Friday, April 03, 2020

What a wonderful world

He looked out to the street swelling with pride. Spring was in the air, rains from the day before could still be felt on the skin, and the birds were singing with joy. The streets themselves were covered with foliage: tuscany and crimson and jade and every other color from the palette. The entire creation seemed to celebrate with boundless joy.

“You know what they say? That when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” he satisfactorily made the solemn observation to his neighbor.

“Never heard of that! What does it even mean?” The dinky neighbor half-heartedly responded to the seemingly useless philosophical musing of her counterpart while regurgitating on what appeared to look less like food and more like compost.

“Did you ever imagine this day? Blue skies, clean air, no noise, other than those of the universe itself. When the wind blows, it’s like you can hear the earth turning! I dreamt of this for such a long time!” He seemed to be lost in a form of exhilaration unbeknownst to the entire human species.

“Yeah, whatever. I think this is just a pretty background for the desktop wallpaper.” His neighbor curtly expressed herself, hoping to end this conversation and regurgitate at peace.

“You have no soul, just thorns,” he pronounced in a deep voice, almost sighing at this conclusion.

His neighbor stopped chewing. After a brief pause, as if waiting to choose the right words, she delivered the final blow: “And you are just a bougainvillea. At least us, the roses, will be found in the centerfold of books five years from now and be loved even in our afterlives.”

Thursday, April 02, 2020


While the whole world was silent, there was a whirring noise coming from a nondescript corner of the reticent house. All one could see of the house from outside was the scabrous plaster coming off at places, with the faint yellow paint sticking out like dried leaves holding on to the stems for a few brief moments before getting lost into the oblivion. The noise seemed to disturb the tranquility of the street dogs, already attuned to the silence of the times.

“You know that we are critical in ensuring that the world continues to function with sanity, right?” the voice called out to him.

His mind was absorbed in a maelstrom of thoughts ranging from the stock of vegetables in the refrigerator, the piling dishes, the temperature of the last shower, and the background needed for the upcoming video call. He decided to ignore the voice, after judging it to be someone’s self-righteous proclamation he didn’t want to indulge in.

But the voice persisted: “The first problem with your generation is that you do not appreciate the magical world you live in. Anyone who walked this same planet just half a century ago will be thoroughly nonplussed at your privilege. Just look at us for that matter, we clean all your dirt without as much as a whimper, and you fail to acknowledge even our existence.”

He was far from being flummoxed despite the obvious provocation.

The voice intensified its accusations: “The second problem with your generation is that you are never in the present. Look at us fastidious old timers. We focus on the task at hand and enjoy it all the same, instead of thinking about what’s happening elsewhere or about the past or the future all the time.”

He calmly listened to all this, waited for the customary three beeps, and added with a perfunctory smile: “You can’t even clean lipstick marks from the shirt. You need to be more in the present.” 

He then turned the washing machine off, and the voice went dead.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020


“You need to take a shower,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I had my shower in the morning, and you don’t need to remind me about tomorrow already. Just sit still for at least the next hour and stop complaining. I am not going to bother you for an entire hour and will go watch my movie instead.” His unwanted belligerence hinted at his annoyance over other matters, perhaps spilling over to her.

She kept her cool and continued nonchalantly: “Anger is a wind which blows out the lamp of the mind. It’s an enemy of correct understanding.”

“All behold the wise one!” he shouted with a derisive laughter, looking up at the invisible sky; “you clearly learnt a lot through second-hand means!”

She mused in her characteristic sonorous tone: “Learning is a journey: from facts to knowledge, on to understanding and eventually wisdom. You might have read books and learnt facts, but that’s not the entire journey. And at the same time, vidyā dadāti vinayam, vinayād yāti pātratām – Knowledge makes one humble, and humility begets worthiness. Try being worthy of me.”

“Sometimes I wish I had an electric chair instead.” He kicked the rocking chair which he used for reading, and walked angrily to his room. The chair rocked for a few minutes and slowly went back to her deep thought and stillness.

