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.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Tree Sculptures at Lalbagh, Bangalore: In Hyperallergic

A short piece on the sculptures that artists made out of fallen trees in Lalbagh was published on April 16, 2018 on Hyperallergic. It also had lots of photos.

See the article here with photos or read below. 


A Botanic Garden Invited Artists to Transform Centuries-Old Trees Felled by a Storm



BENGALURU, India — Summer hadn’t officially turned the corner yet, but the sun still bore down heavy on the morning in February when I took myself to Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, one of this city’s famous ‘lung spaces.’ It was perfect ice cream weather; the right time of the day, too, when the picnickers were still several hours away and the gardens were mostly empty, save some teenage couples cutting college to cuddle under the wide old trees and tourists checking a quick walk through the gardens off their to-do lists. The gardeners and other employees of the government-run Lalbagh were still recovering from the just-concluded annual flower show, a biannual extravaganza that brings several hundred thousand people to the 240-acre gardens. I was looking for a set of wood sculptures that had been on the local news for having been made out of centuries-old trees that fell during a storm a few months earlier.

The gardens’ famed Glass House, built with cast iron from Glasgow, was still strewn with the remnants of the flower show displays. Visitors walking through the building were still posing for selfies in front of the cast-aside parts of the big show. My interest lay in what was behind the Glass House; two women taking a break from watering the bright yellow and pink flowers that line the lawn pointed me toward the sculptures. Just behind the majestic building is a long pathway that leads up to one of the towers erected 400 years ago by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bengaluru, on rocks that are among the oldest on earth. The path is flanked on both sides by bamboo balustrades painted green that now enclose the recent wood sculptures.

In October of last year, one of the storms that regularly lash Bengaluru felled many large trees, some of them over 200 years old. The usual practice is that the horticulture department that manages Lalbagh and other similar gardens in the city would auction or sell off the deadwood to timber merchants and wood dealers to be chopped up and carted away with no sentiment for the trees’ provenance. This time, owing to the antiquity of some of the trees, the department made a decision to get artists to turn them into sculptures that would be housed in the gardens for public display. The upcycling initiative aimed to retain and refashion a piece of Lalbagh’s illustrious history.

Commissioned in 1760 by Hyder Ali, a ruler who remains known for fiercely fighting the British along with his son Tipu Sultan, Lalbagh — literally meaning “red gardens” — was completed by the son. It was declared a botanical garden in 1856 and has thousands of very big, very old trees in hundreds of species that were introduced from elsewhere in the world by both state rulers and then later by the British. Built along the lines of Mughal gardens that were popular and in fashion in the subcontinent in the 18th century, Lalbagh’s current acreage also holds a vast lake, many rare trees, and several monuments, while also supporting extensive biodiversity.

A 250-year old mango tree, purportedly planted by Tipu Sultan himself to commemorate his birthday, was among the dozen or so old trees that fell due to last year’s rains. The gardens’ management approached the Karnataka Shilpakala Academy, the sculpture section of the state department of culture, to help put together a list of artists from across Karnataka state and elsewhere in the country to turn the mango and other trees into sculptures. Some 60 artists from Shantiniketan, Baroda, West Bengal, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and several towns in Karnataka responded to the call and worked on transforming the downed trees.

Among the sculptures are an alligator carved from a 250-year old eucalyptus tree, a chameleon hewn from the wood of the mango tree, a carved peacock complete with towering plumage, an owl, and other wildlife. There are also more fanciful works, like a tree of life, a “green city” work that shows skyscrapers facing off against a verdant side of Bengaluru, a giant reclining Buddha face, and others.
When I visited, several of the placards giving details about the works had fallen down, presumably knocked over in the bustle of the flower show. There was no information about these sculptures’ stories, which I imagine would garner much appreciation for the garden authorities. The quality of the sculptures themselves left very much to be desired and I caught myself measuring the wisdom of the venture and the reasoning behind the choice of the artists. But I suppose I risk not seeing the wood for the trees. I left heartened that precious wood that carries the lives and stories of two centuries and more wasn’t discarded for a pittance and instead continues to engage with visitors to the gardens, thus continuing to imbibe new lives and new stories.


The sculptures carved from felled trees are on long term display near the Glass House in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens (Mavalli, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India).

Notes from London: In The Hindu Sunday Magazine


Published March 18, 2018 in The Hindu's Sunday Magazine section. Read it here or see below.

NOTES FROM LONDON

This time around during an essential-for-the-soul stopover in London town, I lived in Brixton a while. I say lived, even if it was for days four to five because Brixton is many lifetimes, simultaneously, side by side, in constant transit with and despite each other. In an instant it felt like I have lived here long, and am not just a curious cat passing through, lifting up and poking through the alleys and jumbled streets, writing notes and window-shopping souvenirs, strange Caribbean foods and sage sticks from the corner mystic store run by Sri Lankans. I lived with beloved friends in a strangely constructed block of box houses; the building a delightful case of Brutalist architecture, the sort that signifies distinct articulation of what it is/is not, practicality, uniformity even, coldness. It is the sort of architecture I currently greatly love passing before, stopping by, seeing photographs of, marvelling in its coldness. Though in the alternative life I shall lead, we will only ever build a cob house on the farm, I tell the husband and myself.

The building used to be “rough” I am told, “not a place you would come to if you didn’t live there or didn’t know well anyone who did.” The case now of course is of the neighbourhood being all gentrified and these blocks being among the cooler postcodes to live in. The breeze is getting colder and I find myself pulling my jacket closer already. I shall not be around for the full blow though, instead, revelling in the gorgeousness that autumn – “Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling, and they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground (poet Andrea Gibson) – my most favourite of seasons, brings. Autumn is lovely everywhere, and when I remember to look up from the fascinating street up above busy, beautiful Brixton, autumn is gorgeous here too.

