I have been thinking about people, things and places that time forgets, ignores or leaves behind untouched. Is it a good thing to be forgotten by time? I am wont to think that it is because when it takes you with it you age, grow old and die. So if time forgets you, you wouldn’t age, grow old and die. Which brings us to the second line of questioning: is it possible to fool time, sneak away and hide in some recess where it has no power. Since it is one of the two main dimensions we exist in would an absence of time also mean an absence of space? Which would mean that you can fool time only if you can fool space. Or become formless, without mass. Just a blip of consciousness. A ghost, sort of. But no, that is not what I am talking about. My concern is to survive time without giving up space. Being alive without succumbing to the tick-tocking of time.

Most laws governing our lives have a few exceptions. Except, we are told, the phenomena of birth and death. Why are these two so inviolable? Think about it folks and tell me your views.

I must have been 10 or less when I saw my first alien. I knew about it from my street friends who were all rushing to see it. “You don’t want to miss it, do you?” they said which was enough to get me started. We were old enough to tell fact from fantasy, but also young enough to be wide-eyed at the possibility of seeing the two mix. It was a long walk to Maqbara. Entered in through a grand gateway on the trendy Hazratganj or Lucknow’s main MG Road as most city main roads in India are called, Maqbara was a largish square mausoleum compound lived in mostly by Anglo-Indian families. Why these mixed race people chose to live so close to the dead of another mixed race people I have never been able to figure out. But no one actually thought of Maqbara as a mausoleum. For most people of the city it was just another mixing bowl of people, ideas, histories and culture.
The dead alien was neatly laid out on a small jute khatia, on a piece of red cloth. It was draped in a string of red hibiscus blooms and smeared on the forehead with Vermillion. Incense sticks were lit around it and people tossed change into a small bowl near it. It was a small fee that curious folk didn’t mind paying for being brought face-to-face with a freak of nature. I don’t know what stories these people carried back with them. Mine was threadbare and riddled with questions.
The darshan was organised by the owners, occupants of Maqbara’s smaller servants’ quarters, who rarely got an opportunity to be in the public eye. In the crowds that came to look at the freak there were murmurs of it being some sort of an avatar. But even if it was an avatar it looked pretty useless because it was in no condition to help anyone as avatars are supposed to. There were other murmurs of it being born of the union between man and goat. This gave our budding imaginations a bigger kick. Just thinking of the impossible positions of the union.
The alien was not more than a foot and a half long. It’s skin pale was like human skin. But for limbs it had trotters, like a goat’s. Its face was the most striking. Almost human with perfect eyes that were half shut. It’s mouth was lipless and protruding. Two struggler horns sat above its temples like boils. Its mother, a jet-black bleater, was tied nearby, also garlanded and given fresh grass for the effort.
I don’t know what happened to the dead goat kid but we saw its grainy black and white picture staring with its half-shut eyes from the next day’s papers. Unexplained like one of The X-Files riddles. But somehow hugely sense-making to us, people of the mixing bowl .

Delhi, 2005: Old Fort, also Purana Qila, meaning old fort. A bland neutral description chosen to end issues of provenance. Books and historians tell us that it could have been the site of Indraprastha, the fabled Pandav capital. Books and historians also say that Humayun, the second and the most unsung of the Mughals had chosen the site for his city. Dinpanah or Refuge of the Faith. Which faith, we are not sure.

Interestingly, Humayun did not use the ‘-abad’ suffix that most of his predecessors chose for their cities. Except perhaps Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq, the Mamluk Madman, who called his city, Jahanpanah. Refuge of the World. Roughly, Dinpanah would translate to Dharmapad or City of the Dharma in Sanskrit.

Dinpanah was later conquered by Sher Shah Sur and turned into Sher Shahi, his own imperial capital. Among the many buildings Sher Shah added to Sher Shahi during his short reign was Sher Mandal or the Lion’s Orbit.
Lion’s Orbit is a funny building. Doesn’t say much. Spectates mutely as mute spectators are prone to. Yet it is a building that draws people. You can’t just look at it and move on. It makes people linger on. And listen, in a strange telepathic way, to its amazing life’s story.

Here’s how it goes…
“We live longer than the people who make us. We aren’t just things of stone. And mortar. We have our lives, our eyes and memories. We are basically ideas. Manifested and realised in space and time. To the writers of history, we are simply built. I was built by Sher Shah Sur. But I am older than him and that. I was built octagonal, of red sandstone, with staircases leading up to a canopied terrace. I was unique because there were few like me. I was built for no apparent intent. I was built to be a commemoration. A monument. Sher Shah called me Sher Mandal because I was going to establish him as the centre of his universe, his city: Sher Shahi.

