Tuesday, 27 July 2021

BEING A SPORT

See that gap between the dappled leaves? Over where the sun is blazing? Some dudes in crisp starched whites are playing a game called cricket. 

This game has been the soundtrack to my life; I have been swimming in the sonorous commentary of cricketers since I was a wee young thing. Ask me to tell you the rules. I can tell you how a cricket bat feels held between my two hands. Wrong. I can tell you how it sounds to hear a cricket ball hit that bat, or the stump or the trunk of a tree. It sounds like it feels. A crack. A thunk. A not very pleasant meeting of two hard objects colliding ‘just for fun’. Sign me up never. I did my time, in the garden, to please Dad (whose delicate stomach can’t withstand the tension between India/Pakistan and England to this day) but I steered clear of any pleasure and volunteered myself for nothing. I value my skull and orbital cups. The curves of my cheekbones and teeth. 

And yet. How I wish it could have been otherwise. How I wish I could have been a games person, a ‘wait for me, I’m coming’ desperate to keep up with her brothers kind of competitive sister. A tennis playing sister-in-law borrowing visors, and a golf playing aunt, keeping accurate score. Not the one who forgot to press ‘record’ when he made his birdie. Not this hapless mess of poetic whims. Not this barefoot on the grass walking, Pokémon catching, longing to know the stories of trees kind of not quite grown, ancient person. 


I dream of making it big, not making it up as I go along. Who would I be if I were a big wig? Justice Tayabali or the CEO of ... even my imagination can’t conjure up a business to run. My immunology consultant tells me to shake a leg and get on with my novel - can you park a novel for almost ten years and expect it to hold the faith? Meanwhile I am editing my nephew’s first novel. Or rather co-writing ... ‘Can you make the goblin king a gnome instead?’ he asks, plaintively, hoping I’ll fill the holes and weed the plot, and tidy the stragglers while he sleeps... and I do, of course I do. There has been a war between the goblins and the gnomes - but beyond implying there was a war, and there are wounds, the thought of further backstory is painstaking work for a ten year old. Or, frankly, an any-year old. 


But we make our choices. Don the whites and play for the team... or squirrel into the solitary union of a pen, an imaginary world and a galaxy of hope.

Photo : Smriti Mandhana, first Indian cricketer to represent India in 50 consecutive T20s... 


Thursday, 24 June 2021

A FULL MOON LETTER TO MY FATHER

Dear Popsy,


I think it’s the full moon. It looks round and huge and yellow and all the better poetic words that escape me now because you are tucked up in hospital and I am here. I  took a picture which utterly failed to capture the moon, but a shaft of moonlight created an interesting axis, and I thought it looked like a planet, a galaxy, a reminder there is so much more out there that we can't see. 

Boy have I had a busy day. Yesterday’s laundry took ages to dry but I finally ironed all your Cotton Trader tops while listening to our beloved Marian Keyes on a podcast I love. It’s called GriefCast. And it honours those we have loved. Marian lost her father two years ago and the tears were in her throat and nose and laughter as she recalled the hours, the minutes, the funny and heart aching details. Some people are wonderful and we are so lucky to walk the Earth with them. IRT. In Real Time. I made that acronym up.

Pops, I cooked and then I cut up some mangoes for you. Sadly not Alphonso. And then I even taught Sister Tàn Viên English for an hour. She and Sister Linh Bào have written down your formal name and your informal name and will be sending Dr Tayabali (and Chotu) healing energy during the evening sitting meditation. Chanting your name. Lucky you. Lucky us. 



A butterfly got trapped in the conservatory last night, so this afternoon I tried to coax her out of the open windows. But I don’t know butterfly language very well. She came and sat on my dress instead. It’s a new dress, Pops. I bought it with my writing money - just as Sue recommended. Buy yourself a pretty new dress, she said. And it wasn’t that hard to obey! 100% cotton, embroidered. Made in India. By the Daughters of India. 


Clever you for diagnosing your own gallbladder infection. And for being amenable to getting the paramedics back in to whisk you off to A&E. Clever you for doing your exercises so diligently throughout covid so that you can rest deeply now and be sure you are strong enough when the time comes for you to sit up and walk and return to your garden. Which, I’ll have you know, I have watered and done mindful walking meditation in - my Buddhist retreat is still helping me so much now that I am alone and yet not alone. Do you remember my walking poem for Thich Nhat Hanh? I wrote it after he had his stroke. I read it to my sangha a few days ago. 

I hope the fevers start to subside. I hope the antibiotics do their good work. I hope your gallbladder heals nicely and Perveen can be at ease in heart and mind once more.