There I was, that morning, waiting for a friend outside the Brixton Tube station when a tall man wearing frilly black panties, a barely-there length of cloth passing off as a skirt, bare chested except for perfectly round fake breasts tied across sauntered by. No one looked at him, except perhaps for the briefest second. That is why I love cities, even when I hate them. That is why I love London, even if people are rude and the streets are crowded and polluted. Cities are difficult places, feelings for them never remain the same for more than a day. Yet London has the largest bit of my heart. If I could have been the sorts, I could live in London for a few weeks a year, to hang around, walk everywhere, see art, sit in cafes, bask in the late summer sun, read, walk more and just be, one of those sorts. This light-headedness for London will remain a few days more, until I begin to notice why I live in dread of the shape and smell of all cities.

For now, I am at Brixton Market Row in a café, chosen deliberately for how empty it is. I cannot place myself in the middle of an earnest Saturday evening crowd at the end of some eight hours of flaneusing. The chef makes me an off-the-menu veg pasta, with excessive butter and cheese. Just before, I have visited the artist studios of friends at Somerset House, then taken myself to Tate Modern, along the Queen’s Way Path, along the dirty Thames. I crossed the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral to pick up some walking guide books from the tourist centre, crossed back, walked to Borough Market and found it way too crowded, bought myself a slice of too sweet Victoria Sponge and then a sushi box to offset the palate, stopped by at the Barbican Centre because the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy had made two new works outside its halls and taken photos of everything, for that is what you do these days. Accounting thus for a full day of being out and about town, the carb heaven in that cheesy pasta was that day’s idea of just the perfect day in the city of my heart.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

On Soviet Publishing Houses (again!): An Essay in Literary Hub

Essay number two, at Literary Hub. Yay! I wrote something on growing up reading Soviet books and the publishing houses that brought out these translations. 

Published on February 28, 2018.

Read it here on Lithub.com or see below.

GROWING UP WITH CLASSIC RUSSIAN LITERATURE IN RURAL SOUTH INDIA


“It is to books that I owe everything that is good in me. Even in my youth I realized that art is more generous than people are. (…) I am unable to speak of books otherwise than with the deepest emotion and a joyous enthusiasm. (…) – I am beyond cure.”

- Maxim Gorky in a preface to a book by P Mortier, Paris, 1925

My edition of Gorky’s On Literature, which includes the essay On Books quoted above, has a beautiful asparagus green cover. The ‘On’ is printed in neat calligraphy, and the pages are a soothing cream colour. It was translated from the Russian by one V. Dober, printed in the USSR, and published by Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), Moscow. The book smells, like all old books, of warmth and magic.

The magic, to the initiated, lies a lot in the name of the publishing house. FLPH, along with Raduga Publishers, Progress Publishers, Mir Publishers and some lesser known others, was an essential part of the growing up years of a few generations of Indians in the mid- 20th century. Starting in the 1950s, until the tail end of the 1980s, the USSR spent a lot of money and manpower flooding India with Russian literature classics, children’s books, science and technology textbooks, philosophy, handbooks on political and social theory, and other reading material meant to show the grit and glory of the Motherland. In the thick of the Cold War years, India and the USSR maintained very cordial relations, with a dedicated focus on cultural exchange, a strategy longer lasting and perhaps more penetrative than political rhetoric. While the Tolstoys and Pushkins bombarded India, Hindi movies became extremely popular in the Russian states. Curiously, Indian literature and Russian movies did not cross over in the same way.

Moscow set up several publishing houses whose sole purpose was to produce books for the Indian market. These books were translated into English and most other major Indian languages in Moscow and distributed in India at incredibly low prices. Each book cost a few cents, half a dollar or so at its most expensive. Nearly all were gorgeously illustrated, often with grand calligraphic flourishes. In a socialist era, the low cost of the books was a great incentive, and generations of Indian readers grew up as familiar with Olgas, Borises, and Sashas as they would be with Rama and Arjuna and the rest of the in-house mythological pantheon from traditionally told tales.

What continues to intrigue me is the reach of these distribution networks, down to the smallest of towns. I grew up in a village in the hills, a blip on the map of South India. To this day we do not have a bookstore in town, except for the newspaper vendor who stocks select pulp fiction titles alongside gossip tabloids and the day’s newspapers. And when I was growing up, there were no online marketplaces to log on to, of course. But there was grandpa and his books from Russia.

He was a famous doctor in those parts, and is still remembered 35 years after his death. He also participated in the Indian Independence movement, went to prison and came out a Communist leader who contested in the elections and grandly lost. He lent money he knew would never be returned, treated more people for free than he ought to have, what with a dozen mouths to feed at home, allowed his clinic to be a gathering place for idealists, and invited hippies home whenever they passed by town. And he read, my grandpa; he read everything.

He died six months before I was born, almost to the day. Sometimes, Grandma would look at me and quietly remark that I had inherited his forehead. Everyone else wordlessly noted that my own years of rebellion, of being liberal and Left in a family that remains traditionally Right, came from him. No one said so openly, lest I see that as a fillip. But despite never meeting him, I would know him well, for I grew up knowing his books well. When he died, he left behind a vast collection of books that, because I was born in the house he lived in, because the rest of the family didn’t seem much interested in such heretic literature, I inherited entirely.

The bulk of his collection was made up of books published by Raduga and other publishing houses of its ilk. It was thus that by age ten or so, the first grownup book I read was Maxim Gorky’s Mother. Without a bookstore in town, without siblings on the homestead, the kinds of books I was supposed to have been reading had long been read, read and re-read by then. I must have picked up Mother on a desperate summer afternoon. I remember the cover distinctly: A babushka with a scarf on her head and holding a box suitcase in one hand is poised to walk off the edge. Her face has worry lines; the times in which she lived were surely hard. I would thereafter pick up many Tolstoys, Pushkins, and Dostoyevskys, though it would take me over a decade more to truly appreciate the language and the nuances of these old favourites.

Now and again over the years, I have tried searching online for more information about these Soviet era publishing houses. Though there are several websites and blogs managed by fans of these books, there is little official history. Mostly, these sites offer readers a place to list the titles they have, post photos of covers and inner illustrations and exchange nostalgic notes about how much they loved growing up on these books.

