Wednesday, 10 February 2021


‘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


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

Monday, 25 January 2021


'A surprising cluster of novels and fairy tales are set in the snow. Our knowledge of winter is a fragment of  childhood, almost innate. All the careful preparations that animals make to endure the cold, foodless months, hibernation and migration, deciduous trees dropping leaves. This is no accident. The changes that take place in winter are a kind of alchemy, an enchantment performed by ordinary creatures to survive. Dormice laying on fat to hibernate, swallows navigating to South Africa, trees blazing out the final weeks of autumn. 

It is all very well to survive the abundant months of spring and summer, but in winter we witness the full glory of nature's flourishing in lean times. Plants and animals don't fight the winter. They don't pretend it's not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that's where the transformation occurs. 

Winter is not the death of the life cycle but its crucible. It's a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things - slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting - is a radical act now, but it is essential.' - Katherine May, 'Wintering'

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of the most gentle, meditative podcasts is 'On Being' by Krista Tippet, who believed many years ago, that despite a staunch move towards atheism, plenty of folk are connected to spiritual beliefs, religious or otherwise. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died a few months ago, was a wonderful listen. Katherine May read from her latest book 'Wintering', and I found it of great comfort that my recent hibernating ways would not alarm a bear. To a human, sleeping through the morning and well into the afternoon would seem a waste, and perhaps even ring alarm bells of depression or an internal organ in trouble. I want to believe that I will come around to earlier waking and light filled days as spring and summer arrive. For now, I want only to sleep when I can, as much as I can. Sleeping through light does mean I have missed the heady photography options for yesterday's snow day, so I have filched (with permission) my friend Colette's morning photo shoot. Meanwhile, this evening I will stretch into a yoga class (bears stretch too - he wasn't called Yogi Bear for nothin') and later I will toast my parents' wedding anniversary. There's a candle of warmth to enjoy - love that endures, by wintering through. 

All photographs by Colette Barrere, except the last one, which was taken by Chris Boland

Monday, 18 January 2021


It takes a long time.
I wander for hours, years, miles
through countries, continents.
Sometimes there is water,
sometimes sand.
I return to these, and finally
make my stand.

I am five. I am seven.
In the water, by the shore;
I hold a twig up, brandished sword.
Later, in the quiet play,
away from salt sea spray
and the camera recording our day,
I find myself alone - 
‘a prettyish sort of wilderness’
as Austen will describe it, later.
Everything, later, to come.

For now, crouched on brackish sand,
barefoot in shorts, planting
and uprooting joy.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2021
(recited at DVerse Poets Open Link night)

It's the new year, I think... although my Christmas tree is still up with all the little mice and the twinkling lights. I am redoing the six week yoga course I did at the end of last year, just so that my body doesn't forget how to move. Bed, which was always the most comfortable spot in the house, is an even more huggable place than ever. Especially in winter, under a cosy duvet, looking out at the bare limbs of our willow. There was a time when Mum was tempted to have it cut because the roots are tearing up the courtyard, but I am so glad no decision was made. It would have been lonely without the willow keeping me company. I attended a poetry and trauma workshop this weekend and after leading us through a visualisation meditation, the writing prompt was to remember a happy place and write about it... this is the memory that returned after much wandering through my mind... 

Monday, 21 December 2020


It is the winter solstice today. The shortest day of the year and also the special meeting after 800 years between Jupiter and Saturn. An astronomical event. I used to write almost immediately when a thing happened. An important, moving thing. A change to my story. Lately, I write less here. Lately, I let the waves wash over, and I go under, go quiet. 

On the 15th of December, a Tuesday, in the morning, my beloved friend, Mary Haybittle, died. See that last word? I never wanted to write that word. It still doesn't look right, or feel right. I feel heavy at the stopping point of that word. All the comforting clichés of continuation have not arrived at my doorstep yet. Mary instructed us not to be too sad. She wouldn't be far. She would be perched on our shoulder. Perhaps I need to let go of the heaviness before I can feel the lightness of that perch.

When her husband John died, three years ago, Dad began phoning Mary every single day. Occasionally, like when he fell and was operated on, the phonecalls temporarily ceased. But then, soon enough, the daily ritual would be picked up, and since Dad always used the speakerphone, Mary's voice filled our house. 'Lovely to hear from you, Chotu' and 'I've been so lucky. All my life, so lucky.' So lucky is what I have been. I was fifteen when I met Mary. I inherited her from Dad, who was already a soulmate of Mary's. I, more than sixty years her junior, knew in an instant that I had found my soulmate, too. And soulmate she stayed, decade after decade, until I almost began to believe Mary would be, forever. 

