amsterdam

A poetic reflection on my spring break trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands.

 

i am laughing like cinderella in a storybook town.

there are dirty postcards by the corner

of crepe and coffee shops.

we run away from old men singing songs.

red lights – stop

sing, drink, go.

the bridges wear bracelets and the windows glow

like candles during power

cuts back home.

 

xxx

 

the trams remind us of south africa.

the ghostly mother of afrikaans.

i see a girl in a zara blazer

holding onto the pole,

she looks more beautiful than the

cloudy sky and

has cuts running up her arm

like shoelaces in a row.

 

xxx

 

double meanings are what we discuss

on boys’ faces and literature

as we sit by the street eating hot

fries and mayo.

we’re overlooking love hotels

it’s some dream

a scene, a painting –

we are both the protagonists and the background blobs.

we are the dreamers in nested dolls

we are living.

 

xxx

 

spilling ourselves in the back of a bar.

it’s warmer in pancake shops.

the old days, the old days

couldn’t have more magic.

we’re bright, tipsy,

flushed.

laugh when we want to cry.

laugh again and drink

in everything more.

they didn’t tell us it would be this hard.

they didn’t tell us it would be this beautiful.

 

xxx

 

 

To: Paris

In my first semester of college, I had to write a poem towards a place, in a similar vein to the way the writer from Martinique, Aime Cesaire, does in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. I wrote about Paris, a city I’ve been enchanted with for many years but never had the chance to visit until March this year. 

 

Paris: immutable permanent marker dream.

What I feel for you is a sparkle-crack love,

found in picture-book fairytales I outgrew by 13.

You are my desperate idealism;

you are the sepia wallpaper on my laptop screen.

You are the romance I cannot touch, only see

all in glossy magazines –

Paris.

I think I know your contours

better than a man knows the outlines of his lover.

But we have never met.

I know you only in dreams.

 

Yet I have learned your skin – ancient, soft, powdered,

the weak tang of perfume, warm bread, crushed cigarettes,

6pm coffee, 10pm wine –

your name smells of stereotypes.

I’m told your streets are poetry.

You are formed and malformed

through stories smoked from other people’s lips.

Don’t base your love on what they tell you, deception comes in dreams.

 

But I have grown up swallowing fictions.

Someone once whispered to me that the Eiffel Tower

was a needle that God used to sew up the sky.

But where are the seams?

Where are the seams?

 

Paris, you have a residence permit for the red beating city

within me

where no boy has ever kept up his rent.

And they warned me

that you are most beautiful in the rain – how treacherous

in this age of acidity.

 

For

I am Hemingway and you are the moveable feast.

I am Gatsby and you, the green light.

I am the mind, the notebook, the pencil,

you are the magic that runs through these instruments.

I am Zelda, you are the madness.

I am Pablo, you are the desire in my paint.

I am the dreamer and you are the dream.

 

But dreams are inclined to disintegrate.

Turn to fine dust under piles of boulder and glass and

21st century politics.

So they say that you’re crumbling.

Like the pastries in your abandoned patisseries, like the wrinkles on an old woman’s face.
I think that you’re crumbling

beneath the weight of artists trying to imitate

the unwieldy – love, tragedy,

Paris.

 

They say you will disappoint.

You will disturb this fantasy.

We will not always have Paris

the Paris of our dreams.

 

See, my aunt once had a suite at the Ritz, she called me to talk

about the soot-stained post office

on rue-this or rue-that and what does that say about you?

The broken wine bottles that cut

like unfinished romance,

the bread gone stale, the cold lights of train stations, the vacant eyes of vacant streets, the morning’s grey,

the poetry buried beneath white lights

of cellphone screens.

 

Paris –

sometimes dreams are too heavy for me,

even when full

of holes and cracks;

yet I am still

Atlas and you

are the globe I carry.

 

I will always have Paris.

I will always have a dream.

 

Love is when you see through the bullet hole into the heart.

It enters through cracks, its victims’ flaws.

Yours are the smoke snuck on buildings,

and the vines like veins

bleeding honeysuckles onto windowpanes, the brusque sandwich orders in seedy cafes.

 

For you are the postcard that never came in the mail

but I somehow found in an empty drawer one day.

A dream stuck in the bottom of my pocket,

a coin lost on the pavement,

an idea like a thread unspooling from my fingers, misunderstood,

misaligned like the buttons on a cardigan

done up wrong.

Paris, surely

is a song I’ll know the words to

when it finally plays.

 

Until then I sit

writing poems by the radio.

 

Arrivals and Departures

I wrote the following piece about moving to Abu Dhabi – specifically, the  very first day of being here.  It was for a class called Questioning and Writing the Self: Memoir and Anti-Memoir.

I remember a journey I once took.
Well, actually, it was just two weeks ago. Somehow, all ‘intense’ life experiences only seem to happen in the random moments. You’ll come home from school one day and realize that your mother has wrinkles. She has wrinkles and the sun is setting and you are getting older but she is getting old and we are all ageing all the time. The kind of ageing that Olay face cream can’t fix (but what can face cream fix anyway?) Or you’ll be making toast at 4pm on some blind Tuesday, and that’s it – you’re in love. You discover, first-hand, that all the love songs and poems had to have come from somewhere and maybe it’s this feeling of half-soaring, half-falling inside your chest that won’t go away. Even when you’re making goddamn toast on a goddamn Tuesday.