Sunday, March 29, 2020


“आज ही है। शाम को सात बजे। जाकर तमन्ना पूरी कर लेना।”

“तुम्हें कैसे पता बे?”

“अमा यार, कहते हैं तो सुना करो। गर्ल्स हौस्टल की गतिविधियों का थोड़ा-बहुत ज्ञान हम भी रखते हैं।”

“हाँ तुम बहुत्ते तीरंदाज़ हो, इसीलिए आज तक यूनिवर्सिटी में अकेले घूमते हो। भईया ई शहर है बम्बई। यहाँ हर आदमी कुछ न कुछ पा जाता है। और तुम साले ज्ञान के अलावा और कुछ न पा पाए!”

“बेटा थोड़ा संभाल के। जिसका डाँस देखने के लिए तीन दिन से आँख में गुलाबजल डाले पड़े हो वो 24 में से 28 घण्टे लाईब्रेरी में ही होती है। तुम्हारे जैसे चौपाटी पर ले जाकर प्रपोज करने वाले दिलफेंक लौण्डे उसकी लीग में नहीं हैं।”

“हाँ हाँ भईया तुम बटोरो भरपूर ज्ञान, और करो उसकी लीग की सोलो-स्वान मौडलिंग। एक्स्ट्रा मिर्च डाल कर चौपाटी की पाव-भाजी लड़कियों को कितना भाती है ये तुम नहीं समझोगे।”

“हाँ यूनिवर्सिटी से निकल कर तुम चौपाटी पर ही पाव-भाजी बेच लेना। हम अभी निकलते हैं।”

“कहाँ निकलते हैं भईया? पौने सात बजे एण्ट्री कौन कराएगा? पढ़े-लिक्खे लौण्डे ही तो काम आते हैं एण्ट्री पे!”

“नहा-वहाकर, सेंट लगाकर आना शाम को। देखते हैं।”

आज घड़ी जैसे चलने की बजाय रेंग रही थी। वह नहा चुका था, इस्त्री किए कपड़े पहने थे, और किसी सस्ती विदेशी इत्र की बोतल को कपड़ों पर उड़ेल चुका था। बालों में जैल, आँखों में गुलाबजल, और कैन्वस जूते। उसे मालूम था कि महज़ किसी तरह अन्य दर्शकों की भीड़ का हिस्सा बन जाना प्यार जतलाने के करीब भी नहीं है। पर उसे ये भी ग़ुमान था कि प्यार करने का मकसद बस प्यार जतला देना नहीं है, और शायद दूर-दूर से चाहने का लुत्फ़, पा लेने से ज़्यादा सुकूनगर है।  इस तरह बड़ी-बड़ी शायराना बातें सोचकर दिल के अंदर मचती जिस्मानी हलचल को भी कबूलने से बचा जा सकता था, वरना अपना ही प्यार छोटा लगने लग जाए। कुल मिलाकर आज उसके लिए पूरा कलीना कैम्पस हसीन था, मिज़ाज रंगीन, और ज़िन्दगी गुलज़ार। बस थोड़ा इंतज़ार बचा था, जिसकी शायराना अंदाज़ में नुमाईश कुछ बेपरवाह लिखने वाले लोग शायद कर ही डालें। पर आज रहने दीजिए साहब, क़िस्सा अभी बाकी है।

