Saturday, December 28, 2013

These Last Ten Days

Bamboo cottages to private music concerts around the fire. Strawberry fields to strawberry wine. Our own La Poderosa. 3000 steps to private spaces everyplace to blue lagoons to many miles of walking to legends and storytelling to strange fruits to food to vintage places. And the cold. And the beautiful people. Many, many, many stories and indulgences and the near perfectness of the last ten days. I had hesitantly whispered to myself how much I had riding on this trip. I can now triumphantly shout out how insanely better it was than I could have hoped for.Thank you.
For these days.
For the words - amazing, incredible, beautiful, nice.
For the smiles.
For Christmas Eve.
For this year.
And for the ones that I know for certain will come.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Hampi - A Sort of Travelogue: In TNIE today

A journey of a few months ago with very good friend AB, an old story of a beloved place was published in the beloved The New Indian Express today. Read it here or see the edited version below along with some photos from the trip.

Mangyamma, the Lambani woman I befriended. And a close up of her gorgeous hair accessory.



No Longer

Until about two years ago, Hampi was packaged keeping Indian tourists, who came to its ruins, in mind. Pilgrims who visited the ancient decript capital of the historic Vijayanagar empire with urns of deceased family members were not there to see the boulders, or visit the hippie stores by the roadside. For them, Hampi was a small-town comfort zone, with the right mix of convenience restaurants, souvenir shops and some vestigal ruins that spoke of past imperial glory. There were candysellers, sellers of tender coconuts, irreverent monkeys. Visitors in sun hats explored the periphery of Ganesha statues and pillared temples. For years, this World Heritage Site was a place where cheap clothes in psychedelic colours were available to credulous vistors at eccentric prices and fake silver jewellery. A frail old man, with multiple piercings all over his body, sold Bob Marley T-shirts. If you and your friends were urban chic, he would also offer weed/grass/pot at “good price”. There were more like him, who operated out of street corners. Not any more. Even the shops have been pulled down.

Hampi was seen as a quieter cousin of the bygone hippie haven, Goa, without its beaches. Monsoon is the best to visit Hampi—the scorching waves that emanate from the rocks become mildly bearable at sundown. Also, the rates for hotels and food comes down by three quarters. At the resort on the other side of the Tunga river, you get the hammock to yourself, though the dinner menu is just two dishes and a half. In a this-versus-that argument, the hammock and rain won. I was back in a familiar, loved place after three years.

Hampi ruins are in ruins today. The shops, all admittedly illegal, were razed to the ground by authorities in 2011. The debris still lies strewn about along the sides of the once famous Bazaar Street. Crudely put up railings direct visitors through the village to the riverside. All through off-season, room rates are as low as `200 a day. The front rooms of many homes now double as souvenir shops for brass, leather, silver wares and travel books.

It is the other Goa, so say the backpackers from the westward countries. Save for the beaches, everything else in Goa is available in Hampi—the weed, cheap accommodation, lazy lunches on makeshift rooftop restaurants that serve indistinguishable cuisine and the best feature, cheap shopping. Locals refer to every foreign visitor as ‘English’, pronounced with the Kannada lilt that adds a ‘u’ to every word. So you have the Englishu who come in the night busu and walk around the many hotelu around the village. Mangyamma likes them. She charges them nearly twice what she is willing to sell me her Lambani jewellery and clothes and bags for, because she says the Englishu can afford it. She sits me down by the blanket upon which she has spread her wares, just beyond a pathway that leads to the village, or at least what is left of it. She wants to tell me her story.

Mangyamma, an old Lambani woman who still dons the traditional embroidered clothes of her community, is from a village a few miles away. It takes a whole day to make even a thin cloth bracelet, many more for bags that “will live even after I am gone”. Of the 10 women in her household, she is the only one who goes out to work, taking the local bus both ways, eating her packed lunch and calling out in broken phrases of English when she sees the Englishu. In a conspiratory tone she tells me that there are seven languages in English, that “the rich and poor among them speak differently”, that “there are also poor people among them”. That doesn’t stop her from overpricing her products. I nod sagely.

Smart businesswoman that she is, she sells me her story along with several of her wares. Her grandson, a software engineer in the big city, sends her a thousand rupees every month. She makes a few hundred rupees every day in Hampi, and more during tourist season, especially from the Englishu. At her indeterminable age, she might want to retire from these days in rain and merciless sun, I suggest. “This is kuladakasubu, our family profession, which I can’t give up,” she says. The backpackers, the new age hippies, make it worthwhile, she insists and ties a little present, a bracelet, around my wrist.

Giriraj, the boat driver from Anegundi across the river, stops to chat every time I am crossing the river. Sharks of all sizes in the real estate business and tourism industry and politics have taken over his beloved Hampi, he tells me.

Monsoon is when the restaurant owners repair their roofs and hand you a slimmer, sparser menu card. Like in the other hipster Mecca, time slows down, the doors close early and when they call out to you to come look at their stalls, they do so halfheartedly. In that land of ruins, they keep fake smiles for the visitors. There isn’t much else to do to make a living. Where earlier, the bazaar bustled with the clamour of commerce, perhaps like in the days of the empire when rubies and diamonds were sold by the kilo, today haalu Hampi, or ruined Hampi, cradles a different meaning. People hurry about, their numbers reduced. Perhaps because it is off-season. Or perhaps the ruins drown their colours out.

Hampi’s World Heritage Site status and the guidelines under the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority has santitised Hampi’s colourful chaos: the shacks and shirt shops had to be demolished and the hotels relegated to back streets. According to the master plan, the bazaar was to be relocated, but no signs of that happening, not anytime soon are visible. The illegal structures are gone and that is perhaps a good thing. But you could also say that without the continuity of life, there isn’t much point preserving something under glass boxes. The jury is still out on that one. Meanwhile Hampi, under a grey sky, looks fully ruined now.

