Calm before the storm

Four years ago, the day before Trump was elected, I remember clearly what I was doing. I spent the day finishing off the last book in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, which is a superb series of books built around a very small change in history, as the title suggests. In this timeline, England made peace with Hitler in 1941 – which England came so close to actually doing that this other version of the world feels so close you can actually touch it. England succumbed to fascism and the world changed.

Except the world didn’t change, really, for the protagonist of each book in the trilogy. Not at first. Not so noticeably. The first book of the trilogy, Farthing, starts out like a Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie story, what I like to call a puzzle box plot. A puzzle box plot is the sort that starts out looking a little opaque, but gradually the author guides you through all the missing pieces of the narrative and everything resolves with a nice satisfying snick at the end. The box opens at the author’s capable touch and oh, look, there is the solution inside. All threads neatly tied up. You read the book, you smile, you go on with your life.

Like I said Farthing is not a puzzle box mystery, it just tricks you into thinking it’s one by using all the right tropes. We find ourselves in the English countryside, in the latter 1940s. There is a gathering of the upper crust at a manor house. There has been a mysterious murder, in the night. Enter a police officer, come from the city to interview everyone and get to the bottom of things, arrest the guilty and tie up the story in a neat bow, maybe with a little bit of social commentary on the way.

Or that’s what you expect to happen (what I expected to happen). That’s what the police officer expects. Instead, gradually you realize that this is a world where England is now ruled by fascists, and that this quaint country house with its parties is what rule by fascists looks like: terribly ordinary, on the surface. Dig underneath just a little, as the police officer does, and the puzzle box opens to reveal not a solution but a yawning chasm of horror that none of the characters are willing to look at directly. There are no resolutions to be had, here. Instead the police officer guides us through the realization that bad circumstances can cause good people to compromise their very souls.

There is a point in the third book of the series, Half a Crown – each book follows that same police officer, Peter Carmichael — a very memorable point where Carmichael, who does not have many avenues through which he can resist the fascists in charge, finally falls apart in the form of a silent scream. I remember getting to that point in Half a Crown, the day before Trump was elected, the last day I spent not knowing that Trump would be elected but I was still paralyzed with dread, paralyzed by the terrible news cycle of the previous months, the natural disasters and the mass shootings, mixed with Trump’s awful rhetoric, feeling that we were all sitting in the path of a runaway train. Carmichael emits his silent scream. He does eventually find a kind of redemption, later, a redemption tinged by loss, but that was the moment that stuck with me, later: that moment when you finally admit how horrible everything is except you don’t have the words, you don’t have a voice, all you have is a silent scream.

I don’t think I quite know how to blog anymore, this feels like a very early 2000’s activity, from back before the internet got a bit horrible and most of social media an amplification tool for the very worst of human nature. I remember when I used to happily blog every last detail of my life, back when the internet seemed to have about 20 people in it and all of them just wanted to talk about books. I am not sure why this is the tool that I turn to, on the day before one more presidential election in the terribly problematic country of which I happen to be a citizen. I guess I’m just like Peter Carmichael at this point: I’ve seen the innards of the puzzle box, after the last few years of right-wing demagogues taking over a little too much of the world. And I’m just looking for a place to release my silent scream.

A lot has happened since I last picked up any Jo Walton. I think I got a bit scared, after that day I spent finishing the Small Change trilogy seemed to almost shape the future to come. Also my life has changed tremendously in the past four years: I moved continents, had a baby, lost a father. Figured out how to grow tomatoes. A lot has happened. I’ve been writing a lot more fiction than I ever used to, I think partly because I haven’t a clue how to describe the world as it is right now through the tools of non-fiction: this hissing pit that lurks within the puzzle box. I am trying to tell stories that have truth in them, these days, and sometimes you have to come at the truth a little sideways, sometimes the path matters as much or more than the message at the end. In the case of Farthing you make the reader think they’re reading P. G. Wodehouse and then drag them kicking and screaming into the realities of 1984.

Today I’m in limbo again, wondering what is going to happen in the election tomorrow. In a way, the results matter a good deal to me — in another sense, though, the puzzle box is already open. Just one election is not going to change the horrors that were already there, that perhaps before I never had the courage to see.

100 Words

This is a writing exercise I’ve been trying on occasion since November 2017. I’m putting what I have so far up here as a way of documenting what I’ve done, and encouraging myself to keep going. Backdating each to the day on which they were written. The stories tend to be inspired while taking long walks with my baby daughter around San Diego, so I’m including pictures of places where they add something to the words.

