Tuesday, 4 August 2020


While I was in hospital, my friend Victoria sent me photographs of her garden. There are gardens in my hospital, one in particular that I claim as my favourite, but while in a shared ward or private bay, there is no green to be found. Blue and cream aplenty but no living, moving green. So I thought I would share Victoria’s photos with you, with her permission, so you can see what cheered me...

Of course there are other ways to escape while in hospital. My new friend Mary, with the wandering mind, was not in Addenbrooke’s at all... she was in Selby in Yorkshire, and sometimes in the mining and weaving towns of her youth... sometimes she would give me directions to the cemetery nearby and sometimes she accepted that I was not real, I was a visiting spirit to whom mundane things of the mortal world would be of little interest. ‘How long have you been here, like this?’ Mary asked, her hand fluttering, indicating my other worldliness ... ‘Oh, I come and go,’ I answered. We spoke exactly the same language, Mary and I, both of us being of this world and not of this world. It’s all very mysterious, we both agreed.
When I was finally discharged I said goodbye to all my ward mates except Mary. I couldn’t bring myself to utter the finality. Mary had said I would return to her mind from time to time, and I told her I would never forget her. Mary Longbottom of Selby, Yorkshire. So why say goodbye?

(All photographs, except the last, by Victoria Kingsley-Pallant)

Friday, 24 July 2020


Sometimes it looks like this - 
Crisp white sheets tucked obediently down,

A bird on the cover of a book of poems,
A splash of colour in orange and green -

But outside these curtained walls, a man is shouting
As though the sails of his lungs have sprung 

Free their cells, and every woe, his angst and grievance,
From childhood years to this present moment 

Are billowing and bellowing in merry disobedience 
To the Golden Rule of Silence, in quarantine. 

I gather only this: a man has lost his shoes,
And life will never be restored to him.

It looks like I’m able to read and write but I can’t ... although I did just write this poem! I have been very sick with sepsis most likely caused by haemophilus ... high fever, migraine, vomiting, coughing and more coughing... antibiotics, the wonder of our twentieth century, are doing their work and I hope to climb out of these crisp sheets when the fever decides to stay cool...
For the DVerse Poets Gathering (www.dversepoetscom)

Sunday, 19 July 2020


Like La Vie En Rose and Coco, Before Chanel, the two recent biopics of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, Colette is sumptuous. Every screenshot of every scene could serve as a painting in a gallery of nineteenth century artists. Attention to details make such films a cinematic joy for someone like me, who cannot withstand much of today's Marvel visual and graphic acrobatics. My eyes and soul are soothed by period pieces. A slower pace unfolds on screen, and no expectation of a car chase or a villain plotting to end the world.


While very aware of my current immediate access to antibiotics, monoclonal antibody therapy and immunoglobulins only made possible by modern progress, the rhythm of my days (pre-pandemic too) mimics an earlier century. I still hand write my poems. I live with my parents. I potter. I go for walks in the same village I was once a teenager in. What would Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette make of my current wardrobe? She would be horrified, I think. Sweatshirts. The very term would make her recoil. Anyway, she was French, and even when she was at her most gauche in 1893, she was svelte. Sweatshirts. Joggers. Jumpers. How do these even translate across time and culture?

I have had my moments. If anyone were to describe my style (someone polite), I am sure they would mention my penchant for feminine swirls, but I also like the masculine escape into non-figure consciousness - a term I have just coined. Which itself points to how very far removed I am from Colette. I want to be blanketed. At my most ill, I simply want to wear a bed. And in place of wearing a bed, I wear my father's cosy oversized wool sweaters from M&S. The ones his sister Saida bought him in the 70's and 80's. 

They have large colourful or sober stripes or diamonds on them. Some have shrunk over the years and the arms are an odd length. One has a giant gash in the sleeve. These are the ones I pinch. I feel safe in them. Like and unlike myself. Who am I in someone else's clothes? Still, and always, myself I suppose. The dark and the light. Scruffy or neat.

Coco Chanel would disapprove of this arbitrary giving away of my form to chronic illness. TB never stopped her from becoming the doyenne of fashion in her time, and still now, in ours. BUT Coco was almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the world to silk pyjamas - the European world, that is. The word 'pyjama' is Persian in origin (pai: leg; jamah: clothing), and the loose, flowing trousers were then adopted by the conquering Arabs. So, really, the perfect attire for a descendant of Persian-Arab-British colonial empires. Coco and Colette can't really disapprove, after all... 

Now all I need is a pair of cream pyjamas with black piping, a slender cigarette in my hand and voila!