(While Hampi was declared part of the UNESCO world heritage list first in 1986, an authority called Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority was set up in 2005. They are under the district administration and are responsible for suggesting master plans for design solutions and guidelines for local development.) Time used to wander like an invisible tourist among the ruins and streets of Hampi, collecting memories, splashes of colour, the voices of hawkers and the haggling over cheap heavy metal tees. Now it waits among the ruins, sterilised by the doctrine of preservation.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

On Nigella Lawson: In Kindle magazine's year end special this month

Dear old Su gave me the idea for this story. Thank you, Su, for this and for being that nagging voice of reason in my head!

Kindle magazine seems to get better and better with every passing issue. I love the freedom of style and form and thoughts and dialectics that they allow themselves. December's is a year end special highlighting twenty images from India and the world that made big headlines for various reasons. I wrote on celebrity TV chef Nigella Lawson being publicly abused by her then husband, art collector and ad mogul Charles Saatchi. This piece on domestic violence was a difficult one to write, for personal reasons. But well, time does merge the sharp outlines of old ghosts into the grey background. 

Read the piece here on the Kindle website or see the unedited version below.

The Fall of the Domestic Goddess

“…should have the quiver of a 17th century courtesan’s inner thigh.”
It takes a woman of a certain kind of imagination and an image to nurture to come up with a line like that. It is small detail that this manner of quiver was what the domestic goddess pronounced a humble Italian dessert like panna cotta ought to have.

Nigella Lawson.

A voluptuous paragon of sensuality, a picture of domesticity, even the ideal to aspire for. That’s the picture, somewhere along the way to her meteoric rise to worldwide fame, that she must have decided to draw around herself. It sure helped her build a formidable empire that includes bestseller books, popular long-running television shows and ensuing celebrityhood. The women want to be like her because the men love her.

And then, that photograph. It was an ‘Et tu, Brute?’ moment. For the first few minutes at least. Not her, not her! Outrage. Not because it happened, but that it happened to her. Her of the rich marriage, successful life, gorgeous kitchen and wholesomeness, it couldn’t happen to her too, when it was supposed to be restricted to us lesser females.
The story that the tabloid photographs narrated was that her then husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbed her throat, caused her distress and made her cry. A ‘confidante’, albeit a dubious source, told a journalist that Lawson never cries, it goes back to certain incidents from childhood. Then for her to shed tears, that too in public, and be photographed doing so, was like some last shred of hope shivering and dropping upon the ground to be cruelly trampled under hurried feet.

Let’s make her a hero then, a different icon now. Let’s make her the poster woman, the go-to girl for the cause of marital/domestic abuse. Let her be the misunderstood definition of a feminist, that of a man-hater, the victim, the oppressed.

Lawson’s reluctance for being typecast into an icon of this kind and for that cause perhaps has led to as much disgust as for the photographs themselves. She has not yet spoken about the incident where in an instant, her carefully constructed image of a queen of the kitchen was shattered. Perhaps, in her years of being married to the former advertising mogul and art collector Saatchi, she passed through many instances of domestic abuse. Perhaps this was really a one-off incident; photographs can lie too. Perhaps her silence is a hint loud enough that she doesn’t want to be tagged a victim for the rest of her days. She has a public image to protect and life to move on with.
In her silences perhaps Lawson has attempted to reclaim the dignity she so publically lost that day of the photographs. It is a tall order to expect her to click her heels and fall in line to speak now for the domestic abuse victims of the world. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was shocking. Yes, it was high profile. But there are also hundreds of thousands of silent women around the world for whom Lawson would a compatriot. In India alone, between eight and 31 per cent of married women are estimated to have been victims of varying degrees of domestic violence. Each of us have stories to tell, either our own or those of maids or mothers or sisters who live each day in fear of the raised hands, raised voices of their menfolk.

The recent abused Goddesses of India campaign was meant to create awareness about domestic violence. The campaign claimed that 68 per cent of women in India have been abused in some manner of the other. What the carefully reconstructed photos of models dressed as Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, with black eyes and deep bruises, did was to feed into the fantasy of the damsel in distress who needed to be ‘saved’. By glamourizing the idea of violence, it pushed the issue itself aside. It is tempting to add a little sheen of glamour to ideas and contexts; those get much attention. You could counter argue that it gets much attention too. But there is only so far you can go with glamour and clever make up.

The reality is that domestic violence is far too common. There isn’t anything sexy about any part of it. While there are a dozen changes that the world ought to see yet, grant the reluctant victim her dignity. She has the right to remain silent. She has the right to refuse to be a hero, an ambassador. Nigella deserves to carry on publically as if this was just an inconvenient blimp. That doesn’t mean she, or the rest of us in our own pasts, haven’t weep privately.

This piece was inspired by a conversation with an ardent Nigella Lawson fan and a pretty good cook herself.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

That dream. Those plans. Surprises.
The best birthday present.
Couldn't have asked for anything more.
Thank you!

Monday, November 25, 2013

What a Sunset it was!

The sun setting on the evening of November 22. There. Under the same sky. The journey, the journeys. Right. What a beautiful night and day and night it was.

Friday, November 15, 2013

About a 3D Print Party: In Open magazine this week

Some times you merely write. Some times you really write. There is a difference. This edges towards the former. Read a story about German artist Fabian Hesse's work in Open magazine here. Or see below.

