Monday, June 05, 2017

Mosaranna/Curd Rice: In Roads and Kingdoms

Roads and Kingdoms, one of the websites we greatly loved when we were conceiving The Forager magazine, has a cute little series called Breakfast where they feature stories around breakfasts from all over the world. I wrote one on having curd rice - that soul food - for breakfast one late morning and got it published here.

Or see below. 



Photo by Sharmila Vaidyanathan of The Yellow Turmeric

This city feels sometimes like a wide and long river in spate, and I try to reach for the other end where all my friends and acquaintances are. We tell ourselves we are too busy and distances too long, or that the summer this year is particularly bad, to meet more often. We don’t always tell the truth.


It has been varying degrees of time since I have seen these friends. We are at Koshy’s. The most Bangalorean thing to do in Bangalore is to hang out at Koshy’s, an old restaurant in the middle of town that retains an unimpeachable disdain for the new business of hurriedness. People grow old around its tables, and we talk about how one day we will, very likely, be them.

Liver on toast is the best thing to eat at Koshy's, I am told. I am a vegetarian though, and for me it has always been a dish that I am not sure is even on the 300-something list of things on the menu card. Koshy's has been for years a place to meet for work and otherwise. I have conceived a food journal there, begun a relationship, made new friends, gossiped, grown older. It is our village square. And whenever it was close to any mealtime, sometimes even when it wasn't, at Koshy's I have always asked for curd rice, or mosaranna or thayir sadam.

No one I know believes me when I say how good Koshy's curd rice is, especially in relation to the gooey paste-like nonsense you get in every other restaurant in the city. Curd rice is something you eat at home, not something you order for a late breakfast as a standalone dish at, of all places, Koshy's. But here, the cold bowl of perfectly tempered rice is like the ones we make at home. They are an ode to mama's cooking, to the soul-food status that curd rice, very deservingly, has attained in the palates of us true-blue South Indians.


Curd rice at Koshy's is, I like to think, a well-kept secret. It comes when we are in the middle of discussing our current reading lists, in a shallow bowl, all jet-white and gleaming. It is tempered with mustard seeds, mildly spiced, and has a big red chili garnish, "like cherry on ice cream," says one of my friends. It is cold, the perfect temperature to soothe a belly fired up by the many cups of coffee we have had while going through small-town gossip from back home in the hills, where some of us are from. It is milky with a hint of the sour from the curd, and vanishes within minutes. Every mouthful feels good for the soul.


I am tempted to order another plate, but by then we have made plans to go to Pecos, another of those ancient establishments, for beer. We are, all of us migrants from elsewhere, as close to local Bangaloreans as we could get that bright May afternoon.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On Afternoon Tea: In The Hindu Business Line

Last year (it's already become last year!), I was in York in England on holiday and bought myself afternoon tea, that extremely English tradition. There was too much clotted cream and too many sweet things but it was among the most English things I did. 

An essay I wrote about it for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk is here. See a slightly unedited version below. 

Published May 26, 2017.

ON AFTERNOON TEA


We seldom now live in times that grant us an hour which may, without a morsel of guilt, be spent in leisure and luxury sipping on tea. Delicately bending down to balance a slice of cake, thin and as light as air, between manicured fingers and nibbling at its edges while being scandalized by what Mrs X from the Club said to Mrs Y the other day. It smacks not least of anachronism but also of a feminine architype that though alive and well in several parts of the world in many mutated forms, still heckles the sensibilities of us modern feminists as stereotypes that should best be hurriedly tucked under the carpet before the liberals walk in. We live in various stages of denial, don’t we all?

And then to begin. There was tea for one and one for tea, late last year, one semi-cold autumn afternoon, in the very English town of York that was built by the Romans. How that came about was like this: The clipped accents of traditional England that arose, stern and almost disapprovingly, from the elderly participants of one of those package bus tours across countryside historic sites contrasted gaily with the new-to-college squads that still had school shopping to do at GAP and Boots and elsewhere. One could sit in a toasty café in The Shambles, the cobbled street flanked on both sides by overhanging timber-framed buildings, some surviving from the 14th C., and out of the way of hasty shopping tourists, to make informal notes on human behavior in that moment. And so one does, in a weathering leather traveler’s notebook. A well-chosen notebook is as important as the adventure itself, one has learnt to remember.

York is, as a friend called it, charming but twee, the American in him sounding as British as it gets. I have arrived from the Pennines that mid-morning, and in three hours or thereabouts, seen all there was to see and do in York. Just an afternoon and I have finished walking the town. I fret, for I have two and a half days more to spend here. I would rather be back in London, be this flaneuse there. Something about that city, like every damned cliché, worms itself into your heart and vamooses away with a pound of it, to hoard in its harem and never give back. But I am in someplace twee now, the only place I can practically be in. And so I walk, once this way and once the other way, backtracking, going in circles, passing by the same shops and open markets. I peep into objects of touristy desire and read titles off jackets of thick books I will never be able to carry back home. I stop to admire things and cakes on display, and pass by old people and people several generations young. I long for the easy warmth that the indoors would bring, for a glorious summer is reluctantly giving way to autumn just then; you can nearly see them passing the baton one to the other where the Micklegate Bar meets rush hour traffic. Yet I am happier, any day, in the outside, on foot, filing away sights, smells and sounds like a glutton. It is never enough.

Half of day two and some half dozen rounds around town later, it is just half past three and like they say on that island, everything stops for tea. I cannot recollect now what my lunch was, I haven’t included it in my notes. Maybe it was something commonplace like a salad, or a sandwich but it has filled me up, if I still remember this tale right. But it is the last day of my fortnight’s worth of holiday and what better way to tie the ends of this England experience with than in the indulgence of afternoon tea, I tell myself.

My loyalties lie unwaveringly with coffee. It feels necessary to say this, to reiterate this. My coffee country in the hills, much ironically carrying an epithet – Scotland of India - that links it to the land I am now walking, has my whole heart. No Darjeeling could ever match the indescribable fragrance of those white jewel-like flowers that erupt to birth mournfully red cherries. They will at some point then become the coffee that runs in my blood. On a postcard I buy for 50p, Verlaine’s words: “The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart a languorous monotone.”

Anything warm now though, tea will do just fine, thank you very much. Betty’s Café Tea Rooms is brimming with people, in all the four and quarter times I have passed before its full glass windows. I decide to be tardy tourist a little more in private instead and on a whim, walk past a larger than life teddy bear and a teddy bear shop – sickeningly sweet fluffy things on every inch – and climb the narrow flight of stairs to what in my mind has decided to remain a yellow tinged room. Lunch was a wee bit ago but I order the afternoon tea bravely at Stonegate Teddy Bear Tea Room. At 13.95 quid, that is how the locals name their money, it is among the more expensive snacks I’ve allowanced for myself. The pound is low and fear of the outsider is high, in those weeks just after Brexit.

