From Alexandra Palace
From Alexandra Palace
Cast into a pool of artists the DP “how do you express yourself” seems like facile trolling (although I bow to the intellect that can come up with these prompts day in, day out).
The challenge (head slap) is not to blurt the answer but to scrabble beneath it looking for little nuggets of truth. Which is what got me thinking of Horace. One of his odes has stuck with me since those halcyon school days that were filled with Latin and Greek:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius,
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar
He compares his body of verse to a monument “more lasting than bronze” that will survive the elements and the passage of the seasons. For some reason this has stayed with me when Virgil, Martial, Homer and Herodotus have all faded. Perhaps he was onto something. I’ve ended the quote at “I will not die completely ” and in that Horace has succeeded.
I like making things. Putting something of myself into a vessel, be that literally or figuratively and then gifting them to others. It is in part that memory of Horace that has become a call to action: exegi monumentum aere perennius. A treehouse, a treasure box, a picture, a book, a poem, a story. By gifting them a part of me has been detached, given homes with those I love or complete strangers, and perhaps one day when they are old and grey it is my book that will be pulled down, and a soft look recalled.
Which leads me to an infrequently recurring theme of Harry Potter, Hari Putr as he’d be known in Punjabi. I wonder if JKR was on to something with those horcruxes? Isn’t every work of art, every creation in which we pour a little of ourselves, a means of sustaining life after death? The worms or the fire will claim us, but our works will live on. So here’s the real question: not how do you express yourself, but why? Is it, in the end, when you peel back the layers of slavery to the inspiration, and “I’m compelled to” and all the other arty snake oil, just the basic, visceral desire to live on. A desire, before we get all lofty and call upon Melpomene to crown us with the wreath of Apollo, as Horace did, that we share with every living thing from amoeba upwards.
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Two brothers discover their parents’ secrets and rediscover a childhood obsession, which brings them closer together following the death of their father.
Never Enough Time to Talk
The book dropped back into the pile with a dull thud, a cloud of dust rose up. I saw David’s shoulders slump, but when he looked at me he had a half smile. “I think every library and charity shop in the county has a copy.” He pointed at the boxes littering the garage, “What am I supposed to do with all of these?” Amid the mementoes of our father’s life there were boxes and boxes of books; copies of David’s unsold book.
It had been something of a sore point between us. Dad had bought up all the remaindered stock, certain his younger son would make it one day. But this wasn’t the time to dredge up the past. I changed the subject.
“How’s the new one coming along?”
“OK, it’s getting there.” There was a brittle edge to his smile; he turned away so I could not see his face.
I kicked myself inside. Every subject between us was a potential minefield. David had given up a secure job writing features for The Courier to go freelance and write his second book on the side. After the failure of the first one it seemed an indulgence to me. We hadn’t fought over it. We’d given up fighting when we were boys, but he knew how I felt.
“Dad was helping me with it. I think that surprised us both.”
I laughed at that, a sudden involuntary bark. Dad had condemned us both as agents of the bourgeoisie, one son an accountant and the other a journalist aspiring to be a writer. But he did it trying to hide a smile.
I had been pressed and cajoled and supported to make something of myself, to be the working class dream of a professional, even though he bemoaned his son becoming a lickspittle savant. He’d condemned David’s book as heroin for the masses and then bought all the unsold copies.
“Old socialists never die,” David quoted, “they just join the great march in the sky.” We finished it together.
My laughter died and there was nothing else to say. The silence stretched uncomfortably, like swallowing against a collar done up too tight. Still in our dark suits and ties we puttered around the dusty garage, aimlessly peering into boxes and taking things off the shelves, avoiding one another.
I popped the clasps of an old leather suitcase and found a beautiful wooden box, there were four crystal glasses inside, a wedding gift from Mum’s parents. We’d seen them once before, but there had never been an occasion special enough to use them. I was about to say something about them to David, but the words stuck in my throat. It didn’t matter what I said, it would choke me on the way out. I put the glasses away where I had found them, and the words dissolved inside me.