First, You Print the Shot Glass
Art and technology, material and digital, real and virtual, all come together to drink vodka at a 3D printing party in Bangalore

Geeksville would cheer.
I am invited to a party called ‘3D Print Party Flux Assemble Open-Hardware Kathe UM%hack*’. I don’t understand what that means, though I suppose I can tell you what 3D printing is. A meeting with artist Fabian Hesse, the party’s host, has given me an understanding of his line of practice, but I still can’t pronounce the whole name of this party. Let’s stick to calling it the 3D print party.
Fabian Hesse is a visual artist from Germany, and is in Bangalore as a Goethe bangaloREsident@Jaaga, an artist-in-residence program that the Goethe Institut organizes in the city in association with local cultural spaces and arts organisations. His interest lies chiefly in the many layers of the Web world and his works explore the fundamental changes that occur in the world and society through information technology and ‘digitalisation’. One of the ways Hesse engages with the process of this ‘digitalisation’ is through 3D printing, using freely available open source software and hardware.
At the 3D print party in Bangalore’s Max Mueller Bhavan on a light winter evening, the room is illuminated by the shivering lines and patterns on a laptop screen, magnified and projected onto a wall. There is tea in a steel can, and some biscuits. All the action is around the printer on the floor, behind which sits surreptitiously a tall bottle of vodka, waiting to become part of a ritual traditional among 3D print artists. A work week is only just ending outside the glass windows of the building and the party indoors won’t heat up for a few hours yet. A few people trickle in and art talk begins.
The printer, the party’s reason for being, sits in the middle of the room. It is a square box, open on all sides. There is a lot going on with it. A little screen tells you how much printing has been done already, what the temperature is like and other numbers. The nozzle of the machine is whirring back and forth, outlining a form in green—the only colour Hesse has added to the printer. Before the event, he had invited people to send in images of things they’d like to have printed; what’s being printed now, he tells me, is a sort of mini-bust, based on a photograph of a friend’s head and shoulders.
The way it works is that Hesse takes an image, uses open source software to convert it into a format printable in 3D, puts it on an SD card and feeds it to the printer, which then prints a figure based on the image. Even a small file takes hours to print; Hesse’s own works take between nine and forty-something hours each.
The droning noise of the printer at work silences the conversations of those that mill around it, peering in. There is something about the monotony and the repetitive movement of the nozzle that, like a micro-trance, holds your attention for several minutes—until you have taken a photo on your camera phone, until someone you know walks in, until your back hurts from bending over.
Walking by the printer every few minutes to check on its progress, I overhear the conversation continuing:
“I can’t get my head around these things. I am too old. I am fascinated by it but I can’t understand it,” an observer says.
“Oh, neither can I,” replies another, “I just like what it is doing.”
Hesse is explaining to someone that the printer, which he has brought with him from Germany, costs about 1,200 Euros. Across a long table are pieces of plastic, metal, nuts and bolts and tape that will make another such printer. With the help of some technical people from Electronic City, Bangalore, Hesse will assemble the second 3D printer right here. He hopes it will work; he and the people from Electronic City have reworked the nozzle a little.
Just then, the machine halts. Hesse doesn’t know why. The project in progress can’t be finished.Once the printer stops, it can’t begin again mid-project—the file would have to be printed again from scratch. Hesse uses a spatula to remove the half-formed figure from the surface of the printer. In its place, he loads an image of an iPhone cover. The girl who sent it in is mighty excited. The printer is restarted.The pattern printing now is intricate and the nozzle moves fast. As the cover begins to take shape, more people mill around the machine, including a man and his little daughter. While he seems delighted at all the technology, she doesn’t look too impressed.
An artist standing by is paying attention to the percentage of the printing already done, looking at the little monitor where the numbers are on display. It is at 12 per cent. Hesse is telling someone that he uses polylactic acid (PLA), a kind of bio-degradable plastic that comes in all colours, transparent and otherwise. Today’s shade is green.
“What is with the boxer shorts?” I ask, referring to a pair of printed boxers hanging from a hook against a red surface on one wall in the gallery.
Hesse explains that the shorts, printed with the alphabet—a jumble of letters layered over each other—are intended as “a nod to data security patterns that prevent transparency and by turn, data theft. Boxer shorts are a piece of private clothing; very few people see [them]. So this explores the idea of whether to have transparency or not. In this museum, institution-like set up, this was like a joke to me.”
Someone in the background is talking about being an artist, another responding about not being one, but being in awe of art. Mutual acquaintances are being invoked after new introductions. Hesse is going back and forth between two laptops, saving files and tweaking things in each. On one sits a small white rabbit figurine, printed in 3D. A few other oddly-shaped 3D objects stand around, standing out in green against the red boards that cover the walls.
It isn’t time yet for the vodka bottle to be put to its use.
 The day before the party, I meet Hesse at the cozy Courtyard CafĂ© at Jaaga, a space which describes itself as an ‘evolving community sculpture’, a sort of creative common ground that is hosting him.  He speaks about how he started out as a graffiti artist in his teens. In small town Germany, he and friends would stay out nights to “make the city ours”. That got him in trouble, but not before putting him on a path of art practice. He emphasises that he cannot make high end decorative pieces of art.
Through his practice and his work with Fablab, an artist collective in Germany where members pool together resources and exchange know-how, Hesse explores the role of data as a new currency. The materiality of data and its physical attributes are what he seeks to combine and highlight through his 3D pieces. He once got hold of passwords of hacked Twitter accounts and printed them out in 3D. That work and many of his others are hard to transport around the world when he travels—the threads are fragile—but his emails go around the world several times in a matter of seconds. The irony of this, the contrast between his work and the ideas that he conveys through it, isn’t lost on Hesse.
He is a 1980s child; we spend some time talking of those days, of growing up without emails and internet. Hesse doesn’t allow himself to be nostalgic of a simpler era, though: “you make the best of what you have.” For all his interest in the internet and how it blurs the lines between virtual and real, he says he was left speechless by the NSA spying scandal in the US. “There was a moment when the internet was seen as Utopia. But it’s no longer ‘our internet’ anymore, and that makes me sad. I am an advocate of freedom of expression.”
The conversation drifts to Facebook and emails—the virtual that crowds real lives. He says he finds himself exercising reserve in his emails these days, after the spying scandal broke. “Not that I have anything to hide, but still.”
At the party the next evening, his Twitter password work lies in a corner. Hesse told me the night before that it is tradition among artists who work with 3D printing to print a small glass and drink a shot of vodka from it. That is the ‘party’ part of the evening. The ritual is observed in due course. Printing happens too.

