A Brief Remark on the History of Food in Florida by Dr. A. Gator, Newnan’s Lake, Gainesville

Once upon an orange, as most things in Florida were once upon, and long before people, who painted each other yellow, brown, red, black or white, there were alligators. These carnivorous cows of the prairies descended from primitive little lizards whose only evolutionary development was size, as the fittest among them adapted to a growing supply of food, which included every living thing in the vicinity. And a fellow alligator or two. The fairly recent arrival of humans on the Earth hasn’t changed much except slow down their growth, but the alligators don’t really mind that. In fact they are amused by the feeding behaviour of these restless half­monkeys. Apparently, humans want to do too many things before taking a bite. For instance, after planting many seeds in the ground, they wait a long time before they grow, only to produce more seeds. Then they fussily grind them into a paste, which is stuffed in a hell­hole until it turns into a soft, bloodless gob that ends up tasting like a burnt plant. Unsurprisingly, they call it the Devil’s Food or ‘Pumpernickel’. Such are their ways, despite all the food that freely floats over if you simply lay still by a lake with your mouth wide open.

This story was a finalist in the Matheson Museum’s 2016 Microfiction Contest on Florida History

 

Yesterday’s Bus

The long-distance bus is thick with locals. A schoolboy about to fall through the door is pulled in by the conductor as the bus jerks forward. The boy balances on the footboard, his heavy bag half outside the bus. The weight of the crowd pushes at him again. But his elbow is in the firm, tough grip of the bus conductor, who begins a conversation.

“Boy, aren’t there any schools where you come from?”

“Eh? Yeah…there are… but..”

“But what? They’re not good enough for you?”

The bus swerves, and the boy almost swings out, but the conductor’s grip is a seasoned one.

“What, boy? You put on a fancy uniform and travel so far to school just to think you’re studying somewhere important?”

The boy, barely hanging on to his life, looks at the conductor, blinking.

“What you study is what you learn yourself, boy, not what they teach you. Get it? Go to some nearby school, and don’t waste your time travelling by bus like this.”

The boy tries to say something, but the bus screeches to a halt. People squeeze out, and even more people board. I can’t see the boy anymore.

Birds on the line

As the mishmash of places that Indian cities are, this takes place in front of a seedy bar beside a small store selling rice and other respectable grains, on top of which is a cheap mess on whose broken balcony I stand, digesting my chicken and rice, watching this little girl in a red and white school uniform walk into the scene with, what is that? rice grains in a bag from which she throws a handful at the ground and voila there descend pigeons from nowhere, four, five, fifteen, forty, seventy five, which start pecking around, and the girl watches in glee as her parents line up behind her and start instructing her, this way not that, there not here, and so she throws another handful with now-heightened enthusiasm and nervousness, which causes the idiot birds to hit a startled retreat and line up on the electric wires and lampposts and skeletons of advertising hoardings crowding the sky just above, striking Kingfisher poses, but being pigeons, taking no risk and waiting and waiting and waiting for dangers to pass by, like the boy running to the shop, the balding man walking out of the bar, and the child herself and her parents, now admonishing her on the folly of her enthusiasm, and I want to punch the parents in the face for their anxious prompting in the first place, but I wait and wait with the birds, to see how they would come back, if it would be one courageous bird or a few brave ones, that make the first move, and which of these hundred birds it would be, but I see that at least half of them have flown away in to the abyss they first came from and now there are about forty of them, and none make a move while the girl who wants to wait is now dragged away by her parents to their home full of anxiety that she may not grow up to be who they want her to be if they wasted any more time feeding pigeons like these who do not make the right moves and wait for too long, but I, having wasted most of my life foolishly trying to balance others anxieties with my desires, and impulsiveness with undue patience, decide to satisfy at least my curiosity, and is soon rewarded by the sight of a heroic pigeon, looking quite unlike the smoothly plumed, big brave one I had in mind, and with a raggedy tail and a thin neck that made me wonder if he or she alone among these pigeons was the most courageous, or the most foolish or the most impatient, like me, an Aries Decan One pigeon, who now starts pecking the ground looking for the rice grains, a whole lump of which the girl last dumped just a few feet away, but being a pigeon and not a dog, he looks everywhere else strutting around like a chicken and is joined by one of the more stylish pigeons, while the others, safe and hungry on their tall perches look down in envy and indecisiveness, when suddenly comes a yellowing man out of the bar sending the stylish one away in a flutter while the hero, perhaps used to a few dangers as his ragged tail suggested, continues to play chicken until there comes riding to the bar a helmeted man in a thumping motorbike that’s too much even for the hero who flies back to the electric line overhead, and I go back home.