Love you, my Popsy, my Pops, best of the best,

Your

Toots

Monday, 31 May 2021

A GLIMPSE OF ETERNAL SNOWS

On a cold November evening, eleven years ago, Mum and I entered what used to be the Olde Post Office down the road (now our friend Sue's cosy, charming cottage), to attend a reading by Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth. The Book Club had invited Jane, GP and travel writer, to share her memoir, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows: A Journey of Love and Loss in the Himalayas, and when the reading and Q&A were over and we were chin wagging over snacks, I asked Jane if there was an audiobook version Dad could read. 

A decade later, Jane writes in her blog

It was an idea I’d been incubating for yonks, ever since Shaista Tayabali (@lupusinflight) suggested it when I spoke to her reading group. Initially I was too busy and distracted to get down to it, but eventually I began, having no idea how long it would take. My experience of reading out loud in writing groups meant I knew that I could narrate 1000 words easily in ten minutes, so although my memoir is quite a tome at 374 pages and a little under 130,000 words, it was doable. It couldn’t take much more than 22 hours, so recording it wouldn’t take much longer than a week or so.

Spoiler. It takes longer!!

Recording consumed all of March, April (when we evacuated to the UK), May and some of June and July. I had already decided to add various bird calls to begin and end each chapter. Some are Nepali birds, some are English, depending upon where the action takes place.

The whole project took longer than I expected but it has been a labour of love. A Glimpse of Eternal Snows is a book that is written from my heart so I’m sure listeners will enjoy it, as long as no-one is too appalled by my attempts at Celtic accents. Here's the link to Audible audiobook

I wrote about Jane on my own blog as soon as I got home, in a post titled The Good Doctor, wishing she were my doctor but glad, soon enough, that she became my friend, and recommended me to the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenters as an interesting guest! I helped edit Jane's memoir for the American edition, which gave me a chance to fully immerse myself in Jane's life in Nepal, where she and her husband decided to take their two sons, including baby David, whose medical frailty had been dealt with in the least compassionate manner by doctors from my own Cambridge hospital. Nepali life gave David three years of burbling happiness...

The one sympathetic hospital doctor in Cambridge had advised us to treat David normally and we took this as a licence to take him on his first trek; at the age of four months, we packed up David’s heart medicines and tubes and headed up over precipitous drops and wobbly rope bridges to explore drippy forests and medieval hill-forts. The mountains were spectacular and healing. Strangely David’s heart disease protected him from the effects of high altitude. Our arrival in each mountain village was heralded by choruses of, ‘Children have come!’ We’d be surrounded and David taken from his carrying basket to be handed around for all to cuddle. He glowed in all this attention. He smiled and burbled appreciatively at all his admirers. Nepalis helped us see David’s qualities and talent for laughter...


June will be here tomorrow and Dad will sit out in the sun, eating mangoes and listening to Nepali birdsong and enjoying a glimpse of those eternal snows I read about eleven years ago... thank you, Jane!



Monday, 24 May 2021

THE FINAL RESTING PLACE


After many bends in the road, some looked for, some hated (war), some simply endured, we laid our beloved Mary to rest beside her husband John in St Mary's Church, down the road from where Mary and John spent most of their married life. 


Mary was born June 11, 1916 and died on the 15th of December, 2020, and I have been not at all impatient to say formal goodbyes. I liked pretending that Mary had gone quiet in the room next door, quiet but for her piano, fingers practising her favourite pieces of Beethoven or reading Barbara Pym, her always comfort read. When I'd ask Mary what she was reading, she'd sometimes say, 'Oh it's not for you. It's too old-fashioned.' But occasionally she would want to share the 'not for me' books anyway, and my collection now includes some of her favourites from Kathleen Raine to Gervase Phinn.


In the end, there was nothing formal about it, and nor was there any goodbye. Just four poems, among them this one by me, a blackbird singing, and school children laughing next door. The trill of birds, the peals of laughter and her parents’ shared gravestone watching over a marriage blessed, in life and death.


Mary's hands. Mary's voice on the telephone. Mary saying 'darling' or even just my name, 'Oh Shaista...' These I hope never to forget. May I recall them a hundred years from now. 






Friday, 30 April 2021

THE BEGINNING OF IMAGINATION

Today is the last day of April 2021. Onwards to May, although the wisteria is already scenting our doorstep, framing our view of the outside world.

When this month began, I began an online meditation retreat with the nuns of Lower Hamlet, Plum Village. For a few days, although my body was in Cambridge, my spirit was one with six hundred retreatants from across the globe. Time sculpts itself differently when you follow the bell of engaged Buddhism in the practise of Thich Nhat Hanh.