Monday, 13 July 2020



A few years ago, Leonard Cohen released a song on his 82nd birthday. 'You Want It Darker' is in English but for the repetition of the Hebrew lyric 'Hineni' meaning 'Here I am' or 'I am ready, my Lord'. Behold me, ready, waiting. Some sacrifice may be due. Usually is due. Its nature will be revealed. 

I didn't hear the song at the time. A few weeks ago, when I began 'Black Earth Rising', a fictional episodic drama situated in London and Rwanda, 25 years after the genocide, the introduction of the tone and nature of what was to follow, is utterly imbued with Cohen's song-cloak of darkness, rising. Whose is this voice promising acceptance of terror, I wondered? The singer seemed almost too courageous. Hubris in its making. And in a way, any time we, mere mortals, attempt to unravel mystery and meaning with our bodies and minds as instruments, a foreboding thuds around our ears. We are truly the strangest beings on this black and green and blue earth. Rising and falling with each hidden breath. A million candles burning, for the help that never came.

Michaela Cole, the writer-creator of 'Chewing Gum', star of 'Black Earth Rising' and now writer-creator of 'I May Destroy You' seems to hold this word 'Hineni', spoken or unspoken, as she steps into her work.  Throughout time, words have been our tool for change, for promise, for betrayal. Today, speaking out, speaking up, echoes from one corner of the globe to another, so that 'mere' is no longer appropriate for 'mortals'. A tiny flame fanned fast enough catches fire. Who burns? What burns? What survives? What must survive? The freedom to fight is the greatest we possess. Who are we fighting? It isn't always clear. 

Hugo Blick, an Englishman, wrote 'The Honourable Woman', centring a Jewish woman (played by an American actress) in Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He also wrote 'Black Earth Rising', centring a Rwandan orphan who is told she is a Tutsi to protect her from the truth; she is, in fact, Hutu. The role is played by Cole, a British-Ghanaian actress. I don’t know how this fiction sits with Rwandan intellectuals and critics, because so much of Western-centric drama about ‘Others’ is reviewed within the Western canon through the Western telescope. I say Western, I mean something else. I mean the construct of white, colonial, the historical half story. Almost every Palestinian in ‘The Honourable Woman’ is dishevelled and portrayed as being more capable of dishonour. It’s always tricky to attempt balance - personal politics are difficult to wrangle out of fiction. 

Should we narrow our focus, pick a subject and delve deep like historians do; Samira Ahmed on 'The Art of Persia', Sona Dutta on 'The Treasures of the Indus', Mary Beard on the Romans? Or do we dabble, knowing we will never read the whole library of who we are - but finding a few treasures along the way to guide us, keep believing in the best of each other, while knowing the worst of each other? Hineni, hineni. We are ready. Well, some of us are. Some of us run, hide, disguise, hate, fear, delegate. Some of us write, paint, create, medicate, heal, study, mate. Perhaps it was meant to be this way. Darkness and light. Except that sometimes they are almost indistinguishable from each other. Like when you sleep in the day and wake in the night. Or when there is a pandemic forcing us to slow down even as we race to the finish line. Which is what? Which is where? Sands in time, disappearing fast. Hold on, for a little while longer. The spark can lead to fire. 

Thursday, 4 June 2020


I buried a blackbird today,
but I left his beak free.

That's the hardest part to cover, in the end,
even when eyes can't see, or mouth can't speak.

It seems wrong to further silence
what has already been silenced.

He was a tri-coloured bird.
Black everywhere, except the inside of his beak,

his unseeing lids, which were white,
and red for the last entrails, last vestige of pulsing blood.

He was in perfect form, though limp of neck,
falling exactly between the road running right

and the road running left. He was just outside
our driveway, central to my vision.

Waiting for me to pick him up,
and tenderly bring him home.

for George Floyd

(joining in the work of other poets at DVerse Poets' Open Link Night).

Sunday, 31 May 2020


Two months ago, a man disappeared. He had dementia, so it was not an unexpected manifestation. Three weeks after the disappearance, his body was found. And the world paid their obituary dues. The world that knew him, or of him. His name was Peter Beard.

Some names float into our consciousness but don’t take root. We are usually too distracted. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready. One of the great joys of being human is the discovery of an old being, or way of life, new to us. That is why age is of so little consequence or significance in the knowing and understanding of ourselves. Someone can always teach you something, if you are brave enough not to be foolishly arrogant.

