morepretentiousthanacomma

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People underestimate semicolons. No, really, they do. I can’t wait for the day when that poor, sidelined punctuation mark gets up, shakes itself and shows the world that it’s boss.

Not that the words ‘poor’ and ‘sidelined’ apply at all to the semicolon. Those sneaky little buggers have a way of worming themselves into your language and then staying there, whether you like it or not. You’ll be using semicolons in your speech without even knowing it; you’ll be giving those little breaks and pauses which sound absolutely ridiculous with a comma, into which the hitherto-scorned semicolon fits like a hand in a glove. In a week, you’ll be using more semicolons than full stops; before the end of the month, you’ll be wondering how you ever survived without them.

Friction proves the gold genuine, they say; and perhaps no punctuation mark has been taken apart, stitched back together, rubbed raw, kicked around and generally been ill-used by well-meaning grammarians the way the semicolon has. Yet it persists, nay, thrives, and its power only grows day by day. Surely this dogged perseverance, this never-say-die attitude, is a sign that it is worthy of being accepted into the legions of accepted punctuation marks of English grammar, for this persistence is the hallmark of winners.

To say that Bernard Shaw sprinkles his work with this most controversial punctuation mark would be an insult to the artistry of a maestro; but certainly, in his writing, we see a man who venerates them and accuses the famous T. E Lawrence of ‘mental defectiveness’ for employing practically none in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.He writes thus:

“You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.”

On the other hand, Gertrude Stein has this to say:

“They [semicolons] are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature.” 

Here are some other viewpoints:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ~Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country.

 

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” ~Abraham Lincoln.

 

“Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.” ~Lewis Thomas.

With all due respect, Vonnegut’s dismissal of the semicolon seems to me too peremptory. It doesn’t do the semicolon- either its virtues or its perceived ills- any justice. And god, it’s caustic; it’s like he has a personal grudge against the punctuation mark. I mean, ‘transvestite hermaphrodite’, really? I don’t even know if that’s possible. But that aside, the semicolon does not only ‘show that you’ve been to college’. Alright, it might indicate a well-educated young writer well acquainted with all the rules of grammar. But I believe it shows someone with a flexible mind. The writer who uses semicolons can follow the threads of an idea to the end, and can do so elegantly, combining both long sentences and short sentence fragments effortlessly. Semicolons are, I think, not like ‘a wooden bench… where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath’. I simply think of them in a manner more similar to Abraham Lincoln: ‘it’s a useful little chap’.

But really, who am I to tell you what punctuation marks to use, and the pros and cons and the nature of each? I use semicolons, but I can’t presume to advise you whether or not to use them. But I will say this:

“Use semicolons.”

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Ankle Bells

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The Tamil word is hard to write in the Roman script. The Hindi would be ‘ghungroo’: the upgraded, louder cousin of the anklet.

I flow. I pick things up and leave them, as and when I please. I drop them easily, and they float away. Or maybe I do, carelessly, Few things really leave lasting impressions on me.

I should have realised, though, that after so many years, dance would be more important than I had thought, that it would have left a mark of of some sort. I really believed I could do it. Let it go, drift away, as I’d often done before. Ignore the little pangs when an old favourite played. Surely critiquing others from the audience would be enough.

It hit like a punch to my chest. I opened the red box, and there lay the anklets: silent, ever-so-innocent, and recently dead.

Something stirred feebly, painfully, in my stomach. My ankles itched.

In but minutes, I had hunted out all my dance jewellery. The gorgeous temple sets. The nettichutti (a sort of pendant that dangles in the centre of the forehead, attached to a chain that runs along the middle parting of the hair), neckpiece, and bell-earrings. Red and green stone set in gold, edges with little pearls, the ones that catch your attention without screaming for it. The broad, clanking gold belt, with Lakshm (goddess)i designs on each segement. The rakkudi (a brooch that goes at the back of the head), round and red-and-green, innocent and pretty and old-fashioned. Demure, with attitude. The fake hair. The kunjalam (think of them as three round, fluffy, decorated balls that hang at the end of a braid), black and topped with gold.

And the ghungroos. Oh god, those ghungroos, just lying there in that box, the only pieces that had once had a voice. That had once said something. That had once been alive.

The pieces that had been the most wronged.

I haven’t quite got round to making amends to my ghungroos for the neglect, but I’m getting there, I think.

At least, it’s a start.