Depending on which story you want to believe, the FLHP was founded to centralise all literature meant for non-USSR readers. Sometime in the 1960s, or perhaps in 1931 – no one seems to be able to decide on an exact time period – FLHP became Progress Publishers. Their logo was a combination of the Sputnik satellite and the Russian alphabet ‘P’, for progress. A couple of decades later, Raduga was formed to take over the publication of all classic literature titles, some more contemporary writers, and some children’s books. Mir, working alongside Raduga, managed the science and technology titles. (A hardback pocket book on astronomy called Space Adventures in your Home by F. Rabiza had fuelled early astronomer ambitions in my childhood, until a physics class in high school made it clear this was an unrealistic life choice). Novosti Press Agency Publishing House for pamphlets and booklets, and Aurora Publishers in Leningrad for art books rounded out the Soviet publishing scene.

In a city I had very briefly lived in during the early 1990s, my dad had found used copies of something called Misha, published by Pravda Printing Plant. A children's monthly, it was bilingual with some sections in English, crosswords to learn the Russian language with, and cartoons, contests, even a pen-pal section.

These sparse details are all I have. There is nothing on the big wide internet about who the translators of these many books were. On an inside page, the books have the second name of the translator – when they have a name at all – Babkov, Smirnov, Maron, etc. preceded by an initial. I imagine translator bios were irrelevant in the greater service of the Motherland. Perhaps most well-known among the few who lent their full names to their works was Ivy Litvinova, the British wife of a Soviet diplomat working at the turn of the 20th century.

I managed to hear once about the son of one such translator who went from Eastern India to Moscow and was employed to translate the books into Bangla, the language of his state. Translators from several states were housed in apartment blocks with their families – children were born and raised there, and after the split of the state, some left, though many stayed back and continue to see out their lives there. I asked this person to talk to me, to tell me more, but for reasons I could understand, he stopped answering my messages.

Perhaps like the folk tale of the fox and the sour grapes, it is best to leave the mystery intact instead of lifting the veil and being disappointed in its possible banality.

I hear these books are now fast becoming collectibles. For a generation that came of age at the cusp of that very strange period in India when socialism ended and capitalism was becoming wholeheartedly embraced, these books remain a kind of sentimental paraphernalia. The world depicted in the Russian stories was an exotic one, far removed from the neighbourhoods of South India, different in weather, names, food, and façades. But the affordable books made it a world its readers felt able to touch, to sense and know well.

For me, the books also provided access to a second world: the one in which my grandpa lived, read, fought, and loved. I like to think at least some of the choices I make come from what grandpa would have taught me; I am in part the vestiges of who he was. His books are my assurance, my reiteration, my connection to a man I never met but have come, through the library, to know.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Notes from Goa: In The Hindu Sunday Magazine

A hurried, busy work trip to Goa last month led to some thoughts, some of which are below. PS: This piece on Goa does not feature beaches or alcohol.

Read it here in The Hindu or see an unedited version below. 

Published January 21, 2018.

NOTES FROM GOA



In cities, towns, valleys or barracks that have found renewal as tourist – frequented, money- as- language destinations, it is de rigueur to complain of the holidaying outsiders. I know, for my once-a-village-now-a-sizeable-town embraced the debauchery some years ago, and in keeping with tradition, I will complain to everyone who listens about the ones that come and drag the hills down the mountains. So, Goa. The first person I meet, nearly always a taxi driver in a new place, spends the next three-quarter of an hour cribbing about the tourists and the noise, pollution and improprieties they bring. He himself is an ‘outsider’, and ferries about a tourist cab. You come to look for and love ironies while on the road.

So, Goa. Recently there on work – in peak end-of-year must-go-Goa holiday season, no less – I did not even step in the general direction of a beach, or drink copious litres of any tipple, nor find in the city of Panjim the time for expected susegad. There are two narratives you can align yourself with when you write of the orange sunshine state: one of the sea, sand, sex, and the other of the ecological toll of tourism, the mining scandals, the nonchalance that is typical of this era of Anthropocene. If not either or both, what do you write about when you have to write about Goa?

The poetry of light

I am a big fan of the light – rays through a crack in the window, upon a stylised arch of a beam, the Eastern sun on the beloved’s face – that sort. I chase the light with a modest camera and my faithful, worn Midori traveller’s notebook in hand everywhere I go. So too in Goa. Carving out a break between work, I find myself in the lanes behind Adil Shah's Palace. The Palace is a sober and quietly standing building by the River Mandovi that though looks uncomplicatedly colonial in style, is one that predates the Portuguese invasion and used to be the summer palace of the Adil Shahs of Bijapur. The River is strewn with cruise boats, joy ride boats, music on board boats and the famous casino boats, among the odd fishing boats. Them, the famous tourists that keep them afloat and the conducting of the many human lives along the river have predictably kept the waters not-so-clean.

But by now one is already in the back lanes of the Palace. Like all state capitals, Panjim is crowded and people do not display the soft patience we like to assume inhabitants of lesser populated places conduct their lives with. The streets are narrow and devoid of even an illusion of a walking path. I get lost looking for a bookstore because – and this never ceased to terribly surprise me every day that I was there – the internet is really poor in Panjim. Texts take a long time to go and come through, and thus, impromptu meetings are hard to make. The Maps are only so quick. For a state as dependent on people who will be dependent on the internet to get around as Goa is, it is rather odd that connectivity is as patchy in the city as it is. I wonder if it is just my phone and I, until I hear of similar woes from others and feel better in shared inconvenience.

Finding the poetry

The mouth of Altinho is just there, a congested street away. There stands the big white and blue, much photographed Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, continuing to arrange itself in the backdrop of uncountable photographs. Pouring over my phone instead, I walk across the road into the cool confines of Singbal’s Book House. The façade of the old building that I now realize I did not pay enough attention to is the mirror opposite in colour to the church, a predominant bright blue with sharp white lining. Their collection features popular titles, innumerable cookbooks, the odd Goan history, textbooks, Mario Miranda postcards – but of course – and other mishmash to appeal to the unpredictable tastes of visitors in that tourist-laden a location. I find Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure – New and Collected Poems (1981-2017). He lives in Goa, so that’s my local literature buy this time.