कौलेजों में पढ़ने के बाद भी अगर महिला छात्रावासों के बारे में आपकी जानकारी मुख़्तसर हो, तो समझ लें जनाब कि आपने ज़िंदगी थोड़ी-बहुत जी तो ली, पर बड़े नहीं हो पाए। ये जानना बेहद ज़रूरी है कि इस तरह की इमारतों में आपको यहाँ-वहाँ लोहे की जालियाँ ज़्यादा दिखेंगी, वैसे कपड़े सूखते देखेंगे जो आपने सिर्फ़ फ़िल्मों में देखे हों, और खुशबू के नाम पर कोई गुलबदन हसीना की महक नहीं, बू-ए-डिटर्जेण्ट ही मिलेगी। आज की महफ़िल नीचे के कौमन रूम में जमनी थी। चारों ओर गेंदा के फूलों की माला से वातावरण को मोहक बनाने की साज़िश की गई थी, शायद इसलिए कि मुल्क के हर कौलेज की तरह यहाँ भी ‘मय’ और ‘साक़ी’ सरीखे सजेस्टिव लफ़्ज़ों पर पाबंदी थी। कमसकम फूल लगा देने भर से कोई लफंगा महफ़िल से रुख़्सत होने के बाद फ़ैज़ साहब वाली डींगे नहीं हाँक पाता, कि – “न गुल खिले हैं न उन से मिले न मय पी है, अजीब रंग में अब के बहार गुज़री है!” कमरे को सजाने वाले ने अक्ल खूब लगाई होगी: गुलों को पिरो कर चारों ओर लगा ही दिया गया है, “उनको” दूर से देख लेना जब टाईम आए तब, और मय वापस घर जाकर पी लेना। शायरी हाँकने का कोई मौका नहीं! कमरे में थोड़े गुब्बारे भी थे, जिनका मकसद शायद खुदा जानता हो, या शायद वो लोग जिनके पिछ्ली पार्टी के गुब्बारे फोड़े नहीं गए थे और यहीं खम्बों पर चिपके रह गए थे।

महफ़िल में शिरकत करने वाले कद्रदान दिल थामे एक-एक करके ऐसा चेहरा बनाए अंदर आ रहे थे जैसे एक-चालीस की विक्रोली वाली लास्ट लोकल पकड़ने आए हों; छूट गई तो बाद में किसी को मुँह न दिखा पाएँगे। अंदर आने वालों में ज़्यादातन इसी छात्रावास की छात्राएँ थीं, और कुछेक लुच्चे-लफाड़े लड़के, जिनकी पढ़ने लिखने-टाईप वालों से एण्ट्री करवाने भर के लिए जिगरी दोस्ती थी। दो हसीनाएँ (या फिर उसे लगा कि हसीनाएँ) माईक पकड़े, टखनों तक लम्बी स्कर्ट पहने (या फिर उसे लगा कि ये स्कर्ट ही है) खड़ी थीं। माहौल बन चुका था – दर्शक-दीर्घा की छात्राओं ने तशरीफ़ें चारों ओर सीढ़ियों पर टिका लीं थीं, और छात्र पीछे की तरफ़ दीवारों से सटकर खड़े हो लिए थे, शायद इसलिए कि कभी भी अगर ऐसा लगे कि “व्यू” ठीक नहीं है, तो तपाक से जगह बदलने की फ़्लेक्सिबिलिटी बनी रहे।

एक हवा सी चली। बयार-ए-नसीम। चारों ओर ऐसा सन्नाटा जैसे परवरदिगार ने हल्के से इशारा कर दिया हो कि सारी क़ायनात दो पल के लिए थम जाए और चमन हो जाए। आँखों के आगे ऐसा मंज़र कि उसे लगा बस इन दो पलों को अपने नसीब में पाकर वो खुद शाहकार-ए-खुदा हो गया हो! सामने था वो कमाल-ए-हुस्न कि पूरी महफ़िल में अगर कुछ सुनाई दे जाए तो सिर्फ़ धड़कनें। रंग-ओ-बू का वो सैलाब कि गेंदे की उन तमाम लड़ियों में पिरोया एक-एक फूल शर्मसार हो जाए। काले ख़ुशनुमा लिबास पर पीली चुन्नी ओढ़े आई थी वो। पैरों में घुंघरू जैसे नायाब सुख़न-वर, चाल जैसे किसी कू-ए-गुलिस्ताँ से इठलाता आया हो एक मोर। आँखों में सूरमा, कानों में सोने की चमकती बालियाँ, नागिन सी लहराती काली घनी ज़ुल्फ़ें। वक़्त कब का थम चुका था, और उसे लगा कि बस अब दिल का थमना बाकी है। ऐसी ख़ुशगवार बातें उसके ज़ेहन में उफ़ान ले रही थीं, तभी किसी ने पीछे से सीटी बजाई। पूरी महफ़िल तालियों से थर्रा उठी, और उसे लगा कि अब ख़्वाब से बाहर आ जाना अच्छा रहेगा; ये मंज़र एक्स्क्लूसिव बिल्कुल नहीं है, और इंसान को अपनी औकात नहीं भूलनी चाहिए।