In the end, of course, he was my little brother and we were all that was left to each other. Steeling myself I spoke up. “I’ll get a brew on, do you fancy one?”
He nodded. “Tea bags are in the cupboard over the kettle. Milkman’s been, it’s in the fridge.”
I bit back the comment that he had already made himself at home, in the small house Dad had left to him alone. It wasn’t the time, it was never the time.
The kitchen was uncomfortably bare. Unlike the old house, which had Mum’s care and pride written on every surface, this was a man’s place. Mug tree, kettle, toaster, microwave. Dad had sold the old place after Mum died, and moved here. It had two bedrooms and a garage for all his memories and all of David’s books. He lived off the pension he had campaigned to save, and the little money he made from moving into a smaller house.
I’d not been here often. The train from London took a couple of hours and my job ran to long hours. I’d helped him move in and sent money to get the place redecorated; it was a rare instance where my insistence had overcome his pride. It looked like he had been frugal. Everything seemed clean but without colour or extravagance.
The noise of the kettle interrupted my thoughts. I hunted around for some biscuits and then took a tray into the living room. It was as uncluttered as the rest of the house. There were just two pictures on the mantelpiece, one of mum and one of two boys on bicycles, old enough that the colour had faded. “James 6, David 4” was written in neat script on the reverse.
At least the TV was modern. I’d had it delivered when the analogue signal was switched off and the twenty year old monster that had perched in the corner of our home just would not work any more. There was an old VCR, and underneath it something that made me stop. The shape was achingly familiar, but it took me a moment to put a name to it. It was our old Atari game console.
I sank down beside it and ran my hands over the greying plastic in wonder. Dad had kept it. Of course he had, he kept everything. David must have fished it out of the garage. We’d been on it all the time as kids. It had arrived as a Christmas present one year, and we spent all day every day until school started glued to the TV and the controllers. The games were lame compared to modern ones, but back then we were hooked. There was nothing quite like getting your name on the leaderboard. By the time we had stopped using it I had a clean sweep of everything. The three permitted letters in the top ten of every game read JAM. Once in a while David had been able to sneak a DAV or two on, but in the end I had always won out. Then, all of a sudden, it was boring. We had homework and music and all the other distractions of later childhood.
It was an obsession that burned and then winked out in a year. Dad had seen the lesson in it, “You’ve got to learn to stick at things, boys.” He led that by example, a working man and an agitator, until he had to retire and his legs would not carry him around any more.
I freed the Atari’s joysticks from the tangle of wires. The huge cartridge for Asteroids was still plugged in. It took a moment of fiddling to get it going, but it was actually surprisingly simple. David must have fired it up to see if it still worked.
The title sequence zig zagged across the screen, I had to press the connector in to get the picture to stay still, but once it had settled it didn’t move again. Tinny digital music filled the room. I flicked through the menu, part of me wanting to feel the thrill seeing my name on the leaderboard again.
He’d been playing! The first three letters of his name filled the screen. I felt annoyed at him for the pettiness, and then annoyed at myself for taking it personally. The screen hazed across and I fiddled with the connector to sharpen it. That was when I realised they weren’t all David. Scattered in between his name some of the high scores read DAD.
David surprised me when he spoke up from the doorway. “He couldn’t move much by the end. But his fingers were OK and his mind was sharp right up to the last moments.” He came in and sat on the sofa. There was a large folder full of papers in his hand, he smoothed the buff surface unnecessarily. I could see his hand was shaking. “He was hooked on it once I got him started. We’d play, and he’d talk. Then when he was resting I’d write it all up.”
He opened the folder. There were sheets of his own scrawly handwriting inside, some yellowing typed letters, and several photographs. He flicked through them, and then picked out a photo to show me. Mum and Dad on their wedding day. Freed from the folder the edges began to curl up a little. He held them down with his trembling fingers.
I took the picture from him. We’d not seen that beaming smile on Mum’s face for an age. She had gone suffering from dementia, unable to recognise any of us, and Dad holding on to her hand, heartbroken. He’d not talked about her to us. The house had fallen silent of the one voice that kept us all talking to each other.