Peter Beard was a photographer. Born into the wealth of a Gatsby like family in Manhattan, he sidestepped the suggestion he ‘go into advertising’ (money making more money), and instead, inspired by Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’, found himself at 17, in Africa. His guide was Quentin Keynes, the photographer (son of scholar collector Geoffrey Keynes, nephew of economist Maynard Keynes, grandson of Charles Darwin). Peter bought Hog Ranch, in Kenya, a few years later, and there, tickling warthogs, feeding giraffes and falling asleep under stars, made the world his home. Animals weren’t always so amenable. An elephant matriarch charged him once, goring her tusk into his leg and crunching his ribs. ‘We are real apes,’ he said. ‘It just so happens that we have learned how to think, quite a lot more than we ever expected.’

The world made him their home too, as is our wont with humans who inspire. Thus Francis Bacon painted him nine times in triptych, he was befriended by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali claimed Beard as his late younger brother, resurrected, and Beard himself ‘found’ Iman on the streets of Nairobi - he liked to describe her as an illiterate Somali goatherd; she, who spoke four languages and knew nothing of jungles. The fashion world naturally adored him for the extraordinary image combination of the modern body beautiful set within the first continent’s natural charm. A double seduction of the camera. There was, of course, something about the white colonial about him... but he was conscious of his own part in the conversational destruction of our ecology.

What most fascinates me about Peter is the way he lived in collage.

There is a powerful trend today (brought on by our worst excesses) to minimise and tidy. When I look around my home, which is two houses in one (at least) - India in England - I sometimes feel it’s all too much, since none of it can be taken, Pharoah style, into the next world. I have spent portions of my twenty years in lupus quarantine, tidying and sorting, only to wake the next day to naughty elves having opened the cupboards and cabinets and released a fresh hurricane of things, each containing its own halcyon of memories. The naughty elf is me, of course. Because to be neat, tidy and indexed is far removed from my nature. Mine is the nature of a Peter Beard collage, collecting, gathering, foresting for survival against the long hours of isolation. Spiritual fodder for humans does not come from the mind and psyche alone. We have always needed stones, pebbles, shells, feathers, sparkling crystals and rusty, broken but reusable furniture. Photographs are pensieves for our memories, runes from the past. Letters are a fellow human’s call to us.

In your quarantine, did you tidy? Or did you lovingly admire the gatherings of your years on earth, appreciating the textures of your collected self?

(P.s. a Pensieve is a shallow basin into which you can place your memories, and sort through meaning from chaos. If you are Professor Albus Dumbledore, that is...)

Friday, 22 May 2020


Sometimes we hear the train, Dad and I, as we perambulate the length of the garden. Sometimes we  hear only wind. I see the tops of trees, ours, but not ours; they could be found anywhere, in any other clearing.

May is rounding out her month and soon June will be sent our way. Is your honeysuckle out? We have the scent of Syringha, planted for Shelagh...

I woke up this morning with a burning left eye, and now even after the sun has set, the rice is on the stove, and the song thrush is harmonising her final duets, I have the look of a badger about me.

Delftia some weeks ago, and now Klebsiella - ought I to take comfort in the strange fact that even my colonisations of bacteria have poetic names? My immunology nurse mentioned the word ‘strange’ over and over again. ‘These are strange times,’ she said. Strange, strange, strange.

My heart does funny loops and a bell is tolling like an echo in some distant yet ever near place. Do you hear this bell too? The Great Bell in Buddhism is a reminder to return to ourselves. This quieter bell seems more sinister, pulling us away from ourselves. To where?

I am reading Laurens Jan van der Post on his friend Jung. My dearest Colette sent me her copy of ‘Jung and the Story of our Time’. I feel I have already loosened the binding of this 1976 Penguin edition as I carry the book around with me, and move forward, and return to passages, and read aloud to Dad. ‘Hopkins! Schweitzer! Meister Eckehart!’ He hails these old friends as they are mentioned. Reading of the great ‘thuses of life’, what the fourteenth century Dominican mystic Meister Eckehart called istigkeit, the ‘isness’ of time and place, what Buddha called tathagata or ‘suchness’ - I am glad of mystery and the uncomfortable comfort of consciousness.

What are you reading now? And does it bring you comfort?

Thursday, 14 May 2020


A broken bird feeder found its way to me last year.
I painted it in shades of country cream.

I filled a cup of water, and sprinkled a meal, 
fit, I thought, for any feathered queen.

No bird came. Months passed by,
and today, hurrah, a visit made.

Bib of blue, and frankly suspicious, she flitted 
and flirted, from lilac to magnolia, 

to her new wooden house,
unconscious of my joyful gaze.