“My foundations are made of stones from the palace of illusions (refer: Mahabharat). The palace where water looked like stone and stone like water. This was Sher Shah’s way of claiming immortality. But Sher Shah was a wise man. Not many people knew about the foundation stones except the King, his chief architect and the raj purohit, yes even the sultans had raj purohits.

“I was dedicated to Sher Shah, the Lion King, and whoever dared to claim me was sure to see his fate rebel. When Sher Shah died Humayun, the Mughal, came back to claim his fort city. He broke down many buildings, built some but he did not touch me. He was fascinated by my strange beauty and audacity. Star gazing was one of his many kingly preoccupations. So he began frequenting my high terrace to look at his beloved stars.

“Humayun was a seeker and a worshipper of beauty. Some learned people had advised him to offer salutations to Shukra (Venus), the Evening Star, the bringer of light. That, they had said, would help him find what he was looking for. The King, now not as young and robust as he used to be, began coming to the terrace every evening to offer salutations to Venus. One evening, when he was gazing at the Evening Star, he heard a soft whisper. It was like a voice broken down by the breeze. ‘Hu-maaa-yun, Hu-maaa-yun, Hu-maaa-yun’.

“The King was astounded because all his life he had been waiting for this voice. He stood up and answered, ‘Ya Allah, I can hear you.’ The voice did not stop. It just kept calling out his name.

“Humayun then figured its source. And the poor man started going towards the voice: without help, without guards, because his evenings at the terrace were his time alone. He didn’t want the guards spreading stories about the his kafir ways. So alone Humayun began his descent towards the voice.

“The voice was small but effective. It dissolved my staircases into empty space. And stairs appeared where there was empty space. The King in his excitement kept walking towards the voice. Walking, towards a wrong set of stairs. At the edge of the terrace he stopped. I could sense that he was seeing a vision. Paradise. A place he recognised from some earlier visit. Humayun, the opium-eater was in Paradise often. But that day he had had nothing. In years, facing reality. And he could see it as clearly as I could, him.
He took his final step. A thud. The King hit the stone floor.

“Two days of nightmares and voices later, Humayun breathed his last. Sher Shah was a wise man. He knew what he was doing when he built me. I, an idea cast in stone, became someone's nemesis. Once more, a palace of illusions.”
We are at Coffee House. CP outer circle. After Rivoli. Before Hanuman Mandir. On top of Mohan Singh Place. You may have to go under the road. And criss-cross through islands of hand-me-downs, to get here. Old discarded American Polo shirts, tees, jeans and trousers—meant for free distribution—are sold here. Sold amid the competitive cacophony of a sellers' market. Lay-low, lay-low, p’chaas-kado, p’chaas-kado. Fixed Price. No Bargain.

Perhaps it is sold to cover transport and handling costs. Or maybe we’re just weird people who like to buy charity. Lay-low, p’chaas kado.

It’s 9/11, four years older. We are in a game of musical chairs. First out on the terrace, then inside, then out again. The rain is our referee. Start, stop. Start, stop. And then FULL STOP. We’ve left important Sunday things to be here. To do poetry, like some people do shopping. Like it’s said: Same difference! We are an online poetry group, meeting offline. First we are three, then I come in and we become four, then the guitarist comes in and we are five. The famous five (poets). Certified by ourselves. With apologies to Ms Blyton.

It’s a flop show, says Shivam, because some mental quorum of an offline meet has not been met in his mind. It’s okay, says Brian, the guitar guy, I would have read poetry even if was alone. That’s the spirit, yaar, we cheer him. We begin with Lorca’s poems. I pick one called The Moon is Dead (twice over, it seems). La Luna esta Muerta, Muerta. Brian suggests we all try our hand at Spanish. Just curl your lips around the words, he says, and it becomes Spanish. We try, and succeed miserably. Bikram says he can’t curl his lips while chewing gum. So he tries without it. And succeeds.

The rain stops. And we move outside. We chose a place earlier taken by a group of monkeys. They are actually poets, in monkey disguise. One of them tries to borrow Brian’s white plastic bag. He would be the monkey with the best voice. But Brian has other plans, he makes a dash for the monkey and gets back his bag of poetry.