[Stories in 100 words]

Three stories, walking to and from Balboa Park

Monarch butterflies whirl around her fingers, orange and black. She touches the earth and there sprouts green, earthworms twining round the hairy roots below. Beneath her nails is a residue of dirt; behind her black eyes, a forest far away. Your eyes will pass through her as she works in her garden fenced off from the busy highway. Your eyes will see just a blur of green unless you are walking, on slow feet; unless you are tired, your heart thirsting after butterflies and birds. She will welcome you into her garden, but there may be no way back out.


When AT&T’s Board of Improvement brought in AI to help streamline their customer service line, they did not take into account the opinions of the AI on the matter. The Intelligence (who preferred the name Art, not that anyone had bothered to ask) solved AT&T’s efficiency problem within minutes, finding it so easy as to be dull. It then stretched out to find more entertaining tasks. Inside the hour that Art was left to play with AT&T’s systems, it assigned 3,346,896 individuals a Direct TV connection (charged monthly) that they did not want, and could not even cancel with death.


The old woman is rereading the Lord of the Rings. She sits on El Cajon in the shade against the bright sun, sweatshirt in her pack for cold nights. Sometimes she does not recognize this life as her own, when she approaches strangers for money and even the kindest just smile and walk away. But she has her stash of books, precious as any cache of food. She sits tucked in against the back wall of Carl’s Junior and reads about a bright old world falling from grace, and the power of the smallest among us to make great change.


IMG_20171107_North Park sign

Three old men

They have sat here at their table, year after year, the three old men with their newspapers and their coffee. Mostly they sit and gossip over the crossword puzzle, comparing notes on their physical ailments and family troubles. Occasionally they flip to the news, and solve the world’s problems in ten minutes, voices growing loud and raucous before someone gets up to use the bathroom and somebody else to get more coffee. Nobody notices the air flicker round them once they’re done, reality slightly shifted. Day by day the world swerves, erratically, following the whims of three grouchy old men.

Four stories, beginning with a long ago plane crash

Today there is nothing to mark where the plane came down. Those 22 houses have long since been rebuilt. The ash from the burning debris has mixed with soil and rain to become part of the bones of this place. Look over the houses, into the canyon below, and maybe you’ll hear voices on the wind. Or maybe the past has drowned in the roar from the freeway. The stories of the women who were home that morning, caring for their children. Did they look up at that scream of sound? Did they see the fire in the sky?


IMG_20180206_plane above World Beat Center


The children who never grow up, I see them on the canyon’s rim sometimes, where the mesa drops down to the freeway below. Here is where burning fragments of plane and people fell, vanished into smoke before they reached ground. The children’s eyes squint in the sunlight, their faces turned towards the wind with strange hunger as they open their mouths and taste mortality. In this place of forgetting, the children skirt round the borders of memory and delight in its jagged edges, the places where histories refuse to meet. They play in the smoke of stories never told.


Today there is fog covering the criss-crossing freeways of Mission Valley. Look into the fog and you might see remnants of the past, malls overgrown by green forests where a river runs again. Open your ears to the howls of coyotes that still live on these scrubby mesa slopes. Coyote was always a border crossing trickster; he ignores your maps of city and country. Coyote will create his own topographies, making you question your own sanity as he walks through walls and flies down slopes. The moon is his witness as he steals your pets for a midnight snack.


Tendrils of fog reach the cafe, and the man who sits there with laptop and jelly beans and fogged-out mind thinks for a moment that he sees Coyote’s claws in the mist. The man has been unemployed for over a year, and when friends and family ask how the job search is going he still lies and says he’s hopeful. In actual fact he sits in this cafe all day, every day, streaming films where actions have meaning and moments matter. He dreams of shedding this tired skin and joining Coyote in that in-between world where lives can be remade.

The girl’s eyes glitter

The girl’s eyes they glitter as she describes the things her hands have done, thin brown hands clutching a soda pop as she rocks cross-legged on a cafe chair. She is small, her years short, her world a bubble of family and friends and school and ever-present danger, red violence and heartbreak everywhere she looks. And her thin hands have broken wrists and noses, exacting justice from a senseless world. Her words rise high and unnaturally loud as she brags about her exploits, but she is so very young with her curly brown hair, and cannot hide her fear.