She was the one I needed when tears would gather at the base of my throat, when a storm threatened to capsize my little world. As a teenager then or as an aunt, now. Mary to the rescue, always, always. Once, as Mum likes to recall, I was very distressed and desperate for Mary after just coming home from hospital. It was 9pm, and only Mary would do. My mother, embarrassed, but too loving to argue with a sick daughter, rang Mary, and Mary came. 

On Saturday, I attended a lecture on Virginia Woolf by the artist, Kabe Wilson. 'To The Lighthouse' was Mary's first Woolfian gift to me at fifteen. Our handwritten or emailed letters to each other ran along Woolfian lines of stream of consciousness... her ellipses mirroring mine... And all through the years we marvelled at how 'that Bloomsbury lot' managed to enthral us, decades after their heyday. I, living in Cambridge, would have written to her about Kabe Wilson, sitting by the sea at eighteen, reading 'The Waves', and she would have been intrigued. And she, living in Chichester, by the sea, wrote to me of the waves, which I never see, hemmed in by the fens as I am. 

104 is a respectable age to leave the ones who love you, for being you, because you are special every day. But it isn't as though I had Mary for a hundred and four years, I think, still dissatisfied in the most childlike way. Perch on my shoulder, Mary. Never leave me, Mary. Come back, come back. This greedy child will wait.

(Paintings by Kabe Wilson and Clare Bowen)

Thursday, 26 November 2020


A sad love curls around me
like a cat with no name,
I knit on into the darkness. 

When the wind howls without
and my feet stay within,
I bow low into the darkness.

Just a quiet prayer
on a winter breeze,
for the homeless body and soul;

just a merciful thanks 
on nights like these, 
for the warmth of a roof

and the snug of a bed
while over by the River Cam,
the evening star lies ahead. 

Lamp lit, soul lit, 
still the sad love persists,
so I bow deeper into the darkness. 

© Shaista Tayabali
for Dverse Open Link night 

It's Thanksgiving today, a festival with a complicated origin. Perhaps most of our stories that are now celebratory once had a darker beginning. And so perhaps it also goes, that the darker narratives of today will have a happier light filled future, someday. We are nothing if not hopeful beings, even in our tragedies. When I don't hold hope, you hold it for me. And when your rope is frayed, I shall hold hope for you. In the meantime, speaking of cats and sadness and beauty, here is my mother's latest portrait of our friend Hannah and her car Thea, her soulmate, who passed away this year...

Saturday, 7 November 2020


There is a beat before an Indian person manifests on screen. In the American superhero drama ‘Heroes', just before Mohinder Suresh, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, walks into his father’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the motif of Indian music via sitar or tabla or female vocalist in any one of the many Indian languages that are entwined with South Asian music, is initiated by deliberate choice. Who decides on this choice? 

Why is this motif necessary? No other character on screen needs such preparation given by musical hint. Certainly none of the white American actors are introduced by a corresponding cultural audiology. The presence of the Japanese hero, Hiro Nakimua, played by Masi Oka, is not punctuated by whatever would constitute a cliched version of Japanese culture, but when Oka tears down the streets of New York, Punjabi MC’s ‘Jatt Ho Goya Sharabee’ kicks in and I so hoped it was just a cool commentary on the fresh mixing of international community life in NY, but I really feared that an Indian character was about to appear. Granted, not dropping into Bhangra moves, but still...

In 2017, watching white nationalists surge onto the streets of Charlottesville, demonstrating a centuries long belief in the white right to rule, Joseph Biden was galvanised to begin his campaign to run as the 46th President of the United States. Meanwhile, also in 2017, the British actor and rapper, Riz Ahmed, gave a speech at the House of Commons in Westminster, ostensibly on ‘Diversity’, while stretching the meaning of that word towards ‘Representation’. ‘Diversity’ as a term, meaning side-dish to the main course, still is in abundant use but ‘representation’ is now also equally abundant and much more effective in its impact. To represent is to re present, to present again that which was hidden, silenced or otherwise deemed unworthy of popular appeal. We present ourselves, again, even though we have never not been here. 

The British Film Institute just made ‘Mogul Mowgli’ available to rent since a second national lockdown ends a cinematic run for a film that needs more than four days out in the world. My viewing experience therefore has not been immersive in the large scale sense of theatre, rather it has been intimate, almost private. This, I think is the spirit in which the film was made. Intimate sharing, intimate recollections and even intimate soul baring by the actors, all of whom are South Asian by heritage and many of whom, like myself, are inheritors of the history of Partition. In my case, more recent history, in the form of the Hindu-Muslim riots, which followed the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindu nationalists in December 1992.

