Australia is beautiful…

It is interesting how the human brain works, scooping up some electrochemical interactions between molecular allies, transcribing these into a memory that is at once elating and irresistibly beautiful, lifting one’s spirits so to speak… As I am drafting this post, as I sit here, steam rising from coffee mug on the table, I focus on this picture. This was from the Bay of Islands near Twelve Apostles. When we went there the wind was rough and it picked up sand or something grainy from the vegetation, filling our eyes with this stuff. My son had closed his eyes and the adults were barely able to squint. It was quite early in the morning and there weren’t many cars in the car park. The narrow path that led to the islands was flanked with small shrubs that resisted the wind, their exteriors almost aerodynamic. The islands were reduced to mere pillars after all the battering and erosion the wind, water and sun had subjected them to for millions of years.

I felt small and inconspicuous, standing there with my son who was resisting all imploring to open his eyes as the wind pummeled us with no respite. I did not have the time to comprehend this at the time, but now as I sit at home and let the molecular ghosts in my head conjure the image of myself standing there on that day I feel a rush of emotion. It took me back to my childhood when I had to leave home for the first time to study in Hyderabad. I had secured admission in a residential college that I was eager to join, and study, as well as I possibly could. But the first few weeks were difficult, smothering me with homesickness. I longed to see my mother, and the most trivial objects like slippers that I got from home could prompt disproportionate bouts of sadness. Every second Sunday we were allowed visitors and my parents came to see me at the college, even taking me out to get an ice-cream or some chocolates. Of course the dizzying heights of homesickness eventually petered out but my mother being a clever woman had kept the inland letters that I wrote to her from those initial days. I am thirty-seven years old now and obviously quite awkward about the contents of those letters — whatever squiggly lines of ink those squares of papers were harvested with, I am not that person now but can’t escape the reality I had been that person at one point.

The human brain and its mischief — I began with the harmless intention of documenting the beauty of Australia. But here we are, burrowing into my head as I open myself up, reacting to these pictures I took on my long drives. The more I am letting myself react to these pictures the more of me pours onto these pages. And that’s just how writing is to my mind — it is never really streamlined, it takes quite an effort to make it look that way. All writing is hypnotic, all writing is inherently a reaction to something, a torch to shine, a sieve to capture those stray electrochemical interactions, those old memories…

The last leg of the drive to Philip Island is perhaps the best, the road extending before you as if raked by a fingernail on successive heads of mountains. On the way we had driven to the famous Phillip Island Chocolate Factory to get some hot coffee. This was quite a bit crowded by the time we reached there at about eleven in the morning. When inside, my son pulled a few chocolates from the shelves and while outside, he kicked some gravel out of the decorative pits. I was angry with him, angry with myself; I kept saying he was ruining the weekend — he was naughty, and it upset me and my wife. My objection to his actions was simply that he had a choice to behave well and he chose not to. My wife felt he was not old enough and that ‘choice’ was an adult concept that may not apply to three-year-old kids. I agreed with some of that but not all of it.

This picture was taken in a hurry which is not apparent at first. But if you look at me closely, you will notice my right hand near my son’s cheek pivoting his head to face the camera. I have an accompanying video which was taken at this time where I could hear my son singing “Incy Wincy Spider,” miming with his hands how the spider would climb up the water spout…

Craggy rocks stood by watching, slanting on one side while the sea slapped incessantly like a child at its mother’s tow never letting her a moments rest. I sat on a bowl shaped rock, my son’s small hand held tightly in mine as he leaned over, his head bobbing up and down to the tune of the waves. He was so excited, his mouth agape, his thoughts perhaps forming too quickly for the mouth to articulate the joy… The foaming heads of waves as they landed on the rocks, the tinkling sound water made as it retreated into the sea, the wind that barrelled through the gaps between crests of hills nearby, it was all there, the elements of nature, all laid bare…

Among the pools light from the sun reflected, casting a myriad of images on the canvas of round, slippery stones. We felt we were being pursued as we picked our way through these pools and limestone formations. On the sign board it had said this landslide was once connected to Antarctic shelf — there were dinosaur fossils on the beach… I imagined these ancient animals coming back to life from their fossils, tearing away paper-thin tissues from the ground underneath, a coat of dust from over there, a whip of bone from over here, sprinkle in some crystals of salt, a metamorphosis of sand, stone and salt…

Later when we were in the car my son fell asleep. My wife was listening to music, and I was left to myself. Seeing as I was available, thoughts wormed their way into my head, filling it, as blood does to repair an injured thumb, swelling it… But what was my injury? I had a reasonably good life — family, work, health. There was nothing to fix, at least not that I could put my finger on… I noticed among the rolling hills a kangaroo, alone and resting, perhaps going through the same phase in his life as I did…

