Archive for January, 2010


Friday, January 29th, 2010


The cathedral is thrust six hundred feet out of the ground as though in an instant by forces of the earth, but it was built painstakingly stone over stone, century after century. It seems as a young mountain peak, angry and defiant, piercing the sky darkly even on bright summer days though it is neither angry nor young, but insolent and anchored. The hawk was invisible on the brittle silhouette of a Northern spire. He looked down at the people floating in and out and around his home on a stream of time. He had lived there long, he knew the change of the seasons by the smell of the river and the coming and leaving of the small animals and birds he lived on. His memory was a continuum. He knew what his mother had known, what his brothers and sister had known, what his children would know. That the city grew long icicles in the long winter, that parakeets flew over the river in the summer, that dogs barked on barges that floated down to the sea, that people cried in their aeries at night, that mice came out into the cobbled streets to look for sustenance, and so he would not be hungry.

The sun rose warm and torpid that day, took its time to traverse the sky. The girl came everyday with the woman, she sat on a bench under the trees, she ate, she sometimes went inside the cathedral, and then they left, walking fast toward the bridge. He could see her all the way to the great train station where frantic pigeons lived, and then, every day, she left his line of sight, and he did not know if he would ever see her again, but he did, that day. The girl was not like the others. She moved her hands, like wings, her fingers like the tips of his own wings. She turned her head, like he did, she looked at everything. When crowds of children ran screaming right  behind her, she did not turn to look. She did not flinch when the sirens burst into the air. He cried out to her, in short notes and long, keening straight down to her. She

looked up. There was someone or something there, she felt it. She had felt it since they had first started to come to this place.  When she was a baby, her mother would push her there in a stroller. She remembered it. When she was gone, her grandfather would walk with her, his hand around hers. And when he was gone too, and she was old enough, now she brought the old aunt here, to feel the presence of time. Time was more than now, in this place. More than before and after and today and tomorrow. It was nothing unnatural or supernatural, that she felt. Just a presence, an acknowledgement of her presence other than all the eyes of all the people who did not watch her, or even see her. She was outside their world. She had always known that, since she was born, she had known that. I am mud, she felt, part of the mud, sludge, lies of the earth, and she looked up at the shiny hawks that flew above her sometimes alighting to swoop up some creature of the world so he would be shiny and grow wings in us all. Maybe, she sometimes felt, it was the hawks watching her. There was always a hawk. If she looked carefully, if she felt for him, she felt him, and then she knew where to look so she could see him.  She could feel them. She always had. She felt them calling to her. Maybe, she thought, they were looking for another of their own, maybe she was just in the way, and received a message not intended for her, and maybe she just received it in her loneliness, because everyone else was so busy with what they did with each other. She saw him, almost lost in the uneven edges of the spire.  If he hadn’t moved in readiness to fly she would not have seen him. His shape separated from the darkness and took off into the light summer sky, growing larger not smaller, as he coasted down and settled on the bare branches of the tree right in front of her. He looked right at her with his cat eyes, turning this way and that and

he opened his wings slightly to balance on the branch he had known was too weak to support his weight, but he wanted to look at her. She looked back at him, and he could see her clear eyes, a winter sky, she saw things far away, and things very small, and she could see him, and he could see her, so he ruffled his wings again, just to preen, just to show her the bars on his tail, the unbroken curve of his beak, he turned his head this way and that giving her both sides of his fine head, his tawny eyes. Then he took off from the tree, straight up to his northern spire, wings in full span, tips spread out, he knew she was watching him, he was keening as he rose,  knew she didn’t actually hear him, but that she did