आगे जो हुआ उसे वो बस ठिठककर देखता रह गया। लबों से छिटकती तबस्सुम की सरकशी, आँखों के इशारों की ख़लिश, और वो बेहतरीन अंदाज़-ए-बयाँ कि मोम बिन आग ही पानी हो जाए। इधर वो लहरों की तरह बहकती, उधर भीड़ बेताब हो मचलती। उसे लगा कि इस समंदर तक वो आ तो गया, पर अब डूब जाएगा। इन मदहोश हवाओं में उड़ पाने का ज़र्फ़ जिन परिंदों में है उनके नाम शायद लाईब्रेरी की उन किताबों की जिल्द पर लिखे होते हैं जिनकी सूरत इसने तो कभी नहीं देखी। इसी उधेड़बुन में था कि आवाज़ आई – “हैलो!” हसीनाएँ सभी से हैलो बोलती हैं ये तो उसने सुना था, पर उससे वो हैलो बोलेगी ये नहीं सुना था।

“और हीरो! हम तो तुम्हारी एण्ट्री करवा के निकल गए थे, पर सुना है बड़ा हाय-हैलो कर आए हो आज?”

“हाहा! हाँ! अच्छा ख़ैर, आज ओल्ड मौंक से काम नहीं चल पाएगा। कुछ अँग्रेज़ी पीओगे? एक-आध पैग लगा लेना मेरे साथ फिर चले जाना अपने लेनिन और कार्ल-मार्क्स को पढ़ने।”

“हाँ पी लेंगे। क्या कमाल करके आए हो वैसे डाँस प्रोग्राम से?”

“यार हैलो वगैरह हुआ और क्या। किसी बौयफ़्रेण्ड के साथ थी, कुछ अंग्रेज़ी में नाम था। इण्ट्रौड्यूस करवाया था; अब टेढ़ा नाम था याद नहीं आ रहा।”

“अच्छा कहाँ पीओगे?”

“वहीं। लाईब्रेरी के बाहर ऐज यूज़ुअल!”

Friday, March 27, 2020

The murderer

“Don’t you like me?” asked the voice.

He paused, heaved a deep sigh, and attempted to hide the pensiveness in his look. This wasn’t a question he had been asked before, or at least he didn’t remember the last time things had come to this.

“That’s not the point,” he replied.

“Then why would you do this?” the voice persisted.

By now, his furtive glances could not be hidden anymore. He knew if he raised his head and saw himself in the mirror, it would be hard to meet his own reflection. It was he who always wanted time to come to a standstill, and it seemed like the universe had finally bent itself to his wishes. Or perhaps, he was too proud to believe so. Until now, when the question from the voice was somberly hanging in the air. It only meant that life had continued to move on despite his delusions.

“Look I might sound ridiculous. But heck, even your previous girlfriend liked me. Why would you just uproot everything now?” retorted the voice, sensing his heart’s inner battles amidst his body’s stoic silence.

This recrimination defeated him. The universe was playing games, and he felt like a dejected soldier standing on the Grand Design’s abstruse chessboard. 

In a final act of defiance, he gathered everything he held inside of him, picked up the razor, and slid it across his own face, almost lacerating it in one swift stroke. The voice of the hair, now uprooted and stashed away in the silence of razor’s blades, awaited being washed off under the washbasin tap.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light

“Do you see how I spread light in your life?” she said gleefully. “Tamaso mā jyotirgamaya or whatever, taking you from the darkness to light! I know you understand this much Sanskrit.”

He stopped short of picking up his book from the bookshelf, flashed a tiny smile at the corners of his mouth, and said playfully: “That’s not what it means, you silly. Also, such an unabashed display of humility today. What’s the occasion that you are finally being yourself?”

