Kismuth and the Way - 2019

New Currents

By Dipika Kohli

I'm in Hà Noi. Short-term living in a borrowed flat, in a part of town south of Hoàn Kiem Lake, right off the street that is called Lò Ðúc. I got to the city three weeks ago, on a night train up from Hue. It's Tuesday, at the time of this writing. It is late afternoon, ten before four. On Thursday, I fly to Japan.

The sound of a sad song–a sole voice, a male voice–is spiraling up the stairwell and into the flat's open window. My door's not open yet, but it will be in a minute, and when that happens there will be a good set of new currents with the crossflow. Ventilation. I've been hesitating because the open door also means the unwelcome sound of the nearby neighbors' children's questions and the patter of their feet. (I will just finish this, first.) Ages four, six, and maybe ten or eleven, they don't bother with words, but simply give me a wide-eyed look that says it all. Them: wondrous, standing or hopping or skipping or jumping beneath a canopy of four families' worth of rotating hanging laundry, their potted jade plants, someone's aquarium project, orchids, or otherwise tangled great green leaves.

All afternoon I've been home, ruffling through boxes of toted-about-for-six-years-now papers. File folders, books, old client projects that I really have no need of anymore, sentimental things like notebooks, and diaries, too. I must reduce this volume. Paper is heavy. Now that I have to get on an international flight, instead of just trains and buses (Phnom Penh to Saigon by bus. More buses to the center of the country, then to the coast, then a night train to come here) weight has a limiting factor. Probably a good thing: I've been meaning to go through these bits for some time, now. Clutter gets in the way of seeing a story. These last few days, especially, I've made good progress on winnowing it down: now I see the things that matter. Outlines: a new story emerging. Its bones and arteries.

Is there something important or truly noteworthy here that I ought to write, in a formal way? Surely I can't cart these about forever, but is their content worth sharing, with others, I wonder, in the form of small books or mini-magazines? If yes, I should get to it. Fold my time into this work. Instead of just holding onto slowly decomposing things. And yet… it's tough.

These little piles on the floor, (downsized from last week's kitchen counter collection pictured above), are now organized into two rows of six. These are sets of 'things' that seem linked, in my mind, to certain themes. It's tough for me to toss any of them, or any of the items within each. Reflecting, I see that to me, what might look like scraps signify moments. Of human connection. I travel a lot, and people talk to me. I talk to them, and we go into it. A lot of sharing. It's really, um. You have to kind of be there. But… it gets deep. Really good, sometimes. And when it's like that, I like to keep a few notes from those conversations, and try to see where they fit in with other ones, from before, like items gathered while reading, or going to plays, or hearing lines in songs that I like a lot.

Once I wrote something on a piece of paper that I found in a very old textbook, on a shelf at Paññasastra University's library in Phnom Penh. A dusty street, always new construction on Norodom so you got lost if you were distracted. I put that paper in the back pocket of my jeans, fishing it out because whatever was on it made sense in one exact moment to read, out loud, over the phone with a friend in a different timezone whom I knew would really appreciate it.

Then I replaced it somewhere–maybe another pocket? I do not know–and shortly lost it. In a garden, I think, moments after that call. So this would have been, if I recall it right, at the Embassy of Bulgaria, a place I got to host a little conversation party called 'Origin,' where strangers I found and invited got together for tea and philosophy: my friend and I had been discussing long-distance how to best one might arrange that kind of dialogue.

The paper? I don't know where it went, or the subjects of our conversations, or even the guests who had taken part. (I do recall, though, the scent of the flowers, the very white ones in Cambodia, with deep yellow at their centers... I had placed one in front of each guest's spot at a simple wooden outdoor table, along with a cup awaiting tea, and by the end of the night each of us had placed our flowers behind an ear... Seasons. Memory.) Whatever was on the original slip, however, probably wasn't important, nor, now that I think about it, was our pre-planning. But the fact that I had shared it, that counted. How to best now convey so as to connect what I still have, with me, now? This is why I've kept things, I suppose. To work them out so they go on a page in a way that, I hope, will land. With you there, reading perhaps. Even now, chance encounters and the magic moments–these are what then, now that I am writing this all out here, yes, these are what I feel that it is that the small papers are documenting. Order and shape. Clarity. A writer must also find this.

'I like what you were writing before, Dipika, but you know, sometimes, I just have no idea what it is you're even talking about. Say it, and say it directly.' A very wise person said this to me, in order to help me learn to write more clearly. 'Maybe even write it straight through, in one sitting. That way, you won't overthink it.'

'I can try that.'

'Good.'

Okay, fine. Here it is. The nostalgia. The dreaming it up and wishing it could be the same. Letting things go is really hard when you have a sentimental heart, and many say that I do.

This is the city from which the six-years-and-counting 'tour' of Asia had begun. So very different a person I've become, naturally, in the years since. Letting go of old programs about 'how it is,' and embracing the thing that you need to if you want to grow the gene that you need to become flexible and adapt: space. To listen. To get into a place. To hear it, to let it tell you things. Solitude: for this, and for this afternoon, I am feeling extra grateful. Alright. I'm ready.

It's ten to five. Let me open the door.

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Dipika Kohli is the author of Kanishka, The Elopement, and Breakfast in Cambodia. See kismuth.com.