In about the 1840s, Anne, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began to ask staff to schedule tea and snacks at about 4pm in her boudoir because she would feel hungry between breakfast and dinner. Those were the austere days of two square meals a day. Soon invitations for “tea and a walking the fields” began to be sent to her other well-heeled friends. Tea soon moved to the drawing rooms, and when weather permitted, to the lawns and gardens of country homes. Pausing for tea became a fashionable social event and by the 1880s, upper class women turned up to these in the season’s must have long gowns, gloves and hats. While men did partake in the leisurely tradition, it remained a feminine activity. The picture of domesticity, of delicate-ness and the fragile, of the fashionable and the flimsy, qualities that were inevitable in the Victorian woman of a certain stature, hallmarks the afternoon tea.

My tea room overlooks the Shambles street, and I make notes on how the tradition brings to my mind a very British lady, prim and proper in her chiffon and pearls, stringing along her perfectly clipped sentences to companions as she gossips about the neighbor ladies. Years of reading Victorian and English literature growing up pours into what I know will one day likely be my Proustian madeleine moment. The foreign land of the past. And there I am in my scruffy traveler clothes – a cheap pair of jeans, a tee, a sweater that is now loose at the sleeves, my trustee old jacket that has been with me from the Himalayas to the north east of my country and here and elsewhere. And old shoes from another lifetime ago that I will discard, shedding the last of old skin, outside a metro station in London. There isn’t anything ultra-feminine or quaint about me, though I almost wish there was.

The culture of tea rooms, by the next century, had become more commonplace. Lyons Tea Rooms optimized the English sentiment and identity of the time – gallantry, sophistication and wholly civilized or what some half of the world would see it as – imperialistic, snobbish and operating of slavery. Nippies, waitresses in iconic uniforms, so named for the way they nipped about serving at great speeds, became national icons. Empowered, independent, yet, compulsorily pretty women who had to be unmarried to don the uniform. By the 1920s, use of their imagery and other attractive females to sell products was established in the advertising world. Alongside was the stereotype of the tea lady, whose sole job was to sell beverages and snacks in offices, as the popular gossip who leaked important trade secrets. Narratives of the female go round and round in circles, no mystique there.

The tea I order has by now arrived in a pale white pot and three tiers of open sandwiches, dainty little cakes, slice of Victorian sponge, strawberries, pot of jam, macaroons and more clotted cream than I ever want to see again. The waitress is Italian, from a village tinier than York, and here for better wages, to practice English, I overhear her telling a couple at the next table. They turn to admire my tea, as do I, before I endeavor to finish it. So much cream! I couldn’t possibly. Clumps of it get leftover. The rest of it is too sweet for me, but finish it, I do.

I read later that afternoon teas are holiday or anniversary indulgences these days, another relic that is nudged now and then to fluff the air of tradition and nostalgia around. I read too that young women are baking cupcakes and donning pearls and chiffons more, in rebellion against ‘modern’ womanhood, taking back domesticity and embracing the gossip.

Me? I walk some more, to burn off tea, wondering what everyone is doing back home, as I step on to those old cobbled streets.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Curd Rice: A Short Primer

Something written for someplace that didn't quite work out.

CURD RICE

This must have been a good five years before I started drinking and waking up the next morning searching, even mildly hoping for a hangover, if only to truly sympathize with the rest of the gang. They had all started drinking a decade before I, and their livers were less forgiving than mine.

I am most certain I would have woken up in that distant past in a small lightless house in a city in southern India and realized that I did not, at that point, care much for cooking. (It would change of course, everything would change.) I had just started living by myself and needed, however, to feed myself. The easiest thing to make, that morning, like countless other mornings in those early years of heady independence that adulthood brought, would have been curd rice.

There is a technical difference between curd and yoghurt, the latter a late discovery in the western world as a favoured semi-dessert of sorts. But the difference is not important. You may be forgiven if you use the words interchangeably.

At its simplest, curd rice is just curd mixed in with cooked rice. Add salt to taste. Eat with pickle or papad. This incredibly humble dish is deceptive in the cult fandom it inspires, especially in southern parts of India. In these constantly tropical climes, in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, if you should ask for more specifics, we treat curd as a final padlock to the digestive system. It is the last thing we eat at a meal, even after a dessert sometimes. We know that it cools down the tongue after the dance of spices from other dishes, and aids in digestion. Elsewhere in the country, curd is a drink, a dessert or a minor ingredient among an array of things to throw into the production of a recipe.

It is soul food.

Over the years, starting at lazy mornings when proper breakfasts were not an option to later, on mornings after nights of debauchery, I discovered that curd rice could work very well to soothe down hangovers and give that boost of brief life needed to get us back home in last night’s clothes, into our own beds. Over the years we learned to jazz it up a bit. Curd rice was now,

- with sesame seeds spluttered and chopped onions fried till translucent in coconut oil, with chopped tomatoes for the colour, and topped with fresh coriander leaves,

- with halved seedless green/black grapes and/or jewel-like pomegranate seeds and/or raisins and cashew nuts lightly toasted in ghee,

- with grated carrots and bits of this or that vegetables,

- combinations and permutations of the above.

Purists, like mother, would scoff at curd rice being breakfast. It ended a meal, she would say, it was not the meal itself. But then she didn’t drink, or have hangovers, or ever have the option in the joint family she married into to have lazy mornings when dinner could be passed off as breakfast.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Jar of Creme

That cheque is long overdue, and I haven't worked enough these past weeks to be able to afford a big jar of the organic, natural moisturizer I otherwise use. 

Sunscreen lotion had sufficed all harsh summer. 

It rained last night, a big, bad storm that made me want to go out and open my face to the blasting skies. But adults don't do that. 

The weather is turning and I will need moisturizer. So while out to buy milk this morning I bought the smallest jar of light moisturizer I could find. It is small and fits into my palm, like it was somehow right. 

I opened it this morning after my bath and peeled off the inner cover. I took a smidgen of it and worked it into my legs - I wore shorts today, I have never had a fondness for much clothes, you know. I added another blob onto my arms, darker now after the few weeks in the sun all day everyday in the mountains, the colour of caramel that is just underdone. 

"The unfreckled skin, tinted tea and clotted cream, honey gold, or a rich, brooding coffee." (Sarita Mandanna, Tiger Hills)

I brought my hand up to my nose after I had closed the jar and put it away on the shelf in the bedroom. It smelled like teenhood, when this creme was the luxuriest thing for the skin I could find in my little town. This made me smile. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Show Up


The only reason to be a writer is because you have to.
~ Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hampi, the New Hippie Haven: In The Hindu Business Line

I could go to Hampi every year and still never get enough of that place. There is something mesmerising about the rocks there. We went biking to Hampi a few weeks ago and camped and watched the sun set behind rocks from near a temple and lay down on our backs and talked and had a wonderful time.

I came back and wrote an essay on how Hampi is the new hippie haven and the next Goa, of sorts. It was published on March 17, 2017 in The Hindu Business Line's wonderful supplement BLInk.

Read it here or see below. 

HAMPI IS WHERE THE PARTY IS TONIGHT 

Thanks to the wannabe hippie atmosphere that Hampi actively promotes, it is now the unofficial heir to rave capital Goa

Haalu Hampi (or ruined Hampi), as we call it in Kannada, has always made me feel like a voyeuristic member of an audience watching the high drama of the empire’s life and thereafter existence being performed in a loop. I feel like I am inspecting the ruins to judge, to take surreptitious notes in my notebook and make many half-hearted photos from the same angles as everyone before and after me. I feel as if I am there in the theatre vaguely wondering if I have got my money’s worth yet. I cannot explain why this land makes me feel like I am interrupting something. The surrealistic expanse of it and the possibilities the rocks are known to hold are its magic perhaps. Returning from the new Goa of the south, I have always felt slightly ashamed and utterly mesmerised. Love can sometimes be like that.

