“So, how is marriage treating you?”
And she too misses her pillow I thought.
I met her in the office cab every day. We sat together for that one hour while we were waiting to reach home, and then we saw each other the next evening, after our day finished, in the cab again. We had a going-back-home friendship. We never met at office. We never called each other. But while we were there in the cab, we shared everything. Where you meet people, and how you meet them, so consequentially defines what we allow for the relationship to become. How we mould its capacity. Pre-caliber it. Charter its course before it flies off the handle to become something else, uncontrollable. Mostly the nature of ‘where, why and how you meet’ defines it. It is unfortunate how predetermined and formulaic it seems, it is. More on that some other day. Although this too is a bit like pillow talk.
I always miss my pillow when I travel. It is an old pillow, perhaps the oldest at home. A pillow relic of some sort. It is stuffed with cotton, yellowing cotton. The cotton is so old that it has become senile, it has decided to organize itself at its own convenience, stubborn lumps have collected in small corners, with islands of hollow emptiness where there is nothing but air. It is thin and thick at the same time. Just imagine the heads it has comforted, the secrets it knows, the worries still in its womb over years.
I have considered packing It with me many -a- times. But I am aware that only a kind of people carry their old, overused, not too thick, not too thin pillows with them on journeys. I don’t wish to become that person as yet, the person who carries her pillow on journeys. Although I wonder if I am already that person, because I think of it so often, quite often. The sight of my pillow coming out of my luggage gives me immense comfort whenever I imagine it. And it is not only about the physicality of it being under my head. It is a bit like carrying home around. That too the best part of home- with its smell, its texture, its touch, its familiar comfort. A sensory oasis for a home sick traveler who misses home when travelling, and misses travel when home, and thus has to endure the pain of contradictions.
A dear friend sleeps with her pillow around her arms, tugged in a tight hug. She has a name for her pillow- chipku, the clinger, short of giving it a Freudian mustache, it has everything available for the ones who like labeling people as –“readyforshrinks.”
So, how is Chipku doing?
This is common in Japan. Dakimakura, Daki is to embrace or cling and Makura is pillow. It is also called the Dutch wife, perhaps because the Dutch were avid sailors and so the wives were left alone for long periods. Nowadays this cultural export is also known as the ‘hug pillow’ in other parts of the world. Dakimakura are commonly used as security objects. One can customize them- to make them look like the one you miss, or the one you want, a porn star. It is also notable, how profound is Japan’s relationship with this small domestic article, the pillow. Japan has what one can label a pillow-culture. Pillows weave through their entire history and contemporary life in various ways. There is a word for every pillow, and there is a pillow for everything. Perhaps it connects deeply with the emotional and psychological being of the Japanese people and civilization.
“It smells of you.” My mother scoffs if she takes my pillow by mistake. I do not mind this reaction from her. From a lover it would be worrisome. Ofcourse it smells of me! Have you smelled hotel pillows? Hotel pillows smell of a business, that hot steam iron, fresh-from-the-oven kinda smell. They hide the smell of overworked sweaty hands covering the pillows with covers while they think of other things: a bad boss, the guest in room no 67 who just misbehaved, a lover. We always think of something else when we put pillow covers. No wonder there is a pillow cover called, ‘House wife style’- they describe it as-
“Housewife is … essentially a bag, with a flap in the open end to tuck the pillowcase behind to keep it in…”
There is no symbolic puzzle in the above description. But I am not sure housewives would buy it as easily if they read the full description- or perhaps they are smarter, not to be dissuaded by this limiting gimmickry. It is almost amusing to study the names of pillow sizes- from Standard to Queen and then comes the King, size does matter for the King- it is the biggest- King: 20 in × 36 in (51 cm × 91 cm).
Once when I was staying in a dingy hotel in Kanpur, the pillow smelt of coconut oil mixed with cigarette smoke. I imagined the life of the pillow-user. I amused myself with the visual of a woman who smoked Red label as she rubbed coconut oil in her long hair, a ritual of every night for her wherever she was. Some pillows in hotels have permanent stains. They can’t be bleached away, those faint yellow stains. They remind me of home. Therefore I love them. Therefore guests hate them.
Pillows seek intimacy, their presence in our homes, around our bodies- they are where prayers, regrets and introspection meets even for the most shallow, the regret-less. They are our divine spaces, they elevate our heads just enough to become private confession spaces, a frugal man’s therapist’s couch. And then as we change in the day, pillows change too. They have a distinct nocturnal-ity- which adds intrigue and something un-say able to them. They are the seducers and the comforters after the seduction- the sister or friend who talks to you after the break-up till the day breaks, and the woman who leaves you in the middle of a bad dream, before it is morning.
Pillow poems are doing quite well as a form. The genre works as a mix of romantic poetry that uses pillows literally or the imagery of everything the pillow invokes. There is one for everyone, from the pedestrian to the classic- Ghalib and his online copy cats. There is one pillow poet who writes with the takhallous, pseudonymn, Takiya- e- Faiz.
The title of the Japanese classic of eleventh century by Sie Shonagun’s translates into English as The Pillow Book. Shonagun’s book is a very personal chronicling of her time as a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 11th century in Heian, Japan. Completed in the year 1002, it includes some very ordinary yet exceptionally philosophical notes on life. A very heady mix of poetry, anthropological notes, history, politics of that time, gender relations and philosophy. What perhaps could cover all of it but a book called – The Pillow Book? Shonagun also makes some fascinating lists in it- like- depressing things, shameful things, things that have lost their power, awkward things that happen and so on. After reading the list I wondered on my own list of a similar kind- I was pulled towards a list – called- Things that still have power-
There is a consequential difference between things that are kept next to a pillow and things that are pushed under it. The things embedded under a pillow are deep soulful noises- known yet unknown, unspoken, hidden from the ones we love and trust, insanity that keeps us sane. They save us from ourselves and the ones we love: Journals, a love letter, a knife, sleeping pills, forbidden books, a rosary, a mantra. Nothing. Everything.
In The Pillow Book, Shonagun reports an episode where a lover who has left another woman’s bed early in the morning stops when he sees a woman lying alone in bed through an open lattice. It seems the woman’s lover has also left early, while she is still asleep. The passer-by looks for cues in her room to know more about her- two things near her pillow get his attention: an open fan with magnolia frame and a purple paper. Meanwhile, the woman wakes up and unpleasant words are exchanged between them, but the man is shameless and does not leave, instead through the open lattice he maneuvers and picks up the magnolia fan kept beside her pillow. After seeing the fan closely he blurts out in irritation- “You are so standoffish!” Indeed, we can know people by the things kept beside a pillow. Things kept beside the pillow are holograms, they describe us in a way that an essay can’t achieve but a couplet might. What we find beside pillows has also changed- today most often it is our phones- but the world was more eclectic once – jewelry, brassieres, spectacles, books, medicines, flowers, photographs, letters, wallets. An aunt kept dried rose petals in water every night beside her pillow- she said she could smell them in her dreams. My mother aligns both her phones next to her pillow since some time now, since her youngest daughter lives in America, alone.
Pillows and women have a somewhat more intense relationship- history has evidence that they make dependable friends and formidable foes. Othello. Pillows smother and kill, in fiction and reality.
It is true to the nature of the times that today Othello pillows are available too at a price- for women who need orthopedic pillows with ‘memory foam’. The advert online says they relieve pain, shows a visual of a woman sleeping, her eyes closed to world.
Our landlady had fled from eastern Pakistan. She often told us the same story- story about how she reached Delhi from Lahore, the two things she kept under her pillow all her life till her death were: a sharp knife and her gold, tied in an old white cotton cloth. She said, after what she had seen she could only trust things kept under her pillow.
A pillow without a person brings home a strange-ness, an empty neatness which is primordial and modern- eternal in some way. It is interesting to note how pillows are sold, in even sets- 2,4,6,8,12. Sets. The language is all loaded in favor of a kind of normalcy, a kind of family. So a single pillow on a ‘double’ bed creates a social conundrum, a narrative of absence, perhaps pain and suffering too, for some, even today. An absent-pillow can also mean many things. Nothing tells a more compelling story than the visual of a pillow that still has the oval depression of a head that had rested on it, some minutes back, some months back, some years back. The absence is sealed by the form of the pillow. A permanent cruelty?
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