Friday, November 08, 2013

How Old is November Anyway?

Late one night in early November, we asked this question, many others. The attempt to answer overwhelmed me then, as it continues to now. I had a special feeling about this year, and I was right. 2013, a landmark year in many ways that I will tell you about in a post later this month, has been a crazy year, mostly in good ways. A year after the November question, we don't have answers. I'm not sure we want any.

Poetry, smiles, worries, love, intelligent wine on the table where we talk, cherry trees and spring air and beautiful-ness has been in season all year around. And I discover everyday that miracles do exist in my sometimes cynical world. Some miracles happen in a day, in a text message, in a single all night long phone call. Some are not marked by the exact time, some happen over 18 days. Some last that minute, some every day of every week.

This November, I cannot shake off this smile from my face. And that is all you need to know.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Telangana: Few Thoughts - Filter Coffee column in Kindle this month

I try not to write opinion pieces or commentary on trending issues. Not just because there are always too many of both out there, what with people given the free rein by the w.w.w. to scream and shout at the sound of a cough. But in the November issue of Kindle, it was Andhra Pradesh's turn to be written about. I spent many days trying to waddle through the different arguments for and against Telangana. Old friends came to the rescue and helped me understand the tapestry of politics, hopes and history that lends grey shades to the issue. No news can be black and white. This piece has also been tinted with some grey.

Read the story here. Or see below.

P, my friend from the University days, always gets me Karachi biscuits from Hyderabad when she visits. Sometimes over pasta and wine, we talk of old times and giggle like the way we did the first day we met in class. We don’t talk politics or ideologies, our borrowed time is expended on what the rest of the boys and girls from college are up to. I have never met her husband J, we have only said our hi-hellos over the phone. A few days ago I had a long conversation with them, about politics, perceptions, the larger picture and the audacity of hope – not the book. We also considered making plans to rob a bank. Skipping that part, this is how the conversation went.

J has lived in Hyderabad for 14 years now, P for six. He is an economist, a professor. She is in public relations. Both are from different states, but speak the same language, and English, with each other. I am interested in what they think of the whole Telangana issue, whether they are affected at all, if they have an opinion, if it matters, because they are urban migrants who have ‘homes’, families elsewhere. I ask them to explain and J does, with a professor’s rigour, breaking down the issue for me, giving me an insider-outsider’s POV.

Most of his students are from outside the state, very few are invested in the regionism, and its many other tentacles, that is leading to the creation of India’s latest state. But he has friends who come from both coastal Andhra and the Telangana districts. The issue is all about Hyderabad, J tells me. It is the land of opportunity, the glitzy metropolis where everyone wants to be, to work, to live. Everyone’s favourite city will go to one state, not the other, though it will be the joint capital for the first ten years after AP breaks up. J wonders whether the new capital, whichever city it is, cannot become just as good, just as golden as Hyderabad. There are many perceptions at play here, many politics, fractured parties, history and its violations, clever people’s manipulations, emotions, the regular drama.

It would have remained regular drama if not for how the state machineries have been paralyzed because of it. There are politicians from the coastal Andhra region and there are politicians from the Telangana region. Both sides will not stop shouting the House to a standstill. The possibility of a government that might transcend this issue and attempt to run a state is absent, for there are too many emotions and precious vote banks at stake.

To make it a little easier, J gives me the analogy of two friends. One wants to remain friends, remain best friends even, while the other does not want to have anything to do with him. Draw this line further and you arrive at the state of AP where a traditional oppressor is uncomfortable with change and would rather have the status quo, ignoring demands and denying rights. The traditionally oppressed want to finally have control over their land, their resources, their rights. The first group demands a united Andhra Pradesh, it is the second group that will get the new state to itself.

To J and to my friend P, the strikes, the agitation and the whiff of trouble brewing doesn’t make them stop and take notice. But every other person they meet will bring up the issue and substantiate why they think the way they do. When P hires a taxi and goes out on work, the taxi driver will tell her why he is happy there will be a Telangana state, she tells me. Other colleagues, friends, think otherwise. Many don’t have, or want to share, an opinion. Both agree that if Hyderabad was taken out of the equation, no one would shout so much.

I ask them if normal life is affected at all in the city, whether they see, hear, read anything. J tells me they know only as much as I, in Bangalore, would read in the papers. News channels show the opinions of their rich political owners. But really, he tells me, the people from both the regions are in a way punishing themselves. In smaller towns and nerve centres of the whole issue, life came to a standstill. Not many of those living in the city could go back home for the festivals last week.

J has an idea for how the agitation might be deflected. The Centre ought to announce which city will be the capital of the new state, he thinks. People there would stop agitating, those elsewhere will argue for and against the proposed name, moving on from the bifurcation issue. There are many rumours and no favourites for the new capital. I ask him what cities figures in his list. There is Kurnool, Vijayawada, Ongole and the region within the triangle area of Guntur, Tenali and Vijayawada, each with cases for and against them that J points out for me. The final name will of course be more politically motivated than chosen on a strictly practical basis, we both agree.