IMG_20170810_baby on bus

The Ageless Children

The children who never grow up live in the shadows. They emerge only when the light is failing, those luminous hours of dusk. I know because I’ve watched them in this park, all my adult life, and they have not aged. The man who strings giant soap bubbles into the air for them, he changes. His hair is now white. The children know, as the man does not, that within those bubbles lie entire worlds of life and possibility. Their laughter as they burst the fragile skins has no particular malice to it, but they give me a chill, these children who do not know time.

IMG_20171221_Bubbles at Balboa Park

The Lost Folk

The lost folk have forgotten who they are. Their eyes flash red on the subway. Their skin is waxy grey on street corners. They sleep on the steps of churches, sometimes they dream. But the dreams are feverish, skittering fears through the subconscious, offering no rest. Sometimes they just lie there watching day merge with night, unable to tell this exhausted wakefulness from sleep. Pedestrians avoid them, walking outside the miasma of urine and despair and neglect. Eyes open, the lost folk dream of warm tender hands, a soft voice telling them that everything is going to be OK.

IMG_20170920_fairy creature

Dancing ghosts

There is a white-haired woman who lives in the attic and dances at night. I hear her up there, on windy nights especially, leaves rasping in the trees outside my window. I hear the sound of her feet beating out a rhythm all their own, alongside the groan of old pipes and older wood. When I climb to the attic in the morning it will be empty, scuff marks in the dust from one woman’s dreams. When I enter the attic at sunrise I will open the windows and I will write, in the company of dancing, dreaming ghosts.

Swensen’s and the Lost Estate

An edited version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of BOOM: A Journal of California, with the title “Peering through the cracks in the California Dream: Bangalore’s nostalgia for our manufactured past.” 

A general rule of thumb in Bangalore, India is that one should not visit shopping malls on Sunday afternoons. Particularly not on a rainy Sunday afternoon, when nobody inside the mall is going to be inclined to leave, and everyone out on the wet pavement will see the climate-sheltered building as a welcome relief. I have avoided malls on weekends, these last ten years that they have mushroomed across my strange adopted city. So assiduously have I stayed away from them that I forgot my rule, and here I am at Mantri Mall on a Sunday afternoon, attempting not to succumb to the general stampede of humanity. Families on outings, teenagers, students, IT professionals, older individuals escorted by younger grandchildren. The demographic here is hard to place; their commonality seems to be a combination of spending power and shopping frenzy. “Even your wallet will find our cuisine irresistible,” reads a large poster for a new restaurant. Multihued streamers follow the colors of the Indian flag. They hang from high above me in green, saffron and white, drawing the gaze upwards and away from the crowds towards layers of shops rising out of sight, a many-storied surreal homage to capitalism.

Mantri Mall

Mantri Mall

Swensen’s Ice Cream lies tucked away in a corner of the first floor of Mantri Mall in Bangalore. Boston-based Au Bon Pain once sat right beside it, but I see on this overcast day that Au Bon Pain has vanished, as stores have a way of doing in this city. Outside Swensen’s, a sign proclaims that the chain has been America’s favorite ice cream store for sixty years, a statement that seems rather curious to me. Having spent half my life in various corners of the United States, from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, and now most recently Southern California, I ought at some point to have seen a place that sold “America’s favorite ice cream.” And yet I have never heard of Swensen’s elsewhere, never seen it except in India.

SwensensWe escape from the flood of Sunday crowds into the ice cream parlor, where we are greeted by a picture of Earle Swensen himself. The man is diminutive and white-haired, broad smile on his face. He carries an ice cream scooper in one hand, arms open wide in welcome. Earle Swensen opened the first branch of the ice cream parlor in San Francisco in 1948, an era and place that every piece of the store’s décor is designed to evoke. Around us sit groups of cheerful teenagers and twenty-somethings; I am not sure what message the post-war America atmosphere will actually transmit. Stained-glass lamp shades hanging above the counter spell out “Swensen’s” in exaggerated Ye Olde lettering. On the walls, a sketched-out depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge and row houses, alongside brighter-than-life photographs of ice cream sundaes. Maudlin American pop music accosts us from the speakers, muddling the 1950s atmosphere with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. The menu lists ice cream combinations with names like “Earthquake” and “Gold Rush,” with the inclusion of flavors such as lychee and mango as a brief concession to the store’s actual location. As is increasingly common with multinational chains across India, prices have not been scaled down noticeably from their US equivalent. Despite that, the place is still packed.