Meandering

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Days and nights blend into each other, incoherent swirls of desire and indolence. She lunges on the couch- cellphone laptop, TV, book, pen, novel. The vacation is like a blank Word document, blinking insertion point and all, waiting for words that will never be written. Sighing, she presses delete.

It’s funny how quickly one can get tired of boredom. NO, she thinks, it’s the laziness she’s tired of. She’s tired of being lazy, and too lazy to do anything about it, to start something. She wishes she were burdened with cares and responsibilities, because there’s nothing more disgusting than the way she’s accepted her laziness and her casual sense of entitlement. She hates both, hates the way she’s accepted them, but she’s accepted the hate too, so it all works out.

She wishes that she could want. Guilt accompanies that thought, because Daddy works so hard to make sure his baby has everything, but she wishes there was something she wanted so badly that her heart bled every second. She wishes for something to pursue, some goal to chase after so hard, so fast that her lungs burst, and after all that chasing, when it was still out of reach, she could burst into red tears and cry till her throat hurt. She wishes she felt strongly about something.

There are many things to feel strong about, but she simply can’t bring herself to. It’s silly and sad and more than a little pathetic, but that’s just it. She flows, and she’s willing to sit back and think, well, if it’s out of my reach, I tried. When she really didn’t.

She can’t begin to fathom the meaning of the word ‘try’. It’s one thing she’s never done. One of many

Fifteen Minutes.

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It don’t matter if you’re black or white

It don’t matter to me, little girl hiding behind your mama’s skirts, that your skin’s fairer than mine, that mine is darker than yours, and so it isn’t going to matter to you. It don’t matter to me that your skin looks like pretty pink roses when you blush. I look like I just got darker. I look like them berries on yonder bush, and I don’t care, and neither do you.

You don’t tell me who I can be friends with, coz you not my mama, and you ain’t got the damned right. And don’t you call them that, coz I can give you lotta names, and you don’t wanna hear ’em. You don’t wanna know what I can make you if I don’t like you.

Because where do you get off thinking that you can choose my friends?

We will stand to face it all, together- as sky falls.

We see the rocks coming in, flaming rocks, burning, meteorites. They’re headed straight for us, and I can already tell that running isn’t going to do a damned thing. So I do the only thing I can- the only thing that makes a mite of difference- the thing I swore I would do, back then in better times when blood was what flowed through our veins, and love meant together forever.

I take your hand, and we take that lump of flaming rock on our chests, together. Because sometimes there is no forever.

I’m breaking the habit tonight.

It’s blood on the walls, or perhaps it’s paint. I can’t tell the difference anymore, all I know is that I put it there. I can’t hear, but I can feel my throat hurting, and my mouth is open, so I guess I’m screaming again. It’s louder than anything I’ve ever heard before, so I cover my ears with hands that look like bleeding claws when I hold them before my eyes.

Dreams in the Closet (Inspired by the fantastic Hindi film ‘Queen’)

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I found my dreams in your closet today.

I’d stowed them in there. It’s funny, isn’t it, that I barely noticed when I locked them in, and hid the key too?

I found the key first, actually. Hidden in plain sight.

It was you.

Funny, that I didn’t see my dreams peeking out from between your fingers. It’s only now that I remember how it was: you distracting me, all the while casually pushing my dreams out of sight, down, down… so far down I may never have found them.

Then you let them go, abruptly, so abruptly that I nearly fell over as they leapt out at me. Just like a jack-in-the-box. For a second I didn’t realise what they were and I jumped back, almost crying out, afraid.

That was when I saw you for what you were. I wonder why I didn’t see it before. You were the key to all my happiness, a happiness I’d always been a little wary of, a little afraid to reach out grasp. Only brief seconds, before, shining moments still so clear after all these years, but never really daring to hold on. ‘India mein ladkiyon ko kuch bhi allowed nahi hai’; surely holding to something so tightly, so stubbornly, wouldn’t be allowed, either?

A lone honeymoon. Paris. Amsterdam. Rock show. Italian kiss. Pole dancing, Punjabi style. Eiffel tower. Queen.

None of this would have happened without you. Without those four words: I can’t marry you.

So, you know, when I gave back your ring, I meant what I said, Vijay. Thank you.

