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. 


HINDI SUPREMACY


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.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Bangalore's Lithograph Film Posters: An Essay in ArtReview Asia

Those of us who live or have been to Bangalore will have seen those bright yellow, pink, green posters announcing a movie in (mostly) single screen cinema houses. For a long while, they used to be used to advertise adult movies. Lithograph printing is a technique that is fast vanishing, replaced by faster, cleaner, cheaper digital printing. 

I wrote an essay on these litho posters, their appeal and their transition to now increasingly being collectibles among fans of the printing technique, for ArtReview Asia's Autumn issue of September 2018. The essay is not online for me to link it. Here below is the piece, with some photos.

INDIA'S LITHOGRAPH FILM POSTERS MAKE THE TRANSITION FROM OBSOLETE ARTEFACT TO OBJET D'ART 



In the crowded landscape of excessive visual stimulation that is the streets of Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka in southern India, one set of posters occupies a curious space: these posters are among the easiest to spot because they are so brightly coloured; and yet they are also some of the most often missed, a feature of sections of the city from which ‘respectable’ people avert their eyes or walk by at speed. You’ll find the posters pasted in, on, above or around garbage bins or dirty walls that enclose places of solicitation or drug use, and you probably won’t want to linger. But it is true also that these are largely working-class neighbourhoods with dingy alley markets and single-screen cinema halls. The posters that promote their offerings are nearly always for movies with highly dramatic plots or in the desi-Indiana Jones genre; otherwise they promote what are known as ‘XXX’ movies, which range from soft- to hardcore porn. That too is an indication of the tastes of this part of the city.

Bengaluru has a long history with lithograph posters. Home to the modestly sized Kannada film industry, it also offers substantial markets for films in languages – Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu – that are prevalent in neighbouring states, as well as for Hindi and English movies. While the last decade in Bengaluru has seen a profusion of multiplexes with plush seating and air-conditioned halls, single-screen theatres (which in India are traditionally called ‘talkies’) are still in demand, albeit mostly with lower-income groups. Beyond the city limits, where smaller cities and towns have no multiplexes, the talkies are more plentiful and the demography of their patrons mixed. Here, the ticket prices are low enough to attract the workers and the halls decent enough in terms of sanitation and decor to attract middle-class patrons to the same place. Such theatres are these days the ones that mostly order new sets of lithographed posters every other week.

While some of these small, outlying theatres screen mainstream films, several others show the type of film that might never make it into larger theatres: C-grade productions, or films in the Bhojpuri language, aimed at the migrant men from northern parts of the country who labour on construction sites, or soft-porn films. In a way, these theatres support an entire industry, of which, up until now, lithographic printing has been a part. For films that are dramatic, over-the-top, bombastic affairs, the lithograph poster – printed on very thin fluorescent orange, pink, yellow or dull white paper sheets with hand-drawn images and thick, black lettering – once offered the perfect low-budget marketing tool. Now the very qualities that made such posters economically viable – their limited colours and equally limited scope for design – coupled with newer, faster technologies for printing and a diminishing preference for the aesthetic these posters present have made the lithograph an anachronism.




Polymer sheets that will be used to paint the current week's showtimes and names of theatres being hung to dry in an anteroom at Shri Balaji Litho.

A few decades ago there were well over a dozen lithographic print workshops in Bengaluru; now only one or two presses remain, and even those only operate a few days a week. It is a commonplace story of obsolescence in which a once-thriving industry is now wheezing through the last few years of its existence. Gopalakrishna, in his mid-fifties, and Narayana, in his late forties, both of whom have been hand-drawing images and inking in names of theatres, showtimes and so on for 35 years, know that the market for their skills is in decline. Even when orders do come in, quantities that would have numbered between 500 and 1,000 per batch a decade ago are now limited to runs of 100 to 200 copies. The process, however, remains simple. The ‘matter’ – the information that is to be printed – is transmitted by phone call. These days, a reusable polymer sheet is first printed elsewhere with the name of the movie and photos of the stars. One corner is left blank. There the painter, either Gopalakrishna or Narayana, fills in showtimes, the name of the theatre and other details, using black marker ink. Then the process is as follows: dip the filled-in polymer sheet in water to ‘fix’ the ink, let it dry, sometimes using a hairdryer if the weather is damp, fit it into the lithograph printing machine, take out the first smudged copy to hang on a nail to keep a record, then print 100 to 200 copies within minutes. 100 copies are priced at Rs450 (roughly USD6.50). For a new breed of collector, however, such productions have an increasingly high value.


A Kannada film poster stuck on a wall at Gandhinagar, Bengaluru. The poster says the film has been running for the 42nd day.

When placed alongside other movie announcements, publicity materials and memorabilia, lithograph posters have a woefully short shelf-life – both in terms of utility and in terms of the durability of the delicate paper on which they are printed. As art objects, this naturally adds to their desirability. Doubtless their kitschy nature and Pop-art aesthetic also appeal. There is an interest too for those fascinated by the history of printing, while the urban language these posters represent attracts a more globally aware audience in a market still dominated by the kind of Indian prints and designs that might appear framed on a wall because of their bohemian appeal: stereotypical mango motifs, elephants and suchlike.

Increasingly, the lithograph movie posters are being taken to Europe and the US and sold at prices that are several hundred times or more than the cost of production, the value dictated both by the perceived craft in making these posters and the kind of films they advertise. For a lot of people, both within India and outside, the titles of most of these films would be unfamiliar; rarely, if ever, would a Karan Johar film be advertised thus. These factors – being from a space that is outside the mainstream, yet is popular in unfamiliar social circles; representing an increasingly archaic process of printing; offering a sharp pop of colour without being in the realm of religious and/or traditional prints – grant these posters a sheen of exoticism. It is a fate shared by the colourful wooden toys once traditionally made with natural colours and a handheld lathe in the small village of Channapatna in Karnataka. While there were a few stock designs for the toys, and generations of children in the state (including this writer) grew up with them, a renewed interest in their handmade-ness and traditional techniques have made these toys objects for display rather than a child’s entertainment. As a result of their popularity, the colours used are now synthetic, the toys are often mass-produced in factories and the designs have morphed to suit a perceived urban aesthetic. Yet as with the posters, the perception of the processes involved in their manufacture (being artisanal) and a certain backstory of ‘authenticity’ is assumed.



The first copy from each order of posters printed is hung from a nail in the wall. It serves as both a test copy before the lot is printed, and as a record for the press owner to know what the orders were.

As these humble artefacts transition from useful objects to art objects, there arise a number of uncomfortable questions: despite falling within a consumer language that enables identitarian politics based on free choices of purchasing products that are labelled ‘organic’, ‘handmade’, ‘ethical’ (and all the other latest buzzwords), lithograph posters these days are no longer start-to-finish handmade. But they do fall into a pattern described by Arthur Danto, in his seminal essay ‘The Artworld’ (1964), that suggested that it was not possible to understand (Conceptual) art without the help of what he termed the artworld – a community of interpreters within art circles that included critics, gallerists, collectors, museums and the artists themselves, all working in tandem to determine what is art and what is not.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that these posters are highly prized outside of India for their exotic appearance above all else, especially when hung on white walls that are sanitised and divorced from the dirty streets for which they were made. There, surrounded as they are by newer kinds of posters, graffiti and job notices, set in the context that they were meant for, these litho posters blend in, becoming easy to ignore. On the walls of a New York apartment, however, the physiognomy of the Indian actors and foreign scripts that spell out the name of a film nearly no one would have heard of in the West (the poster text is rarely written in English; phrases like ‘full drama’ or ‘mass scenes’ might be included to suggest that there are elaborate fighting scenes in the film) both contribute to a strikingly exotic feel.