After the retreat, my sangha nun, Sister Tea Cake, as she is affectionately known, asked if I would offer my teaching services to help the younger Vietnamese nuns with their spoken and written English. Of course, I said. Yes, I said. And from the very first session with my two lovely students, we have dived soul first into poetry. My own, and the poetry of so many others, whose words are birds, like Siegfried Sassoon and Teresa Wilder and Mary Oliver and... well, I’ve only just begun. 



In my last post, I wrote about what freedom from lockdown could look like for me, once I was no longer tethered to weekly sub cutaneous injections into my body. I never imagined this for myself. Even though this is exactly what I wanted for myself when lockdown first began. I wanted to teach. It took a year. And now, I am here. 

Inside of my breathing freedoms, I have been cooking every week, trying new recipes, making mistakes and making delicacies ... and still, with every evening’s end and night fall, a collective sigh of relief escapes the three of us. Because although the beginnings of imagination unfurl in some parts of the world, in other parts, not so far away, just my own country of birth, the oxygen is running out and every day is the end of imagination, just as Arundhati Roy predicted all those years ago. But even Roy plants new hope with new words, and so must we. Hope for those who cannot, so they, in turn, will one day hold the hope for us. 







Wednesday, 31 March 2021

WHAT FREEDOM LOOKS LIKE (POST LOCKDOWN 3)





This morning’s strange dreams were interrupted by a phone call. ‘I’m going to make you very happy,’ said my immunology nurse (after commenting on my sleep roused state). I knew what was coming. ‘You can go back to IVIg at the hospital in two weeks.’ 

Hurrah hurrah! This is what freedom might look like for me. I received the official government letter informing me that as a clinically extremely vulnerable patient, I could stop shielding. All the same, they said, please still take precautions. So it didn’t seem like freedom would look any different. But this ... release from weekly thigh infusions to monthly arm infusions - oh this might spark the cocoon to stretch and poke a wee wing out, test the currents of air, and who knows? Take a small merry flight. Where? Who knows? Tops of trees? How high do butterflies fly anyway? 

Meanwhile, my nephew turned TEN... 



Meanwhile, my friend Suramya sent me E. H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’, and I am up close and personal with Dürer (hare, 1502) and Rembrandt (1637)... 


Meanwhile, I am life drawing with my mother every week, attending classes on Feminism and Plants (Ecological Decline and the Rise of Witchcraft, anyone?) and this weekend, I shall be in France, in Plum Village, with the Zen Buddhist Nuns of Lower Hamlet, practising mindfulness and reconciliation. Ok, maybe not actual France... France/ Vietnam through a zoom window. We take our freedom where we can, right? 


Tuesday, 23 March 2021

LOCKDOWN ANNIVERSARY: WHAT IS THIS?

Today is exactly one year to the day when Boris J & Matt H decreed lockdown in the UK - doors closed, windows open a tiny crack to let the fresh air and birdsong in. That is, if you had fresh air and birdsong to begin with. 

We have had several slow and steady leaks throughout the year so today, in the perfect visual manifestation of lockdown, we have a home surrounded by scaffolding, a locked in grid made of metal.



I can’t really remember what I did with my first six months other than cope with incessant colonisations of bacteria and antibiotics and a nifty little steroid inhaler, but I do know that I have made the most of the past few months attending all sorts of classes and courses and cooking lots. This, in the face (or eyes) of a vitreous detachment that has not abated one iota. Some kind of hopeful determination that persists even as I am a walking duvet, longing to stay in bed, and feeling the most tender bliss when I arrive, at night, once more beside my bed. Navroze has come and gone ... we lit candles... friends have been lost to us... we lit candles... family have stayed far away from each other to prove the deepest love ... Zen Buddhist practise asks this question of us: ‘What is this?’ Breathe the question in, breathe the question out. A million different answers arise and fall away, every time. I prefer the Buddha’s question and answer in one: 'What has come to be.' It simultaneously accepts what is, while forcing us to acknowledge how it has come to be. Gratitude and anxiety in a single breath. What it means to be human.

Or, if you're seven years old, you can be more blunt about the good, bad and the wicked enemies of the world!!







Thursday, 4 March 2021

THAT LONG AWAITED THING


I stumble on a root
as I pass the prettiest cottage,
the one that makes me look twice, anyway;
there's no one around
and then, suddenly, there are, 
hordes of us, out for the sun.

I am cosy enough, bobble hat
and turtle neck, winter boots and long black hair -
well, I say black - I mean tiger
striped, the covid Bengal look, 
plumped up by inertia,
endangered only by sleepy somnolence.

Past more roots and the London 50 sign,
ochre homes and ochre leaves,
leaves burning on the friendly wind,
banks of snowdrops,
blackbirds heralding
that long awaited thing. 