feel  him. The old woman was tired and wanted to leave, so they walked to their train. There were vendors crowding the square almost to their doorstep by the time they got home. When they had left, very early in the morning, people were just driving up, some unpacking and laying out their white asparagus and silver mackerel. Now they crowded every foot of the market square, and women in scarves covering their hair and ears walked behind dark men with dark eyebrows and mustaches, stopping to maul tomatoes and to taste pastes of chickpeas and garlic and aubergines and almonds, critical and careful and aggressive and very busy. They all moved their mouths, and lips, incessantly, as people did. As she once had, only she did not remember it, not as an act anyway, just a distant shadow, the imprint of a wet leaf on the concrete, long blown away. She bought a huge slice of apple cake from a woman who had known her mother, to eat as she looked out of her window at the cathedral. She knew her aunt was telling her not to, but she didn’t look at her. They bought a piece of pork, to put in the soup, and then walked up the stairs. The aunt opened her door and went in, not bothering to say goodbye, or thank you, or anything at all. She had never expected it, and was surprised at herself for noticing the lack of acknowledgement. She went two more flights up to her own rooms , in the attic, with dormer windows and slightly sloped ceilings, and a view of the only thing she wanted to see.

She had no tv or radio, just her father’s books, and the paintings on the walls, and the windows, and the remains of a life she had had with a man once, before he tired of her silence and left. His warm robe she used in the winter, his razor in the summer, when she would wear a cool dress, and lay in the grass by the river, watching the parakeets and the barges for hours until it was near dark. She wondered, as she ate her cake, if the hawk could see her in the window. She wondered, if she walked all the way home instead of taking the train, if he would follow her, and sit on her window sill, or share his fresh killed mouse with her. She brushed her teeth and lay in her bed, and even from there, she could see the distant spire, and she imagined she could see him, soaring in the still blue summer sky, making the stars come and go as he covered them with his wings. The image was still in her eyes as she slipped quietly from conscious into sweeter realms, from the city streets in daylight to the night sky, and the smell of grass and leaves and the touch of wings on her face.

It was still dark. She looked up at the spires she had looked at every day of her short, silent life. She stood there a while, and then saw him, her hawk. He sat on the lowest part of the scaffolding, swinging slightly in the mild breeze. He turned his head and opened his beak, and she felt a vibration. She felt him calling to her. She closed her eyes so she could see nothing, only feel, and see what he was showing her. She felt his wings, she felt the air through them, she saw what he saw, as he rose, higher and higher and higher, past the gargoyles and the saints and the flying buttresses, past the low clouds till there was no dimension to anything anymore. And below her the church, just a small green cross, laying on the face of the earth.

Down on the ground, she felt her feet, and she leaned against the dark abraded stone. The scaffolding was right beside her, and she held the cold metal to support herself. She was dizzy, a little dazed, as if she had really flown too high too fast. And she soon recovered, but there he was again, the hawk, calling to her. She saw him, again on the scaffolding she was holding. They were connected by the metal, and she could feel him so clearly as if he was inside her head. She took off her shoes and her socks and put her bag beside them too, and with the firm grip of her hands and feet, she began to climb up to him. She saw his golden eyes come closer, he did not move, just sat there, unafraid, as she climbed. And when she was close enough to touch him, when she could see the shafts of his feathers, he lifted off his perch and sank a little before opening his wings wide, so the pale pearl sky shone through them, and went a little higher. She followed him. And so they climbed, together, to the point where she could go no further, and she stood on the narrow wood laid there for someone who would stand there and clean the stone of its darkness, inch by inch, always seeing only the stone before their eyes, never the whole church, all at once.

He was there, at her shoulder, this hawk of hers. And they both stepped into the air together, the girl and her hawk. He called to her, and she answered him, as she trusted the air beneath her feet,

he called to her as he went down, short winged and fast after her,  and he stopped his drop and floated, but she did not recover her span, she did not come up with him.

He called to her, and she answered. Once.

He called to her again, but she said no more.