This decontextualisation obviously does not pause to consider what these objects might mean for the people who inhabit their worlds. Both Gopalakrishna and Narayana have learned not to be nostalgic for the good old days. Gopalakrishna’s children are all grown up and in good jobs, so he will retire quite easily. Narayana and others in the press, all of them now middle-aged or older men with a lifetime of litho printing behind them, are unsure what they will do if and when the last of these presses close. They will find some other printing job in one of the newer presses, they reckon, but are not too concerned about job prospects just yet.

It is tempting to wonder if traditional lithographers will find a way to enter the art market directly. But without the theatre owners phoning in with the matter, they can peddle only old information, old film titles, or endeavour to make up such information. Whether fictionalised titles and images will hold the same appeal as actual film information for a consumer, and if the posters then will be valued only for the process of poster-making, is debatable.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Kodagu Floods 2018: An Analytical Report in Himal Southasian

This was a very difficult report to write. For every sentence, I wanted an emotion instead. But after many rounds of edits, it is what it is: a (hopefully) coherent reportage on the floods and landslides that devastated parts of Kodagu district in August 2018, the possible reasons for this disaster and a consideration of what might be the way forward.

Read it on the Himal Southasian website here, or see below. 

Published October 19, 2018.

THE WAITING GAME IN KODAGU




In mid-August 2018, people in far-flung villages of Kodagu – a district of 554,000 in Karnataka – reported hearing a sound they described as the explosion of a bomb or a cloud burst, perhaps the rumble of an earthquake – like earth’s anger, something bursting at its seams. None of these had ever occurred in the district before; all people had for the analogies were things they had read or seen in news from elsewhere. The consensus, however, was that it was a sound that they would never be able to properly describe. What happened in those hours between 15 and 18 August, would wipe entire villages off the map, give birth to new rivers, change courses of old rivers, obliterate land and hearths, and mark lives forever.

Around the time that national and global attention was turning towards the unprecedented devastation caused by floods in Kerala in southern India, across the border in neighbouring Kodagu, traditionally known as coffee country, it started raining very heavily. Situated in the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats – a mountain range that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most biodiverse spots in the world – Kodagu sees heavy rains during the monsoon. But this year, after drought-like conditions for three preceding years, the rains lashed and left behind a frightening trail of destruction the likes of which no one in the district had heard of or seen in living memory. The loud boom that people heard was the sound of mountains caving in, of landslips along stretches up to seven kilometres long that buried entire villages under earth, and of rivers that gushed out from below the surface of what once used to be flat coffee plantations, sweeping away people, animals, houses and futures.

The inventory of ruin soon began to grow long. Mountains were slipping down and their debris was covering paddy fields. Sinkholes in connecting roads made nearly every town and village an island onto itself. Villages like Makkanduru, Thantipala, Kadamakallu and others, which were rarely heard of even within Kodagu, became more and more familiar on people’s tongues even as they were being wiped out of existence. The highway to Mangaluru – an important road for not just people movement, but also for bringing fuel and vegetables into the district – caved in for several kilometres, and there were rivers flowing over what used to be road. The thick mist that covers these northern parts made it impossible for rescue operations to always succeed, and often people ended up braving the fragile earth and walking tens of kilometers to reach relief camps set up in larger towns.

While the stocktaking of the overall loss continues, according to an estimate by the state government, the quantifiable damages were as follows: at least 20 dead, many still missing or presumed dead, around 2000 km of damaged roads, 1200 destroyed homes, 240 collapsed bridges, INR 3435 crores (USD 465 million) in losses, and 9000 hectares of ruined crops. Some have lost entire estates and homes, and with it, generations worth of personal history. Given the loss of top soil in many areas due to landslides, it might take several years – as many as 30, according to the former chairperson of the Coorg Planters’ Association – before these areas can be fertile enough for future cultivation.

Constructing slope failures
According to a preliminary post-disaster report released by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in mid-September, while heavy rains in August were an important cause, human activities that modified the slope of the area aggravated the destruction. In the course of about a week, the report notes, there were 105 major and minor landslips which occurred along natural fault lines and in landslip-susceptible areas. The landslips blocked streams and rivulets in several places, leading to flash floods and further landslips.

Since the topography of Kodagu is sensitive, the report observes, any changes in land use or land-cover causes landslides or ‘slope failures’ – the downslope movement of debris and soil due to weakened earth underneath. It adds that infrastructural development that modify slopes disturb natural equilibrium of the land. During heavy rains, slope forming material – rock, unconsolidated sediment, bedrock – gets saturated by the water, resulting in increased pressure of groundwater and decreased cohesion among the material. This effectively acts as a trigger for slope failures.

Tarun Cariappa – secretary of Coorg Wildlife Society (CWS), which works on wildlife and environmental issues in the district – speculated that there were multiple reasons leading to a disaster of this scale. “There was a large volume of rainfall within a short time. There is large-scale mono-cultivation of silver oaks [for sale as timber], trees that are far away from native species. Along the Madikeri-Madapura route [the belt that bore the brunt of damage] there has been a lot of construction. Whether it was done in sync with what is sustainable is anybody’s guess. This region has slopes of at least 50 percent incline. These were cut into to build houses and roads, and they become weak and won’t hold,” he said. The toe cutting of slopes to make roads is something the GSI report lists as well among the causes for the landslides.

The landslides also sunk into the earth several hectares of paddy fields. According to Cariappa, a lot of rainwater went into the sinkholes that opened up roads and joined the streams that flow under the surface, increasing the flow and pressure. “Water finds a weak point to come out,” he said, referring to new streams that had begun to flow on the roads and to rivers and streams changing course.

Touristic transformation

Kodagu has always been an agricultural district. Together with the neighbouring Hassan and Chikmagalur districts, Kodagu produces most of Karnataka’s coffee, which amounts to 70 percent of coffee production in the country. But after liberalisation of the Indian economy, Kodagu has found it hard to compete in the global market. A fall in crop prices starting in the late 1990s along with the lack of support prices from the government have made it harder for farmers to sustain coffee cultivation every passing year. This has been compounded by increased migration to nearest cities like Bengaluru and Mysuru, changing weather patterns and crop diseases.

Around the mid-2000s, Kodagu began to brand itself as a tourist destination – cashing in on its sobriquet of being the Scotland of India – focussing on the idea of homestays. When agriculture began to lose the commercial appeal it had, the charm of hosting tourists in the house they lived in and making money off it began to slowly gain traction. The tourism industry has grown at a breakneck speed over the last decade and now keeps the town centres busy even in the rain – monsoon tourism being a holiday package in itself.

However, much of this growth has been unregulated, despite the periodic efforts made by the Department of Tourism to regulate the homestay industry. The proposed Karnataka Tourism Policy 2015-2020 mandated the grading of homestays, but soon removed the mandatory clause, and the sector remains mostly unorganised. Accurate and recent statistics are unavailable, given the high number of homestays that operate under the radar. However, in 2014, a Karnataka tourism department official estimated that the number of visitors to Kodagu could cross 3.5 million that year.

Many home owners prefer to run homestays than rent it out, because the incomes are higher in the tourism industry. And the more options to stay at, the higher the number of tourists. As a result, there has been a mad scramble to capitalise on this trend, resulting in a boom in the construction sector. But the environmental cost of this economic boom is beginning to be clear. Running these houses as homestays for tourists, rather than renting it to long-term residents, puts more pressure on the land and its resources than normal. According to the GSI report, infrastructural development that involved the modification of slopes – construction of new roads and widening of existing ones, building houses, hotels and homestays – increased the vulnerability of Kodagu’s mountains to the rain and made the landslides and floods that much more devastating.

Repairing the future

The damage is still being inventoried and government officials are starting to collect applications seeking compensation for various damages. The most important roads are being repaired first. In some places, however, the more the slush and earth is being cleared, the more the soil is loosening up, leading to further landslips. Water can be heard gurgling beneath the surface of what used to be homes and plantations, as if a new river was waiting to burst through. The majority of people in relief camps have returned, or tried to return home to contemplate next steps. Experts have suggested mapping of landslide-hazard zones, and a land survey will be needed to fix boundaries where landslips and change in river course have altered geographies and property lines. This is expected to be a time consuming and laborious process.

But the disaster was not entirely unforeseeable. Ecologists have been warning of such floods in Kodagu and Kerala for years. In a 2011 report, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel – more commonly known as the Madhav Gadgil Committee, named after the ecologist who chaired it – noted that unsustainable focus on development was affecting the Western Ghats and urged state governments, especially Karnataka and Kerala, to limit activities like quarrying, building dams and unchecked construction near protected and ecologically-sensitive areas. The K Kasturirangan Committee Report of 2013 sought to take a more limited approach, bringing only 37 percent of the Western Ghats under the Ecologically Sensitive Area zones, down from 64 percent suggested by the Gadgil report.

Kodagu is among the regions that both the reports referred to and deemed vulnerable. Both reports, however, were rejected by the two state governments. Notably, the Kasturirangan report was rejected by Karnataka on 22 August 2018, just as the relief operations in Kodagu were ongoing in full swing and the extent of damage was beginning to come to light.

Considering the high rainfall in the area, the September GSI report ominously notes that “recurrence of such events is not ruled out.” They add, “Vertical cut slopes should be avoided in future as it unstabilises the slope. Due care should be given to the cut slopes made for read construction and plantations.” Armed with the understanding of hindsight, it is clear that both the areas of highest damage and the pattern of that destruction was something experts had long been speaking about. The bigger question is whether there will be any lessons learnt, or whether this will be another news cycle to move on from.

Arif Anwar's The Storm: A Review in The New Indian Express

Read it on the website here, or see below.

Published October 14, 2018.

DRIVEN BY SURGING EMOTIONS

The year 1970 was a packed one in the politics of the subcontinent. I would like to presume that the year was bloated with anticipation, with hope and despair – depending on what side of the borders you were on. There must have been, undoubtedly, a sense of foreboding for all that came with 1971 and in the years thereafter – war and its ugly aftermaths, the way people, their languages and their belief systems would go on to change. Arif Anwar channelizes this foreboding to begin his debut novel The Storm.

Going back and forth in time and spanning generations, the narrative is befitting of the title. From the page go, one gets a sense that this sentiment of longing is going to be a leitmotif throughout the novel. Like the life of a storm, the novel and the characters that inhabit it go through a Gathering, then the Eye and finally, a Surging – the three sections that the novel is divided into. Like the overhanging of a deep grey cloud and the still air just before the downpour and its violence begins, there is an undertone of anticipation upon every other page. One gets the sense that the collective story, and all its players are heading inevitably toward a precipice, hurtling at times toward events that are predetermined and inescapable.

Shahryar is a recent PhD graduate in the US, desperately trying to find a way to stay back in the country after his visa expires. In the last few weeks he has left, he tells his nine-year-old daughter Anna bits and pieces of his story that begins in the 1970s in what is now Bangladesh. Back in time, Jamir, a poor fisherman and his wife, Honufa are gearing up to face the storm that will hit any time now. Further away in history, it is World War II and Ichiro, a Japanese fighter pilot grapples with questions of spirituality, friendship and the morality of the war. When his story in the book plays out, it intersects with that of Claire, a British doctor stationed in Burma who has her own doubts and expectations regarding her role in history. Across the border, it is the eve of India’s Independence and there are plenty of changes afoot. While career prospects look attractive enough to stay, circumstances force Rahim and Zahira, a rich, privileged couple to move to East Pakistan to start a life afresh as landlords.

These stories find themselves being lived in the thick of historical, and often devastating, changes. Quite literally, the eye of the storm. Unwittingly, the strange ways of life interweave these five stories and it all does come to a head in the end. Once the clouds gather, they have to swirl, build up momentum and surge, leaving behind land and people to pick up the ruins from.

The Storm is inspired by the devastating 1970 Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded, its fatalities numbering half a million in Bangladesh. Keeping with the foreboding of a storm, Anwar peppers the book with evocative imagery and like the long sobs of the violin on a lonely night, one cannot help but feel melancholy in its pages. While the novel doesn’t present any great surprises, The Storm is a gently told story that is grounded in history and narrated with a respect for place and what it means to the people that inhabit it.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Review of Dhruv Malhotra's Photography Solo Show: In Hyperallergic

Published in Hyperallergic on October 02, 2018. Read it here (includes more photos) or see below.

AN INSOMNIAC PHOTOGRAPHER DOCUMENTS INDIA'S CITIES AT NIGHT

Over an eight-year period, Dhruv Malhotra spent sleepless nights wandering the streets of Noida, a satellite of Delhi, creating otherworldly photographs of the nocturnal cityscape.




BENGALURU, India — If a city is one thing in the daytime, it may well be a different entity altogether come nightfall. For many city-dwellers, the night brings with it a sense of quietude, of rest and recuperation before the next bustling day. The city at night is also a workplace, a playground, or a dread-inducing limbo space of sorts for countless others — such as shift workers, after-hours partygoers, the homeless, and, of course, insomniacs.

Indian artist Dhruv Malhotra is one such insomniac, and over a period of eight years, he spent many of his sleepless nights wandering the streets of Noida, a semi-urban satellite of Delhi, photographing the nocturnal cityscape. Photographs from Malhotra’s nighttime sojourns are now on view in a solo exhibition, After Dark Trilogy: Noida Soliloquy, Sleepers & After Party (2007-2015), at GallerySKE in Bengaluru.

