Thursday, October 11, 2018

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

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

AN INSOMNIAC PHOTOGRAPHER DOCUMENTS INDIA'S CITIES AT NIGHT

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DELTA BEACH, AHOY!

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


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

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

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



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


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

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

Friday, August 31, 2018

Jitendra Arya Retrospective: A Review in Hyperallergic

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

A PHOTOGRAPHER'S VISION OF BOLLYWOOD AND HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY


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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes From Dandeli: In The Hindu on Sunday

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

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


NOTES FROM DANDELI

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyger Tyger, burning bright

In the forests of the night;

Sunday, June 17, 2018

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

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

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

A HALF-BAKED AFFAIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lot to unpack here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Notes From Madikeri: In The Hindu on Sunday

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

Published here in BLInk on May 26, 2018.


NOTES FROM MADIKERI

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

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

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

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

HIGH LIFE

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

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

WHITE BREAD WORKS

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

On Beirut: An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

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

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

Published on April 27, 2018



BEIRUT, BY THE WAY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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."