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Letter from Fatima

Despite being immersed in an elite and Anglophonic ethos, courtesy of my school, I only read my first complete novel when I was in the eighth standard. A furious but concerned teacher of mine handed me her copy of The Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand seeing that I was wasting away my potential. "You must finish it in one week, I am going to ask you questions," she commanded me with a stern voice. Having been naturally wired to slip easily into distraction, I hastily skimmed through the book a day before the deadline. Its story, the characters and their world went right over my head and I drew no lessons from it. I remember nothing of that book except the title, its author and a memory attached to it. That is not important though, I think. I had been initiated into the world of fiction.

As I advanced to higher classes and started to acquaint myself with a popular clique of classmates, I also began to disassociate myself with my neighbourhood friends who did not attend a Convent school. I paid extra attention to the new English songs that played on VH1, my eyes glued on-screen to memorize the name of the song and the artist. That would give me an edge during our recess conversations. Did I look cool enough? I must've been, after all I had haughtily mentioned in numerous chit-chats how Rihanna had changed the music landscape; how I thought that Beyonce was overrated and how I never missed an opportunity to sing along the particular section of Soulja Boys' Kiss Me Through The Phone, which went like Six..Seven..Eight..Triple Nine..Eight..Two..One..Twooooooo! I listened to typical Bollywood songs, the Jatin-Lalit creations secretly, with a guilty conscience as though I ought to have been ashamed of my taste.

Gradually, all the real and imagined shortcomings made their burning presence felt in my life. I became uncomfortable being seen wearing a Salwar Kameez by any Loreto girl lest they should think that I was unfashionable. I wore my hair according to the latest trends or at least attempted to. My school bags never weighed more than the school diary in case the Jansport appear misshapen due to the weight of more books. I even raised hells at home to acquire a smartphone in order to make a Facebook account, the lack of which was making me feel acutely inadequate among my friends. These were the considerations that usually constituted my selfhood. As one can conclude I was a wee-bit troublesome but I was also deeply troubled.

As an undergraduate and onwards, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly bombarded with the intellectual environment of the metropolitan. It didn’t take much for me to become gapingly enamoured by ‘discourses,’ dialogue and debates. Smugly, I assumed a personality that made my past self to feel as though the latter belonged to a nebulous realm far away. At some point in my life it became crucial to not merely purge my ignorance but also to banish the indifference that came with it. So, I tried to remedy that by asking questions to my maternal grandfather if he still has any recollections of living in Lhasa before he came to India. I started wondering how his people, the Tibetan Muslims, were perceived in their new homes, peculiar as their combination of being at once a Tibetan and a Muslim might have seemed to others. I began to ask questions of my Bihari grandfather from my paternal heritage whose image as a reclined asthmatic man is etched in my mind.

I have a misty recollection of a typical day at home when the old asthmatic Dada assigned me an errand. He had been craving chocolates that came in circular gilded wrappers that made them look like imperial coins. He handed me two two-rupee coins or so. I cannot be sure. Anyway, I obliged. He had his share of chocolates and I had mine. Evening fell and the dull rumble of a vintage pump stove continued to drone into the night and into my memory. I was adrift in my absent-minded inner world when it was disrupted by an equally rumbling tirade. It was my Dada accusing me of having pocketed his money and having brought him no chocolates. It was devastating to my eight or nine-year-old heart. Tears were shed. I couldn't shake off the incident for days to come and kept wondering in a wounded state why grown up people intentionally unleashed their cruelty upon children as my Dada had done.

I wish I had known that his grievance against me was not a contrived attempt to malign me but the effect of the ravages of his declining health. I wish I had taken pride in knowing how he had made a life for himself in an alien hilly town as a ticket-seller in the erstwhile Rink Cinema. That was where I had watched Hello Brother, my first big-screen cinematic experience. Before he was bed-ridden, Dada made rotis for me and dressed me up for school. I am most certain it is not a dream.

My grandmother was a doting woman especially when it came to me. A milky-skinned, petite woman with a sharp tongue, she was a bright soul. After her elder sister passed away leaving five motherless sons, my grandmother had to take the former's place. Belonging earlier to a Nepalese-Hindu family of Sarki caste, she did not appreciate my grandfather's over-emphasis on the virtues of Islamic piety. "Mann safaa hunu parsa," [One's heart should be clean] she would say. She was fond of applying kohl on her eyes and as well as on mine; her eyes outshining from the rest of her face just like the existential bitterness in her that she so unsuccessfully tried to conceal. When we were mourning her death, I had a bizarre dream that she had visited her own funeral and was pointing out how things were to be properly conducted in such an event.

I have spent most of my time with my maternal grandfather who still narrates stories about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. He was eleven when the Tibetan Muslims of Lhasa migrated en masse to India. "We performed the Hijra," he says, echoing a collective claim of the community which believes that the trials and tribulations of their migration were endured by them in order to preserve their religion. Since communist China undermined Islam and any other religion for that matter, it was better to have moved to India, a country whose constitution guaranteed to safeguard their religious identity and practice. Of my maternal grandmother, I barely have any memories except that her characteristic stern gaze used to petrify me.

When I related this story to my Professor who has been a great influence on my life, she insisted that I should take more interest in learning about my roots. It was a turning point to have followed that advice. I discovered not just my own maternal heritage but also the interconnectedness of the Himalayan region and my belongingness in it. It is fascinating how people, my own among them, transcend borders, tangible and intangible, how their lives interfere with and get entangled with other lives, culminating in this quagmire we call 'attachment' the reason for our making and unmaking. The remoteness and the intimacy that is simultaneously tied with the memories of my ancestors move me, unsettles me, rarely but painfully.

What an ordeal it is to put a finger on one particular dimension of one's being and confirm it as one's identity. My feeble conclusion as of now is that so many generations of historical experiences of my forefathers and foremothers along with my own past have crystallised to form my identity. I cannot bring myself to single out the Patna in me or the Lhasa in me. Or perhaps even Kathmandu. It will neither be honest nor fair to dismiss my cheerfulness simply because I can also be profound and vice versa. The realisation that I have internalised questionable notions from Bollywood about romance, family and society among other things, quickly came home to me. However, I cannot deny that my literary disposition was shaped tremendously by those solitary sessions of lyrical deconstruction. It may sound over the top, but for a person whose literary foundation was not laid by childhood perusal of Famous Five or whatever good children ‘ought’ to read it is a sound illusion. I will allow myself this one. It took a while for the toxicity of academia and the charms of cities to wear off its spell. Exhausted, I understood that it was time for ‘Ghar Wapasi.’ I had to return home, just not literally. I revisited fictional stories and started to relish nostalgic Bollywood songs once again. But above all, learning how to reconcile with the ambiguity that I embody has been a bitter-sweet reward.

The inception of The Pomelo was an outcome of a prolonged contemplation and a sincere yearning for a meaningful pursuit, especially of its Founder. We had been brainstorming intermittently during the past year whenever the three of us got the chance to congregate. We met in thunder, lightning and in rain. We met upon the heath. What was in our cauldron, you ask? So many ideas. They were proposed and discarded initially. We stirred it this way and that. There was no clear recipe. But we were united by a single objective. We wanted to create an inclusive and versatile space wherein we could celebrate creative expression and support a myriad of voices. So, ere the set of the sun, we tossed a few stories, a little bit of wordplay and a whole lot of honest labour to bring to you The Pomelo. I was excited to become a part of this amazing enterprise as much for its vision as for my affection for its creators. We invite you upon the heath. Bring in your special and unique ingredients too. Let's get this cauldron bubbling!


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