Tuesday, May 07, 2019

On the Tulu Language, its Contentious Script and the Indigeneity of Languages: an Essay in ArtReview

Read the essay on the ArtReview website here, or see below. 


Widely spoken in Dakshina Kannada and other coastal districts of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where it is an important cultural marker, Tulu is deemed a ‘minor’ language by the national government. It is curious for several reasons that it should not be counted among one of the country’s 22 official languages. With its sophisticated orature and antiquity, stretching by some accounts back to the third century BCE, Tulu is among the most cultivated of Dravidian languages. It is also unusual, in a landscape where several languages coexist (though not always peacefully), for one language to inform and influence the everyday so broadly.

Tulu is rooted in Karnataka and Kasaragod, a small district within Kerala’s borders, a collective area once informally known as Tulu Nadu. Though a movement to formally group these areas under that name gathered strength during the 1940s, the demand had lost steam by the time Indian states were reorganised along different linguistic lines under the States Reorganisation Act in 1956. Today the language has an estimated five million native speakers, give or take a few hundred thousand counted in the census as Kannada speakers because they live outside Karnataka. A spoken language that is typically transcribed in the Kannada alphabet, Tulu is the language of the folk deities, and popular theatre like Yakshagana, mass media, community events, politics and everyday commerce are all informed by it. The language gave the region its wide array of semidivine beings and seasonal rituals.

Distinct from folk deities, these spirits traditionally fulfil the role of protector and conservator of the forested lands belonging to them. Trees in these sacred groves – called devara-kadu in Karnataka and kaavu in Kerala – cannot be cut without angering spirits with personalities ranging from polite and benevolent to short-tempered and demanding. Historically, these protected areas helped to preserve important trees and medicinal plants, and every year, after the harvest, villages arrange for events – called, depending on its purpose, Bhuta Kola, Hulivesha, Nagamandala, Bhootaradhane and so on – where the spirit possesses a member of the community, almost always a man. What follows is a dance-drama during which the spirit answers the villagers’ questions, resolves conflicts and is appeased with alcohol, food and other offerings. Given Tulu’s inescapable presence, scholars grouse that it has not been granted the status it deserves, either in Karnataka or nationally.

In recent years, efforts have intensified to have Tulu recognised in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India, which would make it an official language. The Karnataka Tulu Sahitya Academy, set up by the Karnataka government in Mangalore in 1994, has made many uncontroversial and commendable contributions to these efforts, but it and other proponents have also put forward a contentious plan to give Tulu a script of its own, something it has not had in many generations. In addition to the politics of binding a rich oral language to a standardised alphabet, such a move raises questions about what a language gains and loses in the process.

Surendra Rao and K. Chinnappa Gowda, retired professors in the departments of history and Kannada, respectively, at Mangalore University, are collaborating on a long-term project to translate Tulu works into English. So far, they have published five books, ranging from novels to anthologies of poetry, folktales and folksongs; a forthcoming translation represents an early form of fiction, what Gowda calls a ‘pre-novel’. There are as many varieties of Tulu as there are communities and socioeconomic classes that speak it. ‘There is nothing like the tyranny of standardised Tulu in operation,’ the academics write in an introduction to one of their books, all of which draw from literature, oral and written, that developed across the social spectrum.

Speaking to me from the United States, which he is currently visiting, Gowda discussed the status of the language and its influence over parts of the Konkan coast of western India. Interest in the idea of Tulu Nadu and in the lives of its people was renewed during the 1970s, he told me, when subaltern studies, the writing of history from the perspective of the people rather than the elites, was becoming popular as a narrative. Tulu had by then been written in the Kannada script for many decades. “Tulu had a script once but it was sparingly used, mostly to write religious and occult texts on palm leaves, centuries ago, which were not meant for a general audience and needed to be restricted to a choice few. Tulu developed as an oral language, and is very rich because of that,” Gowda continued. Tigalari, or Arya Ezhuthu, as the Tulu script is called, did not get administrative support within Karnataka and was not taught in schools, nor were many popular books in the script in circulation, for which reasons it fell out of use by the mid-nineteenth century. Even religious texts were no longer written in the script by then. Through a series of sociopolitical and cultural migrations, the script travelled south to Kerala and developed into what is now the Malayalam script.

One version of a new Tulu script ­– loosely based on Tigalari – is now being taught in schools in the region. While scholars of the language support its teaching in principle, many object to how the script has been formalised and introduced. Writing a few years ago, professor Radhakrishna N. Belluru detailed the organic way in which a script develops, highlighting this as a means of demonstrating how taking the centuries-old, barely used Tulu script and changing it abruptly to suit modern usage overwrote accumulated meaning in the spoken language, setting it back by decades. The script now being taught in schools is ridden with flaws and is unscientific, say script researchers, adding that it was approved without the consensus of writers, scholars and cultural practitioners, as is the norm.

The real question, though, is whether a language needs a script in the first place. Taltaje Vasanthakumara, retired professor of Kannada at the University of Mumbai, is from, and now lives in, Dakshina Kannada district. Speaking to me about scripts and languages, he said that if a language already had a script, it should naturally be used, preserved and developed. “But a script is only complementary to a language. English or Hindi don’t have their own scripts. Konkani uses two scripts – Devanagari or Kannada – depending on whether you are in Goa and Maharashtra or Karnataka. While we have to wonder who we are to pass judgment on whether a new script is needed or not, most Tulu speakers are not aware of the script it once had,” he said.

Gowda too questioned whether a dedicated script was either necessary or inevitable. “With Tulu, it is neither. The language is not endangered, and is well adjusted as a language written in the Kannada script,” he said. Even if a new script is taught in schools, it takes decades to catch on: learning, teaching and developing a script cannot be achieved in one or two generations, both professors agreed. Narrowly connecting the value of a language to whether or not it has a script is contrary to how linguistic history has been conducted the world over. For Gowda the problem is that language is traditionally taught by a script, to which he said, “Leave the script, teach the language. To say script is necessary is detrimental [to the development of a language]. Orality is where the essence of language exists. Indigenous knowledge is disseminated through speech. In the context of Tulu, it is the language of knowledge and it cannot be separated from life.”

So why is there a hurried drive to introduce a script instead of working on the language itself? These scholars refuse to speculate, but hint at political reasons – the Tulu-speaking business community is a wealthy and influential voter bloc: there is much money involved in the long path to getting a ‘minor’ language nationally recognised.

One of the requirements for being declared an official, classical language is that it should have a long literary tradition. There is no necessity that it be only a written tradition. The Tulu lexicon has over 100,000 words, meaning that the language is well developed. “Orature is just as important,” explained Gowda, emphasising that Tulu’s beauty, essence, nuance and thus power to influence lay in its orality. “Tulu is a very rich language. It is a living, breathing thing. While our translation efforts are intended to build a body of work [in English, because it provides wider readership] to help the language be included in the Eighth Schedule, to focus on a discontinued script is doing a disservice to Tulu,” he said.

To confine an otherwise thriving language to a script to which it no longer has an organic connection is counterproductive. Vasanthakumara equated it to the museumification of the language and, by extension, to arresting the influence it has on the people that keep Tulu alive and thriving.

From the Spring 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

On Soviet Literature and My Grandfather: An Essay in The East Was Read

My paternal grandfather, Dr B K Nanjundeshwara, was a respected doctor in Madikeri, Kodagu until the 1980s when he passed away, six months before I was born. He had, too, been a freedom fighter and thereafter, a Communist leader in the region.

Those of us of the '80-'90s generation will remember the cheap, beautiful books from Soviet Union published by Raduga, Progress and others publishing houses. I grew up reading them, courtesy the vast library I inherited from grandpa. I got to know him through his books. He, and they, have influenced how I read and write immensely.

I’m very pleased to have written an essay on him, his books and what they mean to me for The East Was Read, a wonderful collection of essays on socialist culture in the Third World. The book includes entertaining, informative writing by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Pankaj Mishra ,Revati Laul , Rossen Djagalov and others.

Edited by the historian, journalist and Marxist intellectual Vijay Prashad and published by LeftWord Books, New Delhi as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations this week, the book is available here on the LeftWord website, and here on Amazon. 

Do kindly check it out.

My previous essays on this topic, written for Calvert Journal and Literary Hub are here and here.


