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... 

(images from:

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

Thursday 3 September 2020


It’s this part that gets me -
the sun going down.
Evening’s descent.
The dark, really,
going into the dark, 

Tea going cold,
and tasting of nothing.

Banks of snowdrops,
gone in a blink.

I tuck two into this book.
Later, I’ll take a look.
Later, when I’m in need 
of light,
and it turns out
maybe the poet was right.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020
Dverse Poets Open Link Night 

Friday 28 August 2020


It rained all day today. It has been raining most days this week. No walks for Dad. There’s a giant puddle in the pavement outside our house where our next door neighbours’ twin girls jump... where other children, unknown, wrapped in rain jackets, pause, position their boots carefully, and then jump! jump! jump!

A week ago, it was my birthday, and while I was still sleeping, Mum garlanded the front door, the dining room door, and one extra garland in readiness for my neck when I awoke; she hung birthday banners, geranium leaves and hibiscus everywhere that I might see and rejoice in being loved. I felt so loved and content that when it turned midnight, I wanted the day all over again. From seeing the Singaporean siblings off to school on their bus, to opening presents sent by the Malaysian twins, a bread maker sent by my brother, cards from afar, and talking to my childhood friend Fudge and her daughter in Bombay about dogs and drawings and fairy lights.  

I floated around all day, baked a Victoria sponge cake that evening and then, the next morning, when Joseph aka Badger, arrived to pick us up, bundled myself into a warm cosy blanket, mask on, and off we went, like the three bears, to Badger’s Wood. This was Dad’s first outing since his fall almost a year ago, and although he managed a goodish walk into the wood, he had a near turn in the heat - so I hustled back for water and Badger ran back for a chair and we all collapsed, while Dad recuperated in a kingly fashion, among the birch and blackberry bramble. 

Yesterday, during my respiratory consultation at the hospital, I shared the secret to surviving my new form of home therapy by subcutaneous injection - Colette and I FaceTime. Tuesdays at Two. We are each other’s video girls, smiling, laughing, commiserating and listening, each to the other, as we move forward in this strange pandemic, made stranger by the needles and tubes we administer in the casual atmosphere of home. The three medics present and the nurse who had trained us were all intrigued, impressed and hoping to present our buddy system at the upcoming European Immunology Delegation as an idea for all new patients and perhaps even the veterans - to help cope with pandemic isolation and the claustrophobia of an unshared trauma. It helps to have a friend-mirror. Coco and I have known each other for years, hence the trust in visiting Badger’s Wood at all. We didn’t hug, much as we wanted to, but just being near, sharing stories and warmth and courage, was enough. Clive would have hated home injections. Claerwen, his daughter, would have had to inject them for him, so he would have had company one way or another... 

I am reluctant to pull the banners down, but oh so grateful to have felt like celebrating myself. So grateful to have been cocooned in loving messages from California to Peru. Most of all, I suppose, I am grateful to have tidily tucked my infections away into what I Hope was the final admission of the year. Winter will be upon us soon, I hear you say, but my eyes are still busy with summer days...

Saturday 8 August 2020


I was watching the Korean drama, Romance is a Bonus Book, when, in the penultimate episode, our heroine Kang Dan-i, is horrified to find plagiarised translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's epistolary 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. My face resembled hers in that moment, for a different reason. I had only just heard of this novel in the strangest of circumstances.

A week ago, my childhood friend Arzanne sent me tickets to a play. She had already attended it, and it had moved her so much that she wanted to share the experience. And it was an experience... I have watched plays online since quarantine began - Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag for Soho Theatre on Demand, where our donations helped to keep theatre cast and crew afloat during these audience-silent times, and Frankenstein with alternating lead roles between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller for the National Theatre at Home productions we have been so fortunate to enjoy free for a week each. (Frankenstein's monster also finds The Sorrows of Young Werther in a leather portmanteau... but that wasn't my connection). 

Every Brilliant Thing, a play written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, does not require its audience to be silent. Would it terrify or invigorate you to be part of a play, your own participation fuelling the thing itself? A woman suffers depression. Her husband fetches her little boy to the hospital. That little boy must live, now and always, with the shadow of an unknowable beast stealing his mother from time to time. Macmillan's play has been traveling the globe, and the director/actor use the alchemy of their nation's idiom to alter the words but not the impact or emotion of the original idea. 

In Bangalore, the actor Vivek Madan, used to performing in the round, graciously invited our tiny screen faces into his home. Some of us had already been sent a word or a sentence - a brilliant thing on the list of the little boy who walks through darkness towards manhood, signalling for light with 1) Ice cream 2) Water fights 3) Staying up past your bedtime 4) The colour yellow... which reminded me of Albert Espinosa's memoir The Yellow World, and the yellow benches it inspired for sparking conversation between strangers... on and on to me at 521) Plinth (not the easiest word to wrap one's tongue around mid concentration!)

A thousand brilliant things... 2389) Baby elephant... ten thousand brilliant things... 10,000) Waking up next to someone you love... And somewhere, in the midst of that list, a book appears - the one that has for 250 years touched a raw nerve of how to be young, and filled with desire, and the thing you want not wanting you... and how, with that seeming failure, you exit the world, with violence and the poetry of your grief. The book has been banned for showing the way out, literarily speaking. 

I liked seeing the tall trees wave, friendly and rhythmic, behind Vivek as he moved with expert familiarity around his home, us in his home, known words on his tongue and making space for unknown words on our tongues... Occasionally, he'd call out a number and be met with silence... sometimes a zoom call is a fumble! What is worth living for? Many things. Who gets it right for a child? A counsellor with a sock puppet. Or an idea to record the good thing that lives between our fight or flight stress mechanism. Depression changes the chemistry of the brain of children... so should we lie to our children to protect them? Should we share the nature of the beastly growling lurking thief of happiness and peace of mind? I think it is difficult either way. And with that in mind, QTP, the theatre company producing the play, arranges for a mental health practitioner to join the audience at the end. How loving, how considerate. 

I liked seeing the sky darken behind Vivek, and then turn black. Night had come for him and everyone else watching in India. In my pocket of the world, sunshine streamed through the lilies and rose bush and the white butterfly pranced, keeping her promise to return to me year after year after year. The play was directed by Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, who, not enamoured of attempting an online theatrical experiment, was inspired to take that leap of faith by his fellow producer Nadir Khan, another childhood friend of mine. Nadir and his brother Darab were a brilliant thing when I was a girl growing up in Bombay. Two more brothers to add to mine, two more friends to make life worth living and memories worth holding dear. So many brilliant things, couldn't we just cry thinking about them? But we don't. Because we forget. Or make ourselves forget. Maybe your children could start their lists? And maybe your parents, too. 

Number 7,800,000,000) Us. You and me. 

Tuesday 4 August 2020


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

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

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