Musings on a Bunch of English

‘You gotta be kidding me,’ exclaimed the police officer at the Chicago immigration, and that meant she was about to reject my reasons, and put me on a plane back to India. My fears were cooled only by the familiarity of her phrase. In fact, everything looked familiar from that point on: being escorted away by two uniformed officers, asked some questions, then being pulled up by a senior cop into her cabin, for more questions, and finally let in. As if I’d slipped into America through an 80’s police show.

Watching re-runs of American TV shows was the greatest English-language entertainment in a Middle Eastern desert where I grew up. And my friends, unlike the Indians back home, used words like ‘awesome’ and ‘cool,’ whose meanings I picked up from context. For instance, you could never ask anyone the meaning of ‘cool’ without appearing un-cool. I rarely tried to talk the way they did, though. I had ‘proper English’ filters fitted on pretty early in life.

‘American English is lazy,’ my grandfather had always warned me.  A lawyer schooled in British India, and expelled from university for opposing colonial rule, he studiously upheld standards of the Queen’s English. Colonialism sure was a love-hate affair. ‘Don’t imitate the Americans,’ I was instructed, ‘always spell colour with a ‘U’.’ I took this to heart and double-barrelled my L’s. And, although I loved ‘Z’ and the sound it made, I carefully used ‘S’ in realise, and made sure the ‘R’ came first in centres and metres.

But returning briefly from the Middle East for a stint of schooling in India, I was put in place by a teacher for an innocuous strain of American English.

“So, you are the new student?”

“Yeah!”

“Do you like India?”

“Yeah, Miss.”

“What is this yeah, yeah? Are you disrespecting me?! Say yes. Do you understand?”

Laughter all around. I understand nothing.

“Yeah… yes Miss.”

Years later, I would come to think that ‘yeah’ was such an easy, open sound, freeing us from the stitched limits of ‘yes’. You never felt too polite or submissive in agreement. You could express unbridled enthusiasm by happily screaming through the vowel end of ‘yeah.’ Like many phrases made popular by Americans, it had an air of disrespect for authority, a casual disregard for rules, perhaps carried over from defying the British. And when I eventually tried speaking like an American in America, I felt strangely free, as if I’d won some kind of personal freedom from British rule – in a way my grandfather never imagined. American English had a refreshing sense of directness and practicality. As they say, ‘whatever works.’

But sometimes, it didn’t work. Requested to volunteer for an activity in downtown Gainesville, Florida, my friends raised limp, careless hands, ‘I’m down with it’ they said, one by one, ‘I’m down.’ Perplexed that they were voting against going, I said, ‘I’m up for it, anyway.’ To nobody’s surprise, they all came along, while I shared my annoyance at their confusing the senses of up and down. ‘Down with,’ I prodded them further, ‘is usually used for a fever, or something undesirable, like a bad government.’ But they were too cool to care for any of that.

Within a few months in Florida, my good old English filters collected quite a bit of American fuzz. The stickiest was the phrase ‘a bunch of’. You found it everywhere. A bunch of money, a bunch of books, a bunch of enemies, a bunch of beer, a bunch of time, a bunch of verbal atrocities. I wondered how they’d describe Mount Rushmore: a bunch of Presidents?

After some time, I began to feel like the Prince of Wales visiting the American South. When I asked for bananas, I was given puzzled looks, until they pointed to ‘banaaeenas’ and told me I spoke in a rather dignified manner. And since I couldn’t find the wash basin in a museum, I was courteously led to the ‘sink’ and asked where I was from, since I sounded rather quaint. As if they’d be happy to exhibit me there.

Conversely, when applying for a course in writing at an American university, I was asked to take a Test of English as Foreign Language. When I protested that English wasn’t a foreign language to me, I was told the exemption was only for people from ‘English-speaking countries’ like Australia, Canada, and Ireland. A bunch of countries widely known for their masterful English.

‘But your English is very good,’ remarked my Latin American flatmate, who was trying hard to make it in the United States, ‘did you spend a lot of time in Britain?’

‘I’ve never been to Britain,’ I said, ‘but Britain spent a lot of time in India.’

Angler

angler-javed

Angler

Himself the bait,

He casts line after line,

Angling for that perfect frame.

 

Everything Starts from a Dot

This poem was written for an audience of designers at the Bauhaus University, Germany. We were asked to explore the nature of dots and lines using any medium.  It came to me as I watched rain drops slide down the huge curved windows of the old Bauhaus studio where the Masters had worked.

5

Everything starts from a dot.
Wassily Kandinsky

The waterdrop is a dot, the rain is a line.

The shooting star is a dot, its tail a line.

The seed is a dot, a tree is the line.

The bulb is a dot, light is a line.

The dot is a kiss, the line your spine.

Everything starts from a dot.

We start as dots, live as lines.

We meet as dots, part as lines.

And end as dots.

Everything ends in a dot.

A dot in Space, a dot in Time.

Space is the Dot, Time is the Line.

They first published it up here with pictures and a German title