J and I have been talking for an hour by now. Given the history of the issue, the cold facts, I know which side I will lean toward, but for arguments sake, I ask him if there is a case for a united state. The only one he has for me is a scenario where there will be more demands for non-linguistic division of regions. Where would that end, he mulls. But then, that is for the Centre to deal with, he says, for, a person sitting in a backward village in a corner of Telangana should not have to bother with this larger picture; he might not understand the greater question, he need not be expected to care.

For now, the mood of the people is one of hope, J tells me. The idea and attraction of two different states is driven by money. It is laden with the hope that magically things will change and that a new golden land will emerge. Practical souls understand that golden lands aren’t created overnight, that dreams don’t always turn hopelessness on its head. Disillusionment, carrying old cracks under its arms, usually walks behind hope. But that’s the thing about hope, isn’t it? It is audacious, not always practical. Hope though is nearly the only thing that most people got.

This piece has been inspired by a real conversation with real people.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On the organisation Aadima in Kolar: In OPEN magazine this week

A dear friend and I had a bit of an adventure getting to and back from Aadima, an organisation on top of a hill near Kolar. But it was a full moon night, the air was still and the place added to the magic of being there, sharing that. Here is the story, in OPEN this week. Open that link or see below.

Kurosawa in Kolar
On a remote hill several miles outside Bangalore, a social and cultural experiment is underway

Photo courtesy: Satyavrata Raut

You are allowed your imagination here—here on top of Terahalli Betta, a few miles from the burrowed-out gold mine town of Kolar, a few dozen miles from Bangalore. The sense of being the only man or woman under a starless sky, looking down at the rocky hillocks past the thin road; the romance of seeing the gentle silhouettes of others under the blinding brightness of the moon; the feeling of being away, reclusive, primeval. On top of the hill, on a full moon night, you are allowed to imagine anything, to make up your own stories, to write your own poetry. This is why Aadima was started, and why it was named Aadima—that which harks at the primitive, the rural, the ancient.

In September, on the night of the full moon—hunnime in Kannada—a friend and I are on this imaginative hill. It is quiet on the ledge where we find ourselves. Behind us though, we hear voices and some drum beats now and then. Under bright bulbs, among a large gathering of people, this month’s ‘hunnime haadu’ (full moon song) is underway. It is poetry reading this time. They usually end around midnight, but this time, it seems the event could go on all night. Closet poets, bad poets, good poets—they all read. They read political reflections, rhyming lines on nostalgia or love—there isn’t a common theme. There are no rules. Aadima, the cultural organisation that runs these monthly events, almost aggressively shuns rules, established forms and defined structures.

While the readings continue, we follow Kotiganahalli Ramaiah to a room next to a cowshed. A black cow moos, but lets us through. Ramaiah is one of the founders of Aadima. He is a poet and a playwright; outspoken, some would say radical. Sitting on a makeshift cot in a sparse room, his temporary quarters, Ramaiah says he would call himself an activist first.

By the 1980s and 90s, when the Dalit rights movement in Karnataka had begun to wane, Ramaiah was already a political activist. Many charged sessions with friends would involve discussions about finding new ways to protest, creating new cultural texts for the emancipation of Dalits, cultural decoding of an established vocabulary of social norms and rules sifting through the existing feudal debris, wondering how to resurrect the Dalit movement and such like.

“During one such meeting in a friend’s house, I saw a decorative sticker of a rupee note stuck to the mirror in the bathroom. That led to the idea where some 20-30 of us saved one rupee every single day,” he says. The group would meet at a different venue each time. One such venue was atop the Terahalli Betta under a large tree, surrounded by the collective memories of Jinke Ramaiah, a legend, a saint, a dreamer revered by the local villagers, who had once lived there.

By then, the rupees saved had cumulated to a fairly large amount. Buoyed by further contributions from here and there, the friends bought a small piece of land on top of the hill and the organisation took off. Not without trouble though, Ramaiah says, telling us about skirmishes with fundamentalist groups, resistance from the locals and the omnipresent caste politics. “But there was a dreamer here who lived in the collective memory still. The greatest politics is to kindle the collective memory. We decided not to go down the hill without creating a reference point here first,” he says.

That reference point was a cultural experiment, which the founders hoped would be emancipatory. Ramaiah and his friends had used children’s theatre elsewhere to drive cultural interventions. That was replicated here with the Makkala Mela, a month long summer camp that has now been running for over six years.

The region is home to people of many castes, and riddled with the expected problems that brings. “There is a lot of cultural context that surrounds the full moon,” Ramaiah says. “These nights have always been very democratic, open, living. In the social context where we were trying to work, there was a need to establish some social security.” This need to establish a neutral, common ground was what led to the Hunnime Haadu.

The one I attended was the 89th edition of the monthly event. Siddalingaiah, one of the most well-known Dalit writers in Kannada, was to make an appearance but his book release the next day has kept him busy. There are a few other familiar names at the Kaavya Hunnime, the poetry session that full moon’s night.

Every month it is a different programme, and villagers sometimes turn up in the hundreds. Once there is a Kurosawa film screening, another time a Japanese folk art performance. An in-house group might perform a preview of a new performance they are working on, or a theatre group from the city might come out. The Aadima team’s performance of the play Matte Ekalavya won several awards at the prestigious Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) festival this year.

Through Aadima, locals around Terahalli Betta get access to a wide variety of cultural events, plus a steaming hot dinner, all for free. This poetry evening has drawn the least number of people, we are told. There are easily over a hundred for most events, a number most organisers would kill for.

That the locals watch Kurosawa and non-linear plays and might indulge in intellectual discussion provokes a comparison of Aadima with Ninasam, a similar institution started by the late KV Subbanna in central Karnataka. Now run by Subbanna’s son KV Akshara, Ninasam is an influential theatre school and much else—villagers in the region can supposedly hold their own talking about Brecht or neo-realism. I wonder if Aadima is cultivating similar non-traditional audiences for cultural texts that are otherwise perceived as elitist.