Fireside Letters

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dear mamma wer are you papa says you gone but i no you wont go widout me i miss you it very cold here wy we are not at home but mamma in evning dere is fire very big fire very warm and nice it evning now and i by fire and i now feel warm and nice wen you coming to us wer we going mamma-


Dear mamma, papa must have been saying the truth when he said you’ve gone. But I still don’t know why. Did I do something bad? Why do you not want to see me now? There is a big fire, I saw you beside a big fire, but after that I don’t know where you went. Did you run away from me? Our new house is very nice, mamma. We have a fireplace also. Papa calls it ‘Aarti place’ because I am always here only. I miss-


 

Dear mamma,

We learnt letter-writing in school today. I am now in the tenth standard. I know why you didn’t come back. I am sad, but I will deal with my grief in time. I hope you are happy, wherever you are. I’m in my fireside armchair. Can you see me? I can almost see you opposite me. They say memories fade, but mine are still crystal clear. I love you very-


 

Dear Mamma,

My baby girl looks just like you. She’s wonderful and beautiful, and Papa loves her very much. She is called Disha, after you. You would like my husband, Aarav. He’s just like Umesh kaka. You remember Umesh kaka, back home? Just like him. I love him very much.

I’m your age, mamma, and I have a child, and one more on the way. I understand the peaceful expression on your face now. I have it too, Papa says. He misses you very much. So do I.

I am sitting beside the fire as I write this, and my baby girl is sleeping in her daddy’s arms opposite me. I love you very much, Mamma.

Your baby girl,
Aarti.


 

Death To Chivalry

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My kid cousin (I don’t care if he’s only two to three years younger than I am) always tries to take my suitcase for me.

These days, he approaches my bags as though ready for a fight. And usually, he gets one.

I am perfectly capable of lifting my own bags, thank you very much. Ovaries do not automatically equal weakness. 

Here’s my question: why is it okay, chivalrous, well-mannered and laudable if a guy picks up my bag, while it’s weird and un-manly for me to help a friend by taking his? I agree that testosterone means guys become a bit stronger, but oestrogen doesn’t make girls delicate lilies. It’s a pretty comparison, but when it comes to insulting us through time-honoured chivalric codes, I draw the line. I’d rather be what my friend called me: ‘She-Hulk’. Although not green, because it really isn’t my colour.

I saw a very illuminating video on another blog on this site, with the caption ‘#ViolenceIsViolence’. And I agree. By what logic is it okay and cool for a girl to beat up a guy, when the same actions, if they happen in reverse, constitute a criminal offence with the blaring name of ‘abuse’?

I’m not saying that men shouldn’t open doors for women. My own friend does that, and I think it’s a sweet gesture. But why do some people think it’s weird for a girl who reaches the door first to hold it open for all her friends, guys and girls alike? It’s a small thing, maybe; but in my experience, the smallest gestures speak the loudest.

Gender equality is a two-way street. If we want the benefits of gender equality, we need to start seeing each other as not just men and women, but as human beings. What we really need to demand is the equality of all human beings, irrespective of race, creed, caste, gender and physical ability or disability, in the  true sense of the word.

I used to see women as the oppressed, downtrodden sex, which needed to rise and topple their oppressors, who were invariably men.  

I have a friend who thinks rather differently.

“You women talk about equality, now you carry your own bag!”

http://toysoldier.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/violenceisviolence-domestic-abuse-advert-mankind/

Chennai Woes

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Brother dear, you’d beg to differ, but Chennai is an awful city.

We moved back to Chennai after five years in two other places, the first of which had been fun and enjoyable. The second one wasn’t too bad, either, and if it hadn’t been for my grandparents and the rest of the extended family, the move back to Chennai would have been seriously depressing. Well, more than it was, anyway.

I was twelve, on the threshold of puberty. A new school is bad enough, but ostracism in that new school, within a month of joining, was infinitely worse. As you can imagine, it did absolute wonders for my self-confidence.

Not.

And that wasn’t even the worst of it.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but the only language I can really speak is English. Now, of course, being in Delhi, my Hindi is improving, but it isn’t my mother tongue. That is Tamil, and I can barely speak it. When I do, I sound like a foreigner. I stammer, trip over words, and generally, sound incomprehensible.

So, moving back to Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, wasn’t exactly the happy homecoming my family expected.

In my mind, Chennai isn’t a city. It’s a closed vessel, where I keep my worst experiences and deepest shames. It’s a memory of the worst of me. Its warm, salty, sticky air speaks to me of darkness, shame, bitchiness, stupidity and everything I’d rather forget.