“Yes, mister you-know-it-all. You don’t need to acknowledge how my presence lets you get by, day after day, through your mundane existence,” she pretended to be indignant.

He knew this tense dance of intimate exchanges well, and the tricks to play along. Ribald comments often helped in getting straight to the point, and he tried his luck: “Well, you might be the one spreading the light. But we don’t need the lights all the time now, do we?”

“Is that so mister? Let us hear something else first. What’s the one word that comes to your mind if you had to describe me?” she teased him.

“Electricity,” he said looking straight into her eyes and proceeded to touch her.

She, the switch of the living room’s tubelight, was flipped and there was darkness all over.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The “matter”

“Why do you treat me like this?” she said irritatingly.

“Like what?” he replied with an irreverent shrug, as he continued setting up the timer on the microwave.

She shot back: “Like what?! Are you really asking me that? You use me as a refuge for everything that’s unwanted in your life. You kick me, corner me at every opportunity, and I just feel so empty waking up each morning! You make me feel like putrid trash.”

“I think you are overreacting,” he continued with his nonchalance.

“Oh yeah right. I am overreacting. Care to explain?” she muttered in an apoplectic rage, almost frothing at the corners of her mouth. If it were upto her, she would have burst into flames right here, engulfing his entire being into a conflagration of organic and inorganic matter, leaving behind only embers to tell the story of this eerie exchange.

He lost patience and began his own tirade: “Yes I can explain. What is it that you want from me? Do you have any idea what’s going on in the world? Of course you don’t. Sitting here on your pedestal, gawking at the ceiling the entire day, how could you? You complain at the sumptuous leftovers, when there are millions out there, without anything to feed themselves or their families with. The universe was designed for abundance, but us, the humans, mercilessly carved it up square inch by square inch, waged wars and soaked it with blood, wiped out the startling diversity of its species, disfigured it at every corner, and continue to fight amongst ourselves for a piece of bread. And your problem is that you are feeling empty?”

“Who is overreacting now?” she said in a desperate attempt to win back this argument.

“That’s it. You deserve to be thrown out of this house,” he retorted in a livid voice, took the garbage bag out of the dustbin, and kept it outside his door for collection.

Monday, February 10, 2020


The forecast on the phone says, “rain throughout the day”. It’s perhaps ten in the morning, maybe eleven; I am happy about not being on a clock. I step out into the balcony. It feels as if I was last here a long time ago. The sky is overcast, and it might rain as the day progresses. I notice my bougainvillea. It’s already winter, but they are blooming. I can’t recall the last time I observed them up close, or any of the other plants in the balcony for that matter; even watering them was delegated to the house cleaner months ago. Many of them have overgrown, and some have weeds as tall as I remember those plants themselves – beautiful weeds nonetheless. I see the open-air gym equipment in the opposite park; I don’t know when these were installed. When life is on a treadmill, one stops paying attention.

Until the universe jolts you back.

When my father was diagnosed with his virulent lung ailment three years ago, he was already in a phase of life where he would be irritated with himself about small things that he couldn’t manage to do: climbing a flight of stairs, going for a long walk, changing car tyres, or eating heartily at a wedding without upsetting his stomach the next day. Most of it, perhaps, is just ageing. Parts of it, maybe, is contributed by his ailments. We grew up hearing stories about him carrying an entire sack of wheat on his back, which would then be washed thoroughly, soaked in the sun, and hand-grinded in a small stone mill by my grandmother. Or about one of his childhood friends I have met several times, who still can’t hear very well with his left ear because my father slapped him hard during an altercation in his younger days. About his travels far and wide across India on shoestring budgets, and his long inter-city office commutes in rickety government buses in the then roadless state of Bihar. By talking about them more often, he seemed to long for his days of strength and vitality. He sold off his old scooter a few years ago and switched to a simpler electric-start two-wheeler because the scooter was too heavy, the engine’s ignition required arduous kicks, and the machine was getting difficult to drive. Now he drives the new two-wheeler slowly, and almost never drives his own car.

Mortality is a difficult subject. It’s not something one would pick as a conversational topic in gatherings. Nor is it something one would think deeply about over evening coffee after returning from work. And yet, it’s cognizance is all-pervasive in culture. There are tomes of eclectic prose on the inevitability of death, and plentiful exquisite poetry on the beauty of it. Somewhere, it’s associated with solemn pride, elsewhere with liberation, and in yet another context with transcendence to another life. “May you live long” is almost a universal blessing. Perhaps this assumption of the primacy of human breath isn’t completely unfounded; everything else, all the thoughts, actions, hopes, despair exist and create a living experience defined by the existence of the breath. 

However, perhaps breathing isn’t sufficient in itself. One doesn’t merely desire to live longer, but – and this is seldom acknowledged – one wants to live with agency. It’s not about how many constraints of flesh and bone can be conquered by biology to prolong health and survival, what ultimately matters is the agency left for the body to observe, think, act, share, and experience. I notice my balcony closely now. I feel my own breath, and the faint fragrance of flowers, leaves, and soil mixed with it. I feel the chill of the air burnishing my skin. It has begun raining, and the fragrances change yet again. What portent can be greater than the grace that manifests in all this abundance? And what fortune is greater than my agency to observe all this?

Monday, September 09, 2019

Seven Times Five

(Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A few months before my thirtieth birthday, I was cycling with two strangers at Formentera: a pristine Balearic island accessible by a short ferry from Ibiza. We bought some bread, a few slices of cheese, some cold ham cuts for a cheap makeshift sandwich, and headed straight to the water. The other two men were drunk from the previous night (I wasn’t; the cover charges for nightclubs used to be fifty euros) and jumped in naked. I followed suit. Such shoestring trips used to be about finding the cheapest hostel or a Couchsurfing host, roving for an entire fortnight with nothing more than a 7 Kg backpack that allowed walking long distances and avoiding airline check-in charges, and abstemiously surviving on hotdogs and snack bars. I did odd consulting jobs then, always booked train tickets to home at least three months in advance to ensure getting a berth, watched Bollywood movies in cinema halls on weekday mornings, still used Facebook, began to know a little bit about scotch (and always bought the lowest priced one at duty-free), and thought a lot about women, love, and yachts.

Five years flew by (I don’t know why that sentence seems so manifestly gravid in prose, and so spectacularly quotidian in reality). I traveled across eight countries (including one business trip) during just the four months before turning thirty-five, shopped for a good pair of knives and an oil container at Ikea (and considered buying a French press), watched vacuous as well as picaresque productions on streaming sites and also some theatre, tried to keep away from much of social media (branding it as a largely apocryphal echo-chamber), learnt making basic cocktails at home, and thought a lot about women, love, and yachts.

I also found a stable job that I ended up loving to the core, began to learn how to do that job well (and learnt that that is supposed to be the logical sequence), and spoke to numerous people who wanted to know how to find a job that they can love because it will come with meaning and purpose (and I raked through their pedantic expectations in the process). I did less of finding good music (and instantly sharing it over WhatsApp), and a little bit more of reading books. Perhaps as I am aging, I am also becoming more ecumenical and accepting of ideas, even of the most egregious ones such as the universe might have an energy and we might all be part of a larger continuum (as a corollary, I am more accepting of Pankaj Tripathi’s “nucleus se aaye hain” and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s “apun hi bhagwaan hai” – two diverse and profound philosophical constructs – in the same Sacred Games season.) I got a dreamcatcher in my office to which I attribute my tiny store of positive energies, grew some plants, switched to wearing suits at work, and invested in skincare and haircare products (while being doleful about the ignoble consumption patterns of teenagers). And – this is important – I also switched from Mahashian-Di-Hatti to Shan Masalas; and to anyone who questioned my deeply political choices such as this one, I offered a specious argument of both masalas being saffron in colour. Other assertions of my responsible citizenry were demonstrated by my prompt exit from WhatsApp groups consisting of Indian intelligentsia’s prolific analysis of all economic and foreign affairs, and using the mute feature for groups where flowers were exchanged each morning without any being actually shipped to my home address. I did buy some flowers though; I have taken up a liking for white lilies.