Across the Third World, people grew up reading inexpensive, beautifully-produced books from the Soviet Union – children’s books, classics of world literature, books on science and mathematics, and works of Marxist theory. The first half of The East Was Read is an homage to the lost world Soviet books. Wang Chaohua and Pankaj Mishra recall with fondness the meaning of these books for their very different lives in China and in India respectively. Deepa Bhasthi goes on an emotional journey into the library of her grandfather, a communist intellectual. Rossen Djagalov writes a short history of Progress Publishers. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o talks about how he wrote Petals of Blood in Yalta on the sidelines of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association in 1973. Sumayya Kassamali writes about Faiz in Beirut, giving us a sense of the cultural worlds that drew in both the Soviet Union and the Third World Project.

The second half of the book pivots from the page to the stage. Maria Berrios brings an artist’s eye to the cultural world of socialist Cuba. Sudhanva Deshpande identifies a momentum in socialist cinema, from the early Soviet period to the early Cuban period. Revati Laul reminds us that watching a Soviet ballet or reading a Soviet book can have an impact in other times and other histories.

The East Was Read is a treasure trove of sparkling essays on the impacts of socialist culture in various parts of the Third World. This is a must-have book for bibliophiles, cinephiles, for lovers of reading, watching, listening.

Where Some Things are Remembered by Dom Moraes: A Review in TNIE

Read the review in the magazine section of The New Indian Express here, or see below. Published March 10, 2019.


That Moraes came, and wrote from a place of privilege is undeniable.

Where Some Things are Remembered: Profiles and Conversations
By: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 208
Price: Rs 499

All history is a corridor of mirrors, in which adventitious images are recorded for posterity to accept or not to.” Thus writes Dom Moraes in a passage dated 1980 that fronts Where Some Things are Remembered: Profiles and Conversation, edited by Sarayu Srivatsa. The sketches included in the volume are taken from Moraes’ memoirs, anthologies, articles and from his many books, covering work of about half a century—from the late 1950s to the early 2000s.

The post-Independence years when the country was not only finding its footing but was also trying to process what it meant to be an Indian polity were undoubtedly very rich fodder for a journalist. Moraes was, strictly speaking, not one, but he did meet and write about the movers and shakers of the new nation. He was, effectively, viewing history being made and recording adventitious images for posterity.

Beginning with a profile of his father, Frank Moraes, the collection includes conversations with the likes of The Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, R P Goenka, K P S Gill and others behind the scenes in the making of the country, such as Mani Shankar Mukherjee, R V Pandit and Professor G S Dhillon. There is a long essay on Moraes’ association and eventual fall out with Indira Gandhi, whose biography, published after the Emergency, is amongst the books he is known for.

That Moraes came, and wrote from a place of privilege is undeniable. While subjectivity is an important feature of literary journalism, of which Moraes was certainly among the pioneers, his incredulousness and mild suspicion regarding those that do not speak or understand much of the English language colour his idea of the person. His own ability to converse in presumably, impeccable English is everywhere, and his impressions of the person he is writing about are often measured up against class, caste and yes, whether they can articulate well in English or not.

For instance, when their English is good, the interviewee becomes deserving of the honorific sir (in the case of K P S Gill), or worthy of the obsequious words of admiration he has to say about Indira Gandhi. When the interviewee’s English is not up to Moraes’ expectation—he thinks Laloo Prasad Yadav is speaking Bhojpuri and not English with an accent; he is quick to pass judgement, even mock. So often does the matter of English come up that it soon begins to grate, this constant measuring of a person by their knowledge of a language not their own.

To read several of these profiles and conversations in the times we live in makes for an often-uncomfortable endeavour. Moraes wrote of sections of journalists who were close to those that led the country through some of the most tumultuous years of Independent India’s history. He wrote about favours sought and given, of relationships between newspapermen and politicians. All these things, in 2019, have new, more dangerous meanings.

Perhaps dating these pieces would have made for more forgiving reading in today’s socio-political environment. Moraes’ prose style is exemplary, no doubt, but the value of these pieces belongs to an older and perhaps more accepting world. In the present, they more often than not come across as surficial, prejudiced and depending on the subject, arrogant, dismissive or sycophantic.

Monday, March 04, 2019

On the Illegibility of a City: An Essay in Silicon Plateau Vol 2

Silicon Plateau is an art project and publishing series that explores the intersection of technology, culture and society in the Indian IT city of Bangalore. Each volume of Silicon Plateau is a themed repository for research, artworks, essays, interviews and stories that observe the ways technology permeates the urban environment and the lives of its inhabitants.

Edited by curator Marialaura Ghidini and artist Tara Kelton, Volume 2 of SP explores the ecosystem of mobile apps and their on-demand services: What does it mean to be an app user today—as a worker, a client, or simply an observer?

SP2 is published by the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, in collaboration with The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. The book is packed with very interesting works and is available for a free EPUB/PDF download, or to buy. Details here

I wrote an essay on the language of apps and the language of cities. The book is also on display/reading room at Banner Repeateran artist run reading room and project space in London till the end of March 2019. If you are in London, do go.


After Mirtha Dermisache.

“I started writing and the result was something unreadable.”
Five seconds. That is all that there is. All that there can be in this new normal. In a sphere that evolved over time that runs in multiples of millions, here we are, reduced to a pace that won’t hold a full deep breath in and out. Five seconds can be a lot of time.

Breakfast needs to be made this morning. As do lunch and dinner. Maybe I can order in dinner, again. Easier than soaking the beans overnight and then boiling and then blitzing them with a couple of other things to make a humble hummus. There is that new place that has opened around the corner of the neighbourhood next to ours. Has four point something stars to its name.

It has been a long time since I walked Bangalore, this karma bhoomi of mine. It is like having designed a glorious balcony in the home that love built – a balcony that has a large tree of some flowering sort overhanging it, where the morning sun slants seductively past its leaves and pours upon your breakfast table to bleed into the amethyst geode that you found somewhere years ago before geodes became hipster and thus, expensive – that balcony. It is like having such a balcony and never ever drawing up a chair to it during the time for a late afternoon tea. There were only vague ambitions for such scenarios to occur when you conceived the balcony. So, the offshoot of similar ambitions regarding walking routes and the lazy arrogance that relentless accessibility to it brings, it has been a while, walking this city. I used to though, a lot lot lot, once upon a time. To prosaically channel that old thing, nostalgia, back then in the days that I used to walk this overgrown town, it used to still have weather – and a very good one at that – and it had more trees and less vehicles and much fewer people. I was around for the good ol’ days. These days like some biblical miracle, water catching fire is a thing. These days, there is a dot one taps on and a chauffeur and car appear, and it is much like some New Age claptrap that has lost its potential to evoke much marvel and some wonder.

There are experiences of certain geographies and landscapes that will always escape articulation. So much we write and think and pontificate about cities, as if they are a mountain that is indefatigable in its sense of being. Yet, cities are hard places to be in, perhaps just like mountain spaces. They are cruel, mostly, and traumatic, and constantly in need of negotiations within selves and with each other. Cities are exhausting places and encouraging of non-sequiturs whereupon I think often of the linguistic trauma its citizens are put through. Including I.

Brutalism is vacant, perhaps because when it was in its heyday, this city was not yet a city. It was all green and still a town perching on a high-as-a-windowsill hill where people retired to, to garden, read, socialise with others with similar pursuits and die. Now for those that come here to build a life the coldness of a brutalist structure must not be enough, I suppose. It would need a lot of space and time to navigate its layers and more space and time to love its alchemy for the people that engage with it. Delivering a pizza to a worker – resident there in thirty minutes might not be possible at all. So, the service providers that really – just admit it already – run the ‘evolved’ section of the world must have met in the most productivity enhancing structure there could be and decided to make the whole world so. Starting easy, with the cities. Thus, there came the glass and concrete monoliths.

Down with the stone, brick and mud stuff – such chiii stuff, those – what with their earthiness. The glass might shatter in a decade or two but who is thinking beyond then? Collective legacy is such a non-moneymaking dud. Why bother? Old stuff leads to ruminations, inspiration, slowness, memory, conclusions, to the act of remembering, to slowness. The new normal demands, instead, structure, productivity, efficiency, the act of forgetting. Most of all, it demands speed. Fifty word summaries. Five seconds of loading. A wait of a minute.