It’s still a Tuesday at home when the plane lands in the blue fog of Abu Dhabi. Half -soaring, half-falling. The lights and buildings are seemingly sparser than in Dubai, which is where everyone lands on their way to somewhere else. People back home always thought and probably still think I am coming to Dubai. It’s all they know of this region – Dubai, the lone, glittery pearl in a swath of sand. Flash. Glitter. Bang.
I don’t bother telling them that they’re wrong. “It’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai,” I say a dozen times. Like hitting the edge of the bullseye, but not quite. Not quite.

I walk down the aisle of the plane. Cabin trolleys, sticky hands, little children, neck pillows. How ordinary, how mundane. I have made the most radical change in my life and all I can think about is the shade of purple on a neck pillow.

I’m sure I’m going to write about this, maybe not tonight but sometime. It’s my great adventure, my new beginning; I keep murmuring ‘this is it’. Cloying, clichéd words on starting over, on clean slates and finding success. I expect the rest of me to follow suit, to fill out these words with colour and feeling, to intensify this blank newness into vivid novelty. But I feel nothing. Half-soaring, half-falling. It’s as if my heart decided not to come along with me; it closed its eyes and, when I wasn’t looking, crawled into my old bedcovers in Botswana, refusing to uproot itself.

I walk out of the plane, someone’s purple neck pillow in the corner of my eye. I have uprooted myself.

***

The first thing I feel is a wall of heat. It is so oppressive, so forbidding, so totally and completely hot and alien, that for a flash-second, I think of running back into the plane and cowering amongst the economy seats. The air hostess behind me is all red lipstick and white teeth and clean, bright future. My glasses fog up and I cannot see. I have a strange urge to laugh and cry all at once. Opaque vision now. I’m walking into my future, my new life, blind blind blind.

Waiting for me are bedsheets so invitingly white, they put the clinically pretty window-view to shame. I sit down in my new bedroom, my luggage at my feet like a bomb crater, the bookshelves gasping for something, anything, but emptiness. This is it. Yes, I have made it. This is the dream. There is no music, no fanfare, but only the hum of the air-conditioning. ‘This is it’, it says to me.

On the way to campus, my mother had spoken in Hindi to the taxi driver. She had asked him if he’s happy here and I know she did not ask for him but for me. It suddenly strikes me that I will have to learn how to miss my mother. Any day, I would rather take calculus.

Instead, I think about my friends. Their letters are as white as my pillowcase. Hasty farewells, hasty ink.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.”

There is a tumbleweed in my throat, gathering hurt by the second. It tumbles and I crumple. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. How lonely this is. I didn’t think it would be this lonely. Final hugs in the departure lounge. Seeing my father cry for only the second time in my life. Carrying luggage that is too heavy because I packed too many novels and too many clothes and now I think I packed too much of my memory too.

Half-soaring, half-falling. This is it.

 

On the Culture of Botswana

Culture is a slippery concept. I like to think of it as clay. You can do so much with it – mould, paint, stretch, ignore. How malleable it is, forever changing shape in our hands, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes through lightning-quick revolutions. But ultimately all it needs is a gentle hand, to not let it slip and fall through, to not let it disappear. ‘Treat me with respect” it says.

The most powerful and beautiful way culture manifests itself is through art. Each country does something different with its clay, shaping it and painting it in its own unique fashion. It’s important to note that this can be ugly. And disturbing and strange and messy. Culture can be full of scars because it is so often twisted and transformed by the pain of the past – wars, revolutions, epidemics, you name it. The important thing is that the creation becomes a symbol of the country, as distinct and unique as a thumbprint. So what does Botswana, our nation’s, thumbprint look like? What has it created with its clay? What are the colours, the patterns, the markings it has used?

The most prominent depiction of Botswana in literature is in Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series. These books are well-written of course. They are also the work of a white foreigner. No stand-out Motswana writer is the country’s ‘literary icon’; even Bessie Head was a South African immigrant. Numerous traditional dances, varied and extraordinary, are performed here– but in indoor shopping malls, rarely on stages. Folk and tribal music have been swapped out for more fashionable rap and hip-hop imports from South Africa and America. The paintings of the Khoisan, shedding colour and light on the lives of hunter-gatherers, have been dismissed to forgotten rooms in forgotten museums.

There’s a pattern here; our clay is becoming increasingly whitewashed. The colours are gradually fading and the West is bleeding through. We are becoming a poorly made replica of a foreign town, all our culture and colours and individuality stuffed in our back pockets, the rural areas. We are eroding Botswana’s very soul, painting over its art, history, music and language with a shinier, white veneer. How painful this is, like extracting a whole row of teeth to install a new artificial set. The problem is, too many Batswana have administered themselves with anesthesia. Nobody cares anymore. And if they do, it’s not enough.

How do we fix this? How do we paint our colours back on? Start in the schools. The quietest, most powerful revolutions occur with education and youth. Maybe before teaching our children French, we can teach them Setswana first. Fill the syllabi with the history of their own nation – and not just through the lens of colonization. Introduce them to their traditional instruments, teach them the back-and-forth melodies their ancestors sang, expose them to the exquisite basket-making and pottery their great-great-grandmothers once did. Give them their music, give them their art, give them their language, give them their culture. This is how we teach them to take pride in their skin, their tongue, their colour. This is how they learn to create patterns that are entirely their own.

‘Treat me with respect”, our culture cries. Let us listen. Let us learn.

Let the children play with their clay.