Saturday 29 December 2012


I am not here today
for I was never born
and I can never die

I am not here today
in this ordinary form

I am particle
and consciousness
in someone else's sky -

I am wings
I am flight
and this body
will surely die.

 © Shaista Tayabali, Singapore, 2012.

My dearest younger sister,
You travelled from Delhi to arrive here in Singapore. I was at Mount Elizabeth Hospital myself, a few days ago, filled with my usual combination of terror at the state of my scarred eyes and the immense joy of being loved. They say you 'passed away peacefully' this morning. Who chose those words, I wonder? I know so little about you. Only three things. You were a physiotherapist, you loved movies and you had a good friend who tried to protect you. Not knowing your name, we have named you Nirbhaya, the Fearless One.
Did you know that when she was 18, Frida Kahlo had an accident on a bus? An iron rod entered her left hip and exited between her legs. In later life, her gangrenous feet were amputated. But someone was carrying powdered gold on that bus and the glitter speckled her body, turning dark into light. She spent the rest of her life in excoriating pain, but through her art, purified that pain. There was no one to blame. It was an accident.
You drew out poison on a bus thirteen days ago. It was no accident. Was it the medical teams who battled to keep you here until today? I would not choose for you to stay. Not with that particular poison in your veins. Growing up in India, most of us experience some measure of that poison. I am no exception. It informs the way we move, the choices we make, for the rest of our lives. We become tortoises with lionhearts, instead of lions. We become elephants who never forget. We never forget.

Your sister, Shaista.

Tuesday 25 December 2012


We arrive to the scent of pine, and forget we are in Singapore. We could be anywhere. Inside, we are home. Our world revolves around a small ball of fire, who this very Christmas has been introduced, by "Shai! Shai! Shai! Shai!" to The Gruffalo... "Oh no! Oh no! It's a Gruffalo!"
Christmas Day has been a crash course in Finding Nemo, Madagascar and Barnyard Animals, a swim, a game of basketball, a visit to the nearby riding stables to neigh with horses and jump in puddles. A Christmas unlike any other...
 and the only way I want to end this year...

Thursday 20 December 2012


We are aged and ageless
together on the ward
blending blue
against a dull stone sky.

We are a strange alien race
hooked to wires
trailing machines
tangled in each other's space.

We manage doors one handed, we smile,
quirky twists of face;
We play the game,
knowing why.

I long for a bed, a blanket,
a cushion,
heat, sand, beach,

Outside the windows, a playground
I have never seen children in:
a chessboard with giant squares,
and no chessmen.

The light has faded to black now
I turn to the faces within,
to patches of white
and yellow butterflies
tucked securely into skin.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2012  
(I wrote this on the Patient Short Stay Unit Ward. I spend a lot of time on this ward, but no more for this year. I am taking flight! Tell you all about the heat and light when I am on the other side :)) 
Illustration: Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban, 1904

Thursday 29 November 2012


When kites fly
across blue skies
and border divides,
Gaza and Israel unite.

We make the kites,
We fly the kites, 
over the wells of hate.

Our borders are planks of wood -
We carve the sails,
We choose the colours for the tails
in ribbons of orange and red
and green -
We speak across the steel.

When we fly kites
across blue skies,
Gaza and Israel unite.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2011

I wrote this poem a year and a half ago in response to the Dispatches documentary on the children of Gaza. Thousands of children flew kites over the Gaza strip in July 2011, claiming a new world record for most kites flown simultaneously. A competitive spirit was alive in the children, ready to sharpen their sails against their Israeli kite fighters. The poem feels so naive, so childish, in the face of what appears to be a systematic genocide of the people of a tiny strip of land. But the voice is accurate - the kites were everything that day. Slogans were written on the kites calling on Israel to end the four year blockade, calling for peace. It is painful that children are supposedly always at the heart of ending or restraining a grown-up war. And yet no-one actually listens to children.   

Sunday 25 November 2012


So in other news... I have been started on some new eyedrops, and their side effect is... waitforit... to make my lashes longer!!
But before you explode with the greenest of envy, allow me to point out that I am being started on something else as well. A few months ago I was given two vaccinations - for pneumonia and meningitis. I responded to neither, which has made the immunologists unhappy. So tomorrow I will be hooked up to another IV drip to receive human immunoglobulins. You know how our pooled taxes are supposed to *benefit* us in times of stress and distress? (This is about as political as I am about to get...) So also, intravenous immunoglobulins contain pooled plasma extracted from thousands of blood donors to rescue immune deficient humans. Like me. Some of you donate blood, so I wanted to say thank you. I am to receive it from now until forever, but since there is a world-wide shortage of IVIg, that may not be very long. While I'm hooked up, I may as well make a start on my latest essay...  I'll be in the right place!