Drawn from three different nighttime photo series, all of the images on view were made by exposing color-negative film for long periods — in some cases, for several hours. The results have an almost ethereal, otherworldly glow.

Malhotra, born in 1985 and raised in Jaipur, writes in an artist’s statement that he finds a “powerful appeal” in the night: “The silence, the palpable sense of time and the unknown draws me to photograph.” While living in the aggressively developing region of Noida, he was drawn to desolate spaces in and around the city — areas “on the edges of urbanity, inhabiting a borderland of sorts, null spaces that are almost invisible.” Compounding the lure of these places on the edge is the prevailing sense of disquiet in Malhotra’s photographs; the viewer can sense his need to be constantly aware of his surroundings and his subjects.

During his trips into the night, Malhotra often photographed people sleeping out in the open. The resulting series, called “Sleepers,” highlights how, come nightfall, public facilities assume other identities, often transforming into makeshift beds. The subjects, almost exclusively men, are pictured dozing in some unlikely places: at the back of a yellow taxi, stretched under a blanket between two plastic chairs, on a park bench, at the edge of a construction site. Most are exposed to the sky and air, except for one man who is draped in a mosquito net.

It is perhaps owing to how habituated they must be to sleeping anywhere at all that the subjects manage to look somehow comfortable, even at home. In creating “Sleepers,” Malhotra removed the geographical constraints he had placed upon himself and travelled beyond Noida to other Indian cities. It is to be noted that in India, those that sleep in the open are not always homeless. Some certainly are, but others may be guarding a work site or farmland, while still others might be driven outdoors in search of some respite from stifling heat inside homes during the summer months.

While wandering Noida’s streets after dark, Malhotra would also chance upon empty sites used to host temporary events, from wedding parties to religious ceremonies. Vacant, nondescript land by day would turn into party venues at night, a chameleon effect that sparked Malhotra’s interest. The lights, decorations and music blaring from loudspeakers during such events can be enough to delude one that is day and not night.

Malhotra’s photographs of these sites became the After Party series, depicting the aftermath of all the merriment that has passed. There are chairs to be picked up and sent back to where they were rented from, food waste to be cleared, buntings and curtains to be brought down and folded away before the area is vacated. Malhotra’s images capture a period of silence after the last guest has left and before the dismantling begins. There are some sleepers here, too, men catching a few z’s before the long task before them. Without the guests and other accomplices, the venues are now stark, almost melancholic.

The third series, called Noida Soliloquy, lays bare the rip and curl of how night unfolds in the hinterlands of the city. Quiet and subtly haunting, the images, with no human subjects, picture empty fields with tall lonesome trees backlit by the glow of distant industries; empty benches in a park; a rabbit figurine staring out into a clump of trees; wispy fog floating over fields; and white tombstones set in a frame of green weeds and trees. Noida, like every city, is loud and crowded during the day, so these images alter our ingrained perceptions of our manufactured urban landscapes.

In his book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, Nick Dunn characterizes the city at night as a kind of darkened mirror world where time and space seem to shift, a place that enables escape from the confines of the daytime. Malhotra’s photographs illuminate the darkness, shedding light on the overlooked, crumbling, and scrubby parts of cities, documenting this separate sphere in which the norms of sunlit hours don’t seem to apply.

After Dark Trilogy: Noida Soliloquy, Sleepers & After Party (2007-2015)continues at GallerySKE, Bengaluru (2, Berlie Street, Langford Town, Bengaluru, India) through October 19.

On Kodi Bengre and Delta Beach, Udupi: In The Hindu BusinessLine

The husband up and left on a longish trip early this summer through northern parts of Karnataka. We ended up in Udupi at one point and were told of the toddy and sunset at Kodi Bengre, a village that looked like something out of a postcard. I wrote about it for The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.

Read it here, or see below. Published on September 28, 2018.


DELTA BEACH, AHOY!

A sudden detour leads to the discovery of a pretty fishing village in Karnataka


I had reason to wonder again, a bit ago, if all fishing villages were near identical. An inhabitant of one would scoff at my suggestion and dismiss such sophistry. I would defend myself feebly then, and say, I am but a silly tourist. Every other time I gravitate towards the coast, which admittedly is not too often, I measure my steps slowly past every fishing village I chance upon. For my ignorant eye, they smell the same – a heady, thick fragrance of the sea, its creatures, the wind and granules of sand. Thick as could be touched, enough to scoop up and let permeate into my skin for hours after. In this nasal sphere, one village could for me be any other, save for slight changes in the auditory space of its many kinds of languages. Perhaps even the crash of the waves is different, one to the other, I haven’t really noticed, I confess. Regular life in the mountains and in the city removes the ability to separate accurately the nuances of the seas.

Then there was Kodi Bengre, quite literally a blip of land shooting out from the Konkan Coastline. These coastal parts of Karnataka have been half-home all my life, its language, accent, terrain, mugginess in the weather and most of all its food being the language and food I live with. Odd it was then that neither in those haphazard days at University, too many seasons ago, nor through several moons before and after, had I heard of Kodi Bengre or Delta beach.

Meandering our way through the top half of Karnataka, the husband and I found ourselves one day in Udupi, that which lends its name to innumerable restaurants everywhere else. Good, clean, wholesome vegetarian food, the name assures. Sometimes, it makes good the promise too. The temple town teems with people in various stages of undress – be it enroute to see god, or to splash among the waves at the beach or merely, like us, because it is just too sweltry. Not temple goers, us, we walk instead in the precincts, finding unusual spices and other oddballs conversing over the sounds of faith. 



The last bus is soon, so we start strolling back, looking for that toddy. After the second temple and the next mosque, as directed, we find the house. The owner pulls out two chairs for us – one broken, the other rickety – on his front yard, and we quickly gulp down two glasses of freshly brewed, super cold coconut palm toddy. The world slows down and the heat doesn’t seem to matter, for the first time that day. Sitting back, we see the toddy shop woman. 


On the opposite side of the road is a shack that looks busy. It was likely for more discerning customers, the other kind of tourists. While we were hurrying through our cold glasses, the women serving and/or cooking up the fresh fish fries and other snacks walked into the house. One of them was young and wore a rather revealing dress. Her hair untied, a long, very prominent mangalsutra hanging down her neck. I wondered if while drawing in the customers, the chain around her neck was a not so subtle announcement of her taken status. Look, but don’t touch. Problematic as this may be at various levels, this is good business sense, we supposed. 

There is no time to chat, for shortly, the bus comes along. In the thick of the buzz that is within my head, I think of how much I like Kodi Bengre. I also think that now when I pass by other fishing villages, I shall think of this one. Not every fishing village is quite like the other, is it? Some just have that little extra about them.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Jitendra Arya Retrospective: A Review in Hyperallergic

The National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru had a retrospective of Jitendra Arya, celebrity and glamour photographer that ended earlier this month. A review in Hyperallergic is here, published August 16, 2018. Or see below.

A PHOTOGRAPHER'S VISION OF BOLLYWOOD AND HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY


Being photographed by Jitendra Arya was seen as a ticket to fame.



Raj Kapoor and Nargis outside Stratford Court Hotel in Oxford Street (now the Edwardian Berkshire Hotel), London, 1956.  ©Jitendra Arya


Pandit Ravi Shankar, Studio portrait in Arya's studio in Chiswick, London, 1955. ©Jitendra Arya

BENGALURU — For a vast majority of Indians, the Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, has articulated and influenced contemporary social traditions for decades. If Bollywood equals popular culture, photographer Jitendra Arya’s retrospective Light Works at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru, is a trip through familiar, beloved territory. Curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, the retrospective features a selection of over 300 works from a career spanning nearly five decades. On loan from the restored archives of the Jitendra Arya Foundation, most are monochrome prints from his early career, several centered on figures from the Hindi film industry.

Arya grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. Largely self-taught, his photograph of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan anti-colonial activist, was published in The Colonial Times when Arya was just 15. He subsequently moved to London, where he apprenticed with the Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto, and established himself primarily as a portrait photographer. In the 1960s, he moved with his wife Chhaya, an actor and radio artist, to India, where he became Chief Photo Editor at Times of India, the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper. His son, Kavi Arya, a professor in Mumbai, told me that his father received a salary reserved only for editors. This was unprecedented in an era in which photojournalists commanded neither the money nor respect of editors in the media. At the Times, he solidified his reputation as India’s foremost photographer of glamorous people, shooting a record 330 covers for Femina, a popular women’s magazine. Some of the young, urban women he shot for the magazine would go on to be models and film stars; being photographed by Arya was soon seen as a ticket to fame.

For Light Works, Kavi Arya, along with his mother and Gadihoke, deliberately chose mostly black-and-white images — specifically of certain personalities and from his father’s earlier works — because they wanted to focus on what he termed the “classic era,” a perceived golden age of Indian cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. He also emphasized that his father’s interest in classical music and the arts contributed to his aesthetic. (In an interview with Live Mint, Kavi Arya discusses the influence of Rembrandt in his use of light in photography.)

A privileged upbringing, which included owning a camera at the age of ten and time in London in an era when travel abroad was among the ultimate luxuries, contributed to his later ease with the rich and famous people he photographed. He formed close friendships with several movie stars; this intimacy seems to come across in his photographs of them. These cool celebrity images contrast with those of commanding political presences, such as members of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the fierce Indira Gandhi, striking with short hair.

Behind-the-scene anecdotes render a retrospective that is accessible to a general audience. For instance, viewers learn that for several portraits, especially of Bollywood women, Chhaya Arya’s sarees served as the studio background.

As for the photos themselves, I came away feeling mixed about their artistic value. Undoubtedly, Arya was a skilled photographer, and his subjects were famous and popular, then and now, adding to the interest in his archives. He had a good eye for framing, light, and composition, and a strong technical grasp of photography, honed by a practice spanning nearly 50 years. His comfort around the glamorous and elite members of Indian society, often entertaining them at his home, and his powerful position at the country’s top media outlet, facilitated his access to so many storied figures. One wonders what his career might have been had he not started from privilege?

The identities that fill the exhibition are largely constructed, as befitting those who live in the public eye. Raj Kapoor is suave; Satyajit Ray is pensive, with a cigarette in his mouth; Ava Gardner is cool and sophisticated. There are candid shots, too; these make for more interesting viewing, if only because they offer a glimpse of what’s behind the subject’s facade.

The essayist and photographer Teju Cole writes in his column “On Photography” for The New York Times that photography is inescapably a memorial art, that in photographs, one moment is preserved, with those before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. Arya’s works function as a trip down that slippery slope of nostalgia. That many of the photos in Light Works record the Bollywood industry, which informs so much of the country’s cultural sensibility, is significant. Whether that is sufficient to elevate these photographs beyond documentation, to the level of fine art is arguable.

Light Works, Jitendra Arya: A Retrospective continues at National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru (#49 Manikyavelu Mansion, Palace Road, Bengaluru) through August 20.

Notes From Dandeli: In The Hindu on Sunday

Editing is not randomly chopping sentences and substituting random words with their synonyms. Editing is not that.

The original version here below. Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, August 18, 2018.


NOTES FROM DANDELI

At the edge of the alive forest, we sat on wooden benches with our books and our sunglasses, in our newly coupled selves. Every now and again, I made a photograph of the way the light fell over and through the pink bell jars, of the direction from where a new bird was calling, of the benches even. It seemed a way of doing something in the absence of not having much to do that day.

Dandeli edges towards the top of the map of Karnataka state, perched somewhere between the Malnad and the plains of the arid northern districts. It is great weather up there, but one is aware of how hot it can get up to, some miles north. The big city is Dharwad, about 60 kilometres and many winding country roads away. It is where the bright-lit shops are, where the major university is, where they all, from Dandeli and elsewhere, end up at. Sometimes they stay, sometimes they move back or onward to elsewhere. The town of Dandeli itself is a town like any other. In the late evening as we arrive, it is abuzz with people shopping their groceries and perusing new clothes hung behind large windows that have caught the dust off passing traffic. The townsfolk catch the last light before hurrying home to end the day. It is a town where bus timings are important matter – you miss the last one onward to any of the many peripheral villages means that you stay back, or pay very highly to hire an auto. We end up having to do the latter. Prices are steep for so small a town, and we soon understand why.

Our destination is Kulgi Nature Camp, a government undertaking within the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. The forests are home to a few dozen tigers, and other creatures of the night. The low-cost tents and cottages at the Camp are a dozen miles away from town. Once the street lights fade away, the road turns pitch dark, accented now and then by the sharp headlights from the last traffic for the night. The trees on either side are thick and looming. The autorickshaw we are in is rickety, old, and seems too fragile for the forest. The driver though is kind, and even comes up into the Camp to ensure there is someone to attend to us before leaving on a lonely journey back. Such courtesies are necessitated too by the fact that there are no mobile network towers along the forest. Our phones will work only two days later, when we leave for the big city and beyond. The lack of network was why, in our always-available-online lives, we had booked into the camp for.

The night that ensues is as noisy as the morning will be. In the mornings, after a rudimentary breakfast and several cups of sweet, sweet tea – there are no better options for miles and miles around – we sit on cement benches made up to look like halved bars of wood. And we sit, reading, talking, just…all is still.

This is a manual on what to expect when you expect to do nothing in Dandeli. Such are the notes I make between many arrivals:

After a winding tour of the northern parts of the state, Dandeli comes into our itinerary on a weekday, at the beginning of exam season for schools. Thus, it transpires that we are the only ones in the entire vast property of many cottages and many tents. An unexpected luxury. We eat what the staff cook for themselves. It isn’t great food, but it is local, homely, and not the hybrid touristy cuisine they would have otherwise served us – all oily butter chicken, potatoes and paneer. At just after dawn, we miss the jeep that would have taken us to the tiger safari further ahead. I don’t mind really, for the voyeurism of a safari is an affair I have always found unsavoury. We take a walk instead, and collect trash – always so much plastic – along the way to deposit into an empty trash bin. By the forest way, there are rare vehicles, but a lot of noise from the monkeys and other creatures’ calls. We spot spotted deer, and imagine we hear a tiger roar at night. In these soundscapes, I remember, from school and recite,

Tyger Tyger, burning bright

In the forests of the night;

Sunday, June 17, 2018

On Why I Decided I Would Stop Trying to Bake: An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

As friends would know,  I have had a very difficult history with baking. I have wanted to love it and I have wanted to be at least passably good at it. Instead, it has brought me rarely anything but misery. It has, in my many sporadic attempts over the years at trying to bake a cake or some such, made me think a lot of things. I put down some of those things into an essay that was in BLInk, The Hindu Business Line's weekend magazine yesterday.

Read a very slightly unedited version below, or see the essay on the website here. Published on June 16, 2018.

A HALF-BAKED AFFAIR

A year or two after I turned a corner and found myself thirty years old, I thought I would start to bake. The plan was to be incredibly good at it, or fall in love with the exactitude of it, whichever should happen first. The plan was to start right away, not start with learning, mind you, for how hard could it be? Someone I used to know wondered why it was that women took to baking once they entered their third decade: apparently his ex-wife had then just started, as had several women he knew. He proposed, in typical chauvinistic zeal, that we might be trying to fulfill a maternal void – what with that old clock ticking and all that – by lining up cupcakes and elaborate pastries and such like. I called the postulation the name it deserved: bullshit.

After years of living on Maggi and curd rice, a dish to which I will one day write an appropriate enough eulogy, I had long since succumbed to making proper meals. It had come after years of stubbornly holding off from loving the kitchen, for I had thought, of course stupidly, that it wouldn’t be in keeping with who I thought I wanted to become. But then, fed up with instant noodles and just the one rice dish, as one was wont to be, I began to throw things together – a little of this, some of that, topped with the other thing and served hot. Endless hurried calls to consult with the mother with stuff in the pan on boil, some mashups of found recipes and Googled hacks later, and proud to say not more than a couple of failures and just one burnt vessel along the way, I had become someone who could cook well. Enough to invent dishes from non-sequitur ingredients. Enough to cook a three-course meal for fifty+ people in a foreign kitchen. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Thus, with all the hubris of someone who could feed a village gladly, I asked myself, upon turning that hefty old age of thirty, how hard could throwing in three to four ingredients together and shoving them into a pre-heated oven that would do its thing be? Well, naivety is a recourse of the once-proud, it came to transpire.

Mother let me permanently borrow her fancy, perfectly working everything-in-it oven because let’s face it, all she did was heat dinner in it. My childhood was never filled with freshly baked cakes cooling on a tray just in time for an after-school snack. I suspect, neither were the memories of a lot of us growing up in austere 1980s small-town India. It did have cake – generic, locally bakery made sponges and a stray chocolate cake or two, a homemade spillover from an odd party – but I had no auditory memories of cracking eggs, none of the slightly browning milk smells, nor an idea of how satisfying sliding a knife into a soft sponge to cut myself a large slice could be.

The very first one must surely have been a chocolate cake, taken from one of many generic recipes online. It must have been appreciated by the family with polite little sets of claps and a nod here, a smile there, because that is what most families do: they refrain from honesty. I must have then been pumped up with enthusiasm and proceeded to bake a few more before reverting to my natural state: reading, writing, having the dog follow me about. In my journal entries, I never made it to the point where I would include a list of food I made. Ate, yes, alongside entries of friends I ate the food with, what we talked about, who said what and how much we laughed, or not. Of the food I made just for myself, of cakes, there are entries nearly never. Perhaps in hope that I will write one when the cake turns out as well as I have willed it to before closing the oven door. I am always failed.

Over the years, I have time and again gone back to baking, determined to discover a love for it, a love I knew just had to be there somewhere. The results have always been edible, fairly okay even, if accompanying a glass of great coffee, of which my home has never known a dearth off. But here is the thing: I have never loved baking, despite being desperate to. Along the way, it has felt like an affront to both feminism and to long-ingrained ideas of feminine expectations not to be able to bake.

There is a lot to unpack here.

Baking cakes and such like is a cooking process that we must have borrowed only in recent history, yet another offspring of colonial influence. Over there in the West, the 1950s, a decade before the feministic revolution was a time of the idealised ‘50s housewife. She was a perfect wife and a doting mother. She cooked elaborate meals, baked the best things. She kept an immaculate house. She obeyed her husband. She wore pretty dresses and perfected coiffed hair and served meals to a family with red lipstick and high heels, an un-vanishing smile. She not only enjoyed the domesticity, but thrived, and derived sustenance from her superior capability for it. She was also the protagonist of the peculiar phenomenon of someone who had every abundance in the post-war years, yet suffered from a lethargy, an ennui of existence. She had the problem with no name, as Betty Friedan would term it in her seminal The Feminine Mystique.

Off late, cities in the Western world have seen young women indulge in a certain fetishization for the old-fashioned housewife stereotype by taking to the domestic arts, by playing dress-up, by wearing vintage and spending hours decorating cupcakes. It even acquires a name: cupcake feminism, where women have chosen to knit, cook, sew and bake in an attempt to be subversive and rebel against the idea of a post-modern woman who can work outside the house, have a career while bringing up a happy family on the side. Predictably, there have been detractors on either side, wondering if domesticity can ever be subversive and on the other end, deeming it acceptable for women to make even this choice, if that is what they wanted. The age of feministic choices.

My feminism comes from my mother, a housewife who didn’t teach me to cook when I lived at home and let me climb trees, stay out late and become “me” instead. No one was more surprised than her that I actually found my way into a faith where cooking was both a stress-buster and a thing of joy. “You are cooking!?” she would ask, for years after, with several exclamation marks unfailingly slipping into her tone every time. Given how I fell in love with the act of growing and making food, I had expected to master the process of baking soon enough. It was my rebellion of sorts against mother who never baked, who didn’t see the point of wasting time in the kitchen more than what was strictly necessary. I was trying to be a cupcake feminist.

Baking demands a degree of trust that is absent in most other forms of cooking. In it, you combine various powders – flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate – all of which, taken individually, have little romance, little conceptual reality. You add something wet and introduce heat and watch it change into something so wildly amazing: how can this not be magic? Baking is maths and ratios and demands a subconscious understanding of chemistry and a certain exactitude deep-set in the baker’s bones. Subjects that bring up old longings of loathing and panic, like bile.

I love that baking is like magic. I love that baking someone something always makes them feel so special and happy. Baking is really just a set of precise instructions you follow. Logically, I know there is nothing to be intimidated about. But. But somehow it is never not daunting, the prospect of baking. Not one to let go of a challenge soon, I bought myself measuring cups and measuring spoons in multi-colour, a big step for someone who eyeballs everything. I put them to hard work. I told myself to stop being silly and just get on with it. I borrowed recipes, got friends to handhold me through baking a cake, watched endless videos, forced myself to follow instructions to the T, cried into the flour, did everything (read in all caps). But here is Michael Pollan in Cooked saying what I felt: “As a form of cooking, it (baking) seemed too demanding – of exactitude and of patience, neither a personal strong suit. Baking was the carpentry of cooking, and I’ve always gravitated towards pursuits that considerably more room for error. Gardening, cooking, writing, all are roomy in that way, amenable to revision and mid-course correction.” Of course, him being him, by the end of that chapter, he proceeds to become a minor master of bread making. Me? I remain in my illogically scared self. There must, surely, be a word for this inability, even phobia, to bake.

Really, there is no logic to why I cannot do this thing: I have given it more thought than was necessary. Does it make me any less of a woman? Of course not! What a ridiculous proposition. Does it make me feel a pang of sadness that I’ll never be the wife who makes the best oatmeal cookies or possibly, the mother who makes the world’s best chocolate chip cookies? I want to say a feeble yes. But I have decided this: the husband and future child can stay disappointed, for I have other worlds to conquer.

The road to reconciling with the fact that I could never bake has been many years in building, nevertheless. The ideas of feminism, of the illusion of free choices, the acts of subversion and of rebellion and the eventual reluctant acceptance of reality, all these feels like a well-established process line of thought. And diverting from the narrative, I have evolved a hack: a no-bake cake that is a superhit.

Powder Marie biscuits. Mix with Milkmaid into a dough, add coffee decoction and roll it out. Add a layer of grated dessicated coconut on top. Fold into a long roll, pat the edges close and freeze for a few hours. I make the best coffee coconut cake in the world. The coffee coconut cake is a dream, especially with coffee. Coffee really makes everything and sorrow better.

As for the fancy microwave, I use it these days to heat dinner.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Notes From Madikeri: In The Hindu on Sunday

Featuring the famous biscuits from the Bangalore Food Products (BFP) bakery in Madikeri.

Published here in BLInk on May 26, 2018.


NOTES FROM MADIKERI

Home is a thing of the distant past. Can one ever go home again? Every time I go to Madikeri, my home in the hills, I go as a tourist, accumulating short capsules of anecdotes, wispy feelings, a breeze or two that I will think about with mild longing, later. But then, I do believe that one can never really leave home. I carry its many notions beneath my skin, “in the gristle of my earlobes” even.

Madikeri, spelled just this way, thank you very much, used to be a slightly outgrown village with village-ish camaraderie among its people and small-townness in the display of their attitudes, albeit with some stray cosmopolitan allowances if you would seek them out. If you knew about it, and not many did, in the early two-thousands you could go to Periyan’s for a burger, priced an extravagant ₹60 and served with salty potato chips plus some ketchup on the side.

Then the tourists ‘discovered’ Coorg, or preferably Kodagu, and it has gotten enmeshed in the grand traditions of hill-stations being favoured by cantankerous tourists to become a slight city. The ruins present a cliched narrative: filth everywhere, entitled arrogance of the city-people, high rentals for locals, new faces that refuse to be friendly or care about your private businesses any longer. The town/city in a crisis of identity loathes and loves its perpetrators.

When someone arrives in Madikeri and asks how to get to Coorg/Kodagu, that’s loathing for, though. Madikeri is to Kodagu how Calangute, Anjuna, such like is to Goa. Please to be noted.

HIGH LIFE

There is still a hill or two, a waterfall, a vista of mist and rain rolling over silent, jagged, kind mountains that these people don’t know of. They are where you still see why Kodagu is the Scotland of India. While the point of epithets in general escapes me, the land that will always decorate the longings of my skin is ancient, is affecting, is as phantasmagorical as the Scottish Highlands I once traversed. I will not name these hills and vistas here.

What I will write though is of the best biscuits from Bangalore Food Products (BFP), the sole large bakery in Madikeri at one time. The biscuits are refined flour, they are white sugar, they are tutti-frutti, a questionably made product in itself and they are absolutely, talk-to-everyone-about-it amazing. They are packed in transparent, nameless packets. Sometimes, when sold in retail outlets around town there is a price sticker, for the Others; most locals know how much it costs. 

WHITE BREAD WORKS

BFP is placed halfway on the eponymously named Industrial Estate – a sole long road flanked by the townly Kohinoor Road on one side and on the other, by a section of town that used to be mostly residences. The bakery supplied, still does, loaves of bread around the district. The bread, once an occasional treat, was white with thin browned sides – no new age healthy brown and multi-grain nonsense for us back then. A window in the bakery that opened to the road was large enough to accommodate a swirl of various smells from all the cakes and other bakes, becoming an aroma that you just had to stop and get a slice of. Else, you could walk a few meters to the back and enter the bakery. It was like entering a warm cocoon of gluttony in my district’s cold months.

The best biscuits are crisp like shortbread, softer than biscotti and unlike most local bakery biscuits, long like a stubby finger and are studded with tutti-frutti. I bite into one. A bit breaks off without effort. A few crumbs land on my lap, some on the ground that one of my four furry fellows will find, sniff and polish off later. I chew on the biscuit slowly, willing Madikeri to be “home” again. I wouldn’t be tourist when I knew all the still-isolated best hills and waterfalls and other magical places. But home too is elsewhere, made up more of parts than one rooted whole.

It is complicated: these unnecessary feelings of comings and goings. The biscuit is simple: I’ve never found their equivalent anywhere else, wouldn’t care to either. By the time I am through half a packet, I have replicated what evenings in Madikeri used to be like. Coffee with BFP biscuits: that is all there is to it.

When not flaneuse-ing someplace, the writer can be found at the mercy of her brood of rescued mutts.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

On Beirut: An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

The few brief days I spent in Beirut are still being processed in my mind. I loved the antiquity of the city, the unease it seems to be in, the burden of itself that it seems to carry. I wrote a brief essay on falling in love with the Levant for The Hindu Business Line's Saturday supplement, BLInk. 

Read it here or see below for a slightly unedited version.

Published on April 27, 2018



BEIRUT, BY THE WAY


Bey – Beyrouth – Beirut. A city with three familiar names and a hundred uncomfortable identities, demarcations and allegiances. Which side do I begin with then? 

Some places, or even people, are like this: words about them tumble one over the other like in a congeries, and you operate in angst when you have to even think about them. Thus, in angst I think, of Beirut. I left a piece of my soul there.

Perhaps it is because it is not Europe, or the Americas, or any other place that you know endless people that have left, lived and come back from. It still feels like the present tense, the city and the overly elusive-ness of it all. Being in Beirut is to be abundant in stories. In one of the oldest regions in the world to be continuously inhabited – Levant – it is one of the oldest cities in the world, founded, they say, in 3000 BCE. It ought hardly to be a surprise then, this abundance.

There is a measure of overwhelm that sets in even before the plane fully lands. My first sight of it is of the outline of the edges of the city. It is awash with orange-yellow lights from tall buildings – brighter at first near the coast, then tapering away as the land stretches into the surrounding hills, whereupon there reduces the number and brightness of the lights. There it is, the first note on how demarcations work, just like elsewhere, here too in this oldest of cities where the wealthier breath the sea in more than those that make do with the mountain air and the militia. Beirut overwhelms because you realize the moment you step outside the airport into the balmy late evening air that this city will have so many things that you will want to write home about. At its heels comes an understanding that you are wholly inadequate too to do so in the limited lines you are allowed on the postcard, that the language you have borrowed does not have all the words.