From the excesses that wash up on the shores of Goa, it is a straight line inland to reach Hampi. The parties, the backpacks, the dreads, the harem pants and the odd-sized doobies oscillate between the two hippie havens seamlessly. One has no beaches, the other has no ancient ruins or Russian mafia lords. Not yet. Not yet discernibly, rather.

This most recent time I am there with a bike, a tent, a partner in tow and with an intention to camp somewhere. The only safe place is within a guest-house surrounded by cottages, we discover. The tent opens to paddy fields and there is a dog that barks through most of the night. There is nothing more to the camping story here, except that it was lovely and that I will now want to camp only in places with a view.

Not so lovely are the causes and effects of Virupapara Gaddi (spelled variously across different websites), on the other side of the river from Hampi the village, where nirvana-seekers bay at the full moon from underneath boulders, clutching what they can of the sweet release that is promised to them by event managers and other mercenaries. Much later I will discover that nearly every single structure on the Gaddi is illegal, but well-greased machineries keep them going and thriving year after year.

Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the village that draws mostly two kinds of visitors — one the pilgrims, mostly from surrounding districts who revere Virupaksha, the god who presides, and two, tourists who come from big cities for a few days, find it too hot (it is always too hot in Hampi), hire mopeds to get around, buy psychedelic printed bohemian things, ‘chill’ and leave. The weekend hippies. The third kind will eventually cross the Tungabhadra river, smarting from the gross commercialisation of Hampi, to merge into the unpoliced boulders at night. A majority will be from overseas, travelling through gap years and finding that yoga-music-peace-salvation is pocket-friendly and readily packaged here by reluctant but enterprising locals.

The guest-house where we have pitched our tent is old and famous. Possibly listed in Lonely Planet too. There is a new bridge from Hampi that goes through a few villages and many fields. It had been for long a contentious project, given that the site of the former majestic Vijayanagara Empire is a protected area and most constructions are banned.

A few years ago, the shacks and shops that lined the road to the main temple were razed to the ground, famous restaurants on the banks of the river were instructed to shut shop, in the same way that they were known to shoo, albeit politely, Indian tourists after sundown. Foreigners were preferred. This was an old personal experience. Indians were unwelcome, a sentiment that continues to be vehemently denied, but is expressed in not so subtle ways.

The new road, which drastically shortens the distance between this side and that side of the river, runs along some deeply disturbing quarries, but expansive vistas that are green and happy still dominate, for now. An old man in saffron and dreadlocks calls out — ‘bhaiyya’ — and directs us to where we need to go, before we even ask. We find it highly amusing. All roads clearly lead to one place. The faster way is to take a boat or a coracle across the river from Hampi. In summer, it isn’t difficult to hop over stones and walk across either. While the boatman waits for more passengers to fill the boat, some climb onto a rock and light up a joint. It is so common a sight and scent that no one looks their way. That rave parties are a common feature at certain locations is not news. Everywhere, there are police-issued warnings against smoking what the locals call ‘masala’ cigarettes. The smell of this masala hangs in the air, everywhere.

The first rave-related story we hear is early one morning when we wait for the cooks to make us tea. A tall guy — from Delhi, he soon tells us — walks in with a bunch of bananas, a chocolate bar, a rolled-up mat and a big backpack. We recall he was at the café attached to the guest-house with a few friends until closing time last evening. An argument between him and the manager starts to heat up and we soon find ourselves in the middle of it, owing to language issues, trying to soothe things over. All before a dose of morning caffeine, sigh. A month or so ago, a large rave event, with some 300-400 people, opened somewhere among the rocks — the address for these things is always vague — and was raided by the police after a few days.

The manager tells us that no one knows where all the people went. They just merged into the rocks, he says. In the first few days, they would wake up to find that people had spent the night on hammocks that most guest-houses have outside their cottages for their guests. These people, the manager stereotypes them, spend the days hanging around in different cafés, hoping to catch the fancy of rich, single travellers who might take care of their expenses. At night they retreat under the rocks. The Delhi fella, who claims to be from an illustrious family, is trying to do the same, we are told. He does not exactly deny it.

The manager is from a neighbouring village, dresses hip and speaks English with an accent. A heavy accent, sometimes with a lilt, peppered with endearments and slang, is consistent among the staff at all cafés. It creates an English that is its own new language.

The local boys are all dudes, deriving a new language and a new image for themselves. A lot of them get close to foreigners — it is another ticket out of the village. Many of the travellers hang around for months, making bits and bobs of macramé dreamcatchers and jewellery or teaching yoga in exchange for a meal or a cheap room. One evening when we walk along the shops at Virupapara Gaddi, we spy a priest conducting what we assume is a service before Sabbath for the Jew travellers. The signboards are in Hebrew, the gathering doesn’t look like it would welcome us. Someone passes us by, talking into a phone in Hindi that he is tired of smoking up. We continue to be amused. The shopkeepers ignore us because we won’t pay in dollars, euros or pounds.

Mercenary is a hard tonic to swallow. The locals like the money that tourism of a certain kind brings, but it doesn’t go down easy that the social system has changed beyond recognition because of it. Techno and lounge music floats from cafés that serve ravioli and pasta, all spelled wrong.

Money is flowing fast and loose, as much from tourism as from the parties and the things that are supplied. Money comes with its own cause and effects.

It isn’t hard to understand why Hampi is the new Goa. It is extremely hard to police the region, for there are more than enough places to merge into. The rocks are of sizes that climbers come every year to practise on. The locals both detest the hippies and need the money they spend.

It happens to be a full moon night during our stay. The café is nearly empty, save for a family and an old couple engrossed in books. The father in the family orders one beer for himself and chicken things for the whole family. You can see that it is an occasional treat for him, the beer. At another party somewhere on top of a hill, the others must be howling at the moon, faces upturned.

Review of Kochi-Muziris Biennale: In Hyperallergic

We went to Kochi and saw the Biennale earlier this year. I love that little place, and the old warehouses are breathtaking. But the Biennale itself was very meh. I had had more expectations from the curator Sudarshan Shetty.

I wrote a review of it for the New York headquartered Hyperallergic. It is a joy working for them, with the attention to the edits they give and the kind words they always have.

Read it here (more photos), or see below. Published March 08, 2017.



SEEKING CONNECTIONS THAT AREN'T THERE AT THE KOCHI-MUZIRIS BIENNALE

The curator for the third edition of India’s first art biennial, Sudarshan Shetty, has brought together some strong works that don’t resonate with each other in any way.



Voldemārs Johansons, “Thirst” (2015), still from single-channel video, 5.1 sound, fog, dimensions variable

KOCHI, India — I could start with clichés, as many do when writing about Kerala, the southernmost state of India, which tourism officials have dubbed “God’s own country.” But I will note, instead, the dangerous road manners I encountered en route from a picturesque village in northeast Kerala to Ernakulam, the state’s modern metropolis, home to malls and metro lines, and host, on the island of Fort Kochi, to India’s first art biennial. Travelers and merchants have followed ancient routes to arrive on the island’s shores for millennia now. The latest reason to set sail is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale(KMB), currently in its third edition.

Founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu in 2010, and named partly after the lost port of Muziris — which is believed to have been the region’s hub of trade before its disappearance — KMB is always curated by artists. This distinctive tradition will likely come under closer scrutiny in light of the Biennale’s current outing, which is sorely unable to match the ambitions of its curator, the artist Sudarshan Shetty.

The curatorial theme of the current Biennale, Forming in the pupil of the eye, is derived from an old story about a young traveler who seeks a meeting with a wise sage to try to understand the complicated multiplicities of all that is. “[G]athering the world into the pupil of her eye,” Shetty writes in his curatorial note, “the sage creates multiple understandings of the world.” Accordingly, he writes, the Biennale is “an assembly and layering of multiple realities.” What that translates to, in the picturesque lanes of Fort Kochi and its many gorgeous venues, is a mishmash of works derived from multiple disciplines that somehow all stand in isolation, never coming together to form anything coherent.

The list of participating artists for the current KMB features an unusual and intriguing array of poets, musicians, dancers, and contemporary artists from 35 countries. When it was first released, I had eagerly anticipated discovering what such a gathering of artists might look like in rooms and hallways forever imbued (in my mind at least) with the aroma of the spice bags that must have passed through them. Now, several weeks after my visit to the current KMB, it is already hard to jog any individual work from memory and feel pleased to have seen it.

My first stop is Aspinwall House, the Bienniale’s main venue and the former headquarters of Aspinwall & Co Ltd. — a company established in 1867 that traded in in coconut oil, pepper, spices, coffee, rubber, and other goods. I soon find myself walking in and out of the rooms swiftly, with little to hold my attention.

Across the Bienniale’s lovely venues, there are several works that, when seen in isolation, are either thought-provoking, entertaining, engaging, or all of the above. Among the most memorable are the Russian collective AES+F’s sleek and silly three-channel video work “Inverso Mundus” (2015); Alicja Kwade’s intriguing concrete wall and mirror installation “Out of Ousia” (2016), which plays with perceptions of what is original and what is a replica; and Padmini Chettur’s video installation “Varnam” (2016), which explores the nostalgic remains of eroticism and romantic love — the term “varnam” referring to the central section in a classical Bharatanatyam dance performance.

My disappointment springs not so much from any individual work, but how they all feel when experienced together. The rooms frequently strewn with remnants of performances feel like I am arriving at a party after everyone has left for the night, while other installations feel like pages torn away from precious books to paste on the walls. The sentiment behind trying to preserve and document these ephemeral acts is appreciated, but it is really a case of trying too hard to please, and failing.

After treading in and out of several KMB venues, I arrive in a sparsely lit room where the Latvian artist Voldemārs Johansons’s “Thirst” (2015) is showing. A video of a stormy North Atlantic Ocean filmed in the Faroe Islands, the work is a single-shot visual capturing the sea in all its fury. Coupled with the waves’ frightening roars, the video truly envelops the visitor; it is threatening and immersive, drawing you in, spitting you out, relentlessly pulling and pushing. It is a powerful experience and I know my memory of it will endure. The anger in the piece and its strange beauty mingle with the sentiments I have developed for the Biennale as a whole and the haunting allure of its venues, most of which are only accessible to the public during KMB’s three-month run. Being alone in these gorgeous buildings, standing in their upper rooms and watching the ships go by in the near distance, hearing the waters churning, and smelling the spaces’ evocative aromas, makes me glad that I am here. In these moments, the Biennale recedes.

Between a dozen main exhibition spaces, several smaller venues, collateral events, and the Student Biennale, there is much to see at KMB. As I make my way around Fort Kochi, I find myself looking up at the tall roofs and watching out from the expansive docks at the rear of the buildings instead of into the rooms and at the works. Nothing seems to fit anywhere.

Later — much later — my companions and I are sitting around a table over cold beer and a passable dinner, dissecting the day. It is a very pleasant evening in late January. There is a tiny pool near our table, and a Christmas tree made with sticks and lights that is much prettier than my description makes it sound. The conversation goes round and round, and the question that arises is: can language be visual art? There is no reason why it cannot be, but it certainly isn’t at KMB. The distance from one work to the next, from one venue to another, is the time the viewer has to process and ruminate on each experience. In this interim space between viewing each work, it’s the responsibility of the curatorial theme to facilitate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence between otherwise disparate works.

Shetty took a gamble when he sought to bring other creative disciplines into the Biennale’s visual context. Did it pay off? Unfortunately, no. The latest edition of KMB is a brave experiment that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. But going to Fort Kochi — with its streets as old as time, its fabulous buildings and warehouses, and the river that runs through it — remains a grand aesthetic experience.

The 2016 edition of the Kochi–Muziris Biennale continues at locations throughout Kochi through March 29.

Bangalore's Burning Lakes: In The Guardian

Water bodies are not supposed to catch fire. But in Bangalore they do. I wrote a report on the Bellandur lake for The Guardian. The article went viral, with over 25,000 shares on social media and was trending number 1 on the Guardian Cities section of the website for some six days!

Here is hoping someone somewhere will do something about the lake.

Read here (with several links and more photos), or see below. Published on March 1, 2017.

CITY OF BURNING LAKES: EXPERTS FEAR BANGALORE WILL BE UNINHABITABLE BY 2025


(Photo credit: Aaditya Sood)

On the evening of Thursday 16 February, residents in the south-east part of Bangalore noticed huge plumes of smoke rising into the sky. The smoke was coming from the middle of Bellandur Lake – the biggest lake in the city at a little over 890 acres. They realised the seemingly impossible had happened: the lake had caught fire. Even fire fighters wondered how a blaze in water could be put out.

The fire in the lake burned for 12 hours and left behind a sinister black patch in the centre, according to some eye-witness accounts.

This is the new story of Bangalore – state capital, India’s Silicon Valley, and once upon a time, the “city of lakes”. The reasons why these lakes are able to catch fire begin to explain why scientists at the influential Indian Institute of Science believe Bangalore will be “unliveable” in a few years’ time.

A lethal mix of factors create an environment that merely requires the slightest of triggers for lakes to go up in flames. Untreated effluents pour into the waters from the many industries and homes on its banks, illegal waste disposal takes place on a large scale – often including rubbish which is set on fire – and invasive weeds cover large swathes of the lake in a thick green canopy.

The latest incident is not the first time the lake has caught fire; it happened in May 2015. A few days later, it was in the news again for being covered in snow-like froth, which began to swirl up in the summer wind, engulfing passers-by. The froth was the result of chemical waste dumped in the lake, and was toxic enough to crack windshields, wear the paint off car hoods and exacerbate the severe respiratory issues that have plagued citizens in recent years.

Dr TV Ramachandra, coordinator of the Energy and Wetlands Research Group at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has been studying the lakes in Bangalore, especially Bellandur and Varthur, for over two decades. He explains that an estimated 400-600 million litres of untreated sewage is let into the lake catchment every day, creating a toxic environment fertile for disasters like the fires and foam.

“The city overall generates between 1,400 and 1,600m litres per day of untreated sewage,” he says. “20-30m litres per day is generated from the apartments in the vicinity of Bellandur Lake. There are several invasive species like water hyacinths growing in the lake, thick enough to walk on. People dump solid waste on top of it. Because of the thickness, it creates an anaerobic environment in the water below, where methane is formed. It creates an ideal environment for catching fire.”

He believes there are too many agencies governing the lake, so they all blame each other for such incidents. “The Bangalore water supply and sewerage board should be held responsible for letting the untreated sewage into the water,” he says, adding that the onus should also be placed on the Karnataka state pollution control board for not regulating industries that have been draining their untreated sewage into the lake.

Although the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act require action to be taken over such matters, the government has mostly remained silent, while its departments have been passing the buck around. The National Green Tribunal has issued notices to all the agencies involved.

Long before it began its slow and painful death, Bellandur Lake was part of a clever water and irrigation system devised by the founders of Bangalore in the 1600s, giving it the “city of lakes” moniker. The streams formed at the top of surrounding valleys were dammed into man-made lakes by constructing bunds. Each of these lakes would harvest rainwater from its catchments and the surplus would flow downstream, spilling into the next lake in the cascade via storm water drains or raja kaluves. The bodies of water would in turn serve the needs of the population.

In the 1970s, there were still 285 lakes in the city, making it self-sufficient in its water needs. Today, however, there are just 194 lakes, and the large majority of them are sewage-fed. The rest have been lost to encroachments – by the Bangalore Development Authority, private real estate developers and illegal builders – to cater to the booming housing needs of a city of 10 million.

Bangalore has been subject to unchecked urbanisation in the wake of the IT sector-fuelled economic boom of the late 1990s. The many software companies that sprung up during the dotcom boom attracted hundreds of thousands of skilled IT professionals from across the country, with thousands more people moving from villages and small towns to the city in search of work.

According to studies by the IISc, rapid urbanisation and expansion between 1973 and 2016 caused a 1005% increase in paved surfaces and decline of 88% in the city’s vegetation, while water bodies declined by 85% between 2000 and 2014.

The rise of the IT sector has also created the problem of e-waste in the city: a 2013 report estimated that Bangalore produces 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. Although a formal recycling system for e-waste was set up, 90% of it is dealt with through the informal sector, which is harder to monitor. Unaware of the necessary safety measures, some incinerate the e-waste, releasing lead, mercury and other toxins into the air – and dump the rest, allowing pollutants to infiltrate the groundwater.

If one lake habitually catches fire, then another throws up thousands of dead fish every other summer. Ulsoor Lake, which doubles up as a picnic spot with boat rides and snack vendors on its banks, saw dead fish floating on its waters last yearowing to the pollution caused by untreated sewage and consequent depletion of dissolved oxygen.

The water pollution in Bangalore poses a serious threat to residents’ health and creates a chronic shortage of clean water for people to use. All in all, experts predict a severe water crisis which will make Bangalore uninhabitable by 2025, with residents potentially having to be evacuated.

In the aftermath of the latest fire, I spoke to Aaditya Sood, an IT professional who watched the flames from his 10th floor balcony. He said he had seen the lake being “choked” in the seven or eight years he has lived there. “I have two kids and respiratory issues are a problem,” he says. The toxins from the lake get into the air, according to Ramachandra, noting that the cases of lung-related medical conditions have increased drastically in the city recently.

Another resident, Vandana Sinha, who works for a consultancy firm, says the smoke from the fire almost immediately caused itchiness at the base of her throat. She had heard that seven to eight trucks worth of garbage was being dumped into the lake every night, adding to the lethal combination of pollutants in the waters.

Report after report by expert committees have recommended several short and long term measures for rescuing the city’s lakes. Stopping the dumping of garbage, treating sewage water before it is allowed into the lakes, checking encroachments and slowing the development agenda are top of the list.

In the next three years, if the same rate of development continues, the built up area in Bangalore is expected to increase from 77% to 93%, with a vegetation cover of a mere 3%. Ramachandra is determined to get the bureaucracy to act before it is too late. While the city may not fully cease to exist, without drastic improvement the other possibilities still sound impossibly grim.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Irony of the day: 

Just when I am about to by and by leave the city, I want to start writing on the strange humour, the tragedies, the complicated dystopian patheticity of these very cities. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Neighbours

February 15, 2017
V., Bangalore


The mad girl next door has started screaming again. It is precisely 10 o'clock at night, I swear it turned 10 pm when I directed my eyes to the right hand corner just now to see the time. How about that! I really wish she would stop screaming. She is not really mad, I suspect. Her parents did not probably tell her of neighbours and basic decorum that is becoming of human beings, when she was a child. Now she yells at the father and the father yells back. Her voice is very shrill, that makes it worse. When I saw her the first time, I found her to be snooty and with her nose up in the air, befitting of the just out of teens girl she is. 

She has friends over and then she is all sweet and coy. That grates my senses more. To the boy she is flirting with, I want to say, don't boy, she isn't the sweetheart you hope she is. I never hear the mother. I didn't think there was one, until the other day I saw a harried woman in a nightie that must have once been of some distinguishable colour staring out to the road. So a mother exists, I thought to myself. There is a grandmother, who is the older version of the mother, except that she wears a saree and a sweater over it, all days of the year. The grandmother is always cleaning something, I find, be it the trash or pushing away the fallen jacaranda flowers that the mid-morning has whittled. She spoke to me once, a few months ago after I got back from L. One sentence, asking me if I had gone to 'place'. I use an utterly literal translation, for the word ooru is really just out of town. I had nodded. After that, we went back to our lives.

I was probably taking out my anger on her, punishing her for not teaching the granddaughter manners by withholding from her the perfunctory smile I reserve for those that don't enter my live as much as hover around in the vicinity, forming the background.

The mad girl is still better than the man who would retch 45-50 times a day, into the night, who lived with a large family in the few rooms below the hole I used to live in earlier, I think to myself. I had counted. It is hard now to think that I ever lived there, once, not too long ago. The whole hole could fit into my studio now. Not really, but you know. It was a good hole though, the site of all the misadventures of that decade. All I have now to show for its hallowed walls is a hazy photo of the three of us, just before moving day. The boxes are all packed and we balanced three bottles of beer on a stool that would go into the truck as was, bagless. We would all still be friends for a few months after that too. But maybe the coffin began to be built that very day, one soundless February night, hotter than it is today, now.

Above the house with the mad girl are two houses, the inhabitants of one have not really interested me much. The other is a young, rather handsome couple with a darn cute son. I think the husband beats the wife, I can't be sure. I hear screams of the painful kind sometimes. It became an everyday affair until I began to wonder what I could do, and then stopped. I don't hear them much. Yesterday, I heard a little party, after many months. Maybe things are okay now. We had exchanged payasa once, when I first moved in. We now smile. But that is all. My hopes of being friends and inviting them over for parties just so that we could have other couple friends came to naught. 

I used to have more parties in that hole than here, in this badass house now. I needed others perhaps to wallow in those confined walls with me, here I am too jealous of the narrative I have built, to invite just about anyone in to trample and disrupt the eddies. Not yet.

