Didn't it turn out to be Laura?! Maria and I texted across the ward... keeping tabs on proceedings. The nurses seemed only mildly shocked... there's oxygen in hospital, they remonstrated. It's dangerous.
But Laura was unfazed. The nurses had taken long enough for her to drag half a ciggie's worth of much craved tobacco into her lungs and she was satisfied.

Laura often refers to the other nurses as my 'coloured and Oriental friends' because they are from Kerala, the Philippines, Nigeria. I try to explain they are not 'my' friends, but 'our' nurses. Finally I take a piece of paper across to her to show her my name and helpfully pronounce it Shy Star. 'Oh, I don't like that,' she says. 'Sounds too much like a shyster.' Anyone who says this to me is instantly someone I never want to speak to again.
'My name,' I say, with as little heat as possible, 'is Persian. I am not a shyster. You can call me Shy if you prefer.'
I return to my bed. A bit defeated. Eighteen years of casual racism in this very hospital has toughened me up. But I am not invulnerable.
'Persian,' did you say?'
'Yes. Persian.'
'I think I'll call you 'Little Lotus Flower'. 
'Sounds a bit of a mouthful,' I return. 'But if you like.'
'Well. I'm just trying to think of something pretty to call you. Something soft and gentle.'
'I like my name,' I say into the silence. 'Very much.'
'I like mine too,' she replies.
And we leave it at that.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


Four days in a blue box and then suddenly, huge windows overlooking fields of gold, a giant chessboard and the brief sounds of children playing.

I have been admitted again. For the third time this year - and the manyth fever spike. The Mystery of the Origin of Sepsis continues to baffle. Is it Infection or is it The Lupus? The awful perennial question. For the doctors it is a problem that must be solved to avoid over treatment. For me, although I have an equally honed detective instinct, the clues all occur in the same body. The same mind must control the same fears and maintain a ninja like balance.

In the blue box with no windows - let us call it MDU or Medical Decisions Unit - lives Rosie. Rosie's husband Dave was brought into hospital and since he is her carer, Rosie was admitted at the same time. For much of each day and each night, Rosie keeps her coat on and her handbag tucked neatly into the crook of her elbow, ready to leave. Not a word in her strings of sentences makes relevant sense, but must surely make perfect sense in the world she inhabits all by herself. T'was quite alarming having Rosie peer round my curtains like a friendly bat looking for her mate. It was only on the last night when another patient with dementia arrived, one with a particularly nasty tongue, that Rosie's comparative sweetness shone through. A lost little bat, in the entirely wrong cave.

And then I was wheeled away to be transferred here to Hepatology. I waved royally to my fellow inmates as Greg The Porter deftly manoeuvred my bed past them - you lucky duck, said Brenda, turning green, thinking I was heading home (although how I could leave, bed et al...). It was my opposite neighbour's 78th birthday and she was teary hugging me goodbye. We make friends fast in the blue boxes...

Margaret wasn't allowed flowers in MDU, not even birthday roses... but here in Hepatology, my cousin Imran, dressed in an excellently cut suit jacket, brought me Chicky Chocky Speckled Eggs and a delicate bouquet of pink and white posies. They'll have to wrestle the posies away from me...

Thursday, 16 March 2017


If you were to ask me
What my favourite colour is
I would have to say blue;
Even though blue is the colour
Of the plastic curtain my elbow keeps brushing
As I type this poem
Leaning towards the closed hospital window.

They've painted the edges of the buildings outside
The shade of my first bedroom in England -
The Blue Room, I called it, not inventively.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?
My niece Eva says, 'Chicken.'
And we all marvel.

Which came first, the blue paper curtains,
This long marriage with hospital,
Or my love of blue?

Hard to tell.

The sun is up. The kind of torch light bright
That hurts your eyes but does its job
Matter of factly. Some nurses are like that.
Others make room for hugs and jokes; jokes
That are a nimbus around a heart of compassion;
A beady eyed watchfulness for when things
May suddenly turn serious and need an
Oxygen mask, an ECG, and more of those curtains
Whisked around quickly.

The quietly fainting patient must be revived
At all costs. They save lives in here.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Claude Monet 'Impression: soleil levant'

This week, impressionism is being celebrated over at Dverse Poets - my father's favourite art movement - the one that influenced him the most. And the one that comes closest to describing what anyone with myopia or glaucoma or cataracts sees - brush strokes of colour, if you're lucky.