Five years also taught me several life lessons (including the one from an uncle at the supermarket checkout counter who told me why buying shimla mirch is better than the expensive red and yellow bell peppers, and the one from the kid who nonchalantly asked me “uncle ball chali gayi hai aapki balcony mein” causing a deleterious cascade of feelings for the kid in question). I have started valuing relationships more, realizing how precarious life could be (Baz Luhrmann’s “get to know your parents; you never know when they'll be gone for good” has only become more poignant over time). I value my own life more and am learning to treat myself (beyond vastly unused gym and swimming pool memberships). I feel less impulsive, have fewer bellicose instincts, and seem to focus more on creating and cherishing memories and experiences (such as by allowing friends and family to cook and feed me home food). My pursuit of happiness, meanwhile, has also witnessed its natural trajectory of bas-mil-jo-jaaye-thoda-paisa early on, to tere-bina-zindagi-se-koi intermittently, to what-a-wonderful-world. Well, almost. 

I think it’s past the halfway mark in life, and it’s fascinating to note how laughing at 'growing-older-and-wiser' as a phrase ends up being a joke on oneself. Someone once told me that there is something immeasurable that you gain just by having a few more years of experience under your belt. Some of it, perhaps, is indeed true. Reflecting on the series of choices and decisions in life, it does feel that I might have outgrown some of them. In retrospect, I think I could have treated people differently (except the assholes, of course), loved more intensely, and been kinder to myself.

Or, perhaps, it's just the alcohol talking.

Monday, June 03, 2019


The cat jumped out with a sputter. Perhaps it was getting stuffy inside the basement. The stolid midnight air on the sidewalk arduously stands at its place, choked within a dazzling confusion of serpentine alleys, windows, and crevices beginning somewhere, but mostly ending nowhere. There is a hint of a waning moon; it’s the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr is only a few nights away. A closer look under the signage “Express Laundry”, whereupon the feline emerged, reveals an array of plastic tubs, strewn fabric, clunky machines, and at least five more cats in the dimly lit enclosure meant to serve human needs if and when it would be the latter’s turn; one can never be sure of the next event in this part of the world. Observing the diversity of color and size of the pack, one safely concludes that these cats don’t form a litter, but somehow, they belong together. The rest of old Istanbul, which they seem to own, displays similar characteristics. An emerald green house intercedes a rich mahogany and an azure one, flint colored cobblestones reflect the soft ochre of incandescent bulbs, and a pewter midnight sky interspersed with festively lit charcoal minarets is somehow all coalesced into this city of exquisite contradictions.

The feline of our interest has taken a good look around, stretched, yawned, and started uphill with a haughty gait. It walks in the middle of the street at this hour; during the day it will occupy crannies by the sidewalk, undersides of restaurant tables and parked cars, and even mosques. It is said that old Istanbul is built on seven hills. But this is as inconsequential as saying that the solar system has nine planets. The appropriate thing to say is that there are hills everywhere in Istanbul, since nothing here comes in numbers or measured installments. There are streets everywhere, merging into each other, overlapping, banding together, waving like the ocean, and many a times showing one a tiny postcard-sized glimpse of the sea neatly framed by rows of wood and glass and cement structures descending into the sea itself. There are tram lines crisscrossing everywhere, riding atop waves of streets, allowing modern and slender tram designs to be pulled by a mesh of overhead wires through swarms of people, bursting from and into them. There is smell everywhere, distinct, and yet blending together, changing every ten yards. Smell of flowers; crocus, jasmine, petunia, pansies, and roses. Smell of spices and dry fruits; saffron, pepper, tea, corn, dates, dried apricots, walnuts. Smell of leather, and paper, and soaps, and foliage, and car and boat exhausts. Meat and grills, shawarmas, and fish and shrimp. Attar and colognes. Fruits; ananas, apples, oranges, berries. And sweets and confectionery; baklavas and Turkish delights and kunefes, şerbet and helva, dondurma, even güllaç in this month of Ramadan. Each distinct, plentiful, and exhaustive. 

