Tuesday 18 January 2011

People Watching

I’m always tempted to add people watching to one of my hobbies whenever I have a form to fill out. But the form might find its way into the hands of someone curious enough to call me and enquire what people watching is all about.

I don’t want to be mistaken for a spy, a voyeur, or even worse, a freak, which sometimes I think I am – people watching is a freakish thing to do, especially as it reminds me of juvenile days when boys peep through the keyhole to see which girl was soaping her body.

I often add travelling instead in my list of hobby. Travelling offers me one good opportunity of watching people, but since the roads are particularly treacherous and the passengers are anything but pleased with the bumpy trip, I often nod off or bury myself in a novel.

Watching people while travelling does not offer three-dimensional view or enough space for covert observation, for someone is always sitting next to you. So you’re bound to get caught.

A friend of mine chatters about bird watching as if he’s just discovered orgasm. I suppose he’s been smitten by National Geographic. No doubt, looking at birds performing open acrobatics in the air offers some delight to an aviary-minded person, but where in Nigeria can you go for bird watching?

Sunset watching, a poet says he draws inspiration from staring at the horizon as the sky refracts and reflects off the multihued moods of a spent sun. He dreams of Eden, and I am tempted to tell him to live as long as Methuselah so he could witness the new Heaven.

I avoid beer bars when I feel like watching people. I only have an hour break from the office so bars are primarily empty of people in the afternoon, though loud and crammed with drinkers at nights. I may never do restaurants simply because most of the eaters there are too hungry to provide novelty, and the way they prod their teeth with toothpicks make me think of a brute.

Imagine sitting in an unobtrusive corner of Mr. Biggs staring covertly as people carry plastic trays to their tables, as if bearing the Holy Grail.

In restaurants, people simply come, eat, go – most times they leave dissatisfied because the price and food are not really worth it. They don’t carry on, or ‘belong’ or ‘represent’, as most of the young boys and girls do whenever they swagger or strut into the fast food eatery. Yet I don’t concern myself with teenagers except when they are in the company of grown-ups, a middle-aged man and a female student, for instance.

In eat-ins, the class of people is varied. Moreover, people tend towards affectation, assume various personalities and live out uncommon lives, like men being chivalrous and women acting decorous. Consider the young man who tries to over-impress his girlfriend by ordering the large size Tampico juice for her instead of the small size, and the girl trying to object only that she isn’t persuasive enough.

However, every person sitting there offers more than just a glimpse of their lives no matter how couched in artifice or manners, and to the expert eye, you can summarize the person’s true personality and attitude to life. There are always tell-tale signs that people exhibit, sub-consciously, when they are sitting by themselves or in the company of others.

People watching is more just than a fun thing; it’s enlightening. It reveals certain aspects of human frailty. Most times when I watch a woman trying to hold back the tears or a man muttering to himself, a chill spreads in my stomach. I have come to realise that we all have secret fears and doubts, the extent of man’s need for community. In fact, when I watch people I see a part of my life (past or present) and it thus makes it easier for me to appreciate the person I am and hope to become.

Still my fear is this: I don’t know what my response would be when someone approaches me some day and snarls and jabs the question right in my face: “Why are you staring at me?” I can’t say if I would stutter or just ignore him.

For now I will rather keep watching people than obsessing about a bunch of pathetic fakes trying to pass off as original in a bid to covet an atrocious prize in Big Brother Africa.

Friday 14 January 2011

Lavigny & other Impressions

Lavigny feels unreal. Like a fantasy, A Midsummer Night's Dream void of fairies and revels – an enchanting little village of no more than nine hundred people perched on a sinuous green ridge with sturdy quaint houses hemmed in by flowers and vegetables, winding cobbled roads, sprawls of fragrant vineyards, a sprinkle of stables, fields of vivid sunflowers, skirted by lush orchards of apples and groves of pears, and the fey charm of Lake Geneva, sometimes turquoise, at times indigo, then the swells of fantastic Alps brooding in the background, a teasing glimpse of Mont Blanc or the “White Mountain” – the highest mountain in Western Europe, and a sky that gets just as fickle as the wind, like a man’s desire. This is summer, August. And I’m blessed to be chosen as one of the five writers at the idyllic Château de Lavigny, an international writers’ residency in Switzerland.