They all heard him. The man in his bed alone stopped in mid stroke, yearning for his woman, he called too, for her, across the river, in another bed with another man, he called to her, he could not but momentarily end his eternal longing, beating it into temporary submission, an injured creature biting the dust. The woman heard him, and she called to him, the lonely scream of a prisoner in a room, a heavy old iron bed, velvet drapes, her wedding ring on the table beside her, she called to him across the river. And the baker heard him, as he pounded his dough, and called too, for the sun to rise, for the morning to take him out of the heat of the ovens and away from the sweat of the labor. And the little boy heard him, as he tumbled in the grass, upside down in the early morning grass, and he looked, upside down at the sky, and he saw the hawk, red tailed in the rising sun, and he laughed, and all was right with the world.



Wednesday, January 27th, 2010


For those of you who don’t know it, I have no degrees, and basically no formal education. In the last ten years, my attempts to “go back to school” have been thwarted by my visa status. Late last year, that obstacle was resolved, so when my son, now a sophomore, said to me that I should “take some classes”, I decided to investigate the matter. As it turns out, I will have to fulfill requirements such as English, social sciences, math, and so on. And I will of course, not being a US citizen, have to take the TOEFL – Test Of English as a Foreign Language. As I scoured the website of the community college looking for ways to get a PhD without putting in thousands of semester hours, I began to feel pretty poor, and sorry for myself.

And then my phone rang. I thought, looking at the area code, that it was someone I knew. It wasn’t. A voice, somewhat nervous, young, male, asked for me. When I identified myself, he said, very quickly, that he had just read POL and liked it, and wanted to tell me so. He hung up rather quickly. Perhaps he was a bit embarrassed, or maybe he didn’t actually think I would answer the phone and wasn’t prepared for it. I don’t really know. But I do know this: he made my day.

I never thought it would concern me, I was pretty blasé about writing and putting it out there. Readers were not real to me then. They are now. I care deeply what every person who reads my book thinks of it. I would talk to every last one of you, and to hear that you loved the book is validating, of course, but just to know that you read it is surprisingly fulfilling. I really didn’t expect this. At all.

When my mother got fan mail, or met a fan at a reading or a conference, she would be thoroughly delighted. Sometimes she would say to us, full of smiles and happiness, “that was not just a fan, he/she was a propeller!”

Well, I don’t know if the person who called me today in the midst of my episode of self-doubt and confusion was a fan or a propeller – but I understood something about my mother today, and, this perfect stranger reminded me why I publish what I write. Thank you, Mr. Joshi.

(And this is not an invitation to other readers to call me – I’m just saying – thank you all for reading my work!)

Nilanjana Roy’s top 50 for 2009

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

polPOL featured in Non-fiction, but, thank you Nilanjana!

giant steps

Monday, January 25th, 2010



My mother told me once that Werner Herzog walked from Munich to Paris to heal his friend who was very ill. She told me this when her own publisher and close friend fell ill, and wondered if she should begin to walk to Pune from Hong Kong, where she was, and if he would recover by the time she got to him. He got well by himself, and she did not need to make the journey. But she was quite serious, I believe, when she said it. I remembered this story yesterday as I neared the end of my walk. I started going on long walks only after my mother died. I don’t know whether walking long distances will heal a loved one or not, and won’t go too far into the idea that my mother could have been alive today if only I had walked across continents to be by her side.

For one reason and another and another – my cholesterol, my reflection in the bathroom mirror, my burgundy velvet dress that no longer zips up – I have started walking everyday, what seem to me like long distances. Today I thought, when I was done, that from now on I would walk for someone other than myself. That I would dedicate each day’s walk to a person somewhere in the world who was sick, or hungry, or sad, or lonely. I could walk for entire countries. For war-mauled Iraqis, for the citizens in darkness in North Korea, for the starving children of India, for those left in the rubble that is Haiti . The sick parts of the world, and all the sad people in it, are more numerous by far than I have walks, or even steps left in me. But if Werner Herzog is right, and we all walked a little for someone else, maybe we could heal the world.