I park myself by the berry tree,
damping my book on a mossy wall - 
these are covid tricks,
for covid times,
when paths are lean, and 
not a mask in sight. 

The 'SHE' fell off the Shelford sign
at the Chinese take away - 
a mark of this year's wear and tear;
the mayor and the spy 
put up plaques of their own -
a mark of wealth and long roots sown. 

The poet snails by,
tithing her time,
she was grown when she arrived,
and though loved, unseen, unknown,
she became that awaited thing 
and SHE WROTE HERE will do. 

© Shaista Tayabali, 2021

Photography by me, except for the blackbird in full throated song by Kathrin Swoboda. 

Linked to Dverse Poets for Thursday poetry night ...

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

JANUARY BOOK REVIEW IN FEBRUARY

‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Squaaaare!' I've been burbling this song all day long, and I have no idea why... suddenly the line bursts off my tongue and into the vulnerable ears of whichever family member is around or on the phone... my grandmother used to sing with a tremulous treble she assigned to the throat operation which cured her of nodules. The operation destroyed the strength of her singing voice, she said, but I liked her trills and quivers. I like appropriating that quiver; it makes me feel very 1950s...

It is Mum's birthday today. Yesterday, I prepared the traditional Parsi celebratory dessert of rava, sweetened semolina and milk with rosewater and pistachios... I made some fresh milk bread to go with hot morning chai, and late this evening I cooked some figgy chicken with mashed potatoes and sugar snap peas (Dad loves the comfort of mashed potatoes) and on we shall go into the snowy depths of February. Meanwhile, I thought I'd share some of my readings from last month.

The Body Knows The Score by Bessel Van der Kolk has become one of those therapeutic classics along with Gabor Maté’s When The Body Says No. I found it a compelling read for the most part except where certain therapies were only available under almost laboratory type conditions. The last quarter of the book was therefore interrupted by my next reads, but Van der Kolk is so compassionate, I would absolutely recommend the book to anyone who has suffered trauma in any form.

Azadi by Arundhati Roy is a a very slim volume of essays, including ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’, the brilliant piece Roy wrote upon India being shut down with a four hour grace period. Can you call that grace? No, indeed. And while you’re reading Roy, take a look at Zadie Smith’s Intimations, another beautiful slim volume of essays - both writers are masters of their craft. 

Whenever I can’t put a book down, I am always amazed and gratified that my eyes can withstand the brief marathon. It is always a testament to the author - I felt this way about Deborah Levy‘s The Cost of Living, which is the second memoir in her living autobiography series. The memoir is a response to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and is full of poetic energy, and the feminism of starting over after the failure of a long marriage.

Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby was also a memoir I did not want to put down. Writing against the grain of despair in Britain's divisive society, which regularly displays its prejudice, Shukla answers complex questions asked by his young daughters. Innocent enough questions, difficult to answer with ease and hope and the promise of joy. And yet, Shukla finds the vein to draw that hope from.

And lastly, my beloved Eva Ibbotson’s A Company of Swans and A Countess Below Stairs, rounded off my first month for the pandemic new year, with humour and a little dance in my step. 

Sunday, 31 January 2021

ASTRA ZENECA ONE

This afternoon, I had my first vaccine jab. Twelve weeks to go before vaccine part two. Which means it will be May. Imagine that. Imagine wisteria. I’ve forgotten what May looks and feels like. This has seemed like the longest winter, bookended only by a mizzling spring. It is raining even now, as I type. 

Ever since Brigadier Phil Prosser took charge with military precision and strategy, millions of UK citizens are being vaccinated in a steady stream. I don’t think the scientists envisaged a twelve week gap between doses, but the covid narrative is a long one. This evening I have felt a bit grotty, with a headache and a slight flu like response. My arm feels a little heavy. But my mind was occupied with what my mother would describe as the last thing I ought to be watching: Russell T Davies’ five episode drama ‘It’s A Sin’ - his first determined effort to remember the young boys who faded fast and terrified from the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the eighties.

Watching a period drama, one ought to feel at least as though the subject is familiar and known to us after the passing of decades, but AIDS is still far removed from ordinary conversation. Lupus and HIV patients share many clinical similarities with weakened immune systems, but inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum  in terms of public scrutiny. The lupus patient is left alone, to her own devices and need not fear the cost of living as much. What we possess in abundance is the empathy of knowing what it is to fear one’s own body, obstinately dancing to a dissonant tune. Why does visibility take so long? Thank goodness for the writers and dancers and musicians who make art, make beauty, even when it hurts.

John Lam, Vietnamese-American ballet dancer