Thursday 30 December 2010

The Eye of the Tiger

Rizwan in action, on globo-social work
The Year of the Tiger is drawing to a close. Its eyes have seen much, its spirit has soared triumphant at many moments, and its strength has been powerless at many moments. Weddings and births and seasonal celebrations have been married with falling bombs, earthquakes and floods, and new countries being carved up, borders bleeding one into the other.
Next year will be the Year of the Rabbit. One of my elder brother's sayings is, "Hope life is treating you gently". In the Year of the Rabbit, may life treat gently those who have been devoured by the tiger. And may those of us who luxuriated in the royal blessings of happiness this year, continue to cultivate gratitude, kindness and the art of being gentle for the next year to come.

My beautiful sister, Theresa - just promoted to associate partner at her law firm and mother-to-be. Doesn't she glow?
Me, the smiling observer, in the comforting shade of Mum's smile.

The truth is, we needed the tiger's roar to make it to Singapore. And the island of Nikoi!! Woo hoo!!
Irfan's mischievous smile in full. He keeps many things successfully juggled at all times - work, family, marriage, a baby on the way - and always, that dazzling smile at hand.

The ones who lead the way....
and the new generation who follow and lead at the same time.

Friday 24 December 2010

Nativity... or Why Birth Is Worth the Fight!

Ballet in front of our Christmas tree, Bbay, Dec '89
I have had so many of you chiding me for questioning if 'earth is worth the fight' in my last post. It is! It is!! But sometimes Yes it is!! So to make up, I shall sing you a Christmas carol...

Long time ago in Bethlehem,
so the Holy Bibles say,
Mary's boy child Jesus Christ
was born on Chri-istmas Day!

Hark! the herald angels sing, as we gather round our fires. Impossible that it is really snow on the trees outside, and not the cottonwool we used for our Christmas tree in India. We had a real one growing in our garden, and a little rubbery one for Santa (and our presents) inside. On Christmas Eve, a softly gathering chorus would wind its way up the gentle slope where we lived. It would fall silent, and coins would tinkle, and then the music would drift towards us again. The Salvation Army singers. How I miss the sounds of hush and harmony, and the lantern that lit their journey for them, and lit them for us. And on Christmas day, we did the strangest thing. We went to Breach Candy Hospital, and mooched around from ward to department - each one more heartily decorated than the next. There were delicate mangers and tinsel and baubles and food! And we were three little kings and queen, the children of Dr and Mrs Tayabali, who were both adored by the staff, and we basked then as we do now, in their reflected magic.

I am basking now in the reflected magic of my big brother and trying to absorb as much of his life experience and brisk global summary as I can before he heads off to new lands, new skills. And contemplating the turns in the roads awaiting us. For just around the corner, my little brother and his wife, five months pregnant, feel far away, and yet so dear. The blanket is knitted and awaiting its owner. I think Aunty Shaista is ahead of the game, for now, but let's see what Uncle Riz comes up with!

Do you remember my brother's wedding took place on an island called Nikoi? Well, there were only 40 of us gathered in that jewelled setting of sun and sea... and five of the couples are now expecting babies! Five! So on that happy note, I wish all of them safe deliveries, with stars colliding and magic manifesting; and wish you, dearest of readers and writers, Merry Christmas!!!

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Snow Perfect Day

Three days to Christmas. Snow white everywhere. And new flakes beginning to fall as I write. The tree is bedecked. The airports harrassed. My mother is shlepping through the village delivering pressies and cards, in her Eskimo gear. Dad is visiting with his brother. Mine is fast asleep with the flu... after months of travelling around Asia, it's a shock to return to a winter wonderland. Pretty only goes so far. Then, it's just plain cold! So happy to have him home. Hot cold hot cold hot... that's Rizwan with flu. That's me too, without the flu. I was supposed to go in for my second round of treatment, but some mix-up at the hospital means I am now in limbo, not knowing... waiting for the consultant's call, if she calls at all... My soul is in flight, with the peace and blessing of home and hearth and my Big Brother's return, but my body is torn, struggling, trying to decide if earth is worth the fight.

Yesterday was the promised land
where the body found strength
and the soul danced
There was peace for a moment
quiet at the breakfast table.

Then the sun bathed itself  in twilight.
The colours changed
and with the moon the battle resumed.

I am unarmed
as I await my orders,
while another day of stolen magic
lies winking in the promise
of tomorrow.

Sunday 19 December 2010


I sleep with tablets. They surround me. I try to minimise their lurking presence (lupus makes one a master of disguises). I use colourful scarves, drapes, jewel bright cushions, Neruda, Chanel, the latest Hello! or Elle. Thầy, Sai and Dalai, the lamas illuminate my walls. Friends tell me my room exudes peace.
Tablets, you see, don't speak. They lurk.