There is plenty of room for the dancer, but scarcely any time for dancing.

Seasons are a farce here. But for the convenience of continuity and establishing timelines, I will say that it was a spring day. The flowering trees in the city were all in bloom and we could have walked on carpets of yellow, violet, pink and white. A wicker picnic basket within which are tiny cucumber sandwiches wrapped in thin tissue paper, with the crusts cut off, of course. Some cold beer that is newly made in the country and currently a favourite. Some chips, perhaps, because: bar food. And company. Or not, and a nice fluffy book instead. Or the very weathered Midori traveller’s notebook and a good pen to write stray things and draw drunken scrawls in. The day in spring would have been a perfectly picnic-friendly day.

Smelling the flowers, looking up at the sky. Breathing in - breathing out. One could have, if only. But then the extension to all our arms in similar shapes but variable sizes is right there. So much to look up, so many things to read and see and do. The sky will still always be blue.

Swipe, scroll, rate, feedback, ok, account, log in, like, share – were new meanings to old words always invented this quickly? Though of course it makes sense that they are being done so. The relief of having all the bars full, the miniature waves of the wi-fi, the littlest numbers for the battery left are the symbols we leave. Also, the dreaded slowly turning circle of the buffering monster. Ugh, right? Yes, ugh. We do leave legacies then, mostly of the relief of having network and the dread of not having one. I do believe there are several places where the latter remains true.

Every city has a language. Not the one that is heard on the streets, cultivated in the attic or written in government circulars, of course, nor the varied ones that migrants, the Others, use. This language is, to be romantic about it, the soul, the vibe of the city. It is the pulse of its roads, the vibrations of its buildings, the hum or buzz – depending of the time of year and day – that the city emits. Oftentimes it is a siren call – how I ended up here. Other times, it is the first few hymns of a swan song to the times and stories that will be set here when they are being recollected and narrated in the future – how I intend to soon leave.

Now I must really call in dinner. I wonder what cuisine we shall want to have tonight. Or perhaps eat out? There is just so much choice!

Given all the choices that the tiny screen before me offers, given how many people I know that have bitten the dust and added and added to the icons (another new word!) on their screens, given how I still haven’t, not as much at least, and am braving on like an anachronism past its relevance, I wonder if there will be soon the coming of the next big wave of the feminine mystique by a new Friedan. Masculine mystique too, since we are sometimes, while increasingly rarer and rarer, living in the century of more evolved equality rights. Or at least a deeper illusion of it. And all that politically correct stuff that will qualify me as smart and hard cookie enough to keep my rather non-existent social capital safe, albeit unengaged.

What all shall we do with all this time not spent stupidly negotiating the physical world? Where all shall we walk?

The dog, our dear J, is barking his head off. Do I call him in? Oh damn, I was to buy toothpaste for tonight – we have run out.

Must write down that recipe I made last week, the one with zaatar and pomegranate molasses.

Two pings (new word alert!) to reply to. Maybe tomorrow while lying in on a Sunday morning.

The city’s language is ambiguous, vague and, well, twisted. I hate the city – rather the idea of a city – yet have lived in versions of one for long and have found versions of all that I love here. I hate what it does to people, but I do love my one-day delivery of stuff that aren’t absolutely so urgent. The seamlessness of all the conveniences rescues us, city people, from the soft trauma of having to leave the coolness or warmth at home – as is appropriate to the season – find parking space, look for a particular shop on the other side of town, buy just that one thing, take out cash from a wallet and do this, repeatedly every time we need something.

We will use the same cab companies to get here, there, everywhere. We will use the same company to order dinner from. We will go to the exact same places as our peers because, FOMO (word! – itself a new word). We will all give ratings to each other. We will buy the same furniture from the same company because, free door delivery, free installation. We will buy the same clothes from either the high street shops or the indie names because the influencers (another new word, this) are all posting and tagging about them and again, FOMO (so many new words we have!). We will all read what is in vogue and watch what is trending and then we will apply those characters and their fictitious lives to our very real ones and everyone will get it. We will be in love, or love someone truly, only when we put such thoughts on all the social media that there are – only then will it mean anything at all. We will all look, think, see, be like each other, like dolls from the same mother company, though manufactured by its little subsidiaries with little distinguishable features, to indicate to the board of directors as to where you were made and who made you.

Your life is neatly, completely organised now, no need to get a notebook or planner. You of course have all the freedom to choose from any of the wonderful array of choices before you.

(Don’t tell them that they can choose only what we want them to choose. The paradox of forced choice is our little secret, just between you and I.)

(Social) Media is the message. We are all mimetic creatures.

“Is it a museum of beliefs, a medley of rites, or a mere map, a geographical expression?” ~ Dr S Radhakrishnan, Upton Lectures, 1926. Said of religion in these lectures, so true of the new normal we have no reason but to accept and embrace.

We all look, eat, go, think the same. If the language of a city becomes clear, straightforward, efficient, structured and streamlined, will the language continue to exist at all? Homogeneity results in erasure of a city or “city”. An idea sans layers and depth, sans tensions, sans complicated fabric of neighbourhoods, sans the tragedy of the commons, is just a waylaid click farm. “City” is then just nothing but a sanitized way station, like a tasteless, generic candy you get instead of change at the toll booth.

What also happens to language where there is an erasure of the city?

As I walk the streets where I found love, heartbreak and adulthood, I wonder at the true violence there is in changing the basic structure of society. We are of course long past that violence. This is the Day After, the aftermath, when we are left to navigate the repercussions of all that transpired the evening before. Now, where we are, is the carnivalesque blurring of the lines. In the carnival and the carnivalesque, what is grotesque is really language, I’ve found myself thinking. The language uttered, spent, imbibed. The language of the body. The very unique language in the apps that we endlessly use, simply unwilling at first, and then unable to stop. The language that the algorithms use to control, lead and rule us. The language that pulls us away to think of toothpaste, dog, dinner and texting when we ought to think of just this one thing.

Language is a way in, as also a way out. It has the potentiality of being the complete representative of every call for it to be so. The mere potentiality, though, which it regularly falls short of. It is also planned like a city, of course not just in terms of its structure, what with its syntax, grammar and other rules. Much like a city, it is built from the ground up with interlacing structures that make sense only when alphabets become words become sentences become paragraphs become stories become histories. It is also meta-language.

Language is a city that I wander around in, get deliberately lost and then find myself found in. It isn’t always easy but it is always fodder for a frequently evolving vocabulary. It does perform, sometimes, all those functions that you would expect language to do, complete with similar infinite potentialities. Walking helps, immensely. It helps to both remember and forget, to be slow and to be at speed. I cannot not acknowledge its enablers too now – the maps, the search results, the fear, the dependency, the utterly complete control.

While mimesis is inevitable, rather necessary as well, one should only hope one is able to…..

Damn this dinnertime entropy.

MOLD Column: The Politics of Being Vegetarian in India

Published in MOLD on February 25, 2019. Read it here, with more photos, or see below. 


Language, take any, is complicated. Its materiality, its musicality, its outside and the within of the structure of language alone can distract from everyday anxieties. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a lone word can change histories, and has. Words do not sit still. Etymological fallacy dictates that a word can only mean exactly what its component roots indicate. If so, what is a vegetarian in India?

To reiterate, India is most definitely not a vegetarian country, contrary to every popular myth perpetuated over the internet. Sure, the number of vegetarians here is higher than the population of some countries, but then this is one big country, with the second largest population in the world. Like the snake charmers and elephants narrative that is awash in the India as a Third World Country narrative, not a lot of people here follow a hipster diet.

I was raised a vegetarian. Apart from a brief detour one year in high school, where chicken was a favourite dish, I remain a vegetarian. This word is a very loaded word in this country. What does it imply if you are a vegetarian in India? Firstly, let’s keep apart the trendy eaters who might be vegetarian for reasons of fashion and/or health. An average vegetarian comes with the baggage of a certain class and a certain caste and religion. These are lifelong markers – all a result of the accident of birth – determining not just what and how one will eat, but also mark down the level of accessibility to education, healthcare and quality of employment. Under the days of the present ruling government, if one is born into a wrong caste box, one is very likely to be murdered by frenzied mobs fed on irrational ideas of holiness of the cow. Cows are truly safer here than women and religious, sexual minorities are.

Being a vegetarian in India marks you. Again, a vegetarian here is understood as one of three kinds – one who will eat eggs as boiled, poached, in omelettes, etc., one who will not eat them directly but is okay with eggs in French Toast, cakes and cookies, etc., and one who will not eat egg, in any form, period. Vegans are an elite ultra-minor population, so we will not talk of those now.

Within my social circle where two – just two – are fellow vegetarians, I live amidst people that love meat. We are all liberals, to various degrees. Everyone cooks like a pro and meals being really, the essential act of life, everyone meets over food. To make for me something vegetarian, always prepared as a lazy afterthought, invariably brings up a discussion over my reasons for not eating meat. Why are you a vegetarian? Ask old friends, trying hard to get it, me. I dig myself a deeper hole when I don’t hide behind a religion. I have been an atheist, and for years have actively distanced myself from the tenets of the religion I was born into. So, the caste that I do not follow does not stop me. Is it a matter of taste? No, I have tasted meat of various kind, found some delectable, others not so much, exactly as with vegetables. Is it for ethical reasons? While I am of course against animal cruelty and do not support the industrialised meat industry, there is also an ecosystem that is dependent on people eating meat that one cannot ignore. Is it social conditioning, the result of being brought up so? Not really, for my liberal parents never imposed such ideas.

When it is not a matter of ethics, caste or taste, I do not have an answer for why I am a vegetarian. It is a question a lot of us grapple with, wrapped though we are in cloaks of privilege that allows us the agency to even contemplate these things. In the India of today, food is no longer an individual, personal choice, but so political an issue as to be a matter of literal life and death.

A woman who has chosen to not bring a child into the world is treated as an anomaly, a freak, something to be hidden away, ignored, derided and judged so as to prevent her from afflicting the conditions of individual choice and agency upon her sisters. Perfect strangers and casual acquaintances see no problem in questioning her very personal choices. In liberal India, where eating meat is an important way to show you are a true liberal in certain circles, being vegetarian invites the same as above sentiments.

I do not have justifications, excuses and reasons for either of the above choices I’ve made. It is personal. But with certain words in every language, the personal becomes intensely political.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

What Might the Word be for Bangalore? An Essay for Unbox Festival

I was recently part of an India - UK Lab called Edges and Contours organised by Quicksand Design Studio and Invisible Flock, a Leeds-based collective. The four-day long lab, with five Indian five UK-based artists and one Ugandan artist, led up to the Unbox Festival

In a collaboration of sorts, I wrote a short essay and Scotland-based photographer Sean Dooley gave photos of beautiful indie dogs he took on the streets of Bangalore. I wrote of wordings, the city of Bangalore, its sounds and smells and threw in a bit of Beirut for good measure. 

The essays and photos are here, on the Edges and Contours website. Else, see below. All photos by Sean Dooley


Nothing connects naturally the cities that they call Beirut/Bey/Beyrouth and Bangalore/Bengaluru. One is by the sea, the other is locked in within other lands. One is a city of ancient times, the other hasn’t yet reconciled to being a real city, resisting the idea, stupidly, as if such rebellion weren’t obvious indication of its immature teen years. One is where I have lived, a decade (too long) and then some, trying to every day convince myself that Place is not a trap. Then Beirut, a too-brief fling that, like all passionate affairs, left me desperate for more.

Why Beirut here? I can’t exactly say. Why Bangalore, even? Who knows why one arrives and then decides to stay, willing, asking to be enmeshed in one ethos in favour of all else?

The more I understand language, the more I am made aware of, of its limits. True emotion, understanding that extends to the core is useless for language. Any language. There are no words in the languages of the world to convey love, or hate for that matter. Yet, one endures in an attempt to talk of cities and the mythopoeia of its municipal postures, hoping that a sentence will do, someday.

We expect too much of words.

Smell is a landscape too, quite like a language. What does Bangalore smell like, I have wondered, hoping to place myself here, in this city, by its fragrances. For a connection I couldn’t logicize (I have tried), I think of Beirut again, that oldest of cities where layer upon layer upon layer of lifetimes have given its Mediterranean blue a blood red hue. War is still visible in the rearview mirror in beautiful Bey. She smells blue, I thought, while walking the Corniche. Bangalore: one could say it is the stench of garbage that assaults the nose, and one wouldn’t be too off the mark. But really, the smell of Bangalore is the smell of haggling over the flower market in Krishnarajendra Market – mostly marigold, jasmine, roses and lilies and other ornamentals – at 4 am when the most business transpires, wouldn’t you agree?

In sound Bangalore attempts to set a record with the honks of too many cars, too many motorbikes, like frightened spiders hustling past rush hour, like machines fated to do this every day through to always. In that mesmerising city – Beirut, Beirut, Beirut – I hear an Arabic that is like water over rocks, tinkling, romantic, the language of poetry, the words of the heart. It sounds like labneh, smooth, delicious, rolling off the coffee-coated tongue. In my city, the ownership merely a derivative of inhabitancy, not of belonging, the sounds resonate via trees, the few that still stand, and it sounds like the stories that grandma raised me on. Two, sometimes three a day, for years and years until she turned 80 and I moved away.

Why did I fall in love with the battered old woman called Beirut? She has weathered storms, and war that has shot bullets into her buildings and into her people. Not much works. There are men with big guns everywhere. Rolls of barbed wires are only half an arm’s length away. Just there, you can touch them, and they leave a gash on your finger, like the way they have marked that ancient land. Perhaps it is that one can caress the history, violent though it has been, in the air of Beirut. Past is present is future here, it seems. Perhaps this fragile touch makes for a loving that needs no reason. Something unexplained just calls and one heeds.

Bangalore is young and her mythopoeia is as yet unformed. The wars are only in people, in the violence of navigating the everyday quotidian. At arm’s length here is the yellow of tabebuia that you can’t quite touch (the fallen flowers are not it). Against a pre-spring sky, in the first flush of youth, there they are, gentle and beloved to the makeup of the city. Until later in the day the city withers some more, hurtling toward inevitable death.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On the 50th Anniversary of OV Vijayan's The Legends of Khasak: An Essay in The Hindu Businessline

While I don't remember when I first read the book, I have always loved O V Vijayan's The Legends of Khasak. I hate though that this book compels me to read it nearly every year. I tried to explain its hold on me in an essay published here on BLINK.

Published on February 16, 2019.


Why OV Vijayan’s cult debut novel, which turns 50, retains an unyielding hold even after multiple rereads year after year

Why Khasak? I couldn’t say. I wish it was any book other than OV Vijayan’s The Legends of Khasak that bound me to its narrative in ways so complicated that I was compelled to go between its pages every single year. I realise I had no choice — the book chose me and not the other way round.

Khasakkinte Itihasam or The Legends of Khasak, or simply Khasak, as it is mostly referred to, was Vijayan’s debut novel. Written in Malayalam, and translated by the author into English towards the end of the 1990s, the publishing of Khasak is widely recognised as a watershed in Malayalam literary history. Though serialised a year earlier, it was published as a book in 1969, thus completing a half-century this year, and going into several more reprints in the interim. The narrative’s use of magic realism — there’s no specific plot or storyline, and nothing really ‘happens’ — was a sharp departure from the prevailing works then, in Malayalam and beyond. In fact, there are those who view Malayalam literature history in terms of pre- and post-Khasak — such was its influence.

Magic realism is not exactly unfamiliar to anyone brought up on stories in India. From epics to folk traditions, a healthy peppering of the fantastical with the quotidian is how we have always known and liked our heroes and heroines. Jinns and angels, the real and the imagined, the ancestor and the present, the land and the landscape — all of these elements bleed into each other until the storyteller becomes the conjurer-conduit, and the listener a recipient of awe and wonder. With every retelling, the story is told and heard anew — details are added or removed, genders change places, and nuances appear and disappear.

Khasak’s accomplishment lies in bringing to the printed form the fluid storytelling integral to oral traditions, earning it a rightful place as a masterpiece in Indian literature.

I cannot remember how I first came upon this book. Maybe my favourite bookseller, familiar with my reading choices, nudged me towards it. Perhaps it was a friend who pressed it into my palm, saying, “You HAVE to read this”. What I do remember is the involuntary gasp that escaped me when I first read it.

I recall reading it in mid-2012 (though, surely, I’d read it many times before that). I was on the brink of embarking on a relationship — now gladly past me — that would prove to be volatile, frequently combustible and overall toxic. Every consecutive year I would reread it — perhaps to relive how things seemed at the beginning, perhaps to understand what was happening and why, or perhaps to find some clues to explain the overarching haze of those foolish years. I would read it again later too, to heal, but mostly because the pull of Khasak was way stronger than my desire to resist it.

And yet, I couldn’t say why I reread the book every year. I wonder if I even like it all that much, now that I think about it. It is a good novel, though discussing its literary merit is not exactly the point here.

Khasak is a wide-angle portrait of the eponymous village, a fictionalised version of Thasarak village in Kerala’s Palakkad district, where an unemployed Vijayan spent a year in 1956 giving company to his sister, who had been appointed to run a single-teacher school. (Literary pilgrims are today said to alight at Thasarak and ask for the way to landmarks mentioned in the book. All they get, instead, is an O V Vijayan monument.)

Ravi is the teacher at the Khasak school. Running away from demons in his past, Ravi is, over the next few years, enmeshed with the lives of those that run the village — lives that are both alive and imagined or conjured, whenever needed, and those that are dead. The village is host to many layers of rituals, myths and eccentricities. The characters in the book circle each other’s lives, peripherally, or inextricably at times. Ravi and those he meets don’t find respite from the spirits for whom Khasak is an age-old home, nor can they find solace in the many parallel realities. I have found that, like a wise mirror, the situations and circumstances of the characters reflect what needs to be said or undone in my own life. Like a working Ouija board.

Khasak is a strange novel, one that defies any attempt to reduce it to a gist. It is uncomfortable to read, more so if you have to do it year after year. Even when there is no linear narrative, the sentences turn dark, at times poetic, always very complex. Like poetry, they mean something different with each reading, depending on where in life I find myself. A friend recently envied my having such a personal relationship with a book. “I would choose any other,” I protested, again. “Irrelevant,” he insisted, adding that all that mattered was there was one.

I suppose so.

On Breakfast: An Essay in The Hindu Businessline

I love a good breakfast. Here is an essay on breakfasts that I cooked up for BLINK.
Published on February 02, 2019.


Health benefits apart, the first meal of the day can be a languid and leisurely prelude to the hours that follow

James Salter is the third seat at our oval, low-set breakfast table. Or he could be, going by the number of times he crops up in mealtime conversations between my husband and me. “Life is weather. Life is meals.” That line onwards, I have been a fan of the American fighter pilot-turned-writer. His words on food — there are deliciously many — encapsulate the art of preparing and eating so wholly that any attempt to append is but trivial.

“The meal is the essential act of life.” “The meal is the emblem of civilisation. What would one know of life as it should be lived or nights as they should be spent apart from meals?” he writes in the book Life is Meals – A Food Lover’s Book of Days, co-authored with his wife Kay. As pretty a book as the sentences it contains, a copy is placed at an arm’s length from our table, so we can conveniently reach for it, especially at the end of dinner, and read the day’s entry from it. Better still, when breakfast is done and we want to linger, before disappearing into the day.

I prescribe to the belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Health benefits apart, it is a languid prelude to the rest of the day. (I feel obligated to acknowledge that there are various privileges that one is well aware of in the course of these thoughts.)

Food is habitual, routine, prosaic, quotidian. On an eventless day, where its presence is not lacking, all things considered, food is so integrated into routine as to be inconsequential, another chore to tick off from the list. Yet, when one stops to smell the proverbial roses, food, really, is everything and everywhere in every human action. Each meal seems to own a set of behaviours, non-transferable to another part of the day. Lunch is a hurried pit-stop, one lingers over it only at the severe risk of losing what is left of the fading hours. Dinner, if not elaborate and a noteworthy occasion, comes at the tail end; it’s too late now to do anything about the plans for the day, and there is too much pressure on this meal alone to salvage what might have been the fate of the day.

Now breakfast, on the other hand, introduces possibilities. It exudes a sense of unmeasured potential. There is possibility that smells like great coffee. And then there is so much you can do with a breakfast menu.

There is a certain charm to laying out a good breakfast on a table, the newspaper folded in half so that the masthead is partly visible, and coffee. “Breakfast, breaking the fast since dinner the previous night, is a reflection of the country in which you eat it,” said Salter. Al fresco on the terrace, sitting on hand-painted chairs, our plates are perched on a high stool/table fashioned by dad, with a waiting dog hoping for a bite to fall his way. The newspaper is in two parts, hers and his. Emily Post, well known for her writings on etiquette in the modern world, said that breakfast is the only meal where it is permissible to read a newspaper or book. The morning air is still crisp, the sun warming our back. Toast with fruits, eggs, peanut butter, or dosa and chutney, or something else — breakfast is a brief, conscious break where we have the time to slow and stretch. Post-meal, it is a hop, skip and jump to check things off the list of chores. Breakfast feels like the only time available when we give ourselves wholly to the meal, and it to us. Thus, the urge to observe, to cherish the ability to indulge in such detail.

At breakfast, one does not feel compelled to make conversation, unlike the other meals of the day where there is an expectation, sometimes a hope that there will be talk, however inane. There are rarely guests at the breakfast table. Even if there are, the coffee is usually only just kicking in, and one is allowed silence.

If I suggest that you have breakfast every day, I will sound un-nuanced toward your compulsions, if breakfast isn’t really your thing. Maybe you are a group that lunches. Or throws the most-anticipated dinner parties. The thing is, Salter again here, “The rhythm of working and eating defines the life of every individual, and the dizzying edifice made up of all the civilisation and savage tribes of history is based on food.” Breakfast is when I stop, linger, recalibrate. A day that begins with a good breakfast is a good one already.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

MOLD Column: On Dhanushkodi and Rewilding Language, Landscape

Dhanushkodi is an unnerving place, more so this time I visited because there is now a road that extends to the very end of land. Earlier, you could only go up to a point, then hire a very expensive, specially fitted van to take you through the shoals to the village. Now there is a very straight road that goes up to Arichal Munai, the end of India. In Dhanushkodi, I had the best rasam of my life. That simplest of dishes, transformed into an unforgettable meal.

Read my latest MOLD column here on their website, with several photos, or see below. Published on December 11, 2018.


Takkali is the name tomato goes by in the Tamil language, one of the oldest tongues of this land. A now ubiquitous element of the Indian kitchen, tomatoes came into Indian cuisine via the imperial route only in the mid to late 19th century. Asking what an everyday gojju or the very humble watery rasam (for which the recipe can only be a back-of-the-envelope kind of scribble) would look like without tomatoes would be gross irreverence. If one were to go further up north in the subcontinent, a base paste of sautéed onions and tomatoes cooked in a profusion of spices becomes the root to achieve most generic curries. Throw in baked beans and you have a stripped-down version of rajma masala, a crowd favorite. Takkali is, or can be, added to every dish. In the kitchen it is both as necessary as salt and as unavoidable as seasoning.

Tomato is relevant because in a near-straight line of land stripped down to its very basic features, I had the very best rasam of my life. The landscape is, I am tempted to say, bleak, stark, otherworldly, shocking—for these words are immediately accessible while trying to make sense of what lies before me. But I deter, and call the land, instead, alive, ethereal, fragile and too, ephemeral.

This land is Dhanushkodi. A narrow strip that juts out into the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu. From Rameshwaram, a strict temple town, a very straight, very long road connects to this village whose very attraction is not its surreal-ness, but its tragedy from half a century ago. One late December day in 1964, a cyclonic storm that started off the coast of Sri Lanka, a mere 18 miles away across the sea, hit the frontier town of Dhanushkodi. Thousands died, and the town was abandoned.

Today it exists in a strange suspended plane—some fisherfolk live there in shacks that look as fragile as paper, a lot of them sell shells, jewelry and knick-knacks made from shells. She sells sea shells by the seashore. Mostly, there are innumerable tourists, far outnumbering the locals. They come after their pilgrimage for fun, photos and sea food, freshly caught just that mid-morning by the husband and fried in old oil in front of you by the wife for a hot lunch. They take photos of returning boats and the ruins of the town—there was the post office, this the wall of the railway station, that one there, the ruins of the church. Dhanushkodi isn’t a real village, for most people go back at the end of the day towards the mainland where it is safer. It is a set that is staged for us visitors, a place to sell a story along with their wares. They call the sea kadal-matha, the sea-mother.

Where once the road ended and one had to take a specially modified van that drove over shoals and shifting waters to reach the village, now a newly laid out very straight, very long road takes one further. To Arichal Munai, the very last bit of land, this side of India. The road curves around a tall Ashoka pillar that lies in lieu of a flag to establish territorial rights over the land of nobody. This is where you now park and walk down a flight of stairs to get into the water. A policeman watches over, ensuring you don’t go beyond the shoal he stands on. Every day, he must stand on a different patch of sand, for depending on the tide, the waters shift constantly. It only adds to the mystique—what you remember now will not be what you see later, in your pictures.

There are places that will always resist understanding, where every description falls flat, and words become so unnecessary that silence is by far the wisest, and only acceptable response. It unsettles me, such experiences, for I do not know how to operate without words. I do not understand how to be there and see it and be unable to process it into a measure of language. Silence itself feels like it ought to be a word.

Dhanushkodi is such. Sand dunes hold off the sea from the road. While riding upon it, it feels like one is piercing the mighty blue with a sharp knife, like cutting into a cheesecake done just right. Rocks set against the edges of the roads are wrapped in nets—so that the stones do not shift—to fortify against the sea that will time and again rage, rage against the land. In several places, there are wild horses grazing on the sparse prickly green that dots the white sand. It is all very bizarre, and everything seems out of place. Also, not.

To have the best rasam ever in a shack, with hot rice and pickle from a plastic sachet, defies expectation. The argot of the fisherfolk surely must have words for why the land looks like it does—shape-shifting, like something the sea spat out. I do not know how to ask them.

There once used to be words for every shape and dip in the land, in one language or the other. Certain languages, like the hegemony of this one you are reading this in, erased that vibrancy. Rewilding contemporary landscape might help un-erase the words that I wish I had to say what Dhanushkodi feels like.

In what language does one begin to understand such nuances though, that is, if language is even capable of such depth?

Friday, December 21, 2018

MOLD Column: Pomegranate and Ancient Menus in Sangam Literature

Here, with better photos, or see below. Published November 12, 2018. 


How to read a recipe? How to write one, in Tamilakam?

The ancients said that there were three grand academies, or Sangams/Cankams, millennia ago in what is now Tamil Nadu state in southern India. These academies created a canon of works that came to be known as Sangam literature. The dating of this supposed golden age of culture is still disputed, but estimated to have been sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE. The first Sangam is believed to have been on a piece of land below Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, the end of land today. Both the first and the second Sangams are said to have been submerged, their entire works lost to sea. While the myth-making takes predictably exaggerated forms in these times of parochialism, that there is a possibility of a natural disaster, perhaps a tsunami, that might have taken back land and its people cannot be dismissed, say scholars of the tradition.

What fascinates me is that nascent research about this period shows that during the Sangam period, a popular dish was pomegranate arils fried in butter, with fragrant curry leaves. Although autumn nearly here, the story of Persephone is my favorite myth. In one version of the story, Persephone is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of grain, crop and harvest, is furious, and mourns her missing daughter by plunging the Earth into a deep winter where the crops wither and die. The equally devastated Persephone refuses to eat or drink in the Underworld, also because that would bind her to Hades forever. Finally, Demeter manages to find her daughter, who, just before she comes back up to Earth, eats six arils of a ripe red pomegranate. She is thus bound to spend six months of a year with Hades as the goddess of the netherworld. During those months, Demeter mourns by giving the Earth its autumn and winter seasons, until Persephone returns and we have the warmth of spring and summer again.

How could a story that fierce not stay on in the mind? What must the arils in butter with curry leaves taste like? Where was the recipe set in Tamil country?

The place is important because in Sangam poetry, the poems couldn’t swerve from tradition. Tradition insisted that the poems, most of them emotional verses of love, longing or bereavement, written during the third Sangam and the only ones which have survived, follow strict rules. These rules were incredibly complex.

Firstly, the region that today includes nearly all of Southern India, then the Tamil country, was divided into five thinais or geographical features. Kurinji was mountain region, Mullai was forest, Marutam, cropland, Neital, seashore and Palai, desert or dry land. Further, each of these thinais were assigned specific feelings: union (of lovers), waiting, quarreling, pining and separation respectively. A wide range of specific themes that would suit each landscape were further derived. Each thinai had a flower, a particular time of the day, a season, an animal, a crop, profession and even a particular god attached to them. Thus, for instance, a poem about a lover’s quarrel might be set in the paddy fields, at midnight, in the cool winter months. The protagonists and the actors on the side-lines were never named. They were always a he, a she, a they, her mother, his father, her friend, and so on.

Despite these clauses, Sangam poetry remains a bottomless resource to understand the culture of an ancient people. Within these poems were included every aspect of life. Between lovers, in the courts of kings and on the streets, food was important. It was enjoyed, celebrated, and was in the background of every other cultural event, just like today.

What I imagine survive are ideas of dishes that were once commonplace but now seem unlikely. Recipes, like those my mother lends me, are never wholly written down. There is a lot of eyeballing—that is how I learnt to cook. In the Sangam centuries, meat was predominant, again discounting the narrative that ancient people had plant-based diets and hence, were that much more pious and pure. It is a narrative that a new order of people in power who want to prescribe eating habits and thus decide who is a real Hindu or not, thrust upon Indians, erasing histories, facts and cultures of many communities. Post-truth.

Research of Sangam poetry shows that iguana and rat meat was popular. Without tomatoes, garlic and onion, what flavored food were coconut, coriander seeds, tamarind and pepper. While tomatoes are now an essential in Indian cuisine, it was only the 16th century onward that they began to be used after the Portuguese introduced them in the subcontinent. There are conflicting schools of thought over where and when onions and garlic originated, but researches of Sangam era food believe that these people did not use either. Well before the omnipresence of Persian-influenced biriyani rice, there was the practice of cooking vegetables and meat together in rice.

The pomegranates were a regular supplement, it is said. I wish the recipe was fully written, because just butter and curry leaves seem incomplete. Wouldn’t the fiery red of the arils melt away in butter, I wonder.

If the recipe only contains the kernels of the final dish, how does one look back into a language that carries so much historic memory and cook a dish? The Sangam period and the astounding literature it produced is still a partly-solved mystery. New readings bring new understandings of an evolved culture from once upon a time, long, long ago. When the poems have lived, why have favorite recipes been erased from daily use? What do we choose to remember? Why do we relegate what we relegate for erasure?

MOLD Column: Euphemisms and Safe Meat Words

Here on the MOLD website with other photos, or see below. Published October 02, 2018. The first three photos are from butcher shops and a beef market in Meghalaya, taken in December 2013, the last is from Bangalore, August 2018.


Some Christmases ago, I spent the end of the year break in the northeastern parts of my country. Now for many, especially the hyper-nationalistic brigand of people who believe Indians need to urgently “go back to their roots” (meaning back to an idealized society of several centuries ago with very restricted freedoms for women, among other regressive ideas), the northeast Indians are not wholly Indian. That they look very different, that their language, customs, religion, gods, weather and food are all very distinctly apart from the lives of mainland Indians is only some of the reasons why people in the Seven Sister states that make up the geography of the North Eastern Region (NER) of India call us Indians while self-identifying as people from their specific state. “Oh, you have come from India!” they exclaim. That they don’t do it too deliberately is to be noted. That they see themselves as not part of the rest of the country has several, old and complicated political reasons as well.

Around Christmas, I crossed the road at a local market in a small town to stand before a butcher shop and watch them piece apart the head of a slaughtered cow. I was told the tongue, brain and head meat were delicacies during the holiday season. I don’t eat meat of any nature, but the process of its dissection evokes a curiosity that I find odd, for everything else in the assemblage of it into a dish, I find unable to participate as the audience. My inhibitions have many histories, redundant here.

More curious are the nomenclatures applied to meat in India. Meat in this context would be exclusively beef, because the politics around beef are overly simplistic and intensely, increasingly violent these days. The simple version is that Indians, contrary to popular beliefs when the West looks in, are not primarily vegetarian. Vegetarians are in the minority, though that number still runs into the millions owing to the size of the country’s population.

Historical amnesia has erased the fact that until a few centuries ago, every other meat-eating community in the country also ate beef; many still do. The myth of the holiness of the sacred cow and hence, the ban on eating one, is a construct of very recent times. In his important book The Myth of the Holy Cow, D N Jha writes in detail of how eating beef was a non-issue until the purported sacredness of the cow began to be slowly appropriated by nationalist. By the end of the 19th century, cow slaughter was seen as among the greatest of sins against Hinduism. Today, one (obviously one of certain faiths) can literally get lynched by a mob if so much as being suspected of slaughtering a cow or carrying beef. Most states in the country, with the exception of those in the North East and in Kerala, the deep Southern state which traditionally have had an unusually high per capita consumption of beef, have strict laws that forbid the eating of this meat.

In the many restaurants owned and operated by people from Kerala in Bangalore, where I live, it is understood that they will usually have a range of beef dishes. Beef is not cow anymore, at least outside of some places; it is usually carabeef, the meat of the buffalo. None are advertised on the menu or specials board. If it is at all, the words are written in the Malayalam language, in beautiful curling letters that sound like a song. The other day my husband and I went to one such restaurant. He ordered a beef fry. We ate, paid the bill and left. Such are the problems about even saying the word aloud that on the bill the dish became a Meat Fry. In specifics there seem more danger.

Gomamsa, mattiraicci, pothe-erachi or just erachi, a generic term for meat, a safe word. Like “strong independent woman,” “minority rights” and other scary descriptives, beef needs euphemisms to keep those that tactilely engage with it safe, alive. While having to operate under illusions such as this, how can any language have innocent words? What happens to language when its words need to be shed, wiped away from tongues, obliterated from itself?

MOLD Column: The Orthography of Language

"MOLD is an editorial platform about designing the future of food. Through in-depth, original reporting and a distinct vision for how design can transform our food futures, our editors cover innovative ideas emerging from the world of food design and technology. From cellular agriculture to 3D food printing, entomophagy to beautifully designed tableware (and why it makes your meal taste better), MOLD spotlights the ideas that will revolutionize how we produce, prepare and eat food in the years to come."

I have been writing monthly columns for the platform on critical inquiries at the intersection of languages, land versus landscape and food - areas that have been of great interest to me in recent months. The first four are up on the MOLD website. 

Read it here on the very stylish MOLD website, or see below. Published October 02, 2018.


A study in palimpsest and the urbanesque, Bengaluru, India, Summer 2018

“In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?”

Language. Lan-gu-age.

A language is the most private of things, the most public of things. Communication comes later. Language is really the inevitable bearer of various burdens—memory, traditions, histories, heritage. Language is really the reservoir of a great many ideas and opinions—colonialism, authenticity, nativism, nationalism, elitism, caste, identitarian politics, politics. I want to explain what language is, but refrain, for it would be a redundant exercise.

Here, in these times that we—the liberal, the privileged, the Other for the majority—have begun to lose grips of, “post-truth” is my favorite phrase of the day, because like in any archaic tract of any institutionalized belief system, it feels freeing to pass everything on to an entity. The entity is a phrase, in this case. Post-truth seems capable of bearing heavy baggage. As if a phrase can describe the extraordinary times we find ourselves in, nearly clueless, entirely helpless.

Is it fair to burden language thus? Too, a language that is at best ill-equipped to allow finesse and elegance grace the tongues of its very many practitioners. English, they say, is taking over the world. In India, there are officially 780 languages, only 22 of which are recognized in the Indian Constitution and thus find a presence on currency notes. A further 38 languages are on the waiting list to be accorded this status. Six, including three that I speak, are deemed classical languages. There are countless dialects and sociolects that do not find place in these official numbers. The architecture of these numbers is built upon ambiguous, vague, twisted and entirely calculated geo-eco-socio-politics.

If English is the language of the business, of the marketplace, of the outward, cities are where it whisks itself into a frenzy of need, want and measures of aspiration. Like an incoherent river in spate, it creates islands along class lines, caste lines, privilege lines, and thus, in this country, along opportunity lines. Outside of this there is a language of the city I live in that I constantly seek. It isn’t the Kannada that is the language of the state, or Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Konkani and Tulu, the mains of South India, or Hindi, various Englishes, or so many of the 780 that reverberates in the mains and crosses of the addresses in this city. Bangalore, Bengaluru, ‘ooru, ‘luru, Blr—the language I seek is of its very being. It is the vibrations, pulse, soul, hum, buzz of this geography if I were to stop and listen. Like a lover desperate for any imagined shred of a beloved, this language shifts constantly, its vocabulary swells and it defies puritanism, as language should. More often than not, it refuses to articulate certain palimpsestic experiences of anthropo-geomorphology. There really aren’t any true words in any language for everything, just like there can be no final photograph.

I like to think, however naively, that it is in food that everything comes together. All understandings, the materiality, the musicality, the outside and the potentiality of languages. In the humble thali, the round plate with little bowls of various dishes and white rice heaped in the middle, it works. That the thali itself is a map of many politics is for another time to tell. I cook food a lot—mostly with love, though once in a while it is only because I need to. More importantly, I think about food a lot—the growing of it, the harvesting, the buying, the selling, cooking and eating of food. In each activity, a new language emerges, changing everything, constantly. What we say and how we say it has never been more important than now. Language has long ceased to be a mere signature of culture. I feel a sense of urgency when I make these statements, as if facts have begun to matter again. The orthography of that which is universal in language lies in food. At least it ought to. These are, thus, my inquiries to try to make sense of where, how and why we are what we eat.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Greta Rana's Hostage: A Review in The New Indian Express

Published in the Sunday magazine section of The New Indian Express on December 09, 2018, here.


The Gulf exodus that determines so much of the society of, majorly the Indian Malayalis, is a familiar story. Lifetimes of people live suspended in between there—the place of work and money—and home, at least the concept of idealised home. It is a narrative of labour, migration and sociopolitics that is applicable to every country in the Indian subcontinent. The lives, decisions and consequences of this economic migration on Nepali society is the core of Greta Rana’s Hostage, a novel ‘inspired by the true story of Nepali migrants.'

In Nepal, the boatman Hari Prasad is going to ‘Arab’, their generic name for the Middle East. A family man, attached as he is to his land, his country and his beloved River Rapti, Prasad has debts to pay and education to buy for his daughter Subadhra and twin sons. The immigration market is rife with corrupt officers who find fault in everyone’s papers—“a ploy to get their palms oiled. Kathmandu was all about fragrant grease!” Prasad gets through and once in ‘Arab’, he keeps his head down and works hard.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, the Maoists are fast gaining power. Siva Bahadur works at the residence of the Congress man, but his subservient job is only a cover for his membership in a Maoist cell. Some follies later, he will find himself on a plane to the Middle East where his boasts of Leftist ideals and Maoist connections will be quietly ignored by his roommate, the older Hari Prasad.

Five years later, Prasad returns to Nepal, pays off his loans, frees his ancestral land and dreams of living quietly by the Rapti. But the country is in chaos, the standoff between the Maoists and the government is making everyday life a terror of existence. He decides to go back to a job in Jordan that promises to pay more—it will buy his family a brighter future, after all. En route to this job, things begin to go horribly wrong.

Then proceeds a faster-paced sequence of international legal matters, terrorist operatives, the ‘right thing to do’, family secrets, old loyalties and new relationships that covers various countries, many characters dipping in and out of the plot and touches on global politics to carry the story ahead.

Hostage dwells deep into the plight of poor migrant workers of Nepal and how men—it is nearly always men—desperately attempt to go to ‘Arab’ to try to make their families’ lives better. The economics of the migrant trade are well spelled out and in all of the simultaneous lives Rana writes about in the book, the effects of this business is ever looming. The chronology of the book takes the reader back and forth between generations and time zones.

Where the novel falters is in the way it attempts to tell too much, instead of showing. The migrant issue—its causes and effects on the individual and the larger social fabric—and gender stereotypes, both of which are globally common issues for the most part are explained sometimes to the point of fatigue. Steeped as it is in parts of history and contemporary global geopolitics, Hostage would have been more moving a novel if only it ‘showed’ more than it feels so compelled to ‘tell’.

Monday, December 03, 2018

The Hindi Supremacy: An Essay on Language Politics in ArtReview

Offered here below without comment.

