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.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Tongues of the Hidden

  You blow away the hats of worldly status
And shatter the coronets of power with royal ease...
With the eyes of a deer you tame the lion of the sun
And the fold of your brow razes the arc of Jupiter

These are the words of Shams al-Din Muhammad, also known as Hafez of Shiraz, born 1315. But when I read these lines, I think of Kate Middleton preparing to tame the lions of English royalty, with her charm, her ease of gaze and lifted brow. 
Hafez, means one who knows the Qu'ran by heart, but the ghazals of Hafez are no literal interpretation of Islam. In fact, the saying goes, every Persian home has a Qu'ran and a Hafez. Hafez' concern is for the world of beauty and nature, for that which cannot be seen, and thus was he titled lesan al-ghaib, or the tongue of the hidden...
When the wise man views the leaves of the green tree
Each leaf is a sign of God's creation.
Islam is at a deeply painful confluence in our times. Words have become weapons. So it has been a pleasure to return to the poetry of the Shahnameh exhibiting at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Book of Persian Kings, was written by Ferdowsi in 1010; its epic style and its author are comparable only to Homer in ancient Greece. And from Ferdowsi to Nizami to Hafiz, I found myself meeting Jila Peacock, a half Iranian doctor and artist extraordinaire. She has shaped ten animal poems from the metaphysical poet's work, each using the Nast'aligh script, which can be read both phonetically and iconically. In the world of Islamic Art, calligraphy is the highest form of artistic expression. In a culture where the word is the icon, calligraphy remains the only art to evoke the essential character of the Islamic world in a continuous tradition.

And so, naturally, when I asked Jila Peacock to sign my copy of her book, Ten Poems from Hafez, she wrote my name

Shayesteh (the Iranian phonetic way)
Shaista (the Indian English way)
and in Naskh, (the meaningful way).
She said she thought my name meant Outstanding.

But we know that Shaista means.... Fighting!!!

Wednesday 24 November 2010

The Irony of Seeing

I have not been sleeping well lately. Actually, most nights I can't or don't know how to fall asleep at all. Long after dawn breaks, I eventually lose consciousness, but I feel as though I have travelled eons in those first hours. I find it almost impossible to unplug myself from the world of Other People's Stories. There are so many faces in my mind, so many voices, strangers for the most part, but for one essential, often tragic or dramatic moment, imprinted on my soul. Do you feel this way? With news streaming and swirling from around the globe, and networking sites, blogs, books, and articles, opinions have opinions and there is so much to concentrate on all the time. So many to pray for, so many to worry for, so many to be glad for. How does one manage to extricate one's mind from today's visually and verbally intense communication? I cannot retreat to a monastery - I already live in seeming solitude. I cannot bring myself to read less - I already read far less than I ever did. Or at least it seems that way, because then, there were 'only' books. Now... 

And it won't subside. How can it? Why should it? This is global awareness. And it is vital. I have to find a way to stay deeply interconnected, without losing my mind entirely to the sea of human suffering, human thought and voice. 

Perhaps it is winter. Perhaps I have not walked in the garden enough. Perhaps I should follow in father's footsteps, and just walk, walk blindly out into that human sea, knowing the grave responsibilities that surround me, but pretending anyway, that I am free. 

I remember now. Faith.

from Gregory Colbert's Ashes and Snow Project 

Sunday 21 November 2010

Lost and Found

For a few years now, my father has been sent voluntary social workers, who kindly lend their time to helping father 'get around'. I remember the first gentleman; he was Buddhist, and spent much time discussing Pema Chodron and mindfulness in between demonstrating the art of filling a cup of tea with boiling water, without burning one's fingers. Difficult art when you can't see. Then there was a lovely lady who had just returned from Bali, on a silent yoga retreat. She discussed yoga nidra, which father is now entirely adept at. But it is Helena, the most recent of helpers, who has really changed the world outside the doorstep from Out There in the Darkness to Adventureland!

So despite it being November and misty and the walk a carpet of sodden leaves, my father has been taking to long, long walks Out There. And returning home, tired and unscathed. Then yesterday... past the first bridge, the round ball on the end of his white cane snagged in one of the hedges, and Dad lost his concentration. Scratching about, examining the sharp exposed point, he was interrupted by a female voice who floated into his space, retrieved the renegade object and fixed it back onto the cane. Et la, on he went. Next, some oddly shaped object in his way; he found he could lift it up, and so he flung it away. Then there were cats eyes and metal posts. (Well, someone sauntered up and told him so. "Sorry mate. Road works here.") And on past the second bridge where my father, unphased, decides to investigate the open gravel courtyard of the Great Shelford church. Something large and metal in his way again. A car? Out of the silent church, but now where? The curb is too wide. Can't be the pavement. A man appears. He directs my father back to the church and disappears. Just at Hope Cottage where the red phone box stands, my father is accosted by two young, well-spoken police officers. "Er... excuse me, but.. er, where exactly do you wish to go?" Father, at his most urbane, simply replies, "Oh I'll be making my way home soon enough." But The Police insist they deposit the wandering soul to his doorstep immediately. "Please, don't trouble yourselves," says Dr Tayabali, polite as ever, a touch amused. Really rather wishing to get back to his walk.
They escorted him home. I wish I'd seen my mother's face when she answered the door! But she recovered very quickly and of course, as is her style, invited the police in for a cup of tea.

Dad reckons he mistook the road for the pavement. The easiest thing in the world to do. They feel the same to one's feet. The road away from and to home is a series of obstacles and requires much concentration. Much like life really. Sometimes it seems easy enough to prepare and equip oneself for the unknown. And sometimes, not.

Thursday 18 November 2010

If (only a love song)

If I dreamed a dream
and that dream was you
I would pray that I dreamed again.

If I schemed a scheme
of incomparable lies
Would you recognise the truth within them?

If I am the bow
that loosens the arrow
Are you the shield or the cushion?

If I am the sugar
in your cup of tea
Would we need a stirrer to sweeten?

If I write the song
and you play the music
Would the words need to be spoken?

If I was a stream
and you were the sea
Forever I'd flow to you unbroken.

- Shaista
This poem marks my 200th blog post. Everyday, somewhere, marks a day of auspicious happenings. Today, one of my oldest childhood friends is donning her red sari as I write, and with her hennaed hands, she will accept a ring, and with her hennaed feet she will walk seven times around fire, and pray.
May their sentiments be auspicious. May they live a graceful life that is full of mutual love and warmth. May they be able to see for a hundred years, live a healthy life for a hundred years and listen to the music of spring for a hundred years.

Monday 15 November 2010

The Bell That Sounds Aung, Aung, Aung....

Getting angry at each other
in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes
and look into the future.

Three hundred years from now
Where will you be my dear,
where shall I be?

- Gatha for the Beloved One,
from a Vietnamese poem

"If you can suffer, you can gain. What is valuable cannot be obtained without effort."
"Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure."

(Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate).

In my 2006 poetry journal, I have a picture of Daw Aung San, sitting outside in her small garden, reading. Her back is erect, softened only by the flowers tucked prettily into the nape of her neck. I refer to this picture in my mind many times, when I feel the weight of my own various exiles begin to push down on me. Grace under pressure, grace even as I suffer, these are the bells that sound Aung, Aung, Aung.... and I remember to breathe, straighten my shoulders and smile.

Friday 12 November 2010

Outside, Inside

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
to 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,
just the evening star lies ahead.

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

- Shaista Tayabali, 2010

I dedicate this poem to my friend Jonny Butterworth, who is a Human Rights campaigner, and has just set up an NGO called Just Fair, promoting justice and fairness through economic, social and cultural rights for everyone in the UK. ESCR are relatively new to the UK, and Jonny is campaigning for their direct incorporation into UK law.

poem participating in One Stop Poetry
image: 'Down and Out in Cambridge', John Glover, Cambridge Drawing Society Exhibition

Friday 5 November 2010

Friend, don't forget

Friend, don't forget, I am always in your footsteps,
I, won't forget, I am always in your footsteps

Sunset, where English trains
roll slowly by like
patient caterpillars
on country soil,
I am travelling forward.
Here, where the winds
howl low
through patient conifers
that wave at me,
I see beyond the leaden sky

to the green spires of Prague
to watery whispers of Venice
to flowers tended carefully
on window sills in Graz.

 And I am walking, toes between sand,
red rust sand, and open fence
through curlicues of Cambodian dreams
crossing borders, homes and streams
to remind you

Friend, don't forget, I am always in your footsteps,
I, won't forget, I am always in your footsteps.

- Shaista Tayabali, 2010

My first picture is of a child whose name I do not know, whose life I do not know, whose eyes I cannot see, but who already inspires my poetry. Happy Diwali to the little lights that are our children everywhere.

photograph by Rizwan

Tuesday 2 November 2010

The Good Doctor

Last night the Little Shelford annual bookclub meeting was held at the Olde Post Office. We rang the bell (like Pooh does outside Owl's), and sat down in a circle beside the authoress of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows: A Family's Journey of Love and Loss in Nepal. The book had circled the members last year while I was in hospital, and one of the lovely ladies had mentioned that perhaps Mum might find it difficult to read at the time, so it had simply passed us by.

Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth is charming and self-effacing, the kind of doctor a patient is fortunate to encounter. She is author of several books in different genres, but this, her autobiographical work, delves into the heart of a painful dilemma - to submit to the admonitions and gloomy prognostications of her fellow Cambridge doctors, or abandon the Western view and offer her son David a cheerful and dignified chance at life.  Here is an excerpt in Dr Jane's words... 
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.
It was interesting as you can imagine, thinking about my long journeys down the very same corridors of this very Cambridge hospital. I told Dr Jane that I don't write about my experiences with doctors (well, except the blue-eyed surgeon of course). She wondered why not. Perhaps I might, now. Particularly the good doctors. They deserve to be honoured, as human beings more than anything else.

Saturday 30 October 2010


Listening to October rain
prepare Winter's stones
for the coming festival of cold
And the stripping away of gold
and green,

I see trees denude themselves
in a demystification of old -
the ritual celebration of bones.

Above the silent dates of tombs,
the sky hovers, blue and unsure
of beauty's welcome here -

but this is the time
for the colour change;

Not quite black yet,
these are the shades of grey.

- Shaista Tayabali, 2010
(illustration from Magpie Tales, online creative writing group)

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Ideal Diaspora

Recently I wrote on my blog about the changing shifting states of my bedroom, a space that continually provides me with some measure of physical artistic freedom. And yet, a few days ago I was having a little moan about the constraint of living within the sphere of four walls, imagining myself one of Michelangelo's unfinished works of captives within marble, attempting freedom, never to be freed. Or like Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern; a vast carpet of porcelain replica seeds, each hand painted and hand fired by inhabitants of Jingdezhen, free to be stepped upon by the public, but none to be opened, none to bear fruit.

That same day, the Telegraph magazine arrived, with James Mollison's photographs of children's bedrooms all over the world. From Ciudade de Deus in Brazil to the Yunnan province in China, a Palestinian refugee camp in Hebron to the Rendille tribe in northern Kenya, the gulf of inequalities and the bridges of similarity are all here - from the guns (for fun, Kentucky) and the axes (for work, Senegal and Kathmandu) to the dolls, the beauty pageant queens and future rabbis (Tokyo, Kentucky and Beitar Illit). This here on the left is Roathy, who is eight and lives on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. His home sits on a huge rubbish dump and his mattress is made from old tyres. He shares the space with five thousand others.

The final picture is of my elder brother, who is at this very moment in Phnom Penh, where Roathy is. They probably will not encounter one another. But then again, life is strange and powerful encounters await us at every turn and on every journey. Rizwan's globo-social projects include just such encounters. I am not sure what he remembers of his bedroom in Bombay. It was a multi-purpose room for most of our childhood. I had torn out posters of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa from a Hello magazine above my bed, I think he had his own drawing of Bruce Lee for a while. What we shared was the light pouring in from the windows and rain from the balcony, love from our parents and friends and books and games and lullabies and prayers bookending our days and beginning our nights. I love this picture. It contains everything. The ancient stone carvings of Angkor Wat, a book, a travelling rucksack, light and his smile.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Knitting Pearls

Knit three, wool over needle, lace
Knit three, wool over needle, lace
Yarn yawns and stretches
beneath my touch
Taking shape in lines of faith
one by one by one,

I knit in hope
and dream of names
of future daughters and sons.

I make mistakes,
I drop a stitch
and pick it up too late

But always, a steady hand awaits,
My grandmother's,
My mother's,
My own.

Life is a course in miracles
And I am knitting a calendar
for when I am old
and there are stories to be told
yarn will hold them for me.

- Shaista Tayabali, 2010

Saturday 2 October 2010

Wicked Little Angel

There was an elderly pigeon walking along Finchley Road today. When he tired, he paused to contemplate a few sodden autumn leaves. London in the rain, he shrugged morosely. His glum little figure became a thing of memory as traffic moved and our taxi driver apologised profusely for his squeaky shoes. It's the rubber soles, he offered politely. Yesterday's taximan swore blue murder at an intrepid pedestrian, words that shocked my mother! But surprisingly, even he apologised at the end of the drive, with a somewhat complex tale about a cousin who wound up in prison because of... there are seven million detailed biographies entwined on these streets and no one is what they seem.

We have been swanning around in taxis in rainy London because Mum tumbled down a few mossy stone steps and a golf ball sized swelling bloomed around her ankle. But ice and my reiki righted the pain and we have travelled down Rotten Row where the horses canter, and past the Serpentine, spent hours in the National Portrait Gallery where the newly acquired bronze bust of Nelson Mandela resides beside portraits of Amartya Sen and Dorothy Hodgkin. This time Mum didn't return home determined to tear up her portraits as she is dramatically wont to do...

We are in London for my childhood friend's wedding at Langhams Hotel. A swanky affair! I wore a floaty sort of green ensemble, empire line, very Regency. Byron would have approved. And Father danced with far too many women. And almost no one knew I had just emerged from Rituximab infusions less than two weeks ago. And none of that matters anyway when I stand in awe of the magnificent exhibition of Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, surrounded by the living art of Karsavina and Nijinsky, Stravinsky and Massine, Leon Bakst, Jean Cocteau and a huge drop curtain detailing Picasso's Women Running on the Beach for Le Train Bleu.

Most moving was the performance of the Little Angels, an all-female children's folk ballet troupe from Korea. Sadler's Wells theatre was full of Korean war veterans, for whom the troupe was created in gratitude, in 1963, for laying down their lives in a faraway country in civil strife.

So there has been sculpture and sketches, ballet and marriage vows, but when I shut my exhausted eyes, what I hear... is singing. Have you seen Wicked, the musical? It is... well, wicked, really! Witches before they were witches, and why the monkeys became winged, and why Elphiba flings Dorothy into the cellar, and there's a man, (there's always a man), who first loves Glinda the Good and then decides it is the green Wicked Witch of the West he truly loves and suddenly everything changes... and I know, as Elphiba does...
"It's time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap...
It's time to try defying gravity!
I think I'll try defying gravity!"
... and perhaps the return to a bed on the floor of a room in Cambridge, will not seem quite so dull after all.
First two images:
Nobel prize winning chemist and crystallographer
Dorothy Hodgkins, by Maggi Hambling, oil on canvas,
Opera singer Adelina Patti, by Camille Silvy,
photograph, 1869

Friday 3 September 2010

View from a Window

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

Every evening when the sun sets, the rust brick of the roof outside my window changes from dull flat dust to a bright living glow. What is that called? Is there a name for that particular reflected light on stone and slate and brick that turns the inanimate world to life? Turner believed that light was the emanation of God’s spirit and in his later years his work focused almost exclusively on the effects of light. On his deathbed they say he uttered the words, “The sun is God.” My father painted this light. I love this light. In a country like England, this light is not a sure thing. Summer days have faded and autumn will sweep by soon. So my eyes drink deeply when the light is here.

In between hospital visits, my room is a mess. A mess of Things. Papers, books, shoes, postcards, medicines, a guitar, hot water bottles, promises, letters, presents. I receive many presents! It is not always this way - but creative energy is like a small undefined tornado. Sometimes I make this body, this room, the gentlest of hermitages; peace and wisdom radiate neatly from the correct feng shui corners. At other times, some whirling daemon is at play and when the damage is done, I wish I could sleep on the ceiling - the tidiest space in the room.

I wish I could borrow another body for a while. One that escapes infections and antibodies and cataracts and steers effectively around the petty weaknesses of physical frailty. A body that thinks a thing and it is done. A body touched by the light that makes stones glow.

I attended a wedding on my birthday two weeks ago. It was in Nottingham at the University, where just a few days earlier, Thich Nhat Hanh had walked and smiled with the monks and nuns of the engaged Buddhism order. I missed the retreat but my feet did not. If I am touching the same earth as others who do wondrous things, like giving birth and teaching freedom, does their magic enter me too? I like to think so. I have to think so.
It is the only way I can survive.

first painting: JMW Turner's 'Sunrise with Sea Monsters';
second painting: W Blake's 'Pegasus

Monday 16 August 2010

Running a Creche for Adults

Dear Readers,
My friend Jeanne-ming recently wrote to ask how I was and where I was, and I realise I am not blogging with any consistency this summer. Two months after my last treatment the waters started closing over me and each day I take the oars out and push the tide just far enough to keep breathing and smiling. I am awaiting the next admission with an eagerness that is not entirely normal :) Hospital tea! Yay! The narrow white cot-like bed that I somehow don't fall out off! Yay! And the needles! Er... no. No yay for the needles. I am not that far gone. My lips curl into a snarl at the thought of that particular familiar invasion.

Meantime, wolfish things aside, I have taken to a rather demure sport. Knitting. My grandmother, who lives in Vancouver most of the year, spends her summer here with us in England, and she is a champion knitter. I have put her to good use this year and am now the proud maker of a tiny sample of orange wool in garter and stocking stitch.
Grandmere is a beautiful and impatient woman who is teaching me new stitches at the rate of knots; so I took my knitting along to the eye clinic a few days ago. In between the ghastly facts of my growing cataract, my inflammatory cells, the myopically curved disc of my right trabeculectomy, old scars, new floaters.... I discussed knitting techniques with my fellow patients. Every female patient and staff member could knit! At one point, as I was sticking my tongue out at a few fallen stitches, a Chinese lady snatched the offending sample out of my hands and speedily corrected my mistakes. She was gone as quickly as she had appeared, so I followed her direction into the adjoining waiting room, but it was empty. It was late evening by now, and I snagged a friendly nurse to ask after the Chinese patient. "She's not a patient!" scoffed the nurse. "She's our visiting doctor from China." I mumbled something to her retreating back, but she suddenly re-appeared with the doctor! I think I blushed but the doctor (Ching) just tut-tutted and sorted out more mistakes. She had met me once before; I, sans contact lenses, had not recognised her. We stayed chatting awhile about me learning Mandarin (Ni hao! Wo jaio Shai!) and her mother's knitting expertise at home in Beijing, until my blue-eyed surgeon (the one who reads my blog) hustled his visiting doctor back to the safe seclusion of work. I floated back to the receptionist's desk and three nurses manifested, discussing the merits of crocheting and Carmen, head nurse, asked if I knew how to cast off. She had just begun the lesson when my medical ophthalmologist shimmered into view. (A quick visual image for you - he looks a little like Robin Williams' character in Good Will Hunting. Beard, eccentricity and all). "I know knitting is far more important," he seethed, "but could I have my patient back?" I scuttled after him, and when we'd settled into the ghostly dark room, he griped, "I feel as though I'm running a creche for adults here!"

So there you have it. I am knitting and pearling and learning Mandarin (which brings me back to my friend Jeanne-ming!) and awaiting the next installment of an IV drip. There are two more weddings looming, one which is about to fall on my birthday. So I shall write about the serendipity of that as it occurs.

So much love to my blogging sangha x

first painting: henrietta mabel may, 1884-1971
second painting: nichiro ishimura, 1946-97