In my childhood I remember going to a well near my home. I must have been about ten years old at the time. My father took me and my sister to the well in the weekends — he would strap a plank of wood to our backs just under the shoulder blades, making sure the loose end of the rope was tucked in properly. And we would climb down the narrow steps that were raked into the wall of the well on one side. Our first few steps were always nervous as it had caused a good number of people to slip and fall into the water, ensuing in a popping sound, splitting the silence forever. The farmer who owned the land came by sometimes, a lanky man with strong shoulders, a thin roll of tobacco stuck in his lips. He would encourage us from above — he always sat on the rim of the well, his head tilted and eyes burrowing deeper into the sockets as he sucked on his tobacco. He and my father talked about things like electricity shortages and plight of fertiliser on plants. I and my sister would flail our arms, thud and splash, dip and dive, in the full knowledge of safety the plank of wood provided us. At times my father would leave us down in the well as he sat with the farmer well away from us on the landing. As they chatted, we splashed about in the water swimming from one side to the other and resting at times. It was at these times of resting between the laps that we would hear snatches of what the farmer and my father were saying to each other. They did not hesitate much — their conversations were always fluid, as if they were brothers or cousins who had grown old together… When there were gaps in their conversations it was usually because my father would be nodding his head or eyeing something in the distance, or the farmer would be spitting discreetly from where he sat, always courteous to others even on his own farm which spread to acres around him.

This was the Hanging Rock, a former volcano, near Mount Macedon. It is about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. The car park is at the foot of the hill. The climb from there to the top is steep, testing one’s endurance and if you are with children, a threshold to tantrums. The crown of the hill is peppered with these rocks that shoot out of the earth like planks of wood on a building site. It was as if an engineer was clearing the land here to erect a magnificent structure but left in a hurry leaving all these rocks just sticking there in the mud like discarded pillars of a non-existent house.

Found these kangaroos on our drive to Grampians. We stopped to take these pictures. It was like we had opened a portal to a parallel universe when we sighted kangaroos for the first time having only seen them in movies or documentaries until then. The way they hopped, those legs generating enough thrust that was sufficient for the bulky torsos to be lifted off the ground… The furry body, the whorls of flesh hanging by the waist, the stunning eyes as well. And the tail — longish and rope-like, it rested on the ground imperiously as if marking its territory. One of the kangaroos took a few decisive steps towards us. I rolled the windows up and gingerly put the car in driving mode, concerned for our safety given how strong these creatures looked from up close…

As a child my introduction to kangaroos was via the tonic my father made me drink every day, without fail. It was a multivitamin syrup that was available in India during my childhood. I must have been about ten years old, perhaps even younger, at the time. The taste of it I can’t recall but the spill of it on my shirt I can… It stuck to the shirt, stiffening the fabric where it landed in globs. Along with this syrup I also remember the calcium lozenges from childhood, the pink, disc shaped tablets that came in small bottles. I remember the taste, not too sweet. And they took quite a while to melt in the mouth, my tongue flipping it sideways as I sat before the TV, mouth making clicking sounds…

Before my wife and my son joined me here in Melbourne I lived for a year without them, all by myself. I loved taking long walks in those days, sometimes near the office and sometimes in the CBD. This place near Botanic Garden was one of my favourite places, the short path lined with trees as if leading somewhere but really just to the park bench. It was not too quiet that it made me long for home, but not too crowded either. It was just the right distance for me to escape into my head, probing old memories like a dog licking its wounds. Sometimes I would bring a book from the library and sit there under dappled lights, reading. People would walk their dogs and occasionally I would receive cursory nods from men and women walking along the track. It was magical, with the capacity to make me wonder…

After my wife and son travelled to Melbourne from Hyderabad most of my time went into family affairs. At first, I enjoyed the urgency of everything from changing the nappy to putting the baby to sleep. But as days went by, I missed my old routines — my meandering walks, the reading under a tree, and the cursory nods from strangers on park benches…

It was a few years later that I found myself walking in the area. The trams were cancelled — I called my wife to tell her I would be getting late just by about fifteen minutes. To my surprise and relief, I must add, she said she had already reached home and picked up our son from childcare knowing the trams were cancelled — someone at her office had alerted her to this information. She asked me to get some things from the store but nothing too urgent. This was my cue — I started walking. It was about seven in the evening when I reached this place where the birds were twittering, returning home. I sat there for a few minutes, smile beaming on my face, like a prince in some fairy-tale, bewitched…
In the following weekend I managed to take my son there as well…