And that’s just the physical world. Istanbul is metaphysical at the same time, that rumination of dervishes – mystical and esoteric.

“Bu dünyada gördüğün her şey görünmeyenin gölgeleridir.”
Everything you see in this world is an apparition of the unseen.
– Rumi 

Istanbul smells of purity, devotion and providence when one stands insignificantly in front of the minbar at the Hagia Sophia or the Sultanahmet. It smells of opulence when one observes the vaulted cellars, decorated columns, stone arches, gardens, and the ornate pavilions of Topkapı and Dolmabahçe. It smells of the unparalleled elegance of human enterprise inside the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (the Basilica Cistern), or in the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I with its hand-painted İznik tiles, and window shutters and cabinet doors made of ebony with mother-of-pearl, turtle shell, and ivory. It smells of the sea everywhere, without the salt-laden air reaching the nostrils, because the sea here is not restricted to Bosphorus and Golden Horn, it is everywhere.

It is almost seven in the morning. An entire civilization is waking up. Burly men around Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) are scurrying from the truck to their shops, smoking, transferring cartons and bottles and papers. Many of them will be fasting through the rest of the day until iftar, but will spend their day calling tourists to feast at restaurants or peddling knick-knacks in street-side shops. Shawarma stands on İstiklal Caddesi and elsewhere are being cleaned up. A vendor is hauling his red-white cart that will sell Kestane Kebabs (roasted chestnuts) well past midnight. A man is still sleeping under a tree at the square besides a cat. Seagulls are flying skillfully in between houses constructed on top of each other and ducks are lazily wandering on the beaches. The sun is well above the horizon; days during this time of the year are long and sultry by Istanbul standards, and the sun is already burning the skin.

By the time sun travels to the other side, a carnival is building up at the squares. Strings of colored lights festoon trees, buildings, and mosques. Iftar tents, ready with pidesi bread, soup, pickled vegetables, olives and other edibles for the faithful are coming to life. Large families arranging their utensils and babies and food on the grass for the feast are visibly joyous with anticipation. The graceful voice of the prayer reverberates across the city from all its minarets, and the bustling life slows down for a few moments. The din is insignificant, so is the human breath, for, this is when humanity bows down to the unknown. And where else could this be any more mystical, if not right here? Rumi must have said something about this too.

Elsewhere in the city, far away from the mosques, a kitten is licking its paws inside a self-service café. There is no sound, except for a coffee machine’s diminishing whirr; someone inside this café, run by an art collective, just brewed a cup. The kitten tries to repeatedly scratch the leg of a chair. After a few attempts, either the purpose of the act, or the results of the effort, or both lose their utility and the kitten moves on to its next crusade. It will chew on a few wires – lose ends of a network cable, phone charger, and numerous other props that must be worked upon by this creature that perhaps comes from the same unknown as the rest of us. It moves around softly, purposefully, but not hurriedly. Life is expected to take its own course, and perhaps the meaning of this elaborate enterprise will emerge only in retrospect, if only one could learn the virtue of patience.

The sea is about a quarter of a mile away. A local ferry is gliding on it with the soft sputter of its old, fatigued engine that billows puffs of smoke just where the sky meets the water. At a distance, a school of dolphins is bobbling in the water. A cool breeze blows across the faces of the men, women, and children riding the boat; their faces display a mélange of expressions – anxious, melancholic, loving, tranquil. A man stands on the lower deck with his back facing the hull and plays a saxophone. The open case of his instrument lies in front him as a collection box. A couple, perhaps in their early 50s, gets up and starts to dance. Some people look away in astonishment, some with indifference, and yet a few others look at these two and smile. Our musician nods at them; perhaps recognizing that no amount of money in his collection box will match the fulfillment of witnessing his act transform into this most treasured moment of life, unfolding right here, out of nowhere, on an inconsequential boat between Asia and Europe.

Some cities are too much for a continent.