Tuesday 20 November 2012


They numbered thousands in the streets of Dublin on Saturday, with beautiful signs and candles lit to protest for a change in legislation. In our front window, I lit candles and placed a slice of Irish barmbrack, freshly baked, still hot. The name Savita will not be easily forgotten.
Vivid through the raw emotional landscape is shame, an emotion that vibrates alongside anger. Those fighting for a referendum to repeal Article 40, clause 3, are also embarrassed that their country let them down. I wanted to write something today to balance that shame with pride, focusing on one Irish woman named Debbie Deegan.
In the summer of 1996, a group of tiny, undernourished children arrived in Dublin, and were housed by openhearted Irish families. Falling in love with 'their' orphan, little Zina, led Debbie on a journey to Hortolova orphanage, eight hours' drive from Moscow, and thence to a life's work of nurturing 200 Russian orphans. There are many moving excerpts in Debbie's book, 'To Russia With Love'.

Thanks to Debbie and an incredibly stalwart team of Irish volunteers, Hortolova has become a centre of excellence, a showcase of good practise, but the heartbeat of the story lies in passages like this...

There were always five or six carers living in the orphanage at any one time and all day long all they heard at the door was 'knock, knock, knock'. It's still like that. We have around 200 children and they will always find a reason to knock for the Irish. You might be having a quick tea break and the next thing, 'knock knock'... They'd make something up - 'I need a pencil, a plaster', anything at all. Or they'd forget what they wanted as the door opened, overwhelmed simply by the need for company. For eighteen hours a day, it never ceases.

At the end of the book is a short essay written by Zina herself, the Deegan's now formally adopted Russian daughter...

I had no English, Mick and Debbie had a few words of bad Russian. They tried their best, I'll give them that! The first few days in their house, I was very uncertain of myself. I didn't know what to do. In the orphanage, it's like the army. There's a time for everything, so when I came to this house and they weren't telling me exactly what to do, when to eat, when to play, when to sleep, I felt very lost. Debbie always said to me, 'My house is your house', and I would say, 'No, my house is completely different.' It was only when she got to know the orphanage that she really realised that... to this very day I find it very hard to make choices, because I didn't get that training as a child... I still always ask advice from everybody else and I don't listen to my own heart. 

Zina's account, and the chapter on the 2004 Beslan massacre, are the most poignant chapters in the book. I think about Amal, the little girl I dedicated a poem to, in Gaza, amid the rubble, and know there are orphanages everywhere, overflowing with children beset by head lice and broken hearts. 'Bright flowers in a burnt-out land' Marian Keyes calls them... and then I think of a woman like Debbie Deegan, who with clear sighted focus, is rescuing one child at a time, fighting for each of them, equally, with tigerish energy. It gives me hope. This morning when I woke, two packages from Ireland were awaiting me. One was full of tea lights, hot chocolate and a scarf to keep me warm. The other also contained chocolate (my friends know me well) and a box of Irish tea! Barry's tea, slightly battered, full of good cheer... the most refreshing cup of tea - I have never smiled so much while drinking a cuppa tay :)
You can buy Debbie's book at her website To Russia With Love... Ah, go on! :)

Wednesday 14 November 2012


Just at this moment, people are gathering in different places to mark the heartbreak of the passing of Savita Halappanavar. For Diwali, the festival of lights, Savita had choreographed her annual dance for the festivities in Galway. Being seventeen weeks pregnant, she had not intended to dance herself, but she would have worn a sari, lined her eyes in kohl and tapped a foot energetically to the beat. I am not attending a vigil or a protest, but I went for a walk today, writing a letter to Savita as I walked.
Dear Savita,
There are no divas lit in the village where I live. Diwali is not openly celebrated here. I remember making the clay pots when I was a child, decorating each one uniquely, and then, once lit, being lost in the glow. I walk past the river and the birds croon mournfully; I take care with each step because the golden leaves are heavy with wet. They are taupe and ochre, muted, when I return home. I stand looking down over the bridge, making the most of my eyes, even in the half light. I listen to the music of the troubled river and remember my Indian classical dance teacher calling me "Cutlet!" It was her nickname for her favourite student, and also the one who needed her sympathy the most - the worst dancer. You never quite knew which you were. It was in the tone. It's funny... the things we remember from our first lives, our first homes.