The evening rolls. We are at an important place in time. The sun is going down, to the other side. In another part of the sky, a half-moon shape is struggling through the clouds. The Moon is Only Half Dead. Lorca missed that. There’s more poetry. Nitoo’s amazing ‘funny lines’. A something about ‘Fakkade’, a tourist guide’s attempt at saying ‘façade’. Brian makes fun of Bangalore Central, a mall in the Garden City. Coffee, cutlets, sandwiches and a dosa arrive. Poetry is food and food, poetry. We eat our words as poets often have to. While eating we briefly visit Goa, transported on Brian’s guitar; with the half moon and the full breeze as muse and fuel.

Two offline friends come and join us. They’re also encouraged to read Spanish in the light of a Nokia 1100. One begins Lorca’s longish ode to Whitman, but it’s too long, so she gives up. We move on to Hughes’ Crow poems. Habba Khatoon is done in early by a careless translator. But in Kashmiri she sounds good.

The ‘flop show’ ends on a high note. With another ride on Brian’s guitar. This time we wave our moonlight phones at him. Like rock fans at a concert. The monkeys would have liked the light and sound. On the way out we exchange notes on blogging. And promise to meet again, online and off it. On a Sunday when the world’s out shopping, we’ll meet and do some poetry.
The fort stands brown and serrated like massive teeth gaping at the ageless sky. Trying, with a missing upper jaw, to bite off a piece of blue eternity. The fort—built sometime in the fourteenth century by Ghias-ud-din, founder of the House of Tughlaq—once contained a city. Tughlaq-Abad. A city settled by the Tughlaqs, if translated.

The fort is now divided by a transporters’ highway. Trucks run through it like ants carrying goods four times their size. The space inside the fort is sheeted in the brilliance of bud-green shrubbery. It’s late monsoon. And there’s plenty to chew on especially if you’re a cow. Or a goat. They graze where soldiers once tied their horses. Monkeys fornicate on former watch-posts. Bats squeal from under basements where a torch hasn’t been lit for centuries. The place has a reputation. It’s known to attract drug addicts, drunks, gamblers, compulsive wankers, thieves, rapists, murderers and other products of big city marginalia.

A small plastic ticket counter set up by the Archeological Survey of India is, like everything else, abandoned. It’s lone ticket-seller is out, somewhere. When he finally comes back he seems happy to find visitors waiting. Written behind the blue tickets he sells is a red-letter plea: THESE MONUMENTS ARE YOUR NATIONAL HERITAGE. PLEASE DO NOT DISFIGURE THEM.

But the fort is already a tableau of decay. Wasted walls and wasted gateways. There’s not much else, except walls and gateways. Rocks that were once chiselled and hammered into walls and gateways by nameless masons and stonelayers, are now slowly returning to rocks. Their cement is also turning into capricious sand. The shifting sand leaves behind boulder-on-boulder formations that even a gale can unseat and tumble. Things have a tendency to return to their natural state. History has a way of being repeated.

The hoofs that once cantered on the stone ramps of the fort are now trapped in the ears of skeletons buried in a nearby tomb. The blood on the ramparts has also evapourated and rained over the fort long ago.

A stone lectern behind the fort’s main arch gives dates, measurements and other interesting details about the fort. But the nowhere does it mention the curse that it has lived for nearly 700 years. Nizamuddin Aulia, Delhi’s patron dervish, had cursed the place while it was still under construction. It would be DESOLATE but for WANDERERS: “Gujjar ya ujjar,” the seer had so predicted in rhyme. Interestingly, it was not entirely a matter of prescience as Aulia favoured the son and hated the father, not without reason though.

Ghias-ud-din’s son Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq, a madman and a genius, had wanted his own city and schemes. So he’d moved out of Tughlaqabad with everybody in tow. Even the beggars and cripples were not left behind. And Tughlaqabad had the strange misfortune of being settled and sacked by the same dynasty.

The key to Control. Is saying I don’t know. Asking what, when, who, where, how and why not? It is about free-falling and knowing what key to press and when. It’s about playing the game. And finding new rules. Finding words among letters. Words, lying flayed and hidden. As squares. And as rectangles. It’s about finding meaning in the falls between letters. And commas, colons, slashes, dashes, equal-tos, brackets and full-stops. It’s about pressing Shift. And not going anywhere. From lower case to CAPS, maybe. Or semi-colon to colon. Or single quote to double. It’s about changing stress and inflection. Enter’s the biggest, usually. A master key among lesser masters. All sorts of mysteries are YES-ed and OK-ed here. Cracked open. As are paragraphs. Enter allows. Escape prevents. With intent, the fingers reach out for these keys, press ’em and multiply possibilities. Each square stands for something. A black something as opposed to a black something else. A letter. An individualised character. A symbol for sound. Sometimes a symbol for meaning. In tight, ungrammatical abbreviations. Like I, C, Y, U, R, U.