Read it on the ArtReview website here or see below. Published in the Winter 2018 issue of the magazine. 


Vizianagaram station board, circa 1947, in five languages: Telugu, Hindi, English, Urdu and Odia. Pic source: Here

For those of us who didn’t live in the Hindi Belt (the region of north-central India in which Hindi and its dialects are widely spoken), Bollywood movies were how we encountered the language. Like many Indians, I learned to read and write Hindi at school, where it was a ‘third language’: the ‘first’ was Kannada, the language of my state, Karnataka; the ‘second language’ was English, also the medium of instruction at my school. We were learning Hindi, we were led to believe, because it was the national language of my country, because it was the language of patriotism and, by association, part of what made us Indian. In fact, even if Hindi and its variants are spoken by the largest number of its citizens, India has no national language.

According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, an ambitious project initiated by Ganesh N. Devy in 2010, India has 780 recognised languages, hundreds of dialects and endless sociolects. Language, then, is very far from being a national unifier. Multilingualism, however, is so common as to be barely worth remarking upon. While every state has one predominant language, its people might speak dozens more, further divided into the languages of the communities, tribes or castes to which they belong.

Yet, growing up in a small town in southern India during the 1980s and 90s, I do not recall meeting even a single native Hindi speaker. The language did allow us to understand state-sponsored TV programming, which was all in Hindi; then cable was introduced. Mostly, though, Hindi helped us sing along to the popular songs from the movies. Indeed, such is the popularity of this genre, you might say that a familiarity with film soundtracks is one of the few things that Indian citizens genuinely have in common and the real reason why Hindi is so widely understood. A majority of non-Hindi speakers would understand, at the very least, the gist of the songs, if not the meaning of every word. Given the prolificity of the songs in popular culture, even people in states like Kerala, where Hindi has very little presence, would be able to recognise the songs, place them in the right social context and hum along. But for India’s ruling rightwing government, this is not enough.

An end to India’s multilingual status quo and the acceptance of Hindi as the national language is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling coalition government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying very hard – and without much subtlety – to effect. Frighteningly, any rejection of this idea is increasingly being perceived as a rejection of the country and therefore unpatriotic. It’s another instance of the ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ politics that dominate our times. It is also typical of a political environment within which the space for dissent, debate and freedom of expression is shrinking at an alarming rate.

A lot of Hindi speakers migrated from the north and settled in the south after India’s mid-1990s IT boom, as did migrant labourers from regions that were losing their traditional pool of agricultural and construction workers to other job sectors in bigger cities. Since then, Hindi has gradually become more widely heard in cities, and more familiar to people in smaller towns. For autorickshaw and cab drivers, for shopkeepers, for delivery boys, maids and other service workers, a working knowledge of Hindi is good for business. It must be noted that English, on the other hand, remains an aspirational currency. The novelist Arundhati Roy, in her 2018 W.G. Sebald Lecture at London’s British Library on literary translation, calls English the language of mobility, of opportunity, of privilege and exclusion, of emancipation. Only a choice few continue to have access to it.

The politics of language has a violent history in post-Independence India. English and Hindi were both declared official languages to begin with. While the Indian Constitution was written in English in 1949 (and came into effect in 1950), its usage in official documents in India was scheduled to continue only for 15 years, after which it was to be replaced by Hindi as the official language. According to Census 2011 figures, 44 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion are native Hindi speakers. The figure would be higher if speakers of dialects that come under the umbrella of Hindi, like Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Braj, were to be considered as well. As early as in 1895, there were protests in what is now Odisha against the imposition of Hindi, and when it was time to make the official transition there were further demonstrations from non-Hindi speakers, especially in the south.

Protests against the feared subordination to Hindi speakers took in states including West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, but most notably and most violently in Tamil Nadu, and the widespread pressure meant that English was retained in perpetuity as an official language along with Hindi. Given this history of language movements, the Gujarat High Court in 2010 ruled that there was no provision in the Constitution, nor order issued, that made Hindi the national language. In 2015 the Supreme Court refused to admit a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that wanted to impose Hindi as a court language. Again, in 2016, a petition seeking a direction to declare Hindi as the national language was withdrawn from the Delhi High Court on the grounds that there was no such provision in the Constitution. But such minor details seem irrelevant to partisan nationalists.

A fresh round of protests erupted as recently as 2014, when a circular from the Home Ministry directed all government departments and national banks to give preference to Hindi over English on their official websites and on social media. Such was the outcry that the order was retracted. The central government drew more flak on 14 September this year, traditionally observed as Hindi Divas, the anniversary of the day in 1949 when Hindi was declared an official language alongside English. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu (himself a south Indian), in a speech at a Hindi Divas event organised by the Home Ministry, suggested that it was not possible to progress without knowing Hindi. Stating (falsely) that Hindi was the main vehicle of communication among India’s colonial-era freedom fighters, he said that the language was a ‘symbol of social, political, religious and linguistic unity of the country’. An attempt to smooth ruffled feathers is sometimes made, with a token acknowledgement to what are termed ‘regional languages’ (any language except Hindi and English, the latter still being perceived as a foreign tongue), but the desire to enforce Hindi as the language of government administration remains consistent.

One need not go too far back into history to see how language politics have drawn new maps in the subcontinent. The separation of the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from Pakistan and the long, bloody civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority were caused in large part by attempts to engineer the triumph of one language over the other. Several states in India have had their own language movements as well, spearheaded by writers and artists. In Karnataka, strong opposition to Hindi in the 1960s and 70s segued into a preference for English. Sanskrit was the dominant language in schools and it had become possible to finish formal high school education without learning Kannada. A widening incompatibility between what was studied and what language was required for employment in government eventually led to the Gokak agitation during the 1980s. Named after Vinayaka Krishna Gokak, a prominent writer who recommended that Kannada be made the ‘first language’ in state schools in Karnataka, the agitation was supported by other writers including U.R. Ananthamurthy and actors such as Raaj Kumar. Also called the ‘Save Kannada’ movement, it succeeded in instilling pride in the language. A standoff between Punjabi and Hindi during the 1960s eventually led to the carving out of a Punjabi-speaking Punjab state, the Hindi-speaking parts becoming Haryana state. The Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) was established at the state and national level to promote and strengthen vernacular literatures.

One of the arguments made for Hindi’s purported preeminence is its antiquity, because it was birthed by Sanskrit, which is, famously, believed to be the ancient mother of all languages. Factually, Hindi, as it is understood today, is only a little over a hundred years old. It only became an official language of any of the Indian states in 1881, when Bihar adopted it. Mohandas Gandhi, one of the leaders of India’s independence movement, wrote his autobiography in Gujarati, from which language he took his nickname, Bapu. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his most famous works in Bengali; India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, is a translation of one of Tagore’s Bengali hymns into Hindi. Moreover Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language, but the former has been made a tongue of the Hindus (thus making it more Indian to fit into the current Hindutva narrative), while the latter is understood to be a Muslim language. Both borrow copiously from Arabic, Persian and a host of other languages. Even the word ‘Hindi’ is Persian. As late as 1880, the prominent writer Bharatendu Harishchandra considered Hindi suitable at best for prose owing to its status as a pedestrian boli – a spoken language. It was a popular view among writers until the 1920s that Hindi did not have the grace and nuance needed for poetry. Instead, Braj and Awadhi were seen as the languages for poetic expression, until writers like Nirala, Agyeya and Raghuvir Sahay made Hindi gradually more acceptable as a language of creative expression. In the process, Braj and Awadhi, the language in which Bhakti poets like Tulsidas, Surdas and Kabir composed their couplets and poems, were relegated to the status of dialects. To exalt Hindi alone as a reflection of India’s long and rich sociolinguistic history is particularly jarring.

I speak Hindi fluently, but the policies of the central government are autocratic enough for me to have developed a disdain towards it. Hindi is just one of the hundreds of languages that make up this multiculture. The willingness of people across the country to engage with Hindi because it is more accessible cannot be construed as acceptance of its superiority over the vernaculars. Language is not just a means of communication. It is, too, a reservoir of memory, tradition and culture. To know another language is to unlock a new way of thinking. To prioritise just one language in as linguistically diverse a society as India is not only an unwanted attempt at homogenisation, but a means of erasing other histories.