On the other side of the street live two big houses. The husbands are some big people in the IT sector, it is very easy to tell. They have fancy cars and weekends off when they rarely come out of the house. They leave in the morning and come back late at night. The wives are friends with each other and do badminton and yoga class together, but they are jealous of each other too, you can tell. There is a beagle called S. in the bigger of the two big houses and I want to go cuddle the fellow. But the woman is the most unfriendly, and will be friends only with those that are from her land and speak her language. I can speak that language too, but the point is, she is snooty and rude and never ever smiles. She keeps very busy with a morning walk, three kids (a set of twins including), a husband, a dog that she is heard trying to make him obey, several classes for her and the kids, a car and bike of her own and occasional evenings out when it is the weekend. Maybe she has the problem with no name. 

(Cue - Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, now reading)

To the other woman I had once given two tiny plants from our erstwhile farm to grow. I never asked her if they took life in the pot I hope she put them in. 

Leaving my overly inquisitive but generally good landlady who lives with a strange son and a daughter below my house aside, in the list of neighbours, the old tall lanky quiet uncle comes last. He is always pottering around in his tiny passage of a garden and always nods exaggeratedly when we pass each other by. His wife sits out on a plastic chair in the evenings, to catch the last of the evening sun. When it is particularly cold, she suns herself on the terrace. When Rudra spots her, he barks and barks and barks and then whines, for me to chase her away from where he can still see her. I appease him with a biscuit. 

He gets way too many biscuits a day. I miss him, desperately. A home without a dog and books is just walls and roof. 

And that sums up an account of the neighbours that make up my source of casual acquaintances in this near-village. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Things of Interest Today

"Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives." James Salter

***

Malayalam is a bloody hard language, if you will pardon my French here. But learn it I shall, even if my tongue swells up in shock with over work.

***

Kathleen Alcott is current most favourite writer. And Gloria Kiconco who is also a friend.

***

For a brief few seconds, we rode behind a jeep filled in the back with soldiers in camouflage holding really big long guns. In the mayhem that is this city's traffic, I was allowed a direct sight into the eye of the gun. They seemed like they would be trigger happy. It was a deeply disturbing sight. In a country that does not officially have a war underway, in a city that is peaceful save for road rage and pub noise, surely there is a law that says you can't shove a gun into the faces of the people riding behind you on a bike?

***

It feels freaking good to write these words. At. This. Moment.

Here.

***

I learnt how to make a single sheet 8-page booklet. Pretty darn proud because I have never been very crafty. Now I will go make more and/or write something in the one I made with a yellow coloured page.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reviewing Laksmi Pamuntjak's Amba: In TNIE Today

Read it here on the website of The New Indian Express' magazine section, or see below.

LAKSMI PAMUNTJAK'S AMBA

Novels that are based on the epics are a trend that, if you ask me, should have long seen a natural demise of readers, and importantly, writers’ interest. While stories that imagine newer possibilities for old-as-time characters are an effective tool to eke out lesser explored nuances and to assign ambitions and –isms to known versions of the parables, they have reached a point of overdone-ness. A brownie left in the oven five minutes too long. Still probably great with afternoon tea, but you know, you wish you had taken it out sooner.

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s debut novel Amba: The Question of Red is almost one such book. It retells the story of Amba, who, in the Mahabharata, loved Bhisma but could not marry him. The weight of that Amba’s destiny and the inevitable repercussions of her circumstances is a baggage Pamuntjak’s Amba struggles to comprehend, and mend. The devastation of her stories and her loves plays out in the backdrop of a little known (in this country at least) history of Indonesia’s incarceration of some 12,000 Communists, without due trial in the prison camps of Buru Island during the Suharto dictatorship in the 1960s-70s. Introduction to this side of the story of what they say is the world’s largest Muslim nation is what makes Amba an interesting read. Reading it in India, fed as we are all of our lives with stories of the epics, the epics that we share with Indonesia, is equally enjoyable, for it allows the reader to relate to the characters more easily, even while being able to pay attention to the subtle differences in the narratives of how the familiar stories are told here and there.

The story oscillates between the childhood, the affairs of her youth and the present widowhood of Amba, respectively placed in rural Java, then Europe and then the Buru Island. The beautiful Amba is set to marry Salwa, as ideal a match as her family could have hoped for. On a volunteering trip she meets and has a brief affair with Bhisma, a doctor who leans firmly left. The relationship is not meant to last. Amba is then seen marrying a scholar. Cut to the present in the novel when she is a widow journeying to Buru and thereabouts, accompanied by a young Samuel, trying to piece together as much of Bhisma’s life as she can, through meetings with his friends and acquaintances, through the unsent letters he wrote to her, through the unsavoury history of Buru and its people.

Written in Indonesian and translated into English by the author herself, there are several parts that hint at what the novel could have been, if only…If the novel is riddled with anachronistic writing in some places, then elsewhere, there are metaphors so poorly thought of (“…gawked at each other’s nipples, marveling at how they could become so hard when poked, like cooked mung beans.”), that they ruin any measure of smooth sailing in the storytelling that has been achieved until then. Amba is a valuable novel for the tales of the incarceration that it researches into. Read alongside the life of Amba, it allows the reader stray peeks into what the jacket promises it is – a devastating novel of love and redemption, empathy and forgiveness – but stops quite a measure short of being all that.

On Karan Acharya's Saffron Hanuman Stickers

Angry is a word I am right now. The final edits to this piece when it was published in Scroll was very, very different from what the piece was intended to be. Much to my chagrin, it was trending on the website too for a few days. I shall refrain from saying more because I am certain I will only say too much. 

Posting only the original piece here below.


We have famous standstill traffic problems in Bengaluru here. Occasions when engines are killed and drivers look around to vaguely nod at neighbours in mutual irritation and exasperation has slipped from rush hour routine to all day mundanity now. There are, thus, plenty of minutes for me to mentally count the number of large saffron and black images of Hanuman that are pasted proudly on motorbikes and cars – both private and cabs – these days. The ‘angry Hanuman’ stickers are everywhere - viral, if you should want to use the new technical term – on watch dials, t-shirts, as laptop skins and other whatnots.

The image, vector style, is positively angry, or so I choose to read it. It feels appropriate to invoke John Berger here now, a paying homage too in a sense, after his recent passing. The art critic and thinker spoke of seeing that comes before words, of images that surround and engulf us in the same way that a language surrounds us. The new ‘language of images’ that he wrote about in the seminal text Ways of Seeing is as necessary in the age of viral images as it was in the quieter 1970s that he wrote his work in.

The way I see this new popular Hanuman image – angry, confrontational, on the offensive - is not in tandem with what its creator Karan Acharya says it should be read as. Acharya is a designer and graphic artist from Kumble village in Kasaragod, the northernmost district in Kerala. “In 2015 a group of boys called Aryan boys in my village asked me to design something different to put on the flag for Ganesh Chaturthi festival,” Acharya begins, speaking to me over the phone from Mangaluru, where he works. Every year the flag they hoisted in the village had the Om symbol. Acharya kept putting off creating something, busy that he was at work, until they insisted he give them something the very next day. “It was around 11.30-12 in the night when I designed this face,” he tells me. He could finish only the face, though he is working on designing the full body for Hanuman at the moment. Up went the image on the flag and very soon his friends began to put it up as their display and profile pictures on social media accounts and chatting apps.

