Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On That Which We Cannot Know: In the First Kindle Biannual Book

Kindle magazine, after they decided to stop printing every month, now bring out a biannual book. The first one, titled What the Jaguar Knows We Don't Know, is available online and in book stores all over the country. It is a fully black and white issue and as always, the design blew me away. These guys at Kindle, I tell you, they are just brilliant in design. The first book features interviews, essays, poetry, photo essays, etc. I have an essay in it too, read it below. 

Dear reader, buy the beautiful book. I know you will like it.

THAT CLOUD LOOKS LIKE AN ELEPHANT NOW...

It's wholly unpredictable and yet it's an uncanny harbinger for many other unknowables.... Deepa Bhasthi riffs on the weather and its meanings.

If I stretched my hand a little and closed a loose fist around the yellow topaz streams of various girths, I am sure I could taste the sunshine. Making its way stubbornly around the thick curtains and through the more porous strips in them, the delicious light would taste, this afternoon, alternatively, of chili-salt on raw mango and ice-cold lemonade.

It is nearly mid-July though, this afternoon. Topaz should be a forgotten colour, the skies should be grey, pallid, music in the sharp curtains of rain against the window, and we should be in bed with lover, book or blanket on such afternoons. It should be raining, heavily, throwing up filth on the city roads, slush in the hills and old stories in our memories.

But it isn’t. It isn’t raining. It threatens to, but it doesn’t.

What must you talk about on the first date? Look coy, eat little, never talk of the weather, says agony aunty. Never the weather, not on the first date, not on the fifth anniversary, never ever. That can only mean the romance, the clever conversation is dead, Varuna and Indra forbid!

But we will talk of the weather now; we must. It is time.

Remember when winter skies presented some of the prettiest blue skies all year? Maybe also a week or two in early April, before the summer showers fell and the high-rises crept in like stairwells to heaven or whatever was up there. White clouds languidly floating by, a breeze now and again, black birds, butterflies and the faint smell of grass made up the picture postcards of pretty days, remember? Those were the days – days before tablets and tiny TV screens behind car seats – we had our heads mildly hanging out the windows to count cars, trees, people wearing purple shirts and interpreting clouds. Doesn’t that look like a girl on a bicycle now? Surely that is the trunk and tail and the middle of an elephant? A lollipop, a giant mango, a dinner fork, a bunny or a tall man in a top hat, the clouds were anything you wanted, putty you shaped to suit the story you were making up in your head.

Could the weatherman predict the next shape? He will class them for you – mesospheric, stratospheric, tropospheric – and then he will caste them, sub caste them further, complicatedly, like the Hindu caste system. But he could never tell you when you can see a tiger’s whiskers or the upturned grin of a happy cloud elephant. That thing we cannot know, we mustn’t, ever.

When have we ever known for certain the horoscope of rain, of sunshine, of tsunami, of cloud burst though?

The afternoon has turned to evening. There is still no rain, but Bangalore has turned nippy. The weather has long been on this city’s calling card. It is not what it used to be though, ask anyone. The hottest day this summer was 39 degrees Celsius. We have begun to complain once the numbers inch above 31 degrees. I do, at least. Bangalore spoils you for other cities, with her weather and jacaranda trees and shaded roads.

The hills, whose slopes cradle bushes of Arabica, some Robusta and experimental varieties of coffee, were no better this summer. Every year they say it is the worst summer and coldest winter they can remember. Now atop one of these hills is a tiny tank where the River Cauvery resurges every year and flows along a long route through two states till she meets the sea. At least once every year, before mid-July mostly, she overflows in the big village at the foothills and cuts off access to the other side of the bridge and the rest of civilisation. This lasts a day or two; in school we used to envy classmates who got to miss classes, those of us in bigger towns could only try faking stomach aches.

This year Bhagamandala, on the foothills of Talacauvery, where the river takes birth, has not been cut off. The people haven’t been inconvenienced yet. It is already mid-July. The weatherman tries to distribute hope evenly, there will be rain, a little less, but it will fall. Yet, there are grim whispered conversations about dying crops, dying people.

Then again, on days unlike today, when it rains in this city, we complain again. Autos are impossible to find, traffic is murderous, your good shoes are ruined and the filth of ten million people flows like a river, a city river that carries death, disease and nothing for the crops.

You understand, from old geography lessons and farmer stories, that you need the rain, just like you need the wind and the summer and the sweet smell of spring. Just this much rain though, if you ask the farmer, not too much, not too little. Just at the right time too. Besides the city river, as we stand negotiating our various spaces, we still know rain is good, just as spring blooms the flowers. Inconvenience breeds conflict though- rain, rain, go away, come again another day.

The ditty is all wrong. I learnt this the other day. Dad calls, and asks where I am, and what the weather is like where I am. Both questions mildly irritate me; one for how as an adult, I don’t have to report to him anymore and the other, for how rain or shine should matter hundreds of miles from his backyard. New found distance from parental control isn’t so new anymore. So the former, I know now, is mere concern for his little girl in the big city. The latter, in these years when no season turns when they ought to, I know now, is a larger concern for his crops. In farming, every turn of weather means something.

I’ll one day soon pick myself out of the banks of one river and go to those of another, perhaps Cauvery, perhaps Kali, perhaps Nila or perhaps just a pretty lake. In this exchange of lives and rivers, city worker for a farmer, the weather will be my biggest worry. Outside the window, on the other side of the proverbial white picket fence, a bright ray of sunshine catching my dog’s whiskers will mean one thing. A puddle of water to jump over in a pair of wellies will mean another thing. There is no longer just the poetry in them. I understand why dad needs to ask of the weather.

And now it is night time. Still not a hint of rain. Maybe it will oblige tomorrow. But then there is an early morning kalaripayattu class to go to, breakfast plans, a book reading later after dusk. Wet roads are just so mighty inconvenient here.

Rain is a metaphor. Rain is a synonym for old stories, good memories, for melancholia, for the aloneness of cities, for the companionship of beautiful hills and cold winds. But the thing is, when it rains now, or on another night, you never know which of these you will think of. You don’t get to choose from among those things that rain is variously a synonym for. Neither could any weatherman predict it.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Could Travel Lead to Revolution? I Wonder, in Kindle This Month

"Hope is the thing with feathers" Kindle has a beautiful 'The little red bird of Latin America' special this month, packed with very interesting articles. I re-watched an old favourite, the movie The Motorcycle Diaries and wondered whether travel can bring about revolutions. Read the essay here or see below. 

OF TRAVELS AND REVOLUTIONS

In a world that is steadily changing, Deepa Bhasthi explores the ideas of travel and how it changes the perceptions that eventually led to revolutions. How it happened during the times of Che Guevara, and how it happens today …
Something happened the other day. At the crack of dawn, my favourite friend and I willed ourselves to go for a walk; we were 2500 kms from home. Folding into ourselves because it was very cold, we told each other that the mountain air would do us good. A few paces in, across a cliff that opened to our left, the very first ray of the day’s sun fell on the very tip of the Kanchenjunga. I remember both of us gasping, like in some well-rehearsed play, right on cue, in unison. We swore because we didn’t have any poetry to react to the way, first, a pale orange, then a deeper saffron light was spilling over from the peak, spreading then to the neighbouring snow caps in the same mountain range. It overwhelms you, that’s what a mountain does. That is what travel does. It prepares you for revolution, prepares you for a lifetime of knowing that there is the steadiness of the mountains to ground you, to make you humble. That there is something greater out there. That you are human, alive, capable of change.

“A revolution without guns? It would never work, Mial,” Fuser tells his friend, leaning against a wall built by the Incas in Machu Pichu. He was to become Che in a few years’ time, the most important revolutionary of those times, a cruel killer, and an enduring pop icon. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. And all that.

It was a ritual once that you travel, fend for yourself, be on your own to graduate into manhood. The open road, those quiet mountains in the distance, valleys and journeys make you an adult, even if you don’t ask for it. Somewhat vicariously, I saw the picture postcard-prettiness of Latin America of the 1950’s yesterday, re-watching The Motorcycle Diaries, an old favourite. Is it a good movie? Is it a cult movie? We had had this debate a week ago, two friends and I, in a distant land. It wasn’t particularly a well-made movie (the book is worse). Sure, the scenes look like postcards you might pick up in the hotel souvenir counter. But, we concluded, what makes the movie so famous is the cult, the image of Che Guevara, the handsome boy who became a firebrand revolutionary. For me, it was also because a favourite professor had included it in Film Studies class and given me the DVD to keep as a going away present after university.

We all like our bad boys, don’t we?

Some smart designer put the face of Che Guevara –photographer Alberto Korda’s shot, among the most recreated in the world – on a bikini. It is an image that buried its creator into oblivion and became more than the man it represented. Someone I know gave me a keyring with that image on it once, a beautiful, expensive, glossy looking piece it was. The Che of all those romanticised stories of the David who took on the Goliath capitalism of the US would have been appalled, surely. That is what we best seem to do. Take someone important and reduce to candyfloss and butter popcorn all that their convictions stood for. Yeah we do that well, in this world now.

But then, I was half convinced to believe recently, a revolution will come. It is nearing that time when things and economies come to a head. The tipping point, sometime in our lifetime, will come, we ought to believe. Isn’t belief and hope all that we have? More of the multi-billion dollar chains will enter this country now, we have a PM who loves those kind of things. In a cycle stand, give the first one a gentle push, the rest of the dominos will fall, one by one. Give the liberals a small bite to chew on, very soon, the cascading failure of their convictions will make sure they all fall, one by one, into line. A magazine ran a feature sometime ago on how hot the new PM is, like a wildman with that beard of his. I laughed. And then stopped. A school of thought must have been similarly amused by the hotness of Che, many decades ago. Perceptions and different realities we live with. Will the capitalists win again? It looks so. But you have to believe that will not be so, not in the long run at least. You have to, because hope is all you have.

Something is happening, most times, quietly. There is something brewing. There is a rejection of old money models, out with the old, in with the new. Feels goodto see that, it isn’t always a bad, bad world that we live in as adults. There are many worlds, different worlds for different people. Let’s not talk about that just yet. Just that it is a fragile world, one that, like a love relationship, needs working upon every day, a full time job.

In this fragile world, travel we must. Just like Che did. Just like the journeys that changed Siddhartha into the Buddha. It would be nice to take the open road ever so often and see the mountains and the sun’s rays upon them. If not those, there are other journeys, not in the least within, but also to the local grocer’s, the butcher by the corner stall, the tea shack that is not well lit, the neighbourhood market day, trips to localisms. Revolutions are made not by guns alone.

Over a discussion on globalised world’s recently, there emerged an idea of how we vote best with the currency notes in our hands. That’s where the real democracy is, in this largest democracy in the world and elsewhere. With that note, you choose who gets to lord over you, the consumer. That note, the way you spend, that walk to the many locals is where the tiny springs of revolution water from. For that you have to travel. The reasons, if you should need any: self-discoveries, realisations, mountains, or the seas, the peoples – unlike you, but not wholly different either.

Travel you must. Down the road is where the revolution is waiting for you.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Memories from a Road Trip: In Kindle this Month

On travel, the road, loves and picture postcard memories. Read it in Kindle magazine here or see below.

MEMORIES FROM THE ROAD

Road trip often includes experiences that become unforgettable memories, which stay with us long after the trip is over. Deepa Bhasthi recounts a few such memories from a recent road trip to Tamil Nadu… 



My favourite photograph from that trip is of one where the road lies wide and long before us. The sun has just risen, so the sky is all orange, pink and the lightest of powdery blue. Reflected on the bonnet of our car, these hues look like something from a magic book. It must have been half past six or so. I cannot wholly remember now, but from how the photograph looks, I must have leaned out of the window, the camera precariously dangling from my hand to take that shot. The friend was telling me not to lean out too much, and I hear those words every time I see the photo. Here is why it is my favourite from that trip – it has the majestic old car, sunrise as fresh as strawberries harvested from mother’s garden, the crispness in the cool breeze that blows that time of the day, the friend’s watchful voice and the long open road.

On a recent road trip to Tamil Nadu, it became, as most trips become most times, all about the road – those we missed, those that had the most potholes, those that were lined with canals and women washing clothes by the side, those that led to other roads that we would never take, at least not that day. Most are highways that we stick to, not always out of choice though. The one we start with is NH-something. It is midnight and neither of us can sleep, so we take to the road. A slight drizzle marks the time we cross the border. There are trucks ambling along, minor traffic snarls, the usual woes of a busy road. But I am not driving, so I can perch my feet up on the dashboard, wiggle my toes every so often and turn my head to the side.

There are small, overly lit tea stalls, some of which we stop at. Even at 3 in the morning, each of these shops has a couple of men, with deadpan stares, with small tea glasses wrapped within their fingers. I imagine they must talk of the weather and of Amma’s(Jayalalithaa) latest antics. What else do people in teashops at that time of the night talk about? The highway to Hosur, from where we change states, is lined with dark piles of huge rocks, little mountains and hills. The glistening stars along the patches where the land is suitably dark makes me want to draw lines from one star to the next, creating my own constellation. I point out the Orion to the friend, for that is the only constellation I can point out confidently.

The roads in the first town we end up in are very narrow; the vintage car we are in can just about squeeze in. Perhaps it is the tourist unfriendliness of the place – thank goodness for such places – we end up getting lost in that town a lot. Just as well. The houses we want to see, the unique architecture of the region is showed off best in the inner residential areas of the town. Thank goodness for missed roads and getting lost.

We leave again at four in the morning – it has now become an everyday routine for the trip –and take another highway. That is along where I think I take my favourite photograph. We drive alongside palm trees and bullock carts filled with sand from the local riverbed, driven by aging men with multiple lines on their faces that tell of the lives they have lived, the carts driven by bulls with painted horns, red and green and dark blue. The slow movement of these carts seem meditative; the sound of bells around the necks of these bulls, the slight squeak in the wheel and the lazy whip that the driver wields makes the pre-dawn hour seem ageless. The horizon is deceptive. One moment there is the headlight of an oncoming car in my eye, I blink, the next moment the sky is the most shocking colour of bright blue before us. There is something in the blue of the sky of that hour that brings out the gypsy in me. I am glad we took the road in the car.

Aquamarine, cobalt blue, azure, sapphire, turquoise and other shades of blue surround the next temple town we are at. In the room that faces the sea, there are many shades of blue.

From the monotony of the highway roads to the country roads. For a minute we wonder whether we missed a turn, because the map on my phone shows we are way off the route that Google has marked for us. But then, you can only trust Google so much. The road is bumpy, heavily pot-holed, the fuel is dipping, we have forgotten to refuel and there is not a soul to ask directions from. An odd Luna moped ‘kutoooors’ by and is far away by the time we decide to stop him and ask. The dogs still sleep by the sides. But then there is a wide canal that runs by the road; it is not monsoon in these parts yet but there is plenty of water. It is lined with green, so we don’t mind the uncertainty of a missed road.

The early hours that follow late nights and watching the sun rise everyday ensures we work up an appetite that the wheat biscuits and oily snacks in the cloth bag just won’t satisfy. This time, along the country roads, we spot a shack that is buzzing already. An improvised transistor/CD player is on, and is playing what I imagine must be songs from the 1970s’. The coals are already burning and the men of the village are up and about. We have idlis and tea and pack something for the road. Admittedly,the idlis aren’t too great, but the tea is sweet and milky. The bill is Rs 30. We think the owner has made a mistake and tell him again what we ate and drank. He says we owe him Rs 30. The friend and I are shocked at how cheap the countryside is and spend the next twenty minutes talking about how he manages to cover his overheads at such low prices. On the road, every topic gets stretched in time. We could never run out of things to talk about, it is just time, which seems longer, slower. Time on the road alternates between slowing down immensely and stretching thin over the plainswe are swiftly passing by. We also talk about this fluidity of time.

The road is boiling hot and we feel like the cat on a tin roof under a desert sun. The piles of rocks, the gentleness of the night has given way to bad city traffic and the honking of many horns. I feel bad for the dog that climbed up the flyover and now has to walk many miles to the other end before it can get off because there is no exit in the middle.

In the middle of the traffic, we think of the sunrise though. We will always have those sunrises that add to our moveable feasts. I am glad we took the road.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

November 08. I am exactly where I want to be.
Two years!

Monday, October 27, 2014

On Haider the Film and the Many Shades of Grey in Revenge: In Kindle Magazine

Was Haider among the best to have come out from Bollywood in recent years? I certainly didn't think so. It reduced the complexity of conflict in Kashmir to a simple black and white duality. I wrote about the shades of grey in war and conflict for Kindle magazine. Read it here or see below.

REVENGE

Haider as a film projecting the reality of Kashmir, has coalesced multiple narratives into a simplistic choice between vengeance and peace. Deepa Bhasthi elaborates on the shades of grey which often permeate into the everyday lives of Kashmiris ….


Horatio: They bleed on both sides. - How is it, my lord?
Osric: How is't, Laertes?
Laertes: Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric; I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act V. Scene II

The story of revenge served cold or otherwise, has never been found to be linear. Take Arjuna. Or Hamlet. Or the legend of the snake with a rage that lasts a purported 12 long years. Or the Tamils, the Sinhalese. Or Haider. Embroiled in the act of seeking revenge are complex philosophical and ethical issues that surround the means of revenge, be it cold blooded murder, calculated vengeance or thwarted desire. There are always many shades between white and black, many more than fifty. Yet, popular culture seems to insist on conveniently bracketing revenge, emotions, conflict, into water tight boxes, with no recourse of escape, no space for alternative interpretations.

That was my problem with Haider. Admittedly, it is one of the better films to come out from the B-factory in recent times. I should have known better though when everyone and their uncle recommended that this, Haider, was "true cinema." I went for the poetry, but there was hardly any. Instead I admired the Kashmiri embroidery, on everything from the blankets to waistcoats to durries in the sun room, and wished the film was half an hour shorter. The movie was not only very far from "true cinema", whatever that definition, but it also tried to reduce the Kashmir issue, and the larger question of vindication and vengeance to a simple, straightforward answer. It can never be simple, human beings are much more complicated than that.

Coincidentally, it so happened that I was midway through Samanth Subramanian's fantastic book This Divided Island - Stories from the Sri Lankan War when I went to watch Haider. Both presented an interesting juxtaposition to the issue of revenge, seeking it, being at its receiving end or fated to be a mute witness. Subramanian, a New Delhi based journalist, moved to Sri Lanka for nearly a year, traveled extensively and gathered the multiple narratives of post-war Sri Lanka. He is Tamil, so that places him on a precarious ledge. But like a true journalist, he is only the carrier of stories, the messenger who refuses, who cannot take sides.

The island has not left anyone unaffected by the decades old war that ended in a purge five years ago. How could it? Not even if you were an ostrich in the sand could something of that gravity pass you by without leaving a dent. The Tamil side was massacred, youth were, in later years, forced to pick up arms - why does a poet pick up arms? Why did Haider? Sometimes there is no choice, most times actually. Conditioned by a lifetime of an ideology, a single incident, or a slow brewing that sparks off something that is hidden in all of us, that is the philosophy we need to examine.

What is it that they say, about a little of the Satan in all of us? The Sinhalese were victims too in the tear drop country. Journalists disappeared, families were ripped apart. The monks, saffron robed and a picture of tranquility and peace, broke down mosques, and militantly continue to encroach and build upon Tamil temples, Subramanian writes. It shouldn't have shocked me, but it did. Religion has always blackmailed its devout to bring out the devil in them, Buddhism can't be any different. Yet all you see in popular culture is the calmness of a monk under a Bodhi tree, meditating for world peace. That is what manufactured consent does to you, taking away what your common sense knows to impose what someone somewhere with an agenda wants you to believe. Perhaps nothing gave me a jolt as reading passages of what the religious majority has been doing to the religious minority in that country. It shouldn't have, I almost feel foolish for being complicit with the manufactured mass opinion, but then, there is that devil in all of us.

Haider is complicit too, in feeding into and perpetrating the mass opinion of what Kashmiriyat is, reducing it to just its issue of nationalism. It is that, it is a lot of that. But Kashmir is also about every day concerns of people - of grappling with love, loss, money, success, career, modernity, effects of globalisation and the other mundane things that concern people everywhere, elsewhere. By completely ignoring the everyday of people in any non-normal conflict zone, we, as consumers of popular culture that does so, are in danger of forcing these people back into a narrow narrative, further reducing what their individual lives mean beyond cold statistics.
The greyish tone of any country's political situation is best understood in its individual case studies, those in turn facilitating wider interpretations of the whole picture. No one in a war can be wholly right, no one can be wholly wrong either. As long as those of us who have the luxury of living along unbombed roads and at a safe distance from conflict remember that there are always, always two sides to an issue, somewhere, the clinical, calculated, manipulative manufacturing of consent will be unsuccessful.

J., my Kashmiri friend, is one of those cool dudes, deliciously handsome, like most Kashmiri men are. It wasn't until some time into our acquaintance that I got to know he was from Ananthnag, one of the most heavily affected areas in the post 1989 years. J and I never spoke of it, though the journalist in me itches to hear his story. For me, he is a happy-go-lucky sort, filmy in the way he breaks into a Bollywood inspired dialogue, tehezeeb-ed and utterly chivalrous in an old world way. He must have demons too, and a cause for revenge. The last time I spoke to him, he was on the lookout for a girlfriend. He, like his counterparts in all the countries of the world, at war or otherwise, is a sum of all these parts of his, no part greater than the whole.

Vindication, vengeance and its synonyms are only available in shades of grey.
It must be the nature of disappointment. You know you will be disappointed, you anticipate it, expect that of those small expectations, yet, when it happens, every single time, it is like being scorched by a fire you have been staring at all night, slapped on the face, running into a wall, all at once.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On the Ghost Town-ness of Chettinad Houses: In The New Indian Express

Recent travel had taken me to Tamil Nadu and to the lovely heritage town of Karaikudi in the Chettinad region. Wrote about it for The New Indian Express. Read it here or see the edited version below.

These photos below are not part of the published story.

ONCE UPON A TIME HOMES OF GLORY


Opulence and grandeur. Rather big words. Yet some superlatives seem inadequate when you present yourself before a Nattukottai Chettiar’s house. Each house is big—the word that immediately comes to mind when you walk and sweat through the narrow roads of Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. The town whose name sounds like a temple for the very devout is the largest and at the heart of the Chettinad region. It is where the immensely rich bankers, industrialists and other businesspeople of the community come home to, for weddings and 60th birthday prayers—the nerve centre of nine temples, one or the other to which each Chettiar family traditionally pays allegiance to.

Globalisation had come a century early to these parts. Reminiscent of the Gulf-returnees elsewhere in later decades, the Chettiars made their fortunes trading in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and countries of Europe and money lending in Sri Lanka and closer home. After triumphant returns every two years or so to one of the 96 native villages that formed the larger Chettinad region, they built long, grand and very big houses. They also brought in the world to occupy the halls of these edifices with marble and tiles from Italy, chandeliers and teak wood for furniture and ceilings from Burma, crockery from Indonesia, enamelware from Eastern Europe, floor-to-ceiling high mirