Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Slum Jagatthu, a Monthly for and by Slum Dwellers: A Feature in The Hindu Business Line

Published in The Hindu Business Line's BLInk's issue dated February 15, 2020. Read it here, or see below.

Selva and Balamma at the Slum Jagatthu office


A two-decade-old Kannada magazine created for and by subalterns did not even have a room to call office until a year and a half ago. The staff of seven would borrow a few computers to type out their notes and construct each month’s issue of Slum Jagatthu, which means ‘slum world’. Today, they do have an office to call their own, even if it’s just a room and a half above a garments shop, next to a shrine off the main roadway through Koramangala village in east Bengaluru.

This one-of-a-kind 20-page magazine is entirely the handiwork of slum-dwellers. It has regular columns, features, photographs, interviews and news analyses on issues affecting slum-dwellers, the core readership. 'Namm Keri Pattanavaythu' (Our quarter/street is a township now) documents stories of gentrification of slums and the way it has made the slum residents alien in their own neighbourhoods. 'Namm Jeevna Namge' (Our life is for us) and 'Jeevna Nadedaithe' (Life goes on) are two regular features that carry personal stories of triumph and struggle of the slum dwellers, the former particularly focusing on the voices of older residents. Each issue also publishes news that matter to slums - forced evictions in the city, policy decisions by government bodies, new schemes and facilities available to them and so on. The content is both pedagogical and activism-oriented, seeking to inform and empower its readers. In a testament to the passion, dedication and even doggedness of its editorial team, the magazine continues to exist despite the lack of any institutional or government support.

The afternoon I met its editor and co-founder Isaac Arul Selva, the whole team was in office. It was one of the four or five days each month that they gather together to write for, edit, design, publish and post the monthly issue to a small base of subscribers all over Karnataka. Of the seven-member founding team, only Selva and Balamma K, both activists, remain, the rest are newer recruits of varying ages, experience and background. What’s common to them, however, is that they are all social activists working with residents in urban slums on different issues. And most of them are residents of various slums across the city. All of them report, write, edit, photograph, and shift roles and responsibilities as needed.

Apart from a desktop computer and copies of the magazine, the tiny office also packs a small library, where BR Ambedkar and Narayana Guru are among the names that occupy pride of place, besides titles on journalism and media practices; this library also finds use among several young people from the slum who other the media workshops that Slum Jagatthu periodically conducts.

We sat on plastic chairs in an adjacent room, as Selva rewound to the birth of the magazine in 2000. “The slum my family was living in was relocated to Koramangala in 1975; we did not have water supply or toilets,” he said. It was finally in 1999 that, at the end of a long struggle, the slum was provided with basic amenities. This success prompted Selva and his fellow activists to reach out to other needy settlements like their own. “There were two reasons (for starting Slum Jagatthu). People had no information about where to go, what to access (to get civic amenities). Secondly, there was no communication tool for people like us. So we started the magazine. For the first issue, I spent ₹168 from my own pocket for registration.”

He approached a local printing press and requested them to print that month’s issue, promising to pay for it the following month, The magazine continued to function in this manner for nearly ten years.

Financial difficulties led to a brief hiatus from 2012 to 2014. “What we started in 2000 failed in 2012. We took all those experiences and restarted as an experiment. More than the loss or profit we might make from the magazine, [we felt] there is a history of workers in Bangalore that needs to be documented,” said Selva. Elaborating further on the unmet need to record stories from the subaltern, he cites an example of if the history of the esrtwhile Mysore state was being written at a time when there was no electricity in the royal kingdom. “Where is the history of the man who filled oil in the street lamps and lit them every day? Where is the history of the people who carried away the shit from the palace every morning? It is important how you build, write and document that history. We started with the aim of doing that work. Our histories have been erased and we felt it was our responsibility to document it.”

Crucially, Slum Jagatthu also gives information and “ideological clarity” to organisations working in the slums. Its circulation, which had touched 2,500 copies before it was temporarily halted, now stands at a modest 500, mostly going to leaders in slum organisations, NGOs like Hasiru Dala that work with slum-dwellers, besides public libraries in district centres.

Asked about the funding, Selva responded with a wry smile. “No one gives funds or grants to such publications. What we don’t get as revenue, we put in ourselves. We don’t aim to make money from this, but the effort we put here, that should help construct history,” he said. Producing an issue costs about ₹4,000 a month, apart from the man hours put in. Importantly, most of the stories are written in the first person, in the sociolect and/or dialect of the speaker. Selva explained why, “There is no one Kannada. There is Kannada-gam, many Kannadas. The honesty to write down the words exactly as they are spoken seemed important to us. What you say, what words you use, what language you speak in,, that must be printed — not a polished version. We don’t ‘polish’ people’s language.”

In promoting local tongues, informing, educating and empowering slum-dwellers,, and in recording histories that are ignored by the mainstream, Slum Jagatthu provides a vital living space for subaltern studies.

Priced ₹10 per issue, the magazine is also available free on

Monday, February 17, 2020

Tanya Mendonsa's The Fisher of Perch: Not a Review

She had me at "abandoned coffee saplings jingle their blood beads." It is coffee picking season back home in Kodagu, and everywhere I turn, here in my sun soaked studio in this teeming city, everywhere I turn, I can smell from memory the smell of fat, white flowers that erupt and leave behind these blood beads. 

Tanya Mendonsa's latest book The Fisher of Perch: A Fable for Our Times in one long poem. Published by Design Foundry, what struck me before I read even a word is the gorgeousness of the slim book. The illustrations are exquisite, white sparrows, rafts, butterflies and flowers against deep dark blue backgrounds to separate the poem into sections. The blue feel like an ode to the Blue Mountains where the lovely Tanya lives, and where I met her some years ago on an evening of the pink full moon over tea and whiskey.

The fable has a river and hills and flowers of many kinds, stones and spongy moss, a sun that parts the mist, nut trees and talkative squirrels. The river is one that "never stops talking to itself, the poet, in her course of her flaneuseing, can hear the waters clearly, "it sounds like the laughter of young girls." 

Much happens around this river, giving the poet plenty to think about. For a long time though, she does not go to the river, not yet, 
"because I want to learn its language first
to talk back to it."

Indeed the book is a fable for our times, for there is something so wholehearted, so simple about it.The meandering of the poet, and via her, of the reader's thought processes harks at a slower time and place. Once she gets to the river and eventually begins to know but a part of it, it changes her just as she does it.

"Washed clean of the stains of the world,
the river and I now share the same tongue."

The Fisher of Perch is a poem to linger over, hoping it won't end too soon. Speaking of the river is, too, speaking of a life well lived, with love, flowers and butterflies and many a sweet day of walking the hills. 

I loved this book and I must borrow Tanya's lines to say just how much, words for the river again,

"I could read this book all my life and never tire
slowly eating the pomegranate seeds of the days."

(Disclaimer: The publisher sent me a copy of this lovely book at the poet's behest. My gratitude to both.)

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Etgar Keret's Fly Already: A Review in Hyperallergic

Read here, on the Hyperallergic website, or see below. Published on November 08, 2019. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House.


Etgar Keret’s stories are absurd, tragic, surreal, and often dramatic, with surprising and shocking twists.

Human life can be hilariously funny, despite, or perhaps especially because of, all the tragedies that befall us. Israeli writer Etgar Keret embodies this idea in his writings, most of which are short stories. His newest collection, Fly Already, represents his signature style; the stories are absurd, tragic, surreal, and often dramatic, with surprising and shocking twists. While the stories are funny, they all glimpse the profoundness of prosaic human lives.

In the title story, a father and son are taking a walk when the latter spots a man on the verge of jumping off a building. While the father tries to talk him out of it, the son wonders why the man doesn’t fly already. “The Next-to-Last Time I Was Shot Out of a Cannon” follows a cage cleaner who is assigned a rather dangerous job for a day. He is untrained for the job, but once he is shot out of the cannon, his journey in the sky makes him wonder whether this is how he might find happiness. And the bereaved son in “Car Concentrate” has compressed his dead father’s beloved ’68 Mustang convertible into a block that sits in the middle of his living room. In his house, it is a conversation starter, a curiosity that comes with endless stories the man invents to explain it away. It is also a memento with a secret of its own.

Etgar Keret (photo © Alessandro Moggi)

It is in “Tabula Rasa,” however, that Keret’s gift for adding layers to what initially seems straightforward comes through the sharpest. A. is an orphan in an institution of orphans supervised by Goodman. The orphans speak different languages and have little communication with each other. They all have a disease the author calls “elderness,” which makes them age, as well as learn and develop, 10 times faster than ordinary people. Most die before age 10 from illnesses related to old age. The orphans can enter the outside world once they pass a life-skills exam and then a personal interview with Goodman. After A. passes these he thinks he can leave, but he learns that he is at the institution for one sinister reason. This revelation will likely be a shock to the reader and an opportunity to question what it means to forgive histories, or not.

“Windows” is a chilling account of a man supposedly recovering after an accident in a windowless room. There is a phone beside his bed on which he can dial “0” and access a 24-hour support center, “like in a hotel.” As always, the story is about this, and much more, for when his request for a window with a view is granted, he begins to see a woman from his room. But what he sees is not the whole truth, as the woman’s side of the story reveals in a devastating climax that is all too relatable in the digitalized lives most of us lead.

Keret populates his stories with improbable characters and absurd situations: A lonely man who buys birthdays from people so he can get their birthday wishes and presents; a goldfish that comes out of the fishbowl at night, puts on checked slippers, and watches TV until the wee hours; the father of three girls who shape-shifts into a rabbit. Yet, each is just a way to approach deeper meanings and political opinions, to reiterate that even amid conflicts, everyday life goes on, people eat, smoke joints, make love, live perfectly boring lives, and die.

The collection has been translated from Hebrew by five translators: Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger, and Yardenne Greenspan. A reader can gain much — not least, a good laugh — from even a casual reading of the stories in Fly Already. But it is by rereading them a second or a third time, ruminating on each one, that one will find in Keret’s nuanced storytelling its great importance to our times.

Girish Karnad's Rakkasa Tangadi play on Battle of Talikota: A Review in The Hindu Businessline

Read it here, or see below for a slightly unedited version. Published on October 11, 2019. Photo courtesy: Hemanth Kumar


What a lot of us learnt in history textbooks, lifetimes ago in school, was mostly who fought with who where and when. Dates, names that said nothing of the lives they had lived, mere facts dry as dust. Like most, I remember little of the chapters of my history textbook. But this imagery has been hard to forget – rubies the colour of rich blood, diamonds that shone in the dark and emeralds the colour of paddy fields that circle Hampi today were poured in heaps, as if they were vegetables, and sold to citizens and merchant travellers. For that’s how abundant and safe the mighty Vijayanagara empire was. 

The last play that playwright Girish Karnad wrote before he passed was Rakkasa Tangadi, about the Battle of Talikota and the final years of the zenith of Vijayanagara empire’s glory. It is a play of grand scope, almost as if it were meant instead for the large screen as a period movie. In its English translation, titled Crossing to Talikota, the play premiered in Bangalore on October 2 under the able direction of veteran director and producer Arjun Sajnani.

The year is 1565. After the death of Krishnadevaraya of the Tuluva dynasty, the greatest king of the Vijayanagara empire, the region is ruled by successively weak men. It has taken the diplomacy and shrewdness of ‘Aliya’ Rama Raya, the son-in-law of Krishnadevaraya to strengthen alliances with the Sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Golkonda and others and bring stability, albeit a shaky one, to the vast area under the empire. Though the most powerful man in the Deccan, Rama Raya, born of a lower caste, can never ascend the throne, a slight he never forgets.

Sadashiva Raya, the current emperor, is powerless. He is at best a decorative figurehead, at worst a caricature. Vijayanagara is run by the son-in-law and his two brothers. As his power and influence grows Rama Raya, now an old man, turns more arrogant, more ruthless. The uneasy stability between the allies is soon invariably touched by religion – the Tuluva rulers are Hindu, the kings who make up the Deccan Sultanates are all followers of Islam.

The play, based entirely on historical facts, opens with the ghastly scene of an empire in defeat. The Deccan Sultans have formed an alliance and attacked Vijayanagar. The Battle of Talikota, fought at the village of Talikota one January morning in 1565 was a watershed event that would change the course of Karnataka history, redraw political lines and shift the culture and society of the Deccan region thereon.

The soldiers are running away, there is chaos and there is confusion, for Rama Raya is dead and his brothers maimed in battle. The zenana, the women’s quarters, is informed and plans are made to shift the emperor Sadashiva Raya and the queens and princesses to safety. The Queen Mother and Satyabhama, Rama Raya’s wife, decide otherwise.

Cut to some months before the battle begins. The play examines the ambitions of the Deccan sultans – Hussain Nizam Shah, Ibrahim Qutb Shah and Ali Adil Shah, the young, hotshot Sultan of Bijapur who urges the Rama Raya couple to accept his as their son, after their own dies. The Vijayanagara palaces are what Adil Shah calls magnificent, “superhuman” almost, the hospitality of the kings unrivalled.

Politics has never been shorn off of some good ol’ fashioned backstabbing, cunning strategies, rumour mongering among the courtiers and the soldiers at the guarding posts, scheming wives and marriages as means of solidifying profitable alliances. Palace intrigue and all these is aplenty in Crossing to Talikota. Adding a layer of aesthetic to the visual treat are the backdrops projected on to huge screens on the proscenium during scenes. The women talk before the Lotus Mahal, the elephants and mahouts are being summoned to the grounds in front of the Elephant Stables, where the Deccan Sultans meet is a mesmerising room with intricate jaali work.

Props are few and the costumes are minimal. The ambience is where the granduer lies. Here they are, all the famous monuments of Hampi – the mahal, the stables, the Vijaya Vittala Temple and the marvellous Stone Chariot, these and the interiors, prosperous, as in the descriptions we have read, in history books and accounts of travellers. Here is Vijayanagara, peopled by the kings, queens, handmaids, soldiers, palanquin-bearers, the generals and the commoners who lived in and around these breathtakingly beautiful places. Here is the abundance of the empire that ruled over nearly the entire southern India before it became haalu Hampi, the land of grand ruins.

In the months preceding the final battle, the Deccan Sultans are all unhappy, and uneasy with the power that vests in the hands of Rama Raya. They all loathe each other on the best of days, but this time, they have a mutual rival and they attack the empire unitedly. Rama Raya insists on going to the battlefield. History says that traitors in the Vijayanagara forces switched sides and that was how the Sultans won the battle.

Karnad’s play does not make it about two religions alone. One man’s hubris and need to prove his capabilities as the true king, a position denied to him for sixty years, starts rolling the ball towards the end of the Vijayanagara empire. A captured Rama Raya is seated in enemy camp. He looks frail. In reply to Ali Adil Shah’s question of how it all came to this, he runs a finger across his forehead. It is fate, it is written on his forehead. Vijayanagara pays the price, and it goes up in flames, burning night and day, for months after the battle. The play is peopled by veteran actors. Ashok Mandanna as Rama Raya, Veena Sajnani as Satyabhama, Tuffy Taraporvala as Sadashiva Raya bring decades of theatre experience on to the stage. Viveck Jayanth Shah as Sultan Hussain Nizam Shah and Shashank Purushotham as Ali Adil Shah complete the stellar cast. Crossing to Talikota, in the way it examines the nuances and complexities of power and politics, is as much a lesson for our times as it is a call to perhaps learn from history.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

On Soroptimist International: A Feature in The Hindu Business Line

Published in BLInk on August 30, 2019. Here.


A century-old global women’s movement, Soroptimist International has 14 chapters in India, and is quietly making the world better, one volunteer at a time

It all started with an observation by a developmental paediatrician at a meeting. Children from affluent urban families did not have much empathy for those who were less fortunate, Dr Nandini Mundkur told members of Soroptimist International (SI), a global women’s movement. The discussions that followed at the Bengaluru meeting gave birth to SI’s Fistful of Grain project, involving students of elite schools and colleges in the city. The students were given jute bags to take home and fill with a fistful of rice or pulses every day. The bags were collected at the end of each month and the grains were distributed to orphanages, old-age homes or community meal programmes. The project was so successful that it was expanded into a national-level effort by SI clubs across the country. It still continues, with SI Bengaluru having covered about 15-20 schools so far. The jute bags that are distributed to children hold about two kilos each, and the grains collected from each school varies from 50 to 100 kg.

For a nearly century-old organisation with 75,000 members worldwide, SI is curiously low-profile. Few know that the volunteers’ body with some 3,000 clubs in 122 countries has 14 chapters in India under the parent body, the National Association of Soroptimist International of India (NASI). “We have content writers, teachers, doctors, counsellors, women from business families and housewives. Most become members through word-of-mouth and with references from existing members; some write to us directly, asking to be a part of the club,” says NASI communications officer Jamuna Ravi, a general manager at Shell India Markets Private Limited. Much like several other organisations, SI clubs in India and elsewhere take up projects that are linked to the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals — food security, healthcare, education and so on. SI, however, works exclusively with girls and women, specifically in providing education and other opportunities through local projects.

Their focus, points out NASI national president and Pune SI member Anu Wakhlu, is enshrined in the movement’s name: Soror, Latin for sister, and Optima, meaning best, together stand for ‘the best for women’. Over the years, the global sisterhood has helped rescue women threatened by the Nazis during World War II, mobilised women to establish an open-air hospital school in the UK, provided vocational training for women and children, and housing for the disadvantaged, she says.

The first Soroptimist club was set up in California in 1921. Its 80 members — business and professional women from Oakland — met every week and discussed ways to improve the lives of people. Their first project involved conserving the region’s ancient redwood trees. They successfully fought the powerful timber lobby and had a law passed to preserve the trees on protected land, which exists even today.

In India, there are three clubs in Mumbai, two each in Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune, and one each in Burdwan, Madurai and Hyderabad. Each club has 25–40 members. The SI clubs in India work on a variety of issues. In Mumbai, members run a project called Free a Girl Movement - School for Justice to rescue child sex workers and train them to become lawyers. The Green Umbrella project of SI Kolkata aims to improve the green cover in an unutilised section of a women’s correctional home by planting trees and cultivating vegetable patches, while SI Pune’s Let Me Bloom project helps girl students complete their education. “We found that merely sponsoring them was not enough. So now we mentor and guide them as well,” Wakhlu says. The members organise career guidance talks for students, and tutors older women in financial literacy.

The SI clubs usually team up with NGOs working in the target areas. “Sometimes we work directly with the beneficiaries too,” Wakhlu adds. Ravi explains that the SI primarily acts as a networking partner, connecting potential donors with would-be beneficiaries. The funding comes mainly through donations and sometimes through ticketed events. “We organised a dance programme at Chowdaiah Memorial Hall last year. ,” Ravi adds. If they need an expert in some field for advice, networking or as a resource, a member is able to step in; the variety in SI’s membership ensures that they never have to look too far.

Wakhlu wants to set up a new club in India every two years, take SI to smaller towns and cities and expand in Delhi, Chandigarh and beyond. “With CSR (corporate social responsibility) mandated by law, there are always a lot of companies looking for new, good projects to donate to,” Ravi says. This has helped SI further expand the scope of its activities. “The CSR initiatives of companies often have themes that are in line with the goals we have. For instance, a member who is a business professional gave us a small space in JP Nagar in Bengaluru where we are setting up a vocational training centre,” she added.

A movement by women, for women and of women, it hopes to go places.

Review of Christian Vizl's Silent Kingdom: In Hyperallergic


“The images in this book are a reflection of what I hear beneath the waves,” photographer Christian Vizl writes in Silent Kingdom: A World Beneath the Waves, his stunning book of undersea photography.

Published in Hyperallergic here (see link for the photos) on August 7, 2019.

Quiet. Slow. Still. Meditative. All these words come to mind when one thinks of the depth of the oceans. But in reality, oceans are noisy, crowded, chaotic places — their creatures vying for every bit of space they can get and striving every day for continued survival. We know more about parts of outer space than we know what the deepest waters hold. Most of the species that live below the surface remain undocumented, unstudied and mostly unknown not just to us common folk, but even the scientific community. What we do know is that the fragile ecosystems within the oceans are in danger from overfishing, pollution, plastics, radiation, climate change, acidification and other problems caused or exacerbated by humans. Reports of oceans heating up have become so common that the urgency they may have once inspired has slowed to a crawl.

Christian Vizl’s beautiful black-and-white photographs of sea animals contained in his new book Silent Kingdom: A World Beneath the Waves act as a much-needed call to action. Vizl’s association with the oceans started in his childhood and his awe for its abundance, its fragility, and its ethereal beauty remains unabated. “The ocean is a world that has so many things to say, so many stories to tell, so many lessons to teach, but its voice can only be heard by our hearts,” Vizl writes. “The images in this book are a reflection of what I hear beneath the waves.” He calls the exploration and contemplation of the beauty of the ocean the purpose of his life.

That comes through in his haunting images throughout the book. Life below the surface is known for the richness of its colors, its shades, and the shapes on animals rarely seen on any living creature on land. Yet, Vizl chooses to present only black-and-white images, inviting the viewer to go beyond striking colors to focus on form, texture, shape and the natural rhythm of the creatures, elements that a viewer might take for granted looking at color images. The many shades of grey Vizl works into his frames almost lend the images a sense of the surreal.

Sharks of many kinds, clown fish, Chinese trumpetfish, Goliath groupers, sea turtles, many varieties of jellyfish, happy dolphins and playful sea lions, schools and schools of little fishes, the majestic mantas, coral here and there, crabs and clams, eels, sea snakes, and crocodiles all make appearances in Vizl’s book. The images are interspersed with an introduction by Dr. Sylvia A Earle and short essays by Michael Aw, Ernie Brooks, David Doubilet and Nora Torres — photographers and fellow passionate champions of the marine world. The texts urge viewers to recognize the dangers facing the ocean and how it’s time we started paying attention to it. They place their hopes on Vizl’s images leaning on the power of photographs to inspire and rouse people to action.

Indeed, the images are designed for such reactions. Be it a sea lion sunbathing under the water’s surface, or the silhouette of a spotted eagle ray seen from below, two giant mantas touching the tips of each other’s wings or the cannonball jellyfish near the surface with the sun on its back, Vizl’s photographs are beautiful, sensitive, and visually stunning. But more often than not, it is not their aesthetic that impacts the mind first. The sharp blacks and whites lend a starkness to the photographs that serve to draw attention, repeatedly, to the state of the marine world. Many of the sea creatures are presented against plain backgrounds, eliminating the ambience, thus emphasizing the sharpness of the form, grace and beauty of that creature. Also, invariably, the tension this creates, by highlighting their vulnerability without cloaking the frame around a busy ambience, reiterates the urgency of needing to protect and conserve the fragility of it all.

Silent Kingdom draws attention to biodiversity being a finite resource and how we are quickly getting to a tipping point beyond which having hope will be futile. Vizl does not include images of fish or turtles stuck in plastic rings, nothing explicit or direct to draw attention to the need to conserve — perhaps it is a deliberate choice not to duplicate photos of the kind that are usually used to show had bad things are below the water. Instead, a jellyfish swims up near the surface on a cloudy day — the dark black of the water contrasts with the white from the clouds above. Another swims along in the open ocean, looking partly like torn lace blobbing along. Some sea lions rest, perhaps after a heavy lunch, watching over two of their group play below. In presenting these sea creatures in their everyday activities, just going about their lives, he manages to make the viewer develop a connection to these animals. And from such quotidian connections come the desire, the wish to save, conserve, help.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Spring 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Do kindly check it out.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 04, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


After Mirtha Dermisache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn this dinnertime entropy.

MOLD Column: The Politics of Being Vegetarian in India

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 24, 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

We expect too much of words.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

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

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

Published on February 16, 2019.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose so.

On Breakfast: An Essay in The Hindu Businessline

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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