With my back to the blue building, I take a sharp right up a slope where the eventide sun has spilled onto tiled roofs, broken verandas and upon the tops of pins that hold down the washing on a clothesline, further chasing the light.




When not flâneuse-ing someplace and writing about it, Deepa Bhasthi can be found at the mercy of her brood of rescued mutts.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Notes From Beirut: In The Hindu's Sunday Magazine

Still processing my thoughts on all that Beirut was, in those few days that I spent there. Meanwhile, here is a brief piece written for The Hindu's Sunday Magazine supplement.

Read it here or see below. Published on December 17, 2017.

NOTES FROM BEIRUT





It can be a tad disappointing when you land in a far away country and feel right at home. You want to be in awe when you travel, you want to feel lost, you want to take endless photographs and write mental notes of things that are different, alien, unfamiliar and unrelatable. More so when it is a city that you haven’t seen a million pictures of already, as if it were the mountain in your backyard.

So it was with Beirut, that which they once used to call the Paris of the Middle East. The roads are narrow, though rarely potholed. Cars are too many and traffic is painful. It is loud, busy, crowded and colourful everywhere, just like home.

Beirut is very much not like home too. The enduring capital of Lebanon sits with unease next to some of the worst war-torn nations of the modern world. Predictably, the off-spills of human tragedies, apart from their own war until recently, have seeped through the country’s borders. Yet, typical of cities, Beirut mostly lives as if the wars are everywhere but there. Beirut lives in its parties, its pretensions and in what it wants the rest of the world to see. Perhaps, that really is the only way to be when the memories of the war that wiped out its wealth, physical beauty and unborn lives are still close enough to touch, as if in the backseat of a bullet-ridden old Mercedes.

SERVICE TAXIS 


Some war-time Mercs, beautiful vintage pieces that splutter before rolling, operate as taxis in the city. As do several other beautiful old cars I couldn’t name, and many increasingly new ones. ‘Service’ is incredibly popular, and cheap. They essentially are shared taxis where you almost always pay a fixed amount, no matter how long or short the distance. It is usually 2,000 LL (Lebanese Pound) or about Rs. 85 per person. Sometimes the driver finds no one else to share the ride and you get the whole car to yourself. Sometimes they don’t really want to go where you want to and try to get you to hire the whole car at a higher fare — it isn’t really too much more. They are mostly nice that way.

Most taxi drivers first ask “which country?” I get assumed to be from Sri Lanka, for there are several workers from that tear-drop nation in Lebanon, I hear. I get asked a lot if I am “Hindi or Buddha” — Hindu or Buddhist, followed by a really sweet curiosity about my country. A man with one teeth, who is staring at the side of a beaten car, stops me on the road and wants to know what language I speak. He isn’t sure how to react when I tell him there are over 700 languages in India. Instead, he asks my age, if I have children, my marital status — like that friendly aunty in the next seat on your 42-hour-long train journey — and when we bid goodbye, tells me to go tell Amitabh Bachchan that he said hello from Beirut. I will, I say. I am not too surprised Bollywood is known and loved, for a day ago, a taxi driver has sung for me a line from the movie Sangam.

MONEY MATTERS

The currency system is really confusing. 1500 LL was fixed as one US $ when Lebanon took up a dual currency system. Everyone accepts both USD and LL, which is so weak that coins start at 250 and notes of 10,000 LL are things you casually place in your wallet. Converting into two different exchange rates and calculating what to pay in each currency tugs at the brain a bit much at times. People are nice enough to supply the amount in both currencies though, when they see your forehead straining under the wrinkles of concentration.

The food, the food! Lebanese food is worthy of every exaltation imaginable and deserves a long note all for itself.

**
The writer, when not flâneuse-ing someplace and writing about it, can be found at the mercy of her brood of rescued mutts.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What Does London Sound Like? An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

Many months on, I am still mining my time in London for essays that I have thoroughly enjoyed working on. This piece though took me over a year to write. Never had I had as much trouble to write as with this one. Nothing seemed to work no matter how I wrote it, and after a point it was physically painful, which is when I finished it.

London is all that a city is - it is crowded, polluted, dirty and noisy. But there is something about that city that gets your heart. Some cities are like that.

I wrote an essay on what London sounded like to me, for BLInk, The Hindu Business Line's wonderful supplement. Read it here or see below. Published on December 15, 2017.

ALL EARS FOR LONDON

Love in the British capital is airborne. Especially with a soundscape so diverse and beguiling

She stepped out to buy a pencil. He went out onto the streets to cure insomnia. And I? I went to see what it was that London had for me. The art of flâneur-ing or walking, seemingly aimlessly, with the sole purpose of observing has for long helped construct some of the finest wordage on cities and its people. Woolf and Dickens did so at the turn of the last century. There have been many before and after them, and London has lent herself graciously to those that seek their own essays.

Visually, it was all par for the course. In a Google-dominated world, there was little that stuck out in the streets of that dirty, crowded, dank city that I might not have seen an image of or read the words for. They stuck, the words of others and everything looked like it had been in your eyes. Yet, sometimes you need to conceive your own vocabulary, for cities are strange things. They draw you in, even with my disdain for them, and claim to their harem a piece of your soul.

While I sought relief in the words and images of others and wondered what the fuss about a big old place was, it turned summer. An un-ripened sunbeam hit the corner of a greystone building in the distance and there was a whistle in the air from a gull that seemed to have lost its sandwich. Then I understood why people fall in love with London.

There is something to the quality of champagne light that captivates and leaves an indelible mark upon the collective imagination of the millions that walk its lanes in pursuit of life, labour or love. The sound of every footstep forward is a knell to the inevitability of taking upon a city like London.

Thus, I ended up with a segued ensemble of sounds that, over the months, turned into the landscape of London town for me. One could argue that all cities in the world sound the same — the incomprehensible mix of languages, smells, sounds, colours and the same devastating tall-and-glass architecture brings up to boil a moment where one city would merge into the other and leave none the wiser.

One would agree that this is mostly the case too. Yet, when I really looked for it, there it was, what London sounded like. Like each of the photographs I took during those months, these sounds of mine own perspective.

****

Out on Catherine Place where I had my studio in a sharply sunlit room, there were several sites cordoned off for construction. Every morning,at eight am, a thick-set man in an orange jacket and safety hat climbed a long distance up into the tiny cabin of a version of the crane. He would remain there until 5.30 pm, though he might have taken a couple of breaks in between to return to the earth. I never heard him; nor would I have recognised him if we had crossed each other on the way to the Tube. But I always imagined he spoke some European language during a cigarette break, or on a phone call home.

Exactly like the workers in salmon-pink pantsuits next door who were tearing down the insides of a vintage building, sometimes with their callused bare hands, though mostly with loud hand-held machines. Keeping similar hours as the man in the cabin in the sky, they arranged themselves outside the expansive kitchen of my building for long breaks. They spoke swiftly and loudly. I never found out the language they were conversing in, though their ‘hello’ to me a stray few times was in English.

The kitchen they lounged outside of took up a chunk of my sound assemblage. Kitted with the most state-of-the-art German stove there was, which let out a pitiful huff before breaking down for a few weeks, the kitchen was also sometimes thoroughfare for people visiting our quarters. Apart from the sound of courtesy hugs and introductory handshakes, there was a beep-beep of the stove being turned on and adjusting to a temperature that wouldn’t char the pasta. The kitchen saw a lot of hiss and splutter and whoosh of mustard seeds and frying onions that are staple to the repertoire of Indian cooking. Those were my sounds of the kitchen, and the clatter of cutlery accompanied the pop of the cork off many a wine bottle over endless dinners with informed people.

****

London dresses up for summer. It is easy to forget how bad winters can be, Dana, an actor from Israel I had met at dinner in a friend’s very well-appointed garden, had told me. It had been a warm night, and Archie, the sausage dog that owned my friend, had gotten over the excitement of new people to play with, retreating to his corner with a toy longer than him. Earlier, while walking up to the house in a soon to be gentrified neighbourhood, I had passed by tall brick walls of former warehouses that were decorated with graffiti, past a skywalk above a four-lane highway and alongside a park. Parks steaming in sunlight.

This one, and the other park close to home, gave up their every corner to summer sunbathers, hordes of shirtless and shorts-clad tourists from across the white world, dogs chasing frisbees, canoodling couples and mid-of-the-day joggers. Those like me would buy hot but bad tea for a pound, a slice of some cake too sweet for my liking and position myself with a book that would soon be abandoned in favour of watching the other inhabitants of the landscape. That is when a seagull, gutturally clanking to let me know it knew no fear of me or other humans, would inch toward the neglected cake.

They were everywhere in the city, the seagulls. They were large birds, unafraid, unaccustomed to not getting what they wanted. I heard that in the memories from the childhood of people in the Blighty, they would screech and snatch the ice cream from the cone at the beach during holidays. I never went to the beach there. The birds filled rooftops, park benches, night lamps and rims of overflowing trash cans all over the dirty city. And they were loud everywhere. I had also heard that there were foxes that lurked about in the night, even in the posh postcodes. Slight fellows out to prey upon the other creatures of the night or the seagull that hadn’t flown away. I never met any though; or maybe I did not peep into the right alleyways.

The gulls were sometimes drowned out by the very many buskers. Filling blind corners in Tube station exit passages, along the very long pathway underground that connect the museums, in squares and across traffic lights, they occupied every handsbreadth of street space. There were some mediocre renditions of Vivaldi or some such, music the sorts I had found playing sometimes in my head when I walked through an empty street and spotted a window in the distance, the light within bouncing off a stack of books or a Neruda scene: “I like on the table/ when we’re speaking/ the light of a bottle/ of intelligent wine.” The buskers sometimes played the piano, or rapped into boom boxes, or sat next to dogs and strummed sad songs on a beat guitar.

The ‘Mind the Gap’ announcements of the Tube, printed as well on yellow strips that made you want to peel a yellow off your skin, the honks, the anger, the despair, the constant hustle, the hush of the Roman walls and everywhere, all the time, the predictability of tourists underlay what London sounded like for me.

By the River Thames, a passing ship hooted its signal and bid adieu to the waters of many centuries. A drunk must have, somewhere in the East, slumped against the wall of a public house. “Hic, hic."

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Notes from Nottingham: In The Hindu's Sunday Magazine

The 'Notes From...' column in The Hindu's Sunday magazine is a delightful little place for quirky notes from distant towns. I wrote one on Nottingham a few days ago. Read it here, or see below. 

Published November 26, 2017

NOTES FROM NOTTINGHAM


Of late, I have begun to measure the size of a city by how many hours it takes me to walk around its see-worthy parts and get some sense of scale and a rudimentary understanding of its landscape. The flâneuse in me understands the flaws of this system, but for someone who finds it impossible to measure in terms of metres, feet or the other units, this feels more manageable. By this measure, twee York was three hours, certain parts of London, 15 days and Nottingham, or Notts, a day and a half.

The city nests within Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, like it did for me before the ball dropped, it’s because this is where the legend of Robin Hood and his band of men originated. His name and many legends have been predictably appropriated by the tourism industry. Robin was an outlaw, a very talented archer and swordsman who is supposed to have lived in Sherwood Forest in the Late Middle Ages. He remains one of England’s most beloved folk heroes for ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’ and taking on the Sheriff of Nottingham with his band of Merry Men.