A few days ago, November 10 was declared Global Day of Action for our younger sister Malala and the 32 million girls who are denied education. Some are hoping Malala will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Every day of my life, I give thanks for the determination of my grandfathers and great-grandfather, who fought for the women in my family to be educated. I am proud of this inheritance, but I never take it for granted. This freedom to write, to think, to express myself, is a gift. I am fiercely grateful to be an educated, literate, free thinking woman. I imagine you must have felt this way too?
Two months ago, a consortium of Irish doctors declared abortion medically unnecessary: "We confirm that the prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women." You pointed out you were neither Irish nor Catholic and yet the law allowed a dying heartbeat to take precedence over your own. I cannot bear to think of your last days. Know only that many hearts are beating for you tonight, and listening for the song of your life.

From one of your many new friends, Shaista.

Images: from
Pencil Jammers artist Bharatanatyam

Wednesday 7 November 2012


So there's this tube, right? An aqueous shunt device which bypasses the trabecular meshwork and redirects the aqueous humor into an outlet chamber or bleb. Or you could just have a picture...

Doesn't it look a bit like a spaceship probe nosing around innocent, minding-its-own-business Earth?? The arrow up in the right hand corner is where the scar tissue or fibrosis was removed and I felt so much better right away because my eye pressure dropped from highs of 34mmHg to a neat and precise 7mmHg... So not only did I get this lovely sci-fi drawing from the surgeon but he also recommended a cool spaceshippy ward for me... how old does he think I am?!! 
But it made Mum smile as she waited...
I posted this picture on facebook to Mum's complete shock: "How can you post such a picture? You look HORRIBLE!!" Er... right, thanks Ma! Thank you all for saying the opposite when you saw it! Either way, I emerged brighter several hours later... touching my lucky stars with gratitude.
While I was gowning up, and tugging on the evil pre-op stockings that nearly cut off all circulation, I was visited by various members of the ward staff - Ray and Grace - who remembered me from seven years ago when I originally had the sight saving Molteno tube implanted. (I could send you a video link to the mechanics of that particular glaucoma operation... it would make your toes curl in terror... but I love you, so I won't). I was in complete hell that year and for a long time afterwards. Father had just lost his sight and it looked as though I might too. It was the darkest, most terrifying year of my life. So little wonder then that Ray and Grace weren't entirely sure it was me. How am I different, I asked? Their answer: "You are cheerful now! So, so cheerful now. Your head was bent this low last time." They demonstrated my drooping head... there wasn't time to explain to my old friends about this blog and new friends and Rituximab and a rose garden of twitter love being sent in abundance every time I suffer...
My eye is a bloody quivering thing today so I shall disappear from internet activity for a while - I just wanted to say THANKYOU THANKYOU THANKYOU for your incredible support, for never letting me walk into these moments alone and, finally, wasn't it just great waking up to four more years of this wonderful couple representing our human race in one corner of the globe?

Saturday 3 November 2012


Light dances
on the willow tree
Light, that too fleeting
moment of green, heat,

is this autumn light,
this never leave me
stay light,
Gone before you know it

Eyes. Write. Now. This

Today is our anniversary. The day the five Tayabali musketeers arrived in a green village of bridges and set our travel-worn feet inside the house with the lantern and the willow. 
November has such a strange feel to it. There is a glorious arrivingness about autumn, and then suddenly, a sense of something missing, or lost, pervades. The fall of darkness surprises me every year. 
And yet, this is the only month whose leaves make their way into my journal, onto my walls, year after year. 
On Monday, instead of starting school as I did that Monday an eternity ago, I shall be gowned up for another glaucoma operation. I am looking forward to it about as much as I did my first day of school in England! It's general anaesthesia this time, possibly because the Blue Eyed Surgeon doesn't want any more song requests...

linked to dverse poets

Monday 29 October 2012


Autumn isn't exactly sizzling this year, is it? Perhaps it's just me, my eyes are woefully aggrieved with my overuse of them. My operation cannot come soon enough. Chop that scar tissue, dear surgeon, I am ready! Ish. 
Occasionally though, I see a patch of fire, usually behind gothic grills...
Yesterday I was invited to a pre-Halloween cupcake tea party... well, I made it a cupcake party by baking twelve Consistently Reliable Cupcakes and I flung in a cola-cake for luck. One of the little girls was NOT convinced by the idea of coca-cola in her cake... but I won her around! Or rather, I should say Marian Keyes won her around... it was her recipe, albeit highly re-arranged from the original (sorry M!)... see the little scuffly, crumbly pile at the Central Ghost's feet? While I was asleep, my mother decided too much icing was going to waste at the edges, and scooped a spoonful into the middle, perhaps hoping I wouldn't notice? IT'S IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CAKE MA!!! Anyway....
After cake and sangwitches, tea and bedtime stories, the grown-ups, self included, went to see Skyfall, the new Bond. I had the pretty nails to show for it, a bright yellow dress with ochre boots (very autumnal) and just before the show, we even had a martini! Well, I shared mine... a delicious Polish appletini thing... just to get in the mood...
Now, the truth is, I have never really been a Bond girlfan, too many car chases, too many cars! but with this Bond, with these Bond women, I'm all in. Although, hasn't Judi always been the coolest, ever?
'Bond Women'... did you know we are to have no more Bond 'girls'? Nice idea, although there are aways some rather sticky ends for the beauties...  Javier Bardem, the villain, was righteous in his peroxide, cyanide hell and the roll call of eminent British actors was just fantastic - Ben Whishaw, Dame Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris... it was so character-driven, told such a strong story that had you never watched a Bond before, it would not matter. 

Tomorrow is my pre-op and despite not being an agent for MI6, I feel absolutely shattered. I prop myself up with the good news that Malala is out of danger, and recovering in Birmingham, but falter at news of Hurricane Sandy hurtling towards New Jersey. (Apparently, someone has dubbed it 'Frankenstorm'... who?!) Sigh... there's always a storm somewhere. So how about a chirpy picture of nail art?
Not very Goth, are they? They have butterflies and little pink daisies on them...
I ought to try these, like my friend Vicky who writes a blog at Books, Biscuits and Tea... now hers are Frankenspooky, don't you think?!

Saturday 13 October 2012


A river streamed 
through my room.

It scared me
It broke my wardrobe
Scattered my clothes
It released my dresses
from yesterday's bond
It made me wear them

I wore it
and it wore me
Reminded me...
Oh God, it was my love's 
favourite, this dress,
and this waistband
and all these things...

A river streamed
through my room
And my room
became a garden.

Some years ago I watched a documentary called Syria's School. For me, these occasional glimpses into the lives of my younger sisters across the globe afford precious viewing. The documentary offered the girls at school the opportunity to write, and present poetry, to some of the leading literary minds in Syria. One poem captured my heart, moved me so deeply, I rushed to find a pen and scribbled the poem (above) from memory. The poet's name was Nour Aibash. I wonder where she is now, and if she is still writing. Last year, I watched a documentary on Gaza's children, and a little girl called Amal tugged at me, so I wrote her a poem called 'Crossing Borders'. She has shrapnel buried in her brain, behind her eyes. You can imagine how this affects me. I cannot think of Amal without my eyes blurring with tears but I hold her in my thoughts. Across the globe, the fierce courage of Malala Yousafzai is less unknown....
Gunned down just three days ago, Malala takes our breath away because she is still fighting for her life, knowing her worth, knowing there is a greater battle awaiting her for the rest of her life. Awarded Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize, this lovely 14 year old has already witnessed beheadings, public floggings, and is the recipient of constant death threats. This violence has been countered by her lucky fate of being born the daughter of a poet, and educational activist, who has inspired in her the stubborn, feisty spirit of boldness that I recognise in myself - a father who is proud of his daughter, and tells her so openly from a young age, plants a seed of belief that no other man can destroy.
Malala means 'grief-stricken' in Pashtun. The thing that Malala's father feared the most has come to pass, but recognising the face of this kind of courage, I feel sure Malala is glad it is her and not her father who stood before the bullets. Aung San Suu Kyi is the perfect example of this face of courage, of a daughter determined to live the life of a beloved father cut short in his heroic prime. It is a good time to be a woman, Malala. Despite the adversary trying to convince us otherwise, you are the greatest proof of it.

(A wonderful documentary called Class Dismissed about Malala in 'her' Swat Valley was filmed by Adam B. Ellick in 2009 should you wish to know more.) 