As a result of which, every time I heard the sound of a train, or watched glimpses of Zed’s father, played movingly by Alyy Khan, as a boy on one of those trains, I expected violence and bloodshed to erupt on my screen. Not until the film was finished, and Zaheer/Rizwan’s hopeful face was the last image I saw, did I exhale. 

One other aspect of intimacy that perhaps would not be a common theme in most viewers’ experience, is of course that I have lupus, an auto-immune illness, and I watched the film while slowly injecting sub cutaneous immunoglobulin serum into my upper thigh. Slowly, because no matter how many months pass, a needle penetrating flesh never gets easier. Flesh remembers pain. The swelling always appears like a curious detached phenomena, and my body begins its temporary dance with adjustment, again and again and again. 

Bassam Tariq, the director, and Rizwan Ahmed, the co-writer, creator and central figure of representation, locate the unresolved trauma of both Partition and of being an often unloved and unwelcome South Asian in Britain and the United States, in the cells of an auto-immune patient - self attacking self, before self is attacked. A kind of masochistic preemptive violence. A desperately slow suicide. 

Love is the answer. Love from within, radiating without. Love in spite of. Love because of. Love humbled. Love grateful. Love angered. Love hopeful.

Love, when Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected Vice-President, holds the traditions of Jamaica and India in her blood and bearing. History is the long arc. Where on that arc will ‘Mogul Mowgli’ be? Rizwan is right when he claims that we, seventy years on, have not ‘dealt’ with Partition, but the United/Divided States have not dealt with either the genocide of native peoples or slavery of black Americans. The Civil Rights war, a bloody Partition, still fog horns through that land, so perhaps we are only at the beginning of our own long walk to healing. And the inheritors of Rizwan Ahmed’s work, two hundred and fifty years from now, may rejoice in the ones who began that conversation. If, at that time, his music is used as a motif, I won’t mind. 

Thursday, 29 October 2020


Lee Krasner, 1981, nocturnal widow of Jackson Pollock

Is it insomnia if you don’t even try?
If you can hear the pigeons crooning, wakefully,
nudging each other towards dawn?

If it's already dawn and there was never
any night, am I in tomorrow or today?
In despair is where I will be later in the day.

If Eva knew I was awake, she would celebrate;
no time to waste, just celebrate
the golden, living hour. Here I am, here you are

and nothing in between, but the small, 
round, white tablets I must take
that keep me rounded up into the pen of

habitual complacency. Medical complacency.
Cawing crows. A black pen in hand driving
me forward on inked truths I can barely see.

Blink blink blink no more.
The insomniac body can only endure
the dark before the light.

Once light sets in, the sleeping begins.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

Salvador Dali, surrealist insomniac 

In 1889, Van Gogh wrote: “I fight this insomnia by a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress, and if ever you can’t sleep, I recommend this to you.” I have yet to employ camphor... 
Meanwhile, the French author Colette described insomnia as "almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge.” And Vladimir Nabokov, another famous night creature, once commented that “sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world.” 

How are you sleeping through this pandemic? The same? Differently? Grouchily? Ecstatically? Are you avoiding bed or leaping in, with sighs of relief? I have had a complex relationship with bed and 'somnia probably since I was a child, desperate to keep reading, but certainly since I became a steroid dependent human with lupus. Being a writer, a creative, I take heart from the artists of old, who may have been holding on to the edges of sanity but wasted no night light hours...

Wednesday, 7 October 2020


It would have been Clive James’s eighty-first birthday today. 

Lots of people have October birthdays; friends of mine, a goddaughter of mine. But the birthday of a friend you can never meet again, a friend who also, now, has a death day, imbues the month with even more autumnal poignancy than usual. 


He was, after all, the one who went viral with his Japanese maple leaf farewell. The death of the tree preceding his own was just the sort of joke the kid from Kogarah lived for. In his absence, it is harder to find the jokes, here, on the ward we shared. 

Clive’s yawns were leonine. He turned the infusion bay into his drawing room by holding no measure of that sound in discretion. He always fell asleep at a certain point during the drip of immunoglobulins into his vein, something I have never been able to do in my ten years of intravenous therapies. Aside from his genuine sleeps, the famous critic was also able to drop into utterly phoney narcoleptic faints when approached by an undesirable fan. One eager gentleman in particular acted extraordinarily upon Clive’s ability to stay conscious in the face of a bore. Poor dude, I tried to think, the milk of my human kindness attempting to overcome the bald truth: the gentleman in question really is an unstoppable torrent of opinion. 

There are many lonely people shepherded by ill fate into this place. Clive was not a philanthropist.