Two writers Paul and Maud are from United States, Sunny from India, and Rachel from New Zealand. Everyone is working on a novel except Rachel, who is busy cutting and polishing her gem poems with the care and deftness of a lapidary: these poems are short and punchy enough to be read on I-readers and on any screens of cellphone, she says. They all speak French, some with flawless flair, others in travelable tones. Aside from merci, voila, oui, tres bien, beaucoup, bon appetit, monsieur, bonjour, and je ne parles francaise, I am hopelessly illiterate – no thanks to Raji Rasaki, a one-time governor of Lagos State.

I don’t speak French, but my room is Camus, named after Albert Camus – to every aspiring writer, that is perfectly inspiring. But I don’t have the burdensome seed of genius in me. I have to say I feel both privileged and daunted, though. Privileged, because I might as well mine into the magic of his name, invoke his presence anytime I sense a writer’s block. And daunted, for I might feel too critical and overly conscious and end up not having done any writing at all. Camus was one of the great novelists published by Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, a German publisher who also published other greats – Henry Miller, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gunther Grass, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Harold Pinter, Jean-Paul Sartre and the rest. Now, de Lavigny belonged to Heinrich, but it was Jane, his late wife, a woman of glamour and charity, who turned the grand castle into a writer’s colony (a gesture that is pitiably beyond the mind of many a multimillionaire Nigerian politician). Each summer the Château hosts 25 creative artists from around the world for a period of three weeks in five different sessions, offering them an ethereal experience of space and serenity, hardly obtainable in a world driven by angst and bustle and speed. The Château was declared open for residencies in 1996. To date, roughly 400 writers have enjoyed creativity and fraternity in this pristine haven.

All the rooms are named for writers. Across Camus is Nabokov; Hemingway is next door opposite Rowohlt, the late founder himself. Three beautiful paintings, coloured pencil, oil on canvas and a collage perk up the muted white walls of my room, and twin floral chairs sit in one corner near the bare writing station, which comprised a handy little fan and a slim reading lamp. Near the bureau is a bed-lamp and a table covered in the same floral patterned fabric and that’s next to my bed. Now, that’s the most striking thing about my room – the bed. The room is cosier than some supposedly premium hotels I have lodged, but my bed! I am used to sleeping on 6 x 6. Downstairs is where Rachel lives, Faulkner. An antique bookcase stacked with prized books and exquisite bric-à-brac line the white-and-black tiled passage in a precise manner, while a few paintings markedly curious in motifs catch your eye each time you pass. Upstairs, the passage, covered in furry carpet, has the same remarkable ambience of books and artworks. The entire building hints at grandiose, subtly though. It also speaks of myths and legends, yet in the air lingers an echo of a time not too long ago. The sitting room is wide, filled with more striking curios and precious aide memoire. The backyard unfurls a luxuriant spread of garden and veranda (as commonly found in almost every house within the area), a vast ripple of fields, green and golden, a tableau of well spaced houses, an imposing surge of mountains, and the shimmering dreaminess of Lake Geneva, impressing upon the mind the picturesque beauty of a painting crafted by a hand far more dexterous than Monet’s. In the afternoons the excited hum of bees browsing pollens fills the ivy-dressed window overlooking the downy lawn, a butterfly or two, silent and languid, can be tracing cutting invisible arcs in the air, and sometimes you can pick the scent of ripening grapes, or the leafy smack of hay or mulch being hauled off down the slopes. Further away, to the northwest is Etoy, a close-knit quiet village much closer to Lake Geneva than Lavigny. To the southeast, juts a ridge on top of which Aubonne sits regally, tempting tourists and travellers alike to sate on rich historical fare.