On this day, in 1848, at the age of 30, ill health was to take Emily Brontë. Having caught a cold during the funeral of her brother, she died two months later, having refused "no poisoning doctor" near her. My father being a doctor and all, I could never consider any doctor to be 'poisonous'.... but I have had to learn to become robust enough to cross swords (terribly politely, of course) with a long line of medics. The latest subject: sleeping tablets.

Now, I understand, I truly do, the RED ALERT FLAG that the words 'sleeping tablets' arouses in the average being. Successive flashcard: ADDICTION. But according to this medic, the worst of all, are little old ladies (his words) who, mid induced-sleep, go for a jolly little wander, and slip and fall and break. "I know it hasn't happened to you," (he paused, I nearly smiled), "not yet." Not Yet?!!! I've never asked him for a sleeping tablet before. I ground my teeth. I wasn't there to beg. "Sleep deprivation," he sweetly informed me, "is not a disease."
"And you, I suppose," my smile even sweeter, "pass into oblivion the moment your head touches your pillow?" He bowed in acquiescence. "It's about choice, a lifestyle change," he waved grandly.

I am an individual, I remind him. Not a statistic. Nor a morally reprehensible citizen. I was never asked to sign a consent form when the first barrage of drugs were pumped into my body. The steroids that nearly destroyed my sight were described as 'life-saving'. The immuno suppressant that caused needless, endless bleeding, was called 'a magic bullet'.
I stand my ground, and face the doctor down. "We could argue till the cows come home!" he attempts, jovially. But a few blusters later, he pronounced me, "Fascinating!" twice, hastily wrote me a prescription, and sent me packing with the fervent prayer, "We need to find a cure for you soon!" 

Back to the needles on the ward tomorrow for more mabtherapy. And a few good nights' SLEEEEEP!!!!
And who knows, when I wake.... what magic will await? Sometimes a girl just needs to sleep. It worked for Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, don't you think? At least, in the Disney version. Grimm's fairy tales may have brushed closer to the truth. 

Thursday 16 December 2010

Willow Song

Photographs by Kate Spence Bridges
Above the setting sun
the clouds are suffused with gold
and the willow tree, hangs delicately
tinged with blushes of bold.
Far beyond, in wintry fields
gnarled limbs curl suspiciously,
like human shoulders shrugging off
the suspended burden of eternity.

There is no eternity, here
in nature's glorious reign
the yellow moon, paper thin, winking
bids farewell to the sun as it wanes.
But the lover smiles at nature's ways
true love understands eternity,
with tears of crystal truth so pure
and a heart of changing constancy.
participating in Moondustwriter Thursday, inspired by the music of composer George Winston and the photography of Kate Spence Bridges' winter in Scotland

Saturday 11 December 2010

from Sunia to Miral

क्या हो रहा है? क्या हो रहा है?
दिल में चोट? पेट में दर्द?
Her name is Sunia. I don't know this yet. We haven't spoken yet, so she does not realise I can understand her words. I let her Hindi-Urdu wash over me in cool streams of green.
"What is happening? Does your heart hurt? Your stomach?"
क्या हो रहा है? मुझे कह दो? क्या सोच रहे हो?
"What are you thinking? Will you tell me?" 
Her husband says not a word. And I know she does not really require a response. I know she is really saying, "Beloved. My beloved. I am here."
Her name is Sunia. It means 'one who listens'. She is beautiful. She is younger than me and anxiety has erased her smile. She leaves for a while. Her husband gets on with his chemo. She returns, with two little boys. I smile at her. She relaxes, walks over, and I give every ounce of my joy and spirit and Addenbrooke's knowledge until she looks young again. I tell her I know her doctor. I trust him. I know a cure for anti-sickness. A home remedy that makes her laugh. I know too, that her husband is brave, for saying nothing, only turning a little green and a little yellow now and again.
When I am in hospital, I don't watch the other patients. I talk to them, but I watch the relatives. The Sunias. The listeners. Even when the patients say nothing, the listeners are listening; for the slightest hitch, to the breath beyond words, to the heart of the one who is suffering.
दिल में दुख है? Is there pain in your heart?
Beloved, I am here.
Sunia is Pakistani. She looks like Freida Pinto, the Indian actress from Slumdog Millionaire, who plays Miral in a film about Palestine, chosen because she looks like Rula Jebreal, the Palestinian author of the novel and screenplay. The director of the film is Jewish-American Julian Schnabel, who, listening to Rula's story, fell in love with her. Everyday we see faces that remind us of others, of the interconnections, of politics and pain. And then we have a conversation. And the complexities fall away. For a while, only a single language exists. The language of the heart.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Advice: Poem for a Ninja

Never ask why.
Never give up.
Never stop.
Smiling laughing pleasing teasing.
Never cry.
Listen to the birds
and the wind.
Light candles
to bring truth in.
Never win.
Read nothing
from silence.
Imagine no one
from darkness.
Never spin tales.
Never weave dreams.
Still you must hope.
Always believe.
Try everything.