Ramaiah is dismissive. He is well-known for his distaste for structured learning and criticises academic institutions for no longer reflecting reality. “There is no layman reading of texts. Academic reading does not reflect the new. They don’t want to reflect and raise these questions,” he accuses, insisting Aadima is different. Property is collectively owned, there is de-classification—it is a cultural experiment. He is saying all the key words. Yet when I ask him if caste politics have loosened, if there have been visible shifts in the social pecking order, he skirts around a direct answer. Instead, he says only that people from all castes and religions come to Hunnime Haadu.

Other voices on the hilltop and elsewhere grumble at how he garners all the attention these days, how he has become the face of Aadima, though there are other founders. Wrinkles in institutional management exist, and not all villagers are happy about these social experiments. Wealthy people are snapping up land to build villas, labour displacement and crime are increasing—the regular ills that plague most societies. But here, atop this hill, Ramaiah and his team are trying something new. And on a full moon night, when a gentle breeze bears down and you can see the sharply-traced silhouettes of mountains miles away, anything seems imaginable, anything possible.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Few Words about a Photograph

Much as I am a lover of language, I allow sometimes that there are instances where a photograph says it so much better than a few words. You could describe perhaps how the scent of the cardamom tea wafted into a room with French windows up in the mountains, a scent no photograph could emanate from within its frames. Yet, there are photos of some days which tell you all that you will want to remember about that moment. 

Some photographs best tell of your little anecdote, an aside, of a tiring evening that stretches into a nice, slow mid-morning. On the table, the regular scene where falls the light of a bottle of intelligent wine, on the table perches the blue mug for black coffee, the newspaper, a plant, the light that bleeds in in slivers through the window and throws up pictures on the wall, other stuff in wood stone paper cloth. A photograph coloured by the slight crisp air of a cloudless October morning. No better words could envelope the story of that one moment.

Though in the absence of that precious photograph here on this post, these words will have to do.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

To El Dorado and Back: Filter Coffee column in Kindle this month

The 'Gulf-return' stories are part of every person who was born, raised or lived through the 1980's, when America was still mostly inaccessible, when India was still socialist, when foreign-returned was a coveted credential to have. If you weren't a Gulf returnee yourself, you knew someone who was, you would have seen the glitter on the chocolates they brought in, the gold, the shirts, the scents. You grudgingly envied them their lives, at least the lives they told you about. In this month's issue of Kindle magazine, in my column Filter Coffee, I write about some anecdotes that look at the waves of migration from Kerala to the Middle East that peaked in the 1970s and '80s. 

Read the story here. Or see below.

To El Dorado and Back

“Very seldom in life does a book like Goat Days come along and ruin you for other books. It becomes like that mythic true love you once felt for someone when you were still innocent — but now that you have lived through it, you no longer are that innocent person. You have read it and now other books just don’t compare. You may stop reading altogether, for a while, just to let memories of Goat Days flow through
you unchecked.” Sheheryar Sheikh, in Dawn, a while ago.

Sometimes, like in Benyamin’s Goat Days, language plays only a functional role. Sometimes, you need to strip language of its vocal abilities to tell a story as powerful as that of Najeeb’s. He is recently married; the wife Sainu is now pregnant. He dives for a living; the business of sand mining though might now be regulated. Worried for the future, he doesn’t let go by an opportunity to go to the Gulf, “Only long enough 
to settle a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis.” From Riyadh airport, Najeeb gets kidnapped. He is driven into a slave-
like situation tending goats for over three years, unpaid, underfed, losing hope often but retaining his faith in Allah. He braves the expanse of the desert; there is a happy ending. But not before your heart wrenches at the cruelty, driven by necessity or otherwise, that humankind is capable of. Not before there is the tension and poignancy that precedes the triumph of the human spirit. Not before you internalize the fact that Najeeb is real and this is a true story.

Stories like Najeeb’s aren’t the sorts you hear very often, even if you discard the magnitude of his. You rarely, if ever, hear a sob story about the Gulf. What is the need to acknowledge the dust on the road to that El Dorado, some would ask. 

The stories that you would hear of would be of Shaji’s, among the first few batches of 
migrants from Kerala who went to Gulf, or to Dubai; Dubai being the generic name for Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Riyadh, Qatar and the rest of the region. You would hear of Shaji being a ‘manager in a shop’ there, when in reality, he would probably have done something much more menial. You would see him coming back to visit and the air would seem different around him. He wouldn’t flaunt the gold wrist watch or place the new VCR too obviously in the front room, but he would bring with him the air of the Gulf, the air that filled the lines on your forehead with specks of sand and smelt rich. His friends, Najeeb might have been among them, would hear from him the word khubus“in the riverside bragging of many Gulf-returnees”, Shaji in that tribe now.

In Shaji’s newly built house, a showcase would be added in the drawing room. That showcase would have things no one in his village had seen before. Those things, the new aura of well-to-do-ness that his wife, his mother walked beneath would become part of the Gulf lore. 

Many years later, after the stories overheard, imagined, exaggerated had become legends and rosier dreams, there would be told stories of people like Abbu, who would have gone to Dubai at the behest of his grandmother and aunts who show him their neighbor Shaji’s house in the distance and push him to help the family out, buy them some status. Abbu would learn to make wafer thin pappadams from a Pappada Chettiyar in the village. It would have once been the domain of that one caste, but economics would have a way of driving away such minor inconveniences. He, several other 19-year olds, would trudge along to these places of learning, ribbing each other, laughing, like the way 19-year olds do. They wouldn’t talk about it much, but Dubai dreams would cloud their every thought, every joke, every new crush.

Abbu would be part of the second wave that supported the lives of Shaji and others of his wave. Those pappadams would probably be sold at Lulu Hypermaket in various cities; the industrial size of consumerism at those would make Abbu feel lost and yet strengthen the sense of awe that Gulf stories arose in him when he first heard them. Two years later when he visits his village, he would wear a slightly see-through shirt and sit in the front seat of the Ambassador car his family would hire to go pick him up from the airport. 

People in this same village in Kerala would have a hearty laugh every time they retold Ahmad Kutty’s misadventure. They would tell of how he fell for an agent’s trick and went on a dubious visa to Oman, of how he was never able to leave the building where he worked and lived for two whole years, never stepping out, never seeing the desert at night. They would tell of how, when he was ready to return, he walked out and surrendered before the police, was sent to prison for not having the papers, where he got his head shaved as was the rule. Ahmad Kutty would be deported, land in Mumbai but stay on a few weeks till his hair grew back a little. The village would tell of how his distant relative (they never liked each other much) saw him in Mumbai and carried that tale of shame to the village. People who had also seen those lands understood though, there were things you did, there was money at the end of it, but you never talked of certain days. People left behind understood, but still made fun, laughter the only mask they could afford to wear. It didn’t matter though because when Ahmad Kutty came back home, they all milled around his suitcases. The Gulf-returnees would have gifts for everyone, however small, scented pens, scent bottles or seedless dates. The opening of the cases, petti thorakkal, would be accorded its due ritual. 

Generations of Malayalis grew up on these stories. Mostly the gold-plated ones. The
Najeebs of the world don’t get talked about though on the shores of the river Nila. Some stories were best left behind on those dry shores. For what you did wasn’t the question, you smelled of Dubai. That was enough.

Disclaimer: Except when referring to Najeeb as part of the book, all other names are 
fictional. The anecdotes, however, are all true, and were collected from friends from Kerala.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

India's first female coffee taster Sunalini Menon: A Profile in OPEN this week

What was not to love about this story? It involved meeting a delightful lady whose passion has been coffee all her life. Her lab smells of coffee. I wanted to be able to go everyday and sit outside for a bit taking in those smells. Knowing her, I am sure she wouldn't mind. She gave us a bag each of coffee powder, pure, she said I ought to try it that way. That coffee is, but of course, fantastic.

Read the story below or see it on the OPEN magazine website here. The photograph is by Vivek Muthuramalingam.

A Life Aromatic

All that seems missing when Sunalini Menon begins her story is some classical Carnatic music in the background, if real life came with soundtracks. Some raga and thala would fit in perfectly with her memory of growing up in a traditional household where mornings always started with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. 

Her grandmother would walk down a long street to a mill where the man would powder the coffee beans using an old grinder. A heady fragrance would waft out of the grinder and dissolve in the room before it could be packed along with the coffee powder. It didn’t matter though. Menon’s grandmother would then make a tall jug of coffee and pour it into a silver samovar-like vessel which would then stand by the table when she and her sister woke up and came down at 6 am. Not that they were allowed coffee; growing up children had to have milk. 

This smell, taste and the forbidden feel of coffee was what Sunalini Menon, the first woman coffee taster in Asia, grew up with. That childhood love for good old South Indian filter coffee and life’s other little quirks has today made her a bit of a celebrity in the coffee industry.

My eyes keep darting to a gorgeous collection of silver bangles she has stacked upon on her wrist. Menon is telling me of how it all happened, how she did all that she has done, pausing just a while to say that after she married someone from Kerala, she also began drinking tea.

She had studied to be a food technologist and wanted to get into dietetics; she got herself a seat in an American university. “I happened to see an ad in the papers about an opening in the Coffee Board and applied, because I figured I would at least learn what it was like to give an interview,” she says. In that very typical government set up, in those days of the early 1970s, she was bluntly told that she wouldn’t get the job because women usually resigned after getting married, and the Board didn’t want to train her before she did just that, resign. One person in the interview panel stood by her and some tough decisions about the US versus home turf later, Menon joined the Coffee Board.

She dismisses the drama that ensued with a laugh, of how her employment turned into a Karnataka versus Tamil Nadu state feud among the staff – no one wanted to take orders from a girl and they didn’t see why someone from the erstwhile Madras had to be brought in to fill a post in Bangalore. But Menon remembers crying every day once she got home from work and says it was a hard journey. “I decided that I would spend time in each department. That way, I got to know everyone and everyone taught me what I needed to know. I learnt how to deal with people,” she recollects. 

The next of the hurdles was when her boss retired, just when she had finished training. Menon was 21 years old. It took another two years but by the time she was 23, she was heading the quality control department at Coffee Board of India. Predictably, that was a whole different battle, she says.

Good timing has followed Menon’s career. By the time she had put in two decades of central government service, the market was also getting liberalized. The whole quality department that she was heading was disintegrated. “We gave ourselves a farewell party,” she grins, “there was no one else to throw us a party.”

In a long distance marriage throughout, she was all set to use the downtime to be with her family when coffee growers in the state insisted she stay back. “That was how Coffeelab began, with just five others, two of them from my old department at Coffee Board. People laughed at me at first, because coffee prices were high and quality wasn’t much high on anyone’s mind. We couldn’t balance our books at first but things came around slowly,” she says. 

Today, Coffeelab Private Limited, based in Bangalore, is the only independent lab in the country that does purely lab work. Samples come in from all over the world. There are so many kinds of coffee beans that coffee powder is often dispensed off to friends, visitors, even passer-bys. Every visitor gets to sit in a very interestingly decorated front room of the house that serves as her lab and sip predictably delicious coffee. The lab is also a coffee museum of sorts, there are coffee mugs from all over the world, the tightly lined shelves groan under bags of beans, vintage brass coffee filters, antique grinders from Turkey and Russia and other paraphernalia. The air smells of coffee and the coffee addict in me lets out a silent whoop. “Our clothes, our hair smell of coffee by the end of a work day,” Menon says, though clearly she doesn’t look like she minds.

Coffeelab holds training programs and coffee appreciating workshops as well, once in a while. The team goes to rural places to test and evaluate coffee. “We carry almost the entire lab with us because we never know what we will get on the field. Over the years, even the cab driver we always go with has learnt about coffee tasting and tells the farmers what they should be doing!” she quips. Between promoting Indian coffee and creating blends for coffee chains and managing the activities of the lab, she also teaches as a “full professor” at the Universita del Caffe, illy Trieste, Italy. Every now and then, she slows her narrative to linger upon memories of people: a professor in Switzerland, who spoke only Swiss German and who, at age 70, took evening English classes for a year to be able to teach her, his talking parrot Coco, mentors, family, friends, farmers.

What does it take to be a good coffee taster? “You have to have the ability to describe what the coffee tastes like. It is all about establishing credibility, so you can’t get away fabricating notes,” Menon says, explaining how the vocabulary to define notes of coffee is borrowed from that of wine. She was amongst the first few women in the world to be professionally cupping, or tasting, coffee. That herd is still small but the industry is more open these days. “There aren’t any rules to follow, but you need to preserve your palette, and that means no smoking, no drinking, no late nights if you have to taste early in the morning. You never know what to expect, every coffee offers something new every day,” she says.

With her exacting standards, it must be hard to get a good cup of coffee elsewhere, I say. Menon grins and admits that she tries not to drink coffee outside. To her, Ethiopian coffee is the “most beautiful”, for its lasting finish in your mouth, for its inherent notes of jasmine with lemon grass. A good coffee, when you ask her, is something that leaves a lingering note on your palette. Ideally, without milk, without sugar. “But then it depends how you take yours,” she smiles. I mentally raise a cup to that.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In New Addictions: Pushing Limits

Someone I met two days ago and instantly took a liking to told me this, "It is all in the mind, you should decide to challenge yourself and push your limits." The mind's limits, my body's limits. I have heard it said before, by others, in other contexts. In some 15 years of practicing Yoga, on and off, in over a decade of climbing hills and mountains, now and then, these words are what draw me, like the translucent wings of the dragonfly burning at the edges of a yellow flame. It burns, it hurts till you want to cry, yet that pain is beautiful. It is the pain of your body pushing itself, of the mind winning. Science has an answer to why humans punish their bodies thus, something about that attractive thing called adrenaline. But I prefer a prosaic answer. I prefer to see it as something essential for the soul.

This Tuesday morning, when I was trying to stay on my feet and kick up in the air, higher and higher, I wasn't thinking of limits or anything at all. I was just kicking, in front, to the sides, in a circle. It is only an hour and a half later when I hobble down three floors that I attempt to wonder why I do this to myself. I don't feel my legs anymore, my stomach feels like...oh the words don't take shape, it all hurts so much. Later in the day, even my neck will start hurting, every muscle, every nerve will. I will ask myself why I do this, but I will not wait for an answer.

The pain is mighty addictive. I know I do this because despite all the pain, there is the joy of looking down the mountain you have just climbed. The view is fabulous, the air fresh and the soul is alive and smiling. That is why I do this. After the first class of Kalaripayattu this Tuesday morning, even my brain hurts to think and form better words here, but my soul and I, we are smiling wide. That is why I do it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On a Menucard in Braille: In OPEN magazine this week

This made it to page one inside the magazine :)
Read the heavily edited version of the story here or see below.

Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam for OPEN magazine

In the upmarket Bangalore neighbourhood of Koramangala, restaurants have to reinvent themselves to keep people interested. There always are cheaper or cooler places to go to. But at Om, a vegetarian restaurant popular with the office crowd for its thalis, it isn’t about hipness. It’s about being convenient even for the differently-abled. Om has menu cards in Braille for the visually challenged and in large fonts for those with low vision.

A chance conversation and proximity to EnAble India, an NGO that works with the differently-abled, set things in motion. The EnAble India office is close to the shopping complex which houses Om restaurant and its employees and volunteers often eat lunch there. Among other things, the NGO has programs for the visually challenged. These groups too frequent the restaurant, holding each other’s hands, their white sticks tapping against the concrete floor. One afternoon, Bhavna Jain, the owner of Om, met Gangamma, a 21-year old visually-challenged Bharatanatyam dancer who had just returned after performing in the US. When it was time to order, the girl asked a waiter to read out the menu to her. “That’s when it struck me how unfair it was that someone who could travel the world had to depend on someone else for something as mundane as ordering her lunch,” says Jain.

Gayathri Iyer, Sharath H N and a team of a few others from EnAble India, all visually challenged themselves, volunteered to design the menu card in Braille. On Ugadi festival this year in April, Om Restaurant made it possible for the visually challenged to be a little more independent. “We complain about such small things when we go out, but we don’t realize what the visually challenged have to contend with. In countries abroad there are many facilities for them, not so in India,” says Jain.

Sharath, who is visually-challenged and was part of the group that designed the menu card, says, “It (the menu card) was one of our employability projects, which also include money pouches to identify currency notes, taking print outs, etc. There was another restaurant which also printed their menu card in Braille, but never used it. Om is the only one which does.”

Om restaurant has a dozen menu cards in all, two of which are in Braille and use large fonts. For now, EnAble India has kept one with them. Apart from thali, the restaurant serves a few other meals. “It isn’t an extensive menu. Though our visually challenged patrons know what’s on the menu, they still ask for the card,” says Jain. She says that the patronage from the visually challenged has increased after the Braille menu card was introduced.