This was the Redwood forest in Yarra ranges national park. Here the trees rose like well-groomed spikes, a square of land that stood out with its geometric patterns amidst the natural forest that had no interest in symmetries. These trees, they rose absolutely straight, logs of wood with barely a few branches, and at the very top plumes of green leaves reddening in varying shades along the length of the trunks. Stand anywhere in this patch of land and unless you saw through the clearing between the trees it would be difficult to get your bearings — it looked the same in all directions, rows of trees, evenly spaced, depositing rust-red leaves on the forest floor, evoking poetic burden. The light that did manage to filter through the canopy was dimmer, and tinged with red perhaps — all the photos we took on our mobiles looked like they were coated in powdered rust. I saw a man and woman, perhaps in their forties, walking hand in hand among these woods, maintaining their precious distance from the families with cacophonous kids. The man kissed and the woman reciprocated — they disengaged and looked at each other mumbling something romantic. He furtively opened her palm and placed something in her hand. She looked at it and her smile beamed. The forest sighed, having cast its enchantment, a job well done…

What is it about fire and water that is so attractive to us? Do they in some way remind us of our own expression of life, as if to say there is a part of this fire in each and every one of us? Perhaps the cellular chemistry or even the biochemical signalling… This fire outside the Shrine of remembrance is set to a side near one of the memorial pillars. The dance of this fire, its tongues licking the air like a hungry octopus lashing with rapt energy, it is episodic in nature — frenzied whipping one minute followed by pacified cuddle of the source, a gas burner underneath…

First time I saw this I stood there for a while going around it as if inspecting for a gap. It took me back to my childhood when I was playing cricket with a few of my schoolmates — one bowler, one batsman and one fielder who had to switch occasionally to keep behind the wickets. One of the balls I lunged at ended up in a thick bush with thorny exterior. We all took sticks to it, poking to get the ball which had disappeared into the cornucopia of dry leaves and straws. It was when we heard the stirring that we became alert at once. We looked at each other, hearts beating faster, retreated to a safe distance. From here we scanned for signs of the serpent that we had awoken from its slumber. The farmer whose farm we were playing cricket on was summoned who took a long stick and bludgeoned the snake to its imminent death. He then proceeded to light a fire with some straws and dropped the dead snake in the pit of fire. The smell of burnt flesh invaded our noses, also the occasional crackling sound from the twigs where the snake’s tissues resisted melting. In the days that followed, I always made a trip to the burnt site. I could see bits of bones and perhaps even the length of a spine — I sat on a stone and observed from a distance. My grandmother was perhaps the first person who openly acknowledged what everyone was feeling. She said the snakes lived here long before we had come to build our houses and expand our towns and cities. We had come to their home — we were the bad guys. All humans are bad, she had said in her characteristic manner, nonchalant, as if it was common knowledge she expected me to have known all along. My parents thought she was cynical, but I thought she was honest.

On our drive back from the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne we took a wrong turn and ended up driving through a forest. The road ran like a monstrous serpent that laboured petulantly, withdrawing deeper and deeper into the crowd of trees. We slowed to about thirty kilometres per second at one point, turning to the left and to the right like flowers caught in irregular breeze in a narrow channel. The trees were so tall they obscured the sky almost completely and there was hardly any vehicular traffic inside the forest. It made the adults nervous, and the child buoyant… On some bends in the road, it was difficult to let the other cars pass — one or the other car had to come to a stop to let the other one pass. We drove towards the clearing that we hoped was just around the corner — my wife uneasily shifting in her seat as the drive turned ever more eerie, and wonderful, in equal measures. It was like we were thrust into the bosom of a wet, green creature.

During my college days in Hyderabad at the end of the day we would all wait in the bus bays for the city buses to arrive. To get the best seat near the window some of us ran up to the buses where they slowed near the bike park. Here the road was narrow, and here we would fling ourselves into the bus at cheerful abandon. The bus drivers, usually overworked, had no patience for a bunch of teenagers risking their lives for a window seat in the bus. They tried talking us out of this behaviour which did not work. They then resorted to being rude and unfriendly, but this invited equally condescending remarks from the students. It went on like this day after day until we heard what happened to one of the students in the other college nearby. In this other college a girl had the misfortune of catching her head under the front wheel of the bus when she slipped from the footboard. Her death was instantaneous, prompting the bus driver to run into the woods to save himself from mob jury. What had happened to her life? What about her parents now? Was she a backbencher or a frontbencher? Everyone talked about this incident for a few days, sometimes in groups and sometimes alone at night wondering how something like this could happen. Her death was so absolute, so sudden, it was as if we were hit under the ear with a cricket ball — concussion. It was as if we went into a coma, our usual chatter our playful girlfriend-boyfriend rumours, and our insincere commentary of the professors behind their backs, all of this was drowned out like a big wave had crashed on us. We worried that something similar might happen to us — what bothered us was the suddenness of it. We felt cheated in some way because we knew death was certain and believed we would see it coming from a long way like an unmistakable stench… Not like this, not like a crow landing on your windowsill — how can you guard against such a thing? This was dispiriting stuff.