I am not given to sentimentality, or any kind of spirituality – I just cannot help but feel there is a kind of no-nonsense practicality in this idea. Tomorrow’s walk has a purpose. And at the end of all my walking, even if I heal no one else, I will be a healthy corpse.

pale male

Thursday, January 21st, 2010
Red Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk

There is this hawk in New York City. I became aware him of when his nest was being removed from the building he had built it in. Many people have followed his story. Celebrities living in the building protested the disturbance of his home. Photographers follow him. There are websites about him. Books have been written about him. He is a star. And he is a beautiful hawk. As all hawks are. The funny thing is, he doesn’t know he is a star. He would be just as beautiful whether anyone photographed him or not, whether anyone saw him or not. Pale Male, as he is called, because of his unusually pale coloring, is a hawk, and that is all he will ever be. Isn’t it enough to be a hawk, if that is what you are?

My love for hawks is quite large in my heart. Always has been, not related to Pale Male, I have never seen him. I wrote a short story recently, called “Hawk”. It is the only short story I have ever written. It is rough, and needs work, but I found out after writing it that my short-story writing skills may be better laid to rest, what little I have of them. I’m too old to start working on something I know won’t improve much in the time I have left. But, if someone asks to read it, I will post it. And I promise I will take any comments and suggestions seriously.

From Oran

Sunday, January 17th, 2010
Eduardo Pola

Albert Camus by Eduardo Pola

I had never read Camus, I’m ashamed to say. But no longer – I just read The Plague, and am reading The Stranger. The Plague made me claustrophobic. I began to wonder if the world didn’t begin and end at Oran, the town in which the book is set. If, after the plague had burned out, and the quarantine was lifted, there would even be a world out there. This book easily took me into this town, into the hopes and fears of the people who lived there, and were stuck there. Reading a spectacular piece of writing – an acknowledged classic, could have demoralized me. Sometimes, when you encounter the pinnacle of your art or skill, it can have that effect on you. You could say, “why bother, it’s been done, and so much better than I ever could…”. I heard a story about Sting in a bar in London on a night Jimi Hendrix performed. Halfway through Little Wing, Sting was suddenly filled with despair. With a debilitating certainty that his talent and hard work could never come close to what he was experiencing. I’m glad he didn’t give up. It may have been a rock myth, but still…

After reading The Plague, though I understood that I could never be a Camus, I also understood that I don’t write to be a Camus: I write to be me. And I don’t have the choice not to, if I want to be as much me as possible.

Interstate love song…

Saturday, January 9th, 2010
10 west

10 west

At the end of this decade, I was driving on an American highway – the Interstate 10 to be precise, in dense fog, at 2 am. I started my drive at the east-most point of I-10. If I drove West long enough, this road would take me all the way West to California. I wasn’t going West, though, just a few hundred miles away, home. Alone in the eerily beautiful swirling white fog, I thought about the ending year. 2009 brought me a new career, my first published book, a new life. I couldn’t see too far ahead of me, but I kept going, enjoying the apparitions of trees that revealed themselves as trees when I was right next to them, and the shining lights of oncoming traffic that became clear for a moment – a Mack truck, a Thunderbird, a garden variety Camry – as they passed me, and diminished into fireflies glowing for seconds in my rear view mirror before disappearing into the blackness. E.L. Doctorow said  “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Writing, to me, is exactly like driving a familiar highway to a familiar destination at an unfamiliar time. I see nothing until it is upon me, but I know, if I keep going, I will get there. My book was written much like this drive. But, I thought, not just writing, but life itself has been very much like this drive. I am full of anticipation to see what I will see next, and where I will stop, and to find out what those shapes and lights are that I can vaguely make out in the distance. I don’t mean to be trite, but I did have a moment there of really getting it: We all know what the destination is. It’s the journey that’s the fun part. It’s the revelations. So though I’ve said it before, I wish you, my reader, my friend, my family, whoever you might be, a journey of discovery. Of yourself, and the world.