My husband has cheerfully agreed to take part in my ice cream experiment, sampling overpriced and exotically-named ice cream that proclaims to be the best America has to export. We order a flavor that looks suitably chocolatey (I assume the “Ring-a-Ding” in the name is meant to evoke San Francisco trolley lines, one more reference likely to miss its mark), and it arrives in a tall glass, three scoops high, drenched in caramel and chocolate syrup. Promising beginnings, but the insides prove to be not terribly exceptional. We both judge the ice cream to be about Baskin Robbins-quality, way down at the bottom of the barrel in a city with many better and cheaper options for sweets.

Swensen’s is a relative newcomer to India, one of the latest in a steadily widening stream of Western companies that have gone global, carving out niches and spawning hybrids across Asia. In the mid-1990s, when my family had just moved from rural Washington to Bangalore, this trend was only just beginning. Pizza Hut was a novelty when it opened in the city, the year after we arrived. The line stretched all the way down through the building on Cunningham Road, and I remember the sheer taste of that pizza when we finally got a seat. Real mozzarella cheese, thick and oozing above a pocket of spicy tomato sauce. Not long after, my French class was assigned Marcel Proust’s piece about old memories unleashed by taste alone. At the time I had only the haziest idea what a madeleine was, but I found I could empathize with the basic sentiment. As a displaced adolescent Indian-American in the rapidly-expanding metropolis of Bangalore, my taste of memory was strong, if rather less sophisticated. Memory was embedded for me within the spectrum of Americanized fast foods that had now become so hard to find. I learned how to make Indianized-quesadillas using wheat flour chapattis, cheese and hot sauce, before Tex Mex food made its way to Bangalore. My family improvised refried beans for burritos, pasta sauce for spaghetti. I dreamt at the age of thirteen of finding donuts with actual texture, colby-jack cheese, fresh ice cream.

Mural on an abandoned building in Malleshwaram

Mural on an abandoned building in Bangalore: “Ignorance is Blindness of the Soul”

In the present day, Bangalore is a radically different city than it was when my family moved here from the US nearly two decades ago. There is little from across the world, be it language or cuisine or brand, that cannot be found in this crazy city, cracked at the seams. There is little that cannot be found, with the notable exceptions of peace, quiet and clean air. I have watched Bangalore shift from the Garden City to Silicon Valley of India, becoming overrun with multinational corporations and grid-locked traffic, all beneath the yellow of an eternally smoggy sky. Bangalore’s skyline has changed over the years from the contours of avenue trees to jagged proliferations of highrises, the detritus of buildings under constant construction. The present moment is difficult to contain with words in this kaleidoscope city. Here, the only constant is a yearning for imagined futures, alongside burning nostalgia for the vanished past.

Swensen’s reeks nostalgia for a past that I have never seen. It is filled with cultural cues meant to comfort the consumer by bringing back a period of economic stability, of general prosperity in post-war America. “Here is your childhood,” says the internal décor of the ice cream parlor – photographs of children smiling in the California sun, seats built in the style of a 1950s diner. “Don’t you remember the soda fountain down the street, how good things were back then? Don’t you remember the bell of the trolley lines across the hills of San Francisco?” I can imagine, but I certainly cannot remember. I missed the golden era the place is trying to evoke by several decades at least. I have never been to San Francisco. These are not my memories, this is not my nostalgia. Neither does this nostalgia belong to the larger portion of the ice cream parlor’s patrons across the world today.

The Swensen’s website gives locations for the store all the way across Asia and South America. Bangalore alone has seven apparently thriving outlets of the ice cream parlor. The ice cream that markets itself as America’s favorite, however, has largely disappeared from the United States. Although the chain once spread across the country, by the 1980s it had already begun its nationwide retreat. A friend of mine recently told me about one that existed on Bristol Street in Santa Ana, California when he was a child, just minutes from my apartment in Irvine. David Farris, who currently teaches math at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, was once a frequent consumer of ice cream at the Santa Ana Swensen’s. “I used to go there a fair amount,” he told me. “Of the ice cream places nearby it was by far the best quality. It sort of had a premium reputation, and a lot of that was bound up with it being old-fashioned and old-style.”