Sometimes, in his eagerness to skedaddle home, Clive would forget some portion of his garments. His cardigan. A scarf. But also, his slippers. Shuffling off in his socks, I ahoyed him back. (His drawing room, remember.) I was as unimpressed by his fashion as he was entertained by mine. His was sixties French philosopher, black, with crumbs. Mine was, is, anything to brighten the spirit. My soft, olive green beret had been eyed covetously so many times, that when the latest carcinoma had been shelled out of his skull, I offered it up. He swiped it without a hesitant beat. Goodbye, beret. I miss you, still.

It is only the start of autumn, mizzling days. The fire of joy is yet to come. We are seven months into a pandemic some of us are better suited to. (To or for? Clive would know.) My rabbit warren between home and Addenbrooke’s is traversed less because those three weekly infusions Clive and I shared are now weekly subcutaneous injections I attend to in my own home. Occasionally, I sit out in the garden, but the bees investigate the sticky serum too closely and drive me back indoors. No sub cut for Clive. No surgical masks or social distancing from his beloved granddaughter. No, just the freedom of a poet unbound. 


We were always joking about the spectre. And then one of us would look seriously at the other. Don’t die, said the look. The trouble is, I believed him when his look promised he wouldn’t. Or when he wrote, ‘my infusions have been stopped temporarily, hence my absence from class’ or, ‘I’ve had an op and it went quite well, so I’m coming alert again.’ 

Think about death all you like. It doesn’t help you prepare. Not really. Every poem is a brushstroke, feathering death away. Does it come mightily or lightly? Neither, I think, for Clive. Eighty he may have been in grown up years, but when it came, surely it cradled him softly, like the hug of a tree. No more thorns. The bark didn’t bite. He left the fire for us, and a deep impression in the blue vinyl armchairs, of joy.

All images via The Guardian website article 'Clive James: A Life in Pictures'

Sunday, 4 October 2020


In my last poem, I mentioned the sun going down. I spoke of the dark. It was an intimation. A week later I developed a migraine which led my right eye into dancing yellow spots, which in turn, turned into black cobwebby trails like seaweed growing across, floating across, my field of vision. 

The doctors took a look and decided there were no tears, my retina had not detached, but they could see the dispersed, disturbed jelly and told me either this would settle or my brain would adapt. I waited three weeks for this settling or adaptation to take place but nothing has changed. The seaweeds are as bad as ever and at times, worse. I have been back to the eye department, and next week I meet the Vitreo-Retinal consultant. 

Adaptation is all very well when you have some vision to compensate. My right eye has been doing all the compensatory work for the past fifteen years or more. And now where will I turn for solace? Well, I keep finding new places on Zoom. 

I was listening to the 'How To Fail' podcast with Elizabeth Day featuring Ruby Wax, who mentioned she had taken her 'Frazzled' cafe mindfulness meet-ups online. I joined in the next day, and had a chance to meet and talk to Ruby herself; she found me full of light, which cheered me in my shadowlands. 

Another day, I attended a book lecture given by Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha for the Sri Lanka Literary Society of the UK, on his book 'Strangers on the Camino' - an account of the ancient Spanish pilgrim voyage he made with his son Shivantha. It was a non-religious, lighthearted, yet moving, and therefore spiritual, journey of love renewed, and fun to share the moment with Sri Lankans across the globe, in different time zones. 

And finally, today, I joined a reading group, newly formed by Naomi Alderman, award winning English author of 'Disobedience' and 'The Power'. I stayed in my pyjamas, in bed, reading Clive James' 'Poetry Notebook', which is far more formal than his latest collection, but was perfectly calming. As calming as the small group of us reading in our individual cubby holes, in silence for 50 minutes until our ten minute chatty catch up at the end. Naomi's reason for beginning this group for the winter ahead... 'This was very much a feature of my Orthodox Jewish childhood. Going to someone's house on Shabbat and all of us just sitting together reading in silence and occasionally going "listen to this sentence". I miss it.' I could fully relate to the memory through a different route - being on our family holiday, and all five of us sitting in a reading nook of our borrowed hill station house, immersed, silent but for the chomping of salty wafers (Indian-speak for crisps)...    

It has been quite the week for me, recovering from my second round of Rituximab, haunting the eye department till 10pm (the doctors did apologise) and finally sticking the old sub cut needle in yesterday. I only did one... I think I could have skipped 'em altogether, but one tries to be diligent, even in private. Unless one is the leader of a certain nation in crisis, in which case all bets are off. 

Images: Cleveland Art: Fish and Rock, Mindfulness by Oscar Ortiz, The Wijesinhas at Fin Isterre, final illustration by Angie Wang