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World Prose Portfolio #5: Linda Neil

Linda Neil is a writer, musician, performer and producer whose work across multiple art-forms is unique in the world of literature, performance and music. Her essays and short stories have featured in national and international journals and her family memoir, Learning How to Breathe, was short listed in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards for Emerging Author in 2009 and long-listed for The Age Book of the Year (non-fiction) in 2010. Her documentaries have won numerous awards at the New York Radio Festivals and have also been short-listed for the United Nations Media Peace Prize. The documentary, The Long Walk of Brother Benedict, which Linda wrote and co-produced, was awarded Gold and Bronze medals at the 2011 NYRF and was also nominated for an Australian Writers’ Guild Award. Linda was the ABC National Radiophonic artist-in-residence in 2009 and her year-long performance project, My Year of Singing Love Songs, features in the ABC documentary of the same name. Linda’s work frequently integrates writing and music in stories about travel in both print and audio texts. She has a PhD in Creative Writing, a Master of Arts and a Music Degree from the University of Queensland, where she has taught Creative and Academic Writing, as well as Cultural and Media Studies. She has toured with orchestras and rock bands–playing both classical and new music–and recorded and performed on numerous CDs. After receiving several writing grants from the Australia Council for the Arts and Arts Queensland, in 2005 she travelled to India, where she was a writer-in-residence at the Sanskriti Institute in New Delhi supported by Asialink. She was the 2010 recipient of the Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ composer’s fellowship at the Composer’s House in Paddington, Sydney and is currently writing her next book, Singing Love Songs in Kathmandu: Adventures in Travel and Music, which will also feature her original music. In 2011, she was a Writer-in-Residence with the Shanghai Writers’ Association’s International Writers’ Program and in 2012 she will take up the Australian Council’s Writer’s Residency at the Keesing Studio, Paris, supported by the Council’s Literature Board. The theatrical adaptation of her critically acclaimed book, Learning How to Breathe, for which she has written the script and songs, will have its world premiere in September 2012 at the Brisbane Festival.

DAL BHAAT

From Singing Love Songs in Kathmandu (Linda Neil’s current project, which will be published as an e-book with accompanying music soundtrack)

The walk back to our hotel was like a dream. After the serendipity of our discovery in the Tibetan Square, Kathmandu seemed carnivalesque. The brightly coloured saris that adorned the Nepalese women and girls were dazzling in the lights of the evening bazaars. Although the kaleidoscope of merchandise, food and humans walking, running, cycling or driving recklessly through the cramped streets would normally have overloaded my eyes and ears, I walked in a bubble of almost eerie silence, as if I was listening very carefully for something.

Gabriel strolled beside me. I noticed how long his arms were in relation to his legs and body; how they swung slightly as they hung loosely at his side; how his hands curled casually at the end of these overlong arms; how his head moved from side to side as if he was listening for something too; as if we had both heard something back there in the square or in the recording studio we had discovered near the Buddhist Stupa that needed careful processing. Once or twice I found myself staring at his hands, wanting to brush myself softly against them. Or at least to move my hands closer to the space his hands occupied.

Hands. For me, they carried the same kind of signal that a peacock carried in his feathers; I was, I often thought, a peahen for these appendages. I knew I was attracted to someone when I found myself stealing glimpses at that person’s hands. There were no particular hands that I thought more beautiful than other hands. But as some might read the soul in a person’s eyes, I saw something inward in hands: the way they occupied their space; the ease they might have in how the fingers worked in relation to the palms. I could spend hours secretly staring at hands, watching in a kind of reverence the clues that a hand could give about the inner life of the person it belonged to. I could see more that toil, or occupation, more than what short, thick fingers might mean, or long, carefully manicured ones. What they did for work with those hands seemed not to matter either, although I’d once seen a butcher’s hands so thick and red-stained that I couldn’t help but envisage the dead flesh with which he worked for hours each day. But I’d also seen a musician’s hands that held no mysteries for me. Years of knocking out songs, melodies and rhythms in a workmanlike way hadn’t refined this man’s hands at all. The passage of time had only made them—and him—dull and complacent. Yet I’d also observed hands which had toiled in the soil during years of manual labour that were as agile and elegant as a dancer’s hand might be.

The only thing that I can compare to what this perception brought as a picture of a person’s inner self—what some people might call the soul—occurred to me once when I was watching the Soccer World Cup in which the French Algerian player, Zinedine Zidane, was the star player. Watching Zidane move the football around the field was like watching something deeply internal and focused become manifest in action. It seemed possible to perceive the soccer star’s entire life story, and those of his ancestors back in the deserts of Algeria, in the movement of his legs and feet: the deep pride, the intense focus, the ability to slow down time and direct so elegantly the flow of movement around him. I thought of him then in Kathmandu, because there were traces of Zinedine about Gabriel: the same bald, oddly shaped head, the same internal drive, the same ability to move things around according to his own rhythm. He had, after all, managed to move someone as stubborn and self-directed as I was for hours through the crowds of Kathmandu, over my protests and malingering, until we had arrived at the destination he had promised me: somewhere beautiful.

I saw, or imagined I saw, other potentials in how a hand had formed. Sometimes I thought I could recognize grace in a hand. And, if it was there, tenderness. From that tenderness I could imagine the exchange of hands, of another’s with mine. How a hand could glide softly across my face or skin until I raised and stretched out my own hand, fluttering through the air, like a tiny bird towards its mate.

We stopped at a small footpath café close to Durbar Square and ordered Dal Bhaat, a local specialty. As we waited, Gabriel turned to me, his face creased into a smile.

So you see, you never know, do you? he said, in his stumbling cryptic way, as if he had just picked up a train of thought he had left idling hours ago; not so much pleased with himself as relieved, perhaps, that all the twists and turns he had led me through had ended up somewhere significant. Didn’t I tell you?

Tell me what? I replied, not able to help smiling too.

He replied, almost shyly. That I would show you somewhere beautiful.

Yes, you did, I responded. You certainly did tell me.

Well then…what do you think? he asked.

You told me. And you showed me, I answered, suddenly re-energized by the thought of sharing a meal with Gabriel. I smiled then too, with a smile that was beginning to feel familiar. Now, let’s eat!

I’d stopped enjoying food some weeks before after a severe bout of dysentery that had confined me to my bed for five days. As a result, I’d become noticeably thinner, as many people do in India, and my jeans, which had fitted me well when I first arrived in the sub-continent, now hung loosely off my hips. Since I’d been in Nepal, my diet had mainly consisted of curd and plain rice and the thought of food still made want to throw up. But now, next to Gabriel, my mouth was literally watering in anticipation as I ordered a Nepali Thali: a plate of Dal, a selection of three vegetables curries, rice and papa dams.

Gabriel ate with his hands, Indian style. I asked for a fork and parceled the food carefully into my mouth, still remembering the effects of the last full meal I’d dared eat. To my surprise, though, the taste of the curries unfurled in my mouth as if I’d swallowed aromatic flowers; I closed my mouth in pleasure and made small squeals of delight.

Oh my god! I spluttered, shaking my head in wonderment.

See…? So beauty, he said enjoying me enjoying my food. You look like you eat like a bird. But perhaps this is ok? Perhaps you sing like one too?

I laughed, unable to make any coherent sound because of the food I kept stuffing into my mouth. As I ate my meal, I shyly observed how Gabriel ate his. I noticed how his hands covered in yellow curries still managed to look clean and spatially elegant. Spatially elegant. I’d never heard or used that phrase before. At least I didn’t believe I had. It was a sudden invention, inspired by my companion and his hands, as we shared a meal in the Nepali night. What it meant was what it felt like—as if there was a sense of appropriateness to how his hands moved through the air in relation to both himself and what he was doing and also, now, in relation to me.

When we finished our Thalis, Gabriel ordered two sago puddings, but I refused to eat any more.

I’m full, I protested. Gabriel didn’t try to coax me. He just took my dessert and prepared to eat it after he had finished his. But the sight of him consuming the sticky sweet made me suddenly ravenous. I playfully took my fork and stabbed at the pudding.

Mmmm, he said, taunting me with his pleasure. So beauty. So beauty, he repeated licking his hands.

Our laughter was becoming a habit. I had no idea how it happened, what chemical combination of our contrasting beings made such joy possible. But it was there and it felt as tangible as a song.

Gabriel carefully took my fork, dug it into the pudding and delicately transferred it from his plate onto my now empty dinner plate.

So, he said as he filled up my plate with the sticky dessert. How long are you in Kathmandu?

Ten days, I told him. We both smiled. I’ve been here three days, so seven to go.

Seven. It was a good number. The number of colours in a rainbow. The number of basic notes in Western and Indian scales. The numerological symbol of scholars and yogis. And, some say, the number of spiritual perfection.

Seven days was all I imagined I would have to get to know Gabriel. And perhaps all I would need. And then, as I had many times with other travelers, I would say goodbye at an airport or a bus stop or a train station. After our emotional farewells we would exchange emails, daily at first, then more sporadically, until their frequency petered out. There was nothing unexpected in such ebbs and flows of love and affection. It was the decorum of travel to understand the impermanence of connection—to not cling or expect anything long-term from these brief, fleeting encounters, no matter how poignant or beautiful, but to celebrate and honour them, without hope or regret, as they arrived and departed. Arrived and departed. These were also the gifts of travel: to move, to love, as freely as a bird might sing its sad and joyful songs.

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