Now forget
and start again.

~ Shaista, 2010

December 5 is Day of the Ninja, apparently. This picture of me on the PSSU Ward, D5, Chair 9, is the very first and only picture in existence of me in hospital. I am not sure why I asked the nurse to take it. I was my warrior poet self. I was thinking of you all as I smiled. Thinking of you, thanking you, for two years of strength, encouragement, advice, friendship, poetry, travel photographs, compliments and prayers. The picture is a little fuzzy, a little out of focus, and the nurse, Annamma, apologised for that. But I like it fuzzy, unfocussed, surreal. Ninja, or shinobi, means to steal away, and thus, by extension, to forbear. Look for me in that chair. I am not there :)

Sunday 5 December 2010

The Visitor

This being human is a guest house. 
Every morning a new arrival...
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi

Winter is upon us, snow upon the doorsteps. The lantern light near the willow tree welcomes so many visitors to our home. Friends of old who bring India anew, and friends from next door who discuss their allotments, and friends of my brothers from Japan and Singapore, and now, my very first blogger, that mysterious apparition of faraway words transformed into a person. And suddenly from Las Vegas, Nevada, Terresa Hall Wellborn of The Chocolate Chip Waffle fame, manifested here, on the cobbled streets of St Edwards' Passage, in the Haunted Bookstore where we discussed poetry, in Auntie's Tea Shop, where Terresa ate a Full English Breakfast for lunch, into the gloaming of the high vaulted chapel at Kings, and then in mindful silence at Kettle's Yard, where shafts of sunlight touch Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska resting, at peace, at home.

My life, this year, seems to have been a thoroughfare of meetings, arrivals and departures. Sometimes I feel a nomad in my own life. A couch surfer, surfing in my own home. Hello goodbye hello goodbye. And in between, Addenbrookes' Hospital: the other root, the other home. I write this on the eve of my own little departure from the lantern light and the willow tree, to the needles and the pulsing infusion that is keeping the Wolf at bay.

first image from Magpie Tales

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Vera - a Tempest

It is nearly two am. Another night of a churning mind. Did you know the secret rule to solving insomnia is 'not minding'? Not minding not sleeping, not minding not sleeping... then suddenly, you fall asleep. Tonight, Deepak Chopra, that is not working.
Tonight's is a weighty concern. I am thinking about hair. Women's hair.
And why we care, so very much, about hair. Men care too. More deeply than they reveal. We women, we reveal.
When I tell my father I am off for a haircut, he wishes me happy tears. "Women go to the hairdresser," he theorises, "in order to get depressed." Not true! And yet, and yet. There is something deeply unempowering about having another woman (or man) cut your hair. They take your hair in their hands and with scissors and razors and a vision entirely their own, take away what belongs to you, and you give it, and you pay for your fallen locks, and you walk away. A lesser, smaller self. Until you grow it back - your hair, your self, your smile.
Perhaps other women experience this differently. Perhaps other women walk out of hairdressers bouncing along pavements, freer, sassier, colour coded to match that moment of nowness. That woman has never been me.

Many thousands of miles away, a woman named Vera, is thinking tempestuous thoughts about her own hair. She has just been diagnosed with high grade follicular lymphoma. She will start an aggressive form of chemotherapy soon. Death be damned, to hell with the needles and bruising... "My hair," she moans. "What will become of my hair?"

Grandmother, for so Vera is to me, was a raging beauty in her day...and although that day may long be past in some dry calendars, Vera is still very much that beauty, that wit, that swift lithe dancer of the waltz. She is the sort of woman who dresses for the day. Not in pearls, but in the simplicity of perfectly 'done' hair. Her age is of little matter. She is health embodied. Well, except for the unaccountably large lymph nodes extensively roosting in her body like fat goose eggs.

And those words... Cancer. Chemo. Cytotoxic. Or as one doctor merrily pointed out, "Well, it's your choice. If you don't take the treatment, you'll be dead in six months. Your choice." (I am breathing out steam as I write).

Is there ever really a choice? The choice is life. Always, life. And a woman's hair, for better or worse, reflects her life. Whether or not it is taken from her by force, she pays for its fall.

Even if it leaves, it will return Vera mama, it did return for me. But I don't think she believes me.