At sundown, you realise there is so much abundance in Lavingy. Every time I stand on a steep point in the backyard, watching the lazy fingers of dusk sketch dainty petals of crocus in the sky, marvelling at the sheer splendour of it all, my mind readily evokes lines from The World is Too Much with Us and God’s Grandeur. Sometimes I hum Macy Gray’s Beauty in the World as the mellow fragrance of pines and roses and lavenders caresses the lungs. As the temperature drops and each breath drawn is tinged with a chilly prickle, I sense there’s something about the air that both uplifts and inspires the spirit within. I have been to three international residencies and this is what I think. Iowa, USA provided me with ample intellectual stimulation. Delhi, India sharpened my aesthetic ken. And in Lavigny, Switzerland, I grew emotionally plump.

- First published as Letter from Switzerland in Y! magazine Oct-Dec 10

Thursday 6 January 2011

A Writer's Inn in Splendid Jaipur

A good friend of mine, an Indian and a one-time programme coordinator at the Sanskriti Kendra, where I once resided as a UNESCO-Aschberg Laureate for 2 months, now runs her own writer's retreat in her hometown of Jaipur. If you ever visit this legendary splendid city, do drop by and enjoy some positive ambience:

Did I mention she is a damn good painter (most Indians are, it seems)?

Wednesday 5 January 2011

the Snowflake Guy

Here is a website that I think wannabe writers like me will find useful:


Tuesday 4 January 2011

Coffee, Cold, and Clothes; or, Thinking of Jaipur

We grip our mugs of coffee tight as we shuffle into the dining room. Then, we sit so close we can actually hear each other’s jagged breathing. The lights are on, the air warm and familiar. But if you stand outside on the veranda you’d wince at the five o’clock breeze nibbling frostily at your skin.

‘I don’t know if it is me,’ Sabina mutters, ‘but this doesn’t taste anything like coffee.’ She’s American. I can still recall the sweet brain-soothing aroma of coffee I had swilled many a cold morning in Iowa City.

As Angelberto lifts his arms to gesticulate I think he looks like someone who just has to unburden himself of whatever might have been upsetting his bowels. ‘Indians are known to produce excellent chai.’ His voice sounds raspy. ‘But I don’t know why they bother to tell the world that they can also make coffee.’ He’s Mexican; sometimes his knowledge of cultures is just as remarkable as his wit.

I know he has been looking for a way to voice those thoughts, because every other morning he always stares at the coffee in his mug before taking his first sip. I presume it has something to do with the milk. Now I realise it is the coffee he doesn’t like. The coffee that’s served to us at dawn doesn’t have the usual trademark aroma – that inviting scent which makes you want to shut your eyes and suck it all through your nostrils. The coffee, really, is anything but black or caramel-brown. Even when mixed with cream, it still doesn’t tempt you.

‘So cold,’ I breathe out, my teeth rattling.

‘Look at you – it’s not yet winter!’ Lihn says, giggling. She’s Vietnamese. When she’s not giggling, she is sprinkling Karma and Chakras in her speeches, as though she might have been an Indian cook lavishing her thali with chatni and pickles. Lihn always uses metaphor and simile to spice up her narration.

Sabina mentions the monsoon. How she felt like a bedraggled parakeet on her first day in New Delhi when a squally downpour had announced her arrival in August.

‘Did anybody check the weather page in the dailies?’ Valdis asks. She’s Icelandic, taciturn by nature, or perhaps by circumstance – her English is a bit halting, like my native dialect. But she has a snug, motherly look such that you’d feel an urge to nestle in her arms.

‘I hope it doesn’t get colder than this when we get to Jaipur,’ I murmur, blowing on my coffee so the steam will scald my face.

‘Oh, at last!’ Lihn exclaims, eyes popping.