I do not go to too many places in Beirut or do many things except a few. I am trying to cram in as much as possible instead, in the few days there, enough to construct a surficial larger picture. Something that would mean that I went there, that I saw the city and that I got back.

Paris of the Middle East, the city used to be apparently called. Progressive, modern and cosmopolitan like most cities, the good old days were really that for Beirutis of a certain generation. It is an age that the ones who lived then speak and write of with an indulgent yearning; those too young to remember see it predictably to have been a version of utopia. The Lebanese Civil War changed everything. Fought between 1975 and 1990, the war is still a speck in the rear-view mirror, too recent to be distant enough to try and move on from. The war is everywhere still. I don’t get out of the city to sightsee – time is too short, and it doesn’t seem wholly safe yet to be a non-local and be sauntering about. I am repeatedly told that Lebanon is so very beautiful outside of the city, that the mountain air is purity itself and that I must come back when things are quieter at the various fronts. I promise to.

The war defines everything. It is still in the souls of people. I read that children are not taught about the Civil War because it was so recent. The relative peace that holds is still too fragile and much complicated to be included safely in textbooks. The Downtown is sharp and shiny, the result of a post-war frenzy of building that erupted in complications of its own. But the by-lanes and older parts of town still flaunt the sniper’s marks on the walls of its buildings. As do the old cars operating as taxis – called ‘service’ – and the dents on men who drive them. It was only a year ago that Beit Beirut, the first publicly-funded museum and memorial for the war, was opened. The building, still sporting the old scars, was called Yellow House or Barakat Building. It sits bang on the Green Line that separated the Muslim sections on the west and the Christian sections of the city during the war years. Owing to this strategic location, it was used as a forward control post and sniper base. The opening of this museum and research centre is a much-required step forward in acknowledging the amnesia around the war, of beginning to think of ways to heal.

The not-healing parts of people masquerade as road rage and wild partying, someone tells me. The former, I see among taxi drivers, their driving veering too suddenly from a crawl into recklessness. It doesn’t help that most speak only Arabic, so communication is at best through single words, wild gestures and much guesswork from them and I. The wild partying is what a lot of people from Europe and neighbouring countries come for. Typically, a party would start after midnight and spill into the morning. Signs of obvious denial in the all-out joie de vivre is both laudable, and a bit sad.

As with everywhere I go, I walk a lot. It is more fun here because my phone doesn’t work, so I cannot take refuge in the convenience of Google. Maps are a luxury, for most places are unmapped, addresses are merely a placebo. “Ask, ask, ask,” people tell me when I ask for directions to someplace, after they have told me the new few turns ahead. You stop people and ask a lot, which feels so delightfully quaint. Except when you are walking through the many, many military controlled areas with check posts surrounded by barbwire rolls, filled with sand bags and a soldier with a long gun – there, you put your camera back in your bag, head down and walk quickly ahead. The man behind the gun looks up lazily. You even ask one for directions, for no one else stops to speak. He points you the other way in thick, broken English and a smile, and you acknowledge he is human too. In Beirut, you don’t have to look for the conflict zones, for so enmeshed are they in the quotidian that a man with armour and gun, by the wayside or in a jeep with colleagues are at best an ugly dab in an otherwise gorgeous photograph.

Gorgeousness is everyplace too. It is after all, the famous Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Sea is as blue and as beautiful as I always known she would be. Late one Friday morning, I walk along the promenade at Corniche, the swish neighbourhood. The azaan is sounding off from a mosque somewhere. Several men are fishing and the waters are the colour of that perfectly-imagined translucent blue. It is a bit surreal for you never expected those blues to really exist. The air is balmy but barely humid and every breathe I take in is imperceptibly salty. The Corniche is a nearly five-kilometre walkway that people fish off of, jog, walk or hang out at. Expansively in front lies the blue sea, the summit of Mount Lebanon on one end, tall buildings behind and a long line of palm trees at their forefront. Some trees are said to still bear the marks of bullets from during the war – they are still healing too. The morning that I am there is the weekend, and while some fished, some had caught their catch for the day and either gone home or sat on the sharp rocks with fellow men to have a little picnic, swim and sunbathe. Beautiful men and women with skin the colour of unripen olives walked the length of the promenade with dogs or jogged with friends. I imagine they would then go back home to luxuriate over a gorgeous spread for breakfast that would segue into lunch and thereafter.

For such is the food that only dwelling on it would do it justice. When they say that Mediterranean food is the food of the gods, they say true words. Za’atr stuffed croissants, halloumi cheese, thyme flavoured sauces, olives and olives and the freshest, juiciest of olives, a bean soup called Fowl that I cook now once a week, cakes and cupcakes with the hint of mahleb and cinnamon, for no life is all sweet, salads with a dash of pomegranate molasses, the hummus – oh the hummus! – and tabbouleh and labneh, then the most colourful of fruits – all doused generously with a river of the subtlest olive oil. That is just the breakfast I have everyday there. Lush is the only word I want to describe the cuisine as. Dwelling is what this kind of spread requires of you and you adhere. It is what you see people in the innumerable cafes and restaurants do. “Life is meals” – James Salter. Indeed.

Every other neighbourhood has these cafes in abundance – as if to fiercely reiterate the age-old wisdom that cafes were where the well-heeled, or the liberals, or the intellectuals gathered to live and make sense of their lives. So it is in the neighbourhood of Hamra Street, the centre of intelligentsia in the 1960s-70s. It is where the American University of Beirut is, where Librairie Antoine with its large French collection of titles is, where lies the cutest little bookshop called The Little Bookshop run by Adib Rahal, the nicest of booksellers. In Hamra is most immediately apparent the trilingual-ity of Beirut, for herein lies the Arabic from the country’s antiquity, the English of the American dollar that is regular currency alongside the Lebanese Pound and the French influence leftover from being long under France’s rule. The names of Hamra and other famous neighbourhoods – Sassine, Mar Mikael, Ashrafieh, Gemmayzeh – sound like names off Calvino’s Invisible Cities. They sound, to my unused-to ears, intriguing, mysterious, of the other world while just as much rooted in the now and the real.

The East-West blending of the everyday in Beirut is just another nuance of its complicated history. It isn’t a city that one ‘gets’ in a few days. Unlike the knowingness that comes with how long and how much other cities have been used in books, in music, in films and in far more public consciousness, Beirut has not been a character long enough to have lost her reticence to the outsider. I do not hope to get her, for I have known from the first step onto her geography that I do not have the requisite language.

Here instead is Jan Morris: “Is she (Beirut) really a great city, this wayward paragon? Scarcely, by the standards of Berlin or San Francisco, Tokyo or Moscow; but she is great in a different kind. She is great like a voluptuous courtesan, a shady merchant-prince, the scent of jasmine or the flash of a dazzling sandal. She has scarcely achieved greatness or even had it thrust upon her, but greatness has often spent a night in her arms, and a little lingers.”