We stopped at a service station for petrol and to get some coffee. It was spectacularly windy outside, with gusts of rain pelting like sidelong lashes. A brief pause then followed by a series of cracking thunders like a rabid dog was tearing up the clouds above. My wife was wearing her favourite black dress the swell of which she smothered with one hand, an umbrella in the other hand caught in the seizure of wind and rain.

Once inside we ordered for McDonald burgers with some fries and coffee. There were many families inside, all the adults nonchalant and a bit weary, the children however excited at the rain. While we waited for the order I took my phone out and scrolled through the news section, checking WhatsApp messages from friends… I looked up when my wife called and she was balancing burger and coffee in her hands, her feline, furred handbag dangling on one shoulder. I helped her put the things down while our three-year-old son motioned for him to be seated on the table. My son always went for the fries first — sitting there I realised I was hungry myself, perhaps a Pavlovian response to the smells and ambience around me. We ate like hunter gatherers that had weathered a brilliant storm just to eat a single meal under the cavernous caves, their backs resting on rocks warmed by a fire that kept devouring twigs thrown into it…

This was in the quarantine station near Point Nepean National Park. Growing up, I always ate a little bit less than what my hungry stomach demanded of me. Perhaps it was my way of staying in control, as if to say I was not going to be wrangled like a tortured creature going from meal to meal with that single purpose. Or maybe there was a metabolic knot that needed untangling before I could fling myself into food with ravenous energy. I remember particularly my college days when I could survive with one dosa in the morning and a few spoons of food scavenged from friends’ lunch boxes till the evening when the actual cooking ensued — this was pressure cooked rice with one or two curries bought outside. We had curry points near our home where we stayed, all the college mates mostly sharing rooms in Kukatpally. We slept, three to four guys in one room, with a stove in one corner and a door in another corner that led to a fairly irreverent bathroom, wallpapered with ludicrous scrawling from previous inhabitants, revolutionary slogans too… Curry points as they were called were entrepreneurial men and women selling rice, dal, sambar, and some other curries to hungry students who had come to Hyderabad from the neighbouring districts to fulfil their dreams and their parents’ dreams… Some of these curry points were push carts and yet some were local grocery stores that transformed into curry points at night. On offer would be pretty much the same curries everywhere for about three to five rupees for a medium sized polythene bag-full. Fried food was a little bit expensive, and plain rice the cheapest of all perhaps. A loop of thread hung on one side which the men behind the counter pulled loose to tightly wind around the neck of the polythene bags as they dished out one item after another, blinking and swiping at their eyes. These entrepreneurial men and women collected the money under dimming sixty-watt bulbs that attracted a halo of flies some of which eventually landed into the precious cargo under the bulbs — the curries, mixing into ground spices…

On our next long drive, I asked my son if he liked to move his child seat from the right side to the middle and he jumped at this suggestion. It gave him better view of the windshield and he liked to watch me drive. He would later mime the steering wheel movements at home, running around from room to room in his imaginary car, putting indicators on, braking, clicking the seat belt on, and so forth… In his childish scheme of things the car was an automaton — it drove by itself and we all plonked into place including the driver, squinting our eyes all the time in feigned interest as it took us where we wanted without us having to do the driving. After moving his seat to the middle, our first drive was to the Mornington Peninsula — on the way we stopped at Arthur’s seat with its magnificent view of the ocean flanked on one side by the row of beautiful houses, a few roads crisscrossing at regular intervals. From up above, the view of clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight, a smooth marble. I have always been interested in science, all my life. Scientific explanations come to my mind without my asking for them. So in this instance I was telling myself — the sky wasn’t a marble and I knew that — this was just an illusion, one that was caused by light from the sun scattering as it hit the thick atmosphere around the earth, followed by the pupils of our eyes registering the electromagnetic radiation via neural stimuli the sophistication and complexity of which boggled the mind…

This is how my mind worked — literature and science undergoing something like plate tectonics, shaping the landscape of my personality…

I was overcome with an ephemeral yearning as I stood there, my son clutched to my chest like a trophy. Not for the first time that day I kissed him on his cheek, and he giggled, wriggling himself out of my grasp. I liked the feel of him on my chest, his little hands behind my neck, his face pressed close to mine. His smell, it reminded me of sweets I loved eating as a child. I told him that and he protested. ‘No, I am not Doodh Peda…’

A hopeless narrator… Living in Melbourne, Australia | From Hyderabad, India https://apkpublishers.com/?s=kranthi+askani