Chaffinch and sparrow followed, drinking in the rain,
picking through the catkin carpet,

the willow leaves, 
the tall, unwieldy, unmowed grass. 

Meanwhile, the news. Meanwhile, the roll call of names 
we never knew, strangers perching gently on our hearts. 

You ask me if I believe in God.
I say, What is God? What is a poem

I say, I lost my friends one by one to time, 
but when the birds came to call,

I found I had lost not one of my friends, 
not one of them at all. 

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

Today, May 14th, was the birthday of both my Uncle Motu and my Aunty Saida. They weren’t twins. Aunty was five years older. They loved us kids equally. Growing up, we were showered with love when they visited our Bombay home, which had been their childhood home, and then when we moved to our shared new homeland of England, love continued, unperturbed by changed geographical boundaries. They are both gone now, into the other world ... but the memory of love remains.

Thursday, 30 April 2020


A tiny bowl slipped out of my hands this evening
as I stopped to gaze at a bird in flight,

light streaming from her wings, the curve 
unimaginable to me, heavy on the floor of the world.

It was a dessert bowl, crystal, part of a set.
They are always part of a set, these cups 

and saucers that fall and smash around my feet.
A pool of diamonds glinting in concrete cracks,

so beautiful, so dangerous. My heart missed 
not a beat, as though inured now 

to my unintentional, careless ways. 
Sweep after sweep is not enough; 

my faithful eyes find more shards, jewel bright, 
shining still, for my faithless eyes. 

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

A few days ago I heard the news that my friend and MA tutor, the Cambridge poet and novelist Caron Freeborn, had left this world, suddenly, and almost without notice. I didn’t know she had been recently diagnosed with cancer; I only knew I had been thinking of her and missing her. I wrote to her, but only silence came. When I heard the news, the silence was even more numbing. In the wake of a poet leaving, the air sounds a little different. 

Into the companion of my shattered glass bowl, I floated something green, and every day she grows, reminding me of something... something I forget when the light is bleak.

(a poem shared with Dverse Poets, on Open Link Night)

Tuesday, 21 April 2020


My cousin Barbara asks me if I have been writing lots of poetry. It struck her the other night that there was poetry in this, this time of strangeness, of discovering one's ability to adapt, perhaps - the beauty inherent in that. And indeed, Carol Ann Duffy has just initiated a project titled 'Write Where We Are Now', gathering the thoughts and feelings of her fellow poets on our global viral tidal wave. We surprise ourselves with adaptation, and it thrills us to discover - still here, still here. No matter what. Tsunami, earthquake, the plague, coronavirus. The Great Depression, Wall Street Crash, demonetisation. The end of circuses, the beginning of Tiger King. The end of letter writing, the beginning of emoticons. Lose limbs, become an Olympic athlete. Hospital a dangerous place? Self inject.
What gets lost in the adaptation? The transition. The nuances within those transitions. My anxiety before the sub cut training, my sleepless nights. My terrible sense of the cold once I had penetrated my flesh, in two different sites, slowly, each ml a painful new reality. 'You'll get used to it.' 'Some people love it.' 'You won't even feel it.' Later, someday. You'll be like the others. Who smile and laugh and brush this off. It's nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The extremely vulnerable must continue to isolate. It is for their own protection. Meanwhile we rush to open our vital economies. Our schools. Life must be returned to normal. Meanwhile there is a rush on Hydroxychloroquine. India closes her borders to exporting the raw materials. Poor lupus patients. Meanwhile it's possible that doesn't matter because being on immunosuppressive therapies may explain why auto-immune patients aren't dying en masse. You're fine, lupus patients. Your cytokine storms aren't as wild and intemperate as ours. As you were. But all the same, stay home afterwards. After our storms subside. Our bodies are the frontlines. We will protect you. We may also infect you. Just stay quiet. With that needle in your flesh. It's for your own good. The front door is your safest bet. Behind that front door... well, never mind that.

That sense of cold I mentioned? It is the place of loneliness, of abandonment. Of being protected for one's own good under strictly controlled guidelines. Of the new normal being the old normal, only with an edge. An edgier edge. But it must be contained, or else our little cup of sunshine will be consumed with the single thought that threatens to destroy us on any ordinary day. The lupus patient was never meant to survive.

And yet she does, with a paintbrush in her hands. Where poetry fails me, I paint my reality. Back and forth. Wax on, wax off. Until I become something akin to the Buddhist novice, who, in elevating a simple monotonous task with consciousness, finds nirvana.