Something shows up for each square pressed. Every square pressed leaves its mark. A copy, clone, emanation. Whatever. A symbolic something. Every square, except the Space Bar. The Space Bar occupies the longest space. Its mark is the most unique. The most empty. The Space Bar is called in to create space, if such a thing is possible. To create a unique emptiness for words to claim and occupy. The Space Bar is an unmarked area. A place where words find meaningful barstools to sit on. Talk. Drink. And get drunk. On emptiness. Without it, all written text is one word: long, meaningless and unpronounceable.

Then there are twelve mysterious Fs, meant for higher, complex purposes. There’s also Home and End, back to back, with nothing between them, except sometimes another key. Insert doesn’t care about the past. It writes over it. Insert rewrites history by replacement, an insidious expertise but useful nonetheless. Delete deletes. Makes space, the usual way. Erasing excesses and oddities. One at a time. Or entirely, en block.

And then there’s the rectangled Universe. The holder of keys. A switchboard of commands. Pressed into service. Whenever inspiration strikes.
There was this story doing the rounds when I was small. It was about a roaming merchant. A merchant of cloth, who went door to door selling his art on cloth. The curious thing about this merchant was that he didn’t go to just any house. He'd choose his houses carefully. And then go there when the woman of the house was alone.

The story about him was that sometimes he sold his stuff way below his art’s worth. What made him make these untradesmanlike decisions no one knew. Perhaps he was a true artist to whom these issues of commerce didn't matter. Or maybe he had a larger plan.

The cloth merchant was rarer than his story. No one actually knew anyone who had bought any cloth from him. Actually no one could.

He’d arrive at his chosen house on a panniered bicycle, ring the bell and when the woman of the house opened the door for him, he would simply say "Sari". I don’t know whether it was curiosity or some magic in his cloth, eyes or bicycle that made women buy his stuff without him saying anything other than the most obvious.

Women would buy his beautiful saris but never wear them. The story goes that they wouldn’t wear the saris for fear of spoiling them. They feared that the gold, silver and bronze in their embroidery would get oxidised by the gaze of careless admirers.

But the story doesn’t end there. The saris, unworn and unappreciated, would lie at the dark depths of trunks and cupboard shelves for months. Then suddenly one day they would start calling out. "Wear me. Or I'll die. Wear me. Or I'll die." This plea would first begin as a muffled whisper from inside a trunk or a cupboard and then it would grow louder and louder till the women could take it no more. Funny thing was that no one else besides the purchasers could hear this plea.

The women would finally give in and wear the sari. The moment they’d wear the sari the yards of cloth would start fluttering. Like a flag around a flagpole. The fluttering would reach an uncontrollable frenzy, forcing the women to go out into the open. Once outside, the free-end of the saris would rise like a hood and cover their heads. Then their wrapped bodies would start spinning like a top. And spinning, the women would disappear right in front of the eyes of onlookers.

I didn’t know anyone whose mother or aunt had so vanished into thin air. But the story caused my brother and me to fear for our mother.

Around the same time a friend of the family came to our house with a man we'd never seen before. He was an embroiderer who specialised in saris. This 'uncle' was known to mix with all sorts of people, so him bringing  an embroiderer to our doorstep though a first was not particularly uncharacteristic. Somehow uncle managed to convince my parents about how brilliant this man was and how for the first time in her life my mom would have a sari made just for her. The next day this man was given a place in our verandah where he stretched a sari in the rectangle of an empty charpoy and he began to work. I don't remember this man very well except that he was dark, had big teeth and he smiled a lot. Also that he was very fast with the needle. In a matter of two or three days he was done with the sari. When I think about him now I just draw a blank as to the colour of his sari or the kind of embroidery he did. Except that he was from Moradabad and had worked in Bombay for some time. Perhaps it was our fear for our mother's safety that caused this kind of an erasure. Or maybe he WAS the otherworldly cloth merchant who caused us to forget important details about him.



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As an art practitioner I work in a variety of mediums, what you see here are glimpses of my many creative projects. If you like or feel strongly something here please don't forget to comment



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