Chennai is everything I’d rather forget.

Sorted

Aside

“I just thought, dude I have to get this girl something, man.”

At the sight of the now plain steel of the pendant, and the hole where there once had been a glittering stone, her lips twisted into a grin. With a laugh that was half a scoff, she tossed the old chain into the ever-expanding ‘junk’ pile and spared it only a passing glance more.

Natasha continued sorting through her vastly engorged closet, occasionally adding an old or outgrown piece of clothing or a now-useless trinket to the junk pile. Soon- very soon- the junk pile had grown much larger than the ‘keep’ pile, and what had once been a neat (subjectively speaking) room now resembled a field of battle that had but recently seen terrible carnage.

With a despondent huff, she flopped down, not particularly caring where she sat. Therefore, it was only to be expected that such carelessness would be punished.

“Ow!!”

She jumped, messily trying to manoeuvre into a position that did not involve something small and hard digging into the tender part of her ankle. Finally successful, she groped around under her for the offending object.

When she had successfully disentangled it from the trailing ends of an old stole, she wished she could safely throw it hard into some corner of the room. Inadvisable, since the cheeky little bugger was likely to find some other more painful way of gaining her attention though what else an innocuous chain with an equally innocuous pendant could do, she could not imagine. Still, better safe than sorry, as the old adage went.

“Stupid Arnav.” She grumbled. “Still annoying me after god knows how long… still manages to find a way to piss me off…” In a lacklustre sort of way, she held the little chain around her neck and looked in the mirror.

A real grin bloomed on her lips. “Such a cheap piece of shit he is.” She murmured fondly, nostalgically. She turned this way and that, as though admiring the way the cheap steel piece looked on her dark skin.

A quiet laugh escaped her lips as she pulled it away. Then her expression became thoughtful as she studied the necklace in her hand.

“I’ve got something for you.” His perennially amused face appeared beside her. The expression, as always, made her long to smack him for no particular reason, but she restrained herself. 

For me? Why on earth would you have anything for me?” She asked, tilting her head and looking at him in utter confusion. They weren’t anything special to one another, after all, even as friends.

“No dude, it’s like, I have to give you something, just like that.” Well. Weird all right, but who was she to decline gifts? Although she remained a little wary.

“It better not be a bath in Slime Pond or something like that, or I will kill you.” She threatened, only half-joking. His grin widened. “No, come on man, it’s nothing like that. Don’t you trust me?”

Nope, not at all.” She replied cheerfully. “But jaldiiii, I have to goooo.” She tapped her watch emphatically. He only gave her that very-very annoying grin in return, which she returned with an unimpressed look, and reached into his pocket to extract, with great flourish

“A necklace?” She stated the obvious with a raised eyebrow, looking from Arnav to the object in question. Jewellery, however inexpensive, is not Arnav’s area of expertise. 

He dropped the grin, looking slightly sheepish. “My bhabi (sister in law) helped me choose it and all- I didn’t know what you’d like- and I thought, like, she might like a knife but then she might stab me with it-“

That surprised a laugh out of her. “Both true, how well you know me, Arnie.” She held out her hand and he dropped the necklace into it. “That’s so sweet of you, and I do like it. I like red.”

He cocked his head to the side, scrutinising her. “You’re not just saying that to make me feel good, na? Like, you actually like it, right?”

She snorted. “I wouldn’t spare your feelings. Trust me, I do like it. Now I really have to go to class, so… move.” She sidestepped him before he could, anyway, and walked off. “Thanks for the chain, dude!”

She wore it after about a month, winking at him over the dinner table when he noticed. It was a cheap necklace, and its crimson colour would, over time, wear off, but that would still take a while. For now, she appreciated the thought. ‘It’s the thought that counts.’ She told herself , even when she saw the silver shine of the steel begin to poke through the fading red.

She sat there for a few seconds, remembering. She was still kind of-sort of in touch with him, and he’d hardly changed in essentials since their school days. Apart from the thinning hair and the slight bulge in the middle- a common object for her jibes- the six years seemed to have passed him by.

Her fingers closed around the now-completely faded, forlorn-looking metal pendant. An amused quirk rising to her lips, she put it carefully into her ‘keep’ trinkets pile. After all, she didn’t want to lose the damn thing again, did she?