Over the next year it snowballed into a fully democratized image and began to adorn the rear windows of vehicles in Bengaluru, its ubiquity coming as a great surprise to Acharya on his last visit to the capital. “Since I designed this image for friends, I hadn’t put any watermark on it,” Acharya said, explaining that he was deriving absolutely no royalty from its use in different merchandise. He was approached by a US-based company to sign away exclusive right of use, he says, but did not feel right to do that, more so because so many people were already using it.

Did you intend the Hanuman to be angry, I ask him. “It is not angry at all. My friends had told me to design something with an attitude, a Hanuman without a smile. My Hanuman is not angry, it is just attitude Hanuman,” Acharya insists.

Deities with such an attitude are more common than one would think; such visual language older. Philip Lutgendorf is Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature, and the author of Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Hanuman, the “default deity”, has for long taken the das and the veer forms. “Hanuman is an inclusive god, and is worshipped by both the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas. To the Shaivas, he is the 11th avatar of Rudra with the Raudra roopa (angry or aggressive face). This too is an old idea, and goes back at least a thousand years in as far as textual sources are concerned,” he explains, over a video call from somewhere in Maharashtra.

Acharya’s Hanuman has been embraced with open arms by those leaning right. He has told me earlier that some Hindutva groups have appreciated the image. Is the flaunting of it easier, more defiant and more representative of unexpressed sentiments in a political ecology that is as charged as it is, I have been curious. Prof Lutgendorf will tell me towards the end of our conversation that he tries very hard not to be reductive. “Not to reduce an image like that to a very simple message. We are living in the age, unfortunately, of simple messages when prime ministers and presidents communicate by tweets….Images can carry a lot of different messages to different people,” he says.

Images are text. And they can a history narrate. Prof Lutgendorf tells me, “The rise in devotion for Hanuman has been going on for quite a few centuries and has gotten intensified in the 20th century probably in the same way that just about all religious activity in India has gotten intensified. But none of this (is) specifically tied to a kind of Hindutva or anti-minority message. But it can easily be. I don’t argue with the possibility that it gets interpreted that way.”

Acharya’s image seems aimed at the youth and has a graphic novel look to it, he adds. Girish Kumar, whose cab I got into the other day on the way to somewhere, seemed to be in about his mid-20s. He sported the Hanuman on the back of his car and I asked him why he was attracted to it. “It is now in fashion, medam,” he told me, adding, “It is a strong, powerful look too.” The popularity of this image is what Srinath, who owns a shop that sells stickers in my neighbourhood, is cashing in on; politics are not really on his mind. “A lot of youth started asking for this sticker, and I have it in different sizes now. Maybe it is a fashion now, maybe something else will be in fashion in a few months, I don’t know. I have to keep things that are in demand, it is good for business,” he says. The vinyl stickers sell for anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 300, depending on size, while tees can go for up to Rs 900 a pop online.

Images of deities, what can be classified as calendar art, have had a long history, starting with the works of Raja Ravi Varma in the late 19th century, and moving along with images from S S Brijbasi & Sons which continue to be copied. Some early muscular images of Hanuman were influenced by the pehelwans, like Gama the Great in pre-independent India, who won several international competitions and “was an expression of Indian strength and masculinity,” Prof Lutgendorf says. The ‘H H Hanuman’ or ‘Hairless Humanised Hanuman,’ as he calls these images, begin to appear in the 1930s and 40s, the only signs of his kapitva, or monkeyhood being his lower simian face and the tail. Post-liberalisation, with body-building and gyms replacing the akhadas, “you begin to see Hanuman that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, (with) really exaggerated muscle. Is it connected with Hindutva macho? It can be, if you want to read it that way,” he says.

Referring to bhoodevis and village guardian deities that require alcohol, blood sacrifice, Prof Lutgendorf talked of folk gods, adding, “There is a huge tradition of violent and angry deities.”

“Images of deities change, conceptions of deities change with changing popular culture, changing popular political developments…Deities have lives, they have biographies. Images are hard to read. What you see as angry, someone else may not see that way. It is in the eye of the beholder. Darshan is in the eye of the beholder,” he explains to me.

The designer Karan Acharya is working on a comic book, the story set 10,000 years from now, with his now famous Hanuman and other characters, old and new. There just might be an animation movie as well. Maybe, no, most likely this is another passing fad. There will, undoubtedly, be others.

In this post-truth environment, it is tempting to be reductive of such fads, by choosing to read them alongside the politics of the day. Some would argue that post-truth is another fad that is also passing us by. But that is another story for another day, like they say. And then I turn to John Berger again - “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” In a politically charged society, it is tempting to try to find easy answers to complexities, you know?

Thursday, February 09, 2017

When I had to repeat my order thrice to the waiter at the local, and after he had turned his back to our table, my friend said to me that I was not really very audible. "Your voice was very soft," she said. She did not mean it as a compliment of any measure, I could see. 

I had heard this said of me before. Something I might be reading aloud for the partner, because he 'reads' better that way, was not loud enough, he had complained. Yet, I argued, with him and her now, that my voice sounded rather loud in my head. In the quietness of my studio when I articulated some sentences before I was to type or after the words had already been birthed on screen, my voice would pierce the air, sharp, intrusive like a rude shock. I had always thought my intonation was loud enough to cut through the thick of a roomful of speech, and had always until now remembered to speak softer, mindful.

Maybe I didn't have to remember these things, after all, I wondered.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Visiting Haworth, Bronte Country: In Hindu Businessline

In my head I have written this article with much more melodrama. Visiting Haworth and the famous moors in Yorkshire, England was a lifelong dream. That is where the Bronte sisters - Charlotte, Emily and Anne - lived and wrote most of their books. For some strange reason I had never wanted to visit any literary place as much as Haworth, perhaps because it seemed more inaccessible than most. And then one day in late September earlier this year I went there and it was overwhelming and one day I will write about how overwhelming it was. For now, here is something I wrote for Hindu Businessline's lovely supplement BLInk.

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

Published December 10, 2016. 

MEET THE BRONTES

An English village where the three illustrious sisters lived their short lives, and the wild, temperamental moors that gave us dark, complex characters

There have been many beginnings to this piece. Written and discarded, again and again. None seemed wholly right and I have abandoned them, sent them to join the ranks of false beginnings, words that I had decided did not replicate the language that was tumbling over itself in a hurry in my head, describing things, feeling what I felt.

Perhaps the beginning was really 20-something years ago when as a girl growing up in the hills without enough books to match a voracious reading habit, I reached for, wayyyy before I was meant to, grandfather’s library and met the Brontes sisters. Before the Brontes there were the Russians. But that is not a story that has a place here, today. The beautiful hardbound books with black and gold covers felt too heavy in my hands, I remember. But perched upon a windowsill with Stewart Hill in the background, these classics felt familiar, like it was a story from a slightly eccentric aunt’s backyard. The mountains outside were a reassurance, but the moors would soon take over. Though, it was only a month or so ago that I understood what a moor was, 20-something years after I mouthed that word to myself aloud in a Google-less world, wondering which planet’s landscape it might most closely resemble. I was as much into astronomy in those days as I was into writers whose lives were as dramatic as the heroines they wrote.


And then, many, many years later I found my way to Haworth, where these writers, long recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature, lived. The Bronte sisters – Charlotte, whose 200th birth anniversary is this year (no, the trip wasn’t planned to commemorate that, I promise), Emily and Anne Bronte. And their brother Branwell who tried to paint but failed and then tried to be a drunk and succeeded and died from that success, and their father Patrick who was the curate at the church and though a frail, sickly man, outlived all the children and died an octogenarian. They all lived in this big stone house behind the church, which was called Parsonage because that is what a house allotted to members of the clergy was called. There was, and is, a cemetery in front, which must have been a depressing and all too realistic sight to wake up to every morning, I imagine. But then there were the moors behind the house and they were bleak, cold, windy and maddeningly inspiring, so maybe the tombs weren’t that bad after all.

So they all lived in this big house with an aunt who moved in to help raise the children after Mama Bronte died. Largely ignored by the adults, the Bronte siblings took to making up and then writing down stories and poems in miniscule handmade books, some of which are on display at National Portrait Gallery, London. I went and spent an hour peering into these books and the many drawings and paintings the siblings made – their art, though not at the level of genius as their books – was still mighty skilled. Or so I think. I could forgive the Brontes all follies, as you can tell.

There are a few samples on display at the Parsonage too, now a museum housing their possessions. The rooms are recreated to near likeness of how they must have looked when the family lived there, down to the wallpapers. The kitchen has model bread in the oven, a hand towel hurriedly thrown on the table, a plate set for breakfast, a cupboard with the family’s china on display. The dining room was where the children sat around and amused themselves with stories set in an imaginary kingdom of Angria and where later the girls would write their masterpieces – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. The tea cosy sits atop the table that continues to bear the signs of constant use, and it seems like the sisters will be back any minute now, to discuss their writings with each other till about 11 o’clock every night.

There are portraits, furniture, artist boxes, drawings, books, penknives, letters and this and thats that fill the museum. Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, faded now, made her look like ‘a little snowdrop’, villagers’ accounts of her wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls say. And because it is her bicentenary year, there are a few installations that respond to the idea of the miniature in her world, curated by the writer Tracy Chevalier. Another writer, Grace McCleen, was chosen as a writer-in-residence for ’16 (lucky woman!) and published Every Sounding Line, a collection of poetry as a result of the residency. Excerpts are printed and strewn on mantle pieces and window sills throughout the house. I see all this, twice over, once hurrying through because it is nearing closing hour and the next day taking more time than I have ever taken in any other museum.


Your impossible greatness, 



invisible yet present,



in the impossibly small.

The Parsonage, fronted by the church, sits atop a steep road that is the Main Street of Haworth, set with setts.Picturesque photographs of the old street, flanked on both sides by cute little shops selling thingamabobs and old pubs are good for the Haworth brand. The Brontes are very good for business. Apart from the well -stocked Parsonage gift shop, the rest of the village sells more Bronte souvenirs, from jewelry and vintage clothes to books to candles and more thingamabobs and my favourite, jams and jellies inspired by characters from the famous novels. The Black Bull public house (pub as we know these places today), sitting by the entrance to the church, is where the brother Bronte is said to have spent many an hour trying to drown his failure in drink. Opposite that is The Apothecary, a 17th century building now also a hotel that I spend a night at, was where Branwell bought his laudanum from, they say. A red telephone box, so typically British, is in another corner, opposite one cute little Post Office. When you stand in the middle of the road and look out, there are the hills and moors, there in the distance. Everything looks like a movie set; they have good reason to keep it so, given the hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Some are research scholars, some are fans like me, treating this as a literature nerdy pilgrimage, and a lot are Japanese – there is, inexplicably, a very large number of Japanese tourists that come to Haworth every year. So high are these numbers that directions to the moors and Bronte sights are carved into the signboards in Japanese.




After marveling at tiny shoes and tinier books and marveling at how these kinds of things hold so much interest for a fan, pedestrian as I would have snootily called such endeavors, had it been anything else, another writer even, I head to the moors, seeking The Bronte Way. There is a well-marked path on one side of the parsonage, past a kissing gate, past two friendly, and huge, grazing horses, past ewes on green, green pastures (all too damned picture postcard-like, I grumble into the wind). It is not too late in the morning and there are several joggers and walkers about, most with their dogs. The moors are, to borrow McCleen’s words, ‘…a sea of swells entwined as if fingers in prayer.’

For the three plus months that I have spent in this island country, I have been incredibly lucky with the weather. The famous English summer has been exceedingly good and I realize I am tempting fate, every passing day. It has been mostly sunny and happy as I wind myself down south from high up in the Scottish Highlands. The day I am to walk the moors, a slow drizzle starts. It is nearing autumn and heather, the pink flower of independence that carpet the moors, are dying. By the time I cross the road and find myself on a path, the wind picks up. It is cold, very cold and windy and raining and I just want to go all English and demand a warm fire and a hot ‘cupatea’. I was to walk to Top Withens, a ruin that, even though there is near conclusive proof that it is not so, is popularly believed to have inspired Emily’s portrayal of the Earnshaw house in Wuthering Heights. There is a waterfall and a bridge along the way, a rock where Emily is believed to have sat, gathering ideas. I am too unprepared for this sudden turn in weather and scurry back, seeing the ruins from a distance, somewhere beyond the haze. Appropriate though, I later think, to see the moors the way they were described by the Brontes, as moody, as wild, as perfection. That is the way I will want to remember them.


The sisters walked the moors a lot. I am, like scores before me, trying to look for answers: for how they managed to write such feministic texts from that tiny non-descript village, for what is it about the moors that inspired them to birth such complex, dark characters, for how these shy Victorian women, with all the trappings that came with that age, wrote such fierce, independent heroines, making them radically feministic and ahead of their times by several decades. I am presumptuous of course. As if these answers would speak to me or
…reach with the tip of its finger



to graze my skin with its alien own.


Standing there, with their beloved moors all around me, I believe, like McCleen writes, that if their spirit lives anywhere at all, it must be here and not in the village or the church or the house. I wait for a while. I am not sure for what. But

Instead of a haunting

I was forced to admit

I was extraordinarily

alone.

And so it ends. A beginning that begun 20-something years ago.




How to get there:

The nearest mainline railway station is Keighley, from where there are frequent 'Bronte buses' available to Haworth village, a distance of about 4 miles away. The nearest airport is Leeds. Both are very well connected by trains, flights and coach from London.

Where to stay:

There are several B&Bs available in the village, apart from AirBnB places, youth hostels and farmhouses. Visit http://www.haworth-village.org.uk/ for a list of the best ones. The Apothecary (http://www.theapothecaryguesthouse.co.uk/), a 17th century inn, now converted into a guest house is bang opposite the Parsonage and overlooks the famous cobbled streets of Haworth and is a great place to explore the village from.

Special tip:

Pack those walking shoes and rain gear. The best way to have the Bronte experience is to walk the moors and around the village. There are plenty of well marked walking trails. And some excellent pubs that serve whiskeys and beers brewed locally, to relax afterwards.