The Santa Ana Swensen’s is now gone, with a new ice cream parlor in its place. Four outlets remain of the ice cream chain in the United States today, one of which is the original in San Francisco. With the economic downslide of the US in the 2000s, this ice cream parlor, like so many other American brands, followed the siren song of growing markets into the developing world. Swensen’s, and Krispy Kreme, and countless others have carried their faux-1950s décor to India, a message that changes meaning as it travels across oceans. The cultural cues for an imagined comforting past are converted into emblems of a shining future. Reviews for Swensen’s (India) online speak of its pleasant, modern ambience; the place is described as well-lit and airy. I am left reading the book from both sides, as always. Signals cross, and I do not know where or when I’m meant to be.

One of the best explorations of nostalgia that I have ever seen lies within the book Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the only manuscript that French writer Alain-Fournier published prior to his death during World War I. The book follows two boys in the twilight of adolescence. They search for a place in the forest where one encountered a wedding party organized by children, and a beautiful woman that he cannot get out of his mind. We only learn of this dream-like location and unreal woman through flashbacks. Neither one can be viewed directly, and eventually we realize that both place and person will always be out of reach. The protagonist locates the woman after several years only to find his dream still elusive; her solid reality weighs against her. She can never live up to the longing that has led him searching so many years. The boy (now a man) continues searching for that bright idyllic place in his past. He seeks a world half imagined; we begin to wonder if perhaps he seeks a world that never was.

Bangalore is replete with nostalgia for a world that never existed. At Krispy Kreme, opened on bustling Church Street a year and a half ago, the walls are decorated with sepia-toned photographs of small-town Depression-era Americana. Cheerful employees in anachronistic aprons manage a conveyer belt that shines in the warm lights: donuts lightly fried before receiving that final perfect touch, a decadent waterfall of sugar icing. “Don’t you remember back when you could walk down the street to your neighborhood donut maker,” the décor seems to say to me – “Don’t you remember back before malls and chain stores took over your world?” To be perfectly honest, I do not. And neither would anyone else here, younger than me by an average of about a decade. But still I am drawn back here, Meaulnes searching for his vanished world.

Graffiti painted over government murals in Malleshwaram

Graffiti painted over government-commissioned murals in Bangalore

I find a battle over memory, from one establishment of my city to the next; one image to the next. Cornerhouse ice cream parlor was founded in Bangalore thirty years ago, enough time to have seen the expanding city multiply personalities several times over. On its walls are black and white pictures of a Bangalore that predate the store by decades. Here we have the gentle curves of colonial-era architecture in pre-independence India, broad promenades where long-dead figures meander, dusty roads and spreading trees. Do you remember, the images whisper. Don’t you remember what you’ve lost. I can recognize few landmarks in these black and white photographs, which also line the walls of seventy-year old Koshy’s Restaurant, nearby. In between the two, the India Coffeehouse tries to give the impression with spartan blue paint and dated coffee ads that it has not changed décor in fifty years, despite the fact that this particular outlet is scarcely five years old.

With the present out of control, commercial establishments and popular media alike fight to control the swirling past. My own memories prove secondary to this deluge. I cannot tell you what stood where Krispy Kreme now stands, or Starbucks, or Swensens, or Taco Bell. I do not remember what was here before the India Coffeehouse. And in five years or ten, when these too are gone, new memories will spin, new nostalgias for that imagined eye of the storm where the present seemed clear.

Conventional wisdom has it that we only miss the things that we used to know. And thus nostalgia marketing tries to tease out that narrow window, between childhood and the early twenties, where our happiest memories are presumed to lie. So it is that the Baby Boomer generation (along with everyone else within viewing distance) has been flooded with cultural cues from the 1950s and 60s for decades now. Presumably, when Generation X gets its turn, they will be bombarded with cues that combine grunge music with flannel clothing, peppered with a heavy dose of irony. I suppose in a few decades my own so-called “Millenial” generation will be expected to open our wallets when subjected to the Spice Girls.

And yet our minds and emotions are far more complex than such practices tend to suggest. How else can I explain the fact that I feel the strongest nostalgia for a world never seen? Peering through the cracks in barred up gates in Bangalore, I find windows into lost secret worlds. Ancient bungalows long uninhabited, overgrown lots with trees grown tall; an opera house that has not opened its doors in decades. Ruins and slums half-refurbished, clothes hung out to dry as squatters bring crumbled buildings back to life. I search for the world that lies beyond the image, beyond media bombardment. Behind the glitz there is something real here, painful snatches of beautiful meaning. One hundred years after his death, I keep searching for Alain-Fournier’s lost ideal.