“I left The Courier to come and write his story. I wanted to know about the days after the War when Grandad came back; and all the stories about the marches and strikes and protests.” He shuffled through the folder some more. He held up a newspaper clipping from the seventies with Dad’s face a blurry smudge in one corner. “I wanted to know about him, and Mum.” He pulled out another piece of paper, the colour of tea and covered in decorative writing. “There was more to Mum than we knew.”
It was a birth certificate. I couldn’t make sense of it, the flourishes in the writing made it difficult to read. I could see my mother’s name in the middle, but the familiar maiden name I thought I knew was suffixed by other, grander names. Her parents, the grandparents I had never met, were Lord and Lady. My eyes were blurring and the names were incomprehensible.
David was still talking. I tried to take in the words because I could not read at all. “Her parents never approved, but they let her go her own way. Mum and Dad wanted to tell us, it was just never the right time. They wanted us to make our own way first. Then Mum got ill. Dad said there just didn’t seem to be the words after that.” There were more papers. He pulled out a fresher one, creamy, thick paper. “He wanted to tell you first because of this.” I took the paper from him numbly, but did not look at it. “We had an uncle, he died without children.”
I understood. Through the shock and the grief I understood, and it did not matter. There was a greater, more pressing truth beneath the veneer of titles. A truth our father had spent his life trying to teach us to see. Mum had given up everything, wealth, privilege, comfort, for a hard life with the man she loved. He in his turn had watched himself slip from her mind, as she slipped out of his life. He taught us to measure people by what they became, by how they behaved, not where they began.
David was crying. A fat tear fell on the open pages. My gaze was fixed on that wedding photo, the broad smile of a young man in a hat and suit. I saw the shadows of that smile in the mirror every morning, I could turn my head and see the stubborn chin reprised in my brother beside me.
In the end it did not matter whether there was time to talk. I thought I was the one for doing things, the one who had made something of himself. David had proved me wrong, he’d done something extraordinary, almost as extraordinary as Mum leaving everything she knew for Dad. He’d come here to see out Dad’s last days, to keep him company, and preserve the memory of those two precious lives.
The tinny music was still playing, a nonsensical counterpoint to our loss. Our loss. Until that moment we hadn’t shared it. I gave him back the photo and the papers, and squeezed his forearm. My hand was trembling too. “Tea’s getting cold.”
He nodded, and then gestured to the Atari. “Fancy a game?”
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Above is my round 2 entry to the 2014 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition
In my final year at university was I was both baffled and smitten by one of my lecturers. She only taught a short course (four one hour lectures), but it was enough for me to pen a poem to her, and leave it for her in her college pigeon hole (thats not a euphemism, it is something we had in the years before email).
I may have a manuscript somewhere, but no chance of finding it. It went something like this (with apologies to TSE).
On a textual note, our terms (semesters) were arranged in eight week blocks, and the final exams were known as Part Two of the degree course.
Waves of meaningless words
Lap at the shores of comprehension
In four hours Giorgia
There was no time for you
Or time for me
Or time for a hundred visions and revisions
Before Part Two.
And now week four
All this and so much more
I do not understand.
Me (c 1993)
A Question of Moments
by Ruswa Fatehpuri
In a life made up of moments
Of which I was but one
What will you remember
When I am dust and gone?
Will the page on which I met you
The page on which we kissed
Be well thumbed and worn
Or passed over and missed?
Will you ever turn to us
And plot the path we took?
Will you smile or will you weep
Or will you never look?
Will you tell your children
Of all that we forsook?
Or will we be forgotten
And torn out of the book?
In response to the turn back time prompt
My Do Over post is also of some relevance
You can find more of Ruswa Fatehpuri here
Chapatti Passion and the Gift of Mother’s Day
The culinary force that has bound together families across the subcontinent for generations has not travelled well with the diaspora. The effort, the skill, and the inclination are missing, and I fear the home made western chapatti is in terminal decline.
Chapattis are messy. Although they are no more than flour and water, perhaps with the barest pinch of salt, rolling them out makes a mess. Flour goes everywhere.
In India, where I had the privilege of eating the best chapattis ever made (by my aunt), the messiness is not a problem. The excess flour is swept out on stone floors. The cooker was a wood stove, the pan an upturned dome (allows the broad thin disc of dough to spread and become thinner). They are perfect while they are still hot enough to burn your fingers. The magic goes as they cool.
In a western kitchen, however crisp and spartan it may be, there are edges and splash-backs where the flour will catch. As the dough is cooked and toasted on a hot pan there is a lot of smoke. In a closed kitchen, even with the best extractor fan, some of it will settle. It does not matter in an open courtyard, but it matters here. More time is spent cleaning up than is spent making the chapattis.
And there’s the rub. Chapattis are more than anything a question of time and effort. Kneading, rolling, flipping, and then cleaning up. As we get busier and look for speed and convenience the art is being devalued.
My mum has asbestos fingers. She can pick and flip chapattis off the pan without any implements, and I can pluck the topmost hottest one from the pile, and juggle it between bites that sear the inside of my mouth. My mum misses me on the days she makes chapattis and I am not there. She frequently sends them wrapped in foil, ostensibly for the kids, but knowing I will exact a toll on the package. On mother’s day, the first after her heart operation, we descended on her, and she wielded the rolling pin with joy as I and all the grandkids clamoured for more. It is the perfect symbiotic relationship, repeated no doubt across a billion families around the globe.
Mum was absurdly pleased when all four grandchildren were overheard saying how much they loved chappatis, and number three chimed in with “especially when Dadi makes them by hand.” Sweet innocent child. as if there was any other way. Ready made chapattis are evil.
That was my mother’s day gift to mum; we relaxed the restrictions on her activities and allowed her to get the rolling pin out. She couldn’t have been happier.
There is an art and an ecstasy to eating chapattis, separate to any other food stuff. They have to be just cooked. The half life to decaying into mere higher quality bread is minutes (although even dry and days old they outclass every alternative). But at the moment of perfection there is a choice to be made. Eat them as they are, still steaming and you know pleasure like no other in this world. Land one on a plate and smear it with butter, losing vital seconds of heat, and you will be paid back by entering paradise. But the paradise of houris and grapes and shady trees is a veil, a trap for those whose interest was their own soul. Those who wish to achieve true proximity to the divine tear down this veil, and add a little more butter, so the last mouthful of the chapatti glistens with heavy drops of gold. Behind the veil is God: a matron at a stove, with a hot pan rolling balls of dough.
The hot chapatti also raises every other meal to gourmet status. Even a committed carnivore like me will happily dive into a bowl of daal when armed with torn pieces of chapatti to use as scoops. Shami kebabs, the mix of mince and lentils, with a burnt crust on the outside, fiery with green chillies inside and washed down with tea are the perfect all day, anytime meal: dry heat, chilli heat, liquid heat. Korma, that king of dishes, ascends beyond royalty to the throne of Solomon.
You’ll have noticed I have not mentioned the other two members of the flatbread trinity – puris have been condemned utterly by the campaign against saturated fats, and parathas have been abandoned by association. I am alas left in the one dimension of monotheism: the chapatti.
There was a moment that dislocated me in time on Mother’s Day. My nephew pressed his rolled chapatti with butter against his chest because it was too hot to hold in his hand, and yet was unwilling to relinquish it, and then bit into it with a huge grin on his face. That grin is the key, which means my sister in law has learned from my mother, and the art will live on at least another generation.
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In 2011 I took my mother and a wheelchair on Hajj. I’m still not sure how she talked me into it. It turned out to be a journey filled with tragedy, comedy and epiphany.
This travelogue gives an insight into the essential and yet mysterious Islamic endeavour of Hajj. It is a guide for the unprepared and light relief for those who, like me, struggle to take things too seriously.
Those of particularly orthodox or conservative religious views should beware.
The ebook is available for Kindle, the paperback is now in a range of retail channels.
Extracts are available on my blog.
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You can see both my books on my author central page
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