High street and indie

A statue of Robin Hood about to release an arrow from a well-shaped bow draws several visitors who want to emulate this pose beside him. That this statue is just below Nottingham Castle, down Maid Marian Way, is another draw. A Robin Hood walk takes you across town, through various landmarks associated with the legend. As with all folklore, the details of his life story have of course varied a great deal over the centuries.

Nottingham was incredibly noise-less, almost as if there was a mute button that had been turned on somewhere. The newly ordained Unesco City of Literature eats, socialises and shops in the Old Market Square. The famous Lace Market of yore is now office spaces, schools of art and other functions of living. The narrow lanes that fork out from the centre are all crammed with gorgeous Tudor-style buildings, old heritage structures and delightful independent cafés and bookshops. The high street brands are of course all over.

Among the latter is the fabulous Five Leaves Bookshop that was set up as a publishing house 21 years ago and became known for its focus on radical and political literature. It continues to publish pamphlets along the same vein called ‘Occasional Papers’, but also stocks popular titles and independent publications across genres. The most fascinating thing about Five Leaves for me was that there was an entire large shelf for books on anarchism. What’s not to love about a bookshop that makes no bones about its leanings?

In hipster company

Alex Smith’s Ideas on Paper, which specialises in magazines, operates from within Cobden Chambers. A former derelict yard was renovated and is now home to several hipster, independent shops. I had time only to pop in to pick up something I knew he was one of the few stockists in the U.K. for. Those 10 minutes led to a hurried chat about love for the printed word, business, and a generous gift of a copy of Monocle.

Notts is big with the art scene. Nottingham Contemporary was constructed on a site where there used to be, over time, a Saxon fort, a medieval town hall, even a railway line. There was some skirmish among the townspeople regarding the choice of the site, Jennie Syson, who runs the Syson Gallery, an independent art gallery, told me. She then went on to give me a crash course in the people’s history of Nottingham.

The city is home to several artists, notably John Newling whose library lounge is one room I continue to dream of, months later, as too of the bent-with-fruit apple trees in his backyard. #homegoals. The New Art Exchange, with a focus on South Asian and U.K. art exchange, was also where I serendipitously found myself being part of a panel on colonialism and 70 years of Indian independence. Uncomfortable and hot topics on the island these days.

Autumn, that glorious of all seasons when the leaves turn to jewels and fall to the ground, as if in love, was just turning the corner when I left Notts. The poet’s weather, they call it. Whole roads in tones of yellow, russet, olive, peach and others.

The writer, when not flanuese-ing someplace and writing about it, can be found at the mercy of her brood of rescued mutts.

An Essay on Autumn: In The Hindu Business Line

Autumn has to be my favourite season. The leaves are turning colour, the wind is kinder and even in the death throes there is the wonder of new life, of change. This autumn has been, quite literally, a season of much change for me on the personal front, some of it uncomfortable even when anticipated, though most of it has been deeply wished for.

My autumnal tales are for a poem elsewhere. In the midst of all the changes I wrote an essay on the season for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk. Read it here, or see below. 

FALL UNDER A SPELL

Even when the leaves are dying and the natural world slowing down, in preparation for the cold months ahead, autumn still feels like the season of new love


The nights turned crisp here in the south, and I missed full autumn in lovely England by a whisker of a deep black cat late this September.

Crisp is a curious word to use, I have found, as if you could break the weather into odd-shaped pieces with a loud “crack” before munching on the crumbs between sips of something hot. Crisp like freshly washed and sun-dried sheets. Crisp like unripened, firm-to-the-touch red tomatoes. Crisp like acts of fine indulgence.

It demands a funerary entourage, it feels like, this weather: autumn, which will shortly turn into the dank mist of winter.

The coming of November and the novelty that autumn brings is poets’ weather, they say. From the well-knowns like Auden and Keats to the delightful Adelaide Crapsey, the American poet and writer of cinquains, to numerous others from several languages and cultures, odes to autumn have been a go-to muse in literature for some centuries now. And why wouldn’t it be?

Look at the weather of these months: the pleading sun that bursts from the seams and rolls like lava over hilltops. Russet, sepia-toned and pale blonde leaves catch the sunbeams flirtingly, and fall with the wind gently onto the hard floor of earth. “Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling, and they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground,” I quote Andrea Gibson. In the footsteps of this sycophancy, a host of adjectives trip over each other in the mind — pensive, mellow, fitful, melancholy, rejuvenating, wanton, grandeur, profound, baroque — to describe the season that once called itself “harvest”.

The birds are leaving. The trees are hurrying to take on pallid hues of decay. Even though the leaves are dying and everything about the natural world is slowing down, breathing in and preparing for the cold months ahead, autumn still feels like the season of new love. Love as much as lust, as much as unbridled passion, as much as letters that cannot help but be overly, overtly poetic and laden with sappy adjectives. “’Tis the season to be jolly….” As the weather would have it, in the dying and the dead is the conception of the new and the newly alive. Soon, soon, it seems to promise, just bear with me, meanwhile, the white winter.

***


I used to have a favourite tree at St James’s Park in London. I never tried to find out what tree it was, except to acknowledge that it was decidedly huge and spread its branches in a canopy that seemed to hug me into itself when I stood before its trunk and craned my neck. I used to be there every other evening during summer and sit with my book, a slice of too-sweet almond cake and hot but weak tea in a flimsy cup. The tea would soon get cold and I would abandon my book in favour of watching people, big squirrels and the gulls that knew no fear of people or their “shoos”.

Late this September I called on her again, and there she was, readying already for autumn to come. The leaves on the fringes were turning light unpolished gold. The breeze that would pass through the gaps between the tree’s branches had begun to cool. I wouldn’t be there to see the whole tree light up in a finale of amber before the litterfall. Nor would I be around for huddle weather under half-a-dozen layers. But I could imagine how the proscenium would look. For right opposite my favourite tree were a clump of smaller, shorter ones that had decided to begin turning blue for winter earlier than the rest. Perhaps they hoped to woo the summer tourists who thronged Buckingham Palace for countless selfies before spilling onto the Park to make pictures of its long paths or to rest their weary feet before moving on to tick the next sight off their to-see/do list. This clump was all shades of browns and reds and I made a picture memory, knowing that this was how my tree would have dazzled too, if only I had gone in some weeks later. I would return another time, and then the timing would be just right, I told her.