Wednesday 10 October 2012


I have had such a weekend. And I knew I had it to look forward to even while the Blue Eyed surgeon was drawing pictures of the tube in my eye... the last thing I flung at him was the news that a certain delicious Irish author had promised to swing by for a cup of tea while in the general neighbourhood of England, and that I would tell her all about his failure to sing Long Way to Tipperary (which he himself admitted was why the last operation didn't 'take') - "Ah, she'll understand!" he flung back. "She's Irish!" I had my comeuppance in the conservatory on a misty autumn morning, when my father plagued Marian Keyes for a song...
I had baked Marian a cake the night before, which that morning refused to politely unstick itself from the cake tin.... who bakes a cake for a cake expert?? Someone convinced of the cake expert's kindness, compassion and humanity, that's who. So I plagued M to sort it out... before she'd even been offered a cuppa tay!!
It was magical to wander round the village and pop into the Telephone Box like a pair of excited tourists and take photos of each other - and this within the first ten minutes of her arrival - which gives you some indication of the exquisite human being she is; a kindred spirit from the tips of her sparkling heels to the veriest eyelash above her green green eyes.

There's a tear in your eye,
And I'm wondering why,
For it never should be there at all.
With such pow'r in your smile,
You should laugh all the while,
And all other times smile,
And now, smile a smile for me...

I whisked M around the house and into the garden and pretended she was a magic wand - I wanted her faerie dust everywhere. When my mother asked a consultant in the first bitter trauma of my illness, "Will my daughter ever get better?" she crumpled when, with casual cruelty, he replied, "Well I don't have a crystal ball, do I?" Marian's kindness is the other kind of crystal ball. The one my mother prayed for and kept faith for - that healing would come, that her daughter would not only live, but be happy.
I spent a wonderful afternoon at the theatre by myself the day before M's arrival, fascinated and compelled by Sean O'Casey's play 'The Plough and the Stars', entranced by the poetry, in awe of the energy - and now, this autumn, I am once again immersed in studying Joyce, Munro, Carver and O'Connor's short stories as the Masters continues apace. Pain in my left eye prowls and gathers gears; I am constantly aware of the heaviness in my eye, the damaged optic nerve chews away like billyo, but here I am, alive and seeing joy.
And if you look closely you can see a few wee strands of purple in my hair :)
Mind you, these help. A lot. Nine cupcakes from Marian. I practically inhaled the first (lavender flavour, naturally missing from photo) and am steadily wolfing the rest. Will you remind me of this weekend, cupcakes and all, on the morning of the next surgery? I suppose Ol' Blue Eyes will... he says I am a good healer, too good a healer - I keep healing over the holes he makes in my eye for drainage! Is it any wonder with such gifts of love?

Monday 8 October 2012


She was ever in the light,
her head softly pillowed,
Even with her fading sight,
she gathered in the gold.

Give me silks and satin,
velvets, even cotton,
Let me arrange the palette,
in blues and orange autumn.

Do you see the sky behind me?
Or do I mean the sea?
Do you feel the tempest?
Do you see beyond me?

One dark shadow, yet to overcome -
Can you hear it in my heart?
That faintly murmuring, faltering drum,
that stops, and starts.

 © Shaista Tayabali, 2012

image prompt: Jan Steen, 1665, from magpie tales

Wednesday 3 October 2012


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, 
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, 

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, 
And up in the garret, the artist, pulled at her hair, and tore...

Well, that last line is perhaps not quite in Alfred Noyes' taste... but truly it is a sight to see my mother wrestle with her latest oil portrait into the moonlit hours. The little studio in which she creates her magic can only be reached by a terrifying ladder, which, incidentally, featured in a nightmare the other night... my nightmare, that is. Mum seems to leap up those steps like a dervish. (In fact, I have never actually witnessed the climb... she seems always to be already there, at her easel...). Living with two artists has taught me much about the realities of creating art, but it has never diminished or disillusioned my relationship to art. It is, as it has always been, pure magic. I had a post surgery check-up today; the last two procedures haven't quite 'worked'. In pursuit of magic, I wandered the corridors of hospital, losing myself in the Quentin Blake panoramas we are so fortunate to possess...
Music and magic, poetry, civil rights and scholars... what more could I possibly need to salvage my battered soul, when The Blue Eyed Surgeon pronounced me "Trouble!" (moi? as if!) while concocting a new engineering plan for my eye. He even whipped up a drawing of the tube in my eye... (yes! another artist)... but I forgot to swipe it from him when the appointment drew to a close. I will tell you about it another day... for tonight, I am a torrent of darkness, tossed upon cloudy seas and I have decided the only solution is to make my hair the colour of a ribbon of moonlit purple moor. If I have purple hair, I am convinced I will be invincible! Do you not think? And the pain that awaits the next surgery will quake in the wake of my SuperHero-ness...