We all turn to see a woman stumbling into the room with a whoosh. She is swaddled in a striking burgundy salwar kameez with a matching dupatta – a scarf, or shawl – draped round her neck and over her shoulders. The salwar is a drawstring pajama-like pants while the kameez is a tunic-like shirt. They are just as commonly worn as saris by Indian women, and come in various luscious designs.

‘Hi, Maliha!’

‘Hallo, everybody!’ she cries, puffing and rubbing her palms together. ‘Cold, is it?’

Wondering why Maliha is dressed so light, why every Indian traditional outfit looks modish, and why I always regard the average female Delhite as always being over-dressed, I gulp down my coffee fast. But its aftertaste sits on my tongue, a lukewarm film. An omen. I start to contemplate whether to add more caffeine to my blood, not only to warm up my insides completely, but also to erase the bland taste in my mouth.

‘This is beautiful,’ Valdis says brightly, feeling the dupatta on Maliha’s shoulder as if it were gold.

‘Thank you. It’s hand-woven, from Kashmir. We could get something like this in Jaipur.’

‘We should all go to Kashmir,’ Balogh apes an indistinct voice, rolling his eyes around in a comic way. He’s Hungarian. And always, he speaks so proudly of his country’s history and the government’s great support for arts that I often feel envious and riled, especially when I think he has noticed that I seldom eulogize my country. The few times I spoke of Nigeria, it was to pillory the cabal of crooks plundering oil riches and dreams. Notwithstanding, I like to think the Hungarian artist would make a better Santa Claus, what with his jolly, white-bearded face, except that he is not plump.

I realise I need something more than three cups of coffee for the trip. Something furry and thick like the dupatta – much more comforting. I am about to run down to my studio to pick up my hooded jacket when Mehali asks, ‘You are all ready to go to Jaipur?’

‘Yes,’ they chorus.

I try not to frown as I stuff my shaky hands into my pockets, steeling myself against the blustery chill ahead.

‘Good.’ Maliha flashes me a smile. ‘We start first with Rajasthan!’

And I smile back, dreaming of sunshine and splendour.

Monday 3 January 2011

Friend's Church

Ikenna kicks me and says I should get ready for church. But I think he is joking, still feeling fantastic from the beers we slurped last night, though he’s already clad in a crisp lime caftan. I yawn. It is his fault that I’d slept late.

Where is she? I ask as I climb into the bed from the mat. She slept in his bed, so I had to hug the floor.

You expect her to still be sleeping? Ikenna replies.

When did this start?

When did what start?

I mean…this church business… I try to explain. Ikenna seems to have started taking his Sunday-Sunday church service more seriously, unlike the last time we met, seven months ago. He couldn’t care less about sermons.

Are you a chaplain now? He scoffs.

One Sunday morning, when Father Osita was chastising boys and girls who went straight to their lover’s home after church service, who would leave their lovers waiting for them at home, a wave of guilt so strange and powerful swept through me and made me believe that God had revealed to him what I did the night before. Twelve hours before the Mass one of my many girlfriends had crept out of my bed. Since then I swore not to bed a girl if I meant to attend church the next day.

But Ikenna is different. This morning he looks ready to listen to God. I think he’s acting but then he flashes me a dead-pan look. Before I get dressed, I ask him where the girl has gone to. He ignores me, grabs his car-key, walks out of the room.

Ikenna drives me to his church. A girl in a mauve blouse reaches a hand to collect the bulletin, the male usher says, Twenty naira, she frowns. When he tries to coax her to get a copy, that the money will go a long way in helping the church, she brushes his hand away and struts off like a peafowl.

Ikenna pays for two bulletins and hands one to me. As we approach the entrance, a female usher standing in the middle row between two brick columns of seats points to the left row, but the mauve blouse glances away and slides into the opposite row.

The female usher points us to the left row; we comply and sit down. I glance across at the mauve blouse, but her head is bowed in prayer. I notice some boys with trendy hair-dos: plaits, dreads, waves. Some girls with outfits that reveal either their backs or flashes of breast; one-shoulder dress; knee-high slits. The picture of a discotheque comes to my mind as I try to focus my gaze on the pulpit.

A female chorister has just started belting out: Jesus, lover of my soul…

That’s my ring tone, I hum along. Ikenna smiles at me. I wonder if the song reminds him of his own lover – the girl he slept with last night.

A business card lands on its flipside on the floor. Before I can make out the phone number written in biro, a hand sweeps it off the floor. I turn to the girl sitting next to me as she slips it into her Bible. She pops bubble gum quietly. There’s a white poster with the picture of a cell phone crossed with X on the pillar behind her.

As the singer glides away to join the other choristers seated across the altar, I hear a whisper and glance over my shoulder. Her chin rests against her chest as she speaks anxiously into a cell phone, imploring someone – a guy probably – to wait for her; that she might sneak out before closing prayers.

Just then a young pastor springs onto the podium and shouts a vigorous hallelujah that makes the congregation roar with an instant Amen.

Rise up for Jesus! He jumps up and down.

Some of us spring to our feet while others heave themselves up.

This is no time to be weak! We are soldiers of Christ! Stand, stand, stand!

Nobody else will stand up again, it seems. The remaining people stuck to their seats are not more than a quarter of the congregation; mostly youths, obviously students. They aren’t disabled. I wonder why they don’t heed the pastor’s call, if they know they are in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

When the pastor is done reading the announcement, he turns to face the General Overseer of the church. It’s now time for the divine feast. Put your hands together for Daddy as he comes on-board!’

The entire congregation goes ecstatic; the cry of delight explodes all around. Both young and old are already prancing in their seats like deer. Daddy strides across the podium clutching a giant Bible, then waves his right hand. Silence drowns out every voice. He speaks passionately for a while, breaks into strange drawls, pauses to catch his breath, then jolts us with a question.

Why are you in church? He fixes his eyes on our row. For a moment I fear he is searching me out.

I’ve been attending church since I was five and have never cared to ask myself why I wake up every other Sunday morning to attend church.

Daddy then reels out different categories of church members: a group comes to church to seek contracts and connections; another to show off their choicest and latest wardrobe or woo admirers; the other regards church as an age-old tradition; the last group envisions some amusement in their pedestrian lives.

The congregation appears subdued and rueful when the preaching ends. I try to identify myself in one of the categories, but I’m distracted by another female chorister who sings a frenetic melody that spurs some girls to start gyrating like soukous dancers.

We dance out to the offering box. When we settle back in our seats, two girls are whispering about a roommate who is too naïve to ask her man for money because he told her that he’d settle down with her next Christmas. They are sitting next to Ikenna.

People begin to shove seats aside and jostle one another as the service draws to an end. I wonder why they can’t move in a quiet, orderly procession like converts touched by the Good Word. We soon spill out into the fragrant sunshine. Two boys in front of me give each other a high-five and start to chatter about Arsenal Vs Chelsea. I think about an uncle who says today’s youth have lost their senses to Yahoo! and premiership.

Smiling as if he’s been healed of a strange affliction, Ikenna puts an arm over my shoulder. How did you enjoy my church?

Before I can reply, someone revs noisily. Another person screams in fright. My eyes dart around and make out a girl pointing her five fingers (in what is a curse) at a red Kia Rio: You no go see better! Behind the wheel is a boy not older than twenty, with a porcelain grin on his face. I remember seeing him swaggering up (his faded red boxers peeking out from his jeans waistband) to the altar nearly five times to drop offerings in the glass box, and thinking if he’d changed a hundred-naira note into five pieces of twenty.

Stupid boy, he wants everyone to know he’s riding a tortoise. A young woman hisses.

Don’t mind him. Ikenna pats the frightened girl on the shoulder, winking at her, as we walk past.

So, did you enjoy my church? he asks me again.

Not wishing to sound patronising or ungrateful, I say: How would you feel if your pastor – sorry, your Daddy talked about fornication?

And the smile falls away from his face.