The park had some late-summer loungers spreading themselves over chairs that cost too much per hour — like everything else in that town — trying to catch the last of the sober sun. The ice-cream vending machines within the kiosks at the edges of the park were less busy, though the tea cups continued to sell. Hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows were starting to make an appearance on the handwritten menu boards behind the cash counter in the kiosks, and in the cafés around town. Beer remained a staple, but the gin and scotch paraphernalia were being brought out of the high shelves as well. The jackets on people were morphing into thicker layers to accommodate our hibernating tendencies. Writer Kathleen Alcott, a personal favourite, said this of autumn in her début novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets: “Autumn was decidedly adult: the nuanced colours — muddled oranges and browns, the uncertain gray of the clouds — were much harder to love, to understand, than the sticky pinks of popsicles, the confident thick greens of happy grass and plants, the haughty blue of the sky above it all.” Cotton candy has its charms, but even the allure of ice cream in a waffle cone of a hot afternoon doesn’t throw shade upon the desire for this stereotypical imagery of domesticity: cosying up with someone dear just before bed, with a book each, stray conversation at sporadic intervals and a kiss thereafter. Decidedly grown-up.

***


In India, at least in the constant tropics of the South, I might argue that the summer isn’t really too happy, increasingly not so with every passing year. We do not see ourselves afflicted by the pressure of having to be outdoors, swim the sea, sunbathe and make the most of summer, like the Europeans and their cousins across the pond do. Spring brings in the birdsong, but summer can make haste and leave. We seek the shade behind the sunglasses, and I am a winter child myself. I pause, though, to note the early first few days where the sunny tabebuias shower this city (Bengaluru) like misplaced sunbeams and the usually shy jacarandas hesitantly fall upon my balcony like they did not really mean to.

Even as I write this, autumn is boiling over and spilling into winter. The leaves have mostly arranged themselves at the feet of the trees they previously belonged to. They say that the trees communicate and have vast networks to see, smell, hear and taste things, that they have family structures, that they have a language. I wonder if they glorify their short-term deaths the way we do. Autumn must be the only place in time that death is desired. Perhaps the language of the trees is better suited to anticipate the lushness that will soon come. Meanwhile, we use the words we know to prophesise that the weather is to turn from crisp to nippy to a cold that will have nothing romantic to say for itself.

In the world of Greek mythology — the characters just as dysfunctional as in our homegrown epics — 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 winter where the crops wither and die. The equally devastated Persephone refuses to eat or drink in the underworld 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.

Persephone must have gone to her kingdom now. Excuse me, while I seek some pomegranate arils myself and reach for a warm book, to fall in love with words and the weather all over again.


Published on November 24, 2017
Deepa Bhasthi is a writer living and working between Bengaluru and Kodagu

Saturday, November 25, 2017

On the Bronte Sisters and Haworth, England: In Literary Hub

"In our day-to-day lives, we may tend to assume all too often - and dread all too often - that tomorrow will be just like today, but in the pleasures that literature affords us, we may see immediately that tomorrow does not have to be like today. Such immediacy makes free."

- from the Introduction, Therigatha - Poems of the First Buddhist Women, translated by Charles Hallisey

I was given a book to see pictures from the day I could hold up my head as a baby, I am told. Literature is among the two or three other things that has sustained, inspired, influenced and taken me through all kinds of phases in life. 

When I discovered Literary Hub, or Lithub, it felt like search had ended. They curate the best of literature articles from around the internet, apart from publishing new things every day themselves. Some of my favourite writers have been featured or have written for it. 

It has been an honour and great joy to have one of my essays published on the website. I wrote something on the Bronte sisters (again!) and they published it earlier this month. Read the essay here, or see below. 


CHASING THE BRONTË SISTERS FROM SOUTH INDIA TO THE YORKSHIRE MOORS

Deepa Bhasthi on a pilgrimage 20 years in the making


Haworth, set in the Yorkshire moors, is rife with the terrible clichés of the English countryside that were woven into the literature I grew up reading. There are rolling green meadows with sheep, curious horses and hearty cows dotting the view. A lazy sun falls upon the steep slopes of a farmhouse roof before a cold, swift winds and sudden rain. There is tea, lots and lots of warm tea, in dainty porcelain cups of well-appointed traditional homes.

It’s as English a village as I could have imagined while sitting in my own little village deep in South India, is also where the Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—lived for most of their brief lives. This tiny, otherwise nondescript village is also where they created their masterpieces, respectively, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. The former two of these were among the first grown-up books I read, and I have carried their thoughts and ideas into my adult years. I have preferred Jane to Catherine Earnshaw, then the other way around—then haven’t cared for either in favor of some other heroine, and back and forth again—for as long as I have loved, and inhabited, the many characters I have read.

The bare bones of Brontës’ story are this: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë lived with their father Patrick, a curate at the local church, their brother, the ill-fortuned Branwell, and their aunt who filled in for a mother who died when the children were still very young. The adults largely left the children to amuse themselves, and this lack of supervision led to imaginations that were vivid and insightful; their minds traveled far beyond the boundaries of their village and the minor lives they were confined to. They would make up stories about soldiers and kings and imaginary kingdoms and write them in miniature hand-sewn books, in letters too small for anyone but themselves to read. The importance of the miniature in the Brontës’ lives was both a necessity owing to limited resources, one that resulted in diminishing eyesight, and a possible thwarting of unwanted adult attention. The Brontë sisters wrote most of their works around the dining table in the Parsonage, inspired by the long walks they were fond of taking in the expansive, all-consuming moors behind and around their home. Publishing first under androgynous names before they all publicly claimed their works under their individual, female identities, the novels they wrote were among the greatest of English literature of a certain period and place.

A slim volume of one of those get-to-know-this-novel-and-its-writer on Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre supplied these details to me, two decades ago. I remember a photo of the Parsonage in the book—it must have been taken just after a light shower. The greenery glistens, and the stone walls look like they could have held only happy secrets. The closely cropped image does not give away anything of what is around the house. I have carried the memory of this photograph with me, along with the mystery of what it did not show, for 20-something years now. Somehow, it seemed like this house was where all the answers would be.
My questions about the Brontës began in the small town of Madikeri, up in the hills of southern India where I was born and raised. The whole town is nestled at the bottom of a nearly round valley, with tall, green, imperfect mountains circling its corners. The district of Kodagu, of which the town is a part, is funnily enough, called the “Scotland of India,” a sobriquet from when the British took over and started the first coffee plantations there in the mid-1800s. The excessive rain, the verdant rolling hills, the dense impenetrable forests and the opaque mist that rarely parted would have reminded them of home.

Kodagu remains coffee country. We have words for our place-names in many languages, for this landscape that runs in the blood. But we do not have words for grey—grey weather, grey rain, grey hills. Moors and marshes are just as alien. The monsoons are hard, but desolation is incomprehensible. There is enough color to counter it in our kitchens, our wardrobes, our window views.

In the 1990s, there was not a single bookstore in town. (There still isn’t.) But when my grandfather died, no one wanted his vast library, and I inherited it—even though I hadn’t been born yet. In those dark, antiqued bookshelves, many summers before I was meant to, I would meet and fall in awe and love with the Brontë sisters and the fiery women and brooding men they created. In a pre-Google world, reading their books opened a world that did not seem part of this earth. For my earth, my women, my colors and practices, my manners were different—outlandishly so—from that of the Brontës’ and what they wrote.

An English-medium education and a vast collection that could feed my voracious reading guaranteed that I read a lot of British literature, and a disproportionate number of Russian authors—all the mains, and then some. My choice of literature was really my grandpa’s; his tastes percolated into mine. His reading is where I met him at all. But of the array that he left to me, it was the Brontës that I kept returning to. Perhaps the love stories were desirable in my own hormone-raging teens. Perhaps the proto-feminism in them was buffing the ideas of feminism I had begun learning myself. Or perhaps it is because of what makes them such endearing classics—they are really just great literature.

Years later, I became something of a writer myself. I moved to London for just a few months last summer, and of course I fell in love. But I had a photograph of a house to seek and search for magic in.

In the notes I took during my trip to Haworth, I write that I am overwhelmed. It is a long way from the hills of southern India to the moors of Yorkshire, and not just in the geographical sense. The afternoon that I arrived, the sun struggled to come out, teasing with hints at what could be. Haworth is pretty, as quaint as a tourist destination that centers around literature can be imagined. And the Brontë association is milked everywhere, from jams and jellies named after characters, to the pubs where Branwell is supposed to have drunk himself into first oblivion and then death.

Walking up the famous steep main street of Haworth that is paved with setts, I landed before the church. Past a slim kissing gate, by the side of the church, past a school building where all the sisters taught and where Charlotte had her wedding reception, I walked to the Parsonage, which is now a museum. It is the house I grew up dreaming about, and it looks exactly the same. To describe myself as breathless from the steep climb alone would be too prosaic.

It was nearly closing time at the museum, but I rushed in anyway—the exteriors could wait—and zipped through the rooms, all meticulously decorated the way they would have looked when the Brontë family lived there. They are all simple rooms. Never ostentatious. Sometimes too close to frugal, but mostly just functional. It’s a regular house with bits and bobs, things and corners. But for us later day voyeurs, the old clock that the father wound every night on the way to bed, the kitchen corner where Emily would have baked the bread and kept house for the rest of the family, the dining table that bears an “E’ carved into it alongside ink blots and signs of wear, and these other mundanities gave futile glimpses into a brilliant family. Futile, I say, because materials do not impart or imbibe talent, yet here we had come to seek the genius in the material, as if, peering closely enough, we would find that which countless have searched for before us, and will look for after us: that elusive muse.

I stayed in a room at The Apothecary, a 17th C. building that has been variously used as an inn, a bookshop, a co-op, and a home for 400-odd years. The guest house overlooks the cobbled street: my biggest indulgence of the trip. The morning after my tour of the parsonage, I had to see the moors. I remember thinking that much as I would have loved some happy sunshine, it was more appropriate that the day was cold, windy, very grey, and wet. Suddenly, it did not matter that I could never, in my childhood, imagine what the moors looked like. When I did get here, they sure had put up a show.

I walked on trails that are, oddly, marked in both English and Japanese. A disproportionate number of Japanese devotees of the Brontë sisters visit Haworth every year—there are papers written about the phenomenon. The moors are vast; they stretched as far as my eyes could see. I struggled to associate it with a piece of the geography familiar from back home but could not find anything satisfactory. Desolate was the word that immediately came to mind. Though it sounds unsavory, the moors in shades of brown and green are full of something like emotion. Like the human condition, they seemed both a bit pointless and yet terribly resilient in their ability to inspire and influence.

And It rained. Oh, how it rained! I had aimed to reach Top Withens, that point that, despite repeated denials by the Brontë Society, fans of Wuthering Heights believe to be the inspiration for Emily’s picture of the Earnshaw house. But it was too cold to walk without cover from the fierce winds and the lashing rain. I admitted defeat, scurrying back to the guest house to buy a postcard of the ruins later at the gift shop. It was easier to brave the cobbled streets and pop in for a shot of local whiskey than to find myself feeling naked in the moors. The land wasn’t ready to give up her secrets just yet.

Buying souvenirs, taking pictures, sipping champagne-colored whiskey and peering into the enveloping mist was much easier. It was so safer than trying to process all that this visit meant. I was at the culmination of two decades worth of expectation. All that imagining, both of the trip itself and how this geography had influenced the Brontës’ literature, had come to a head. It was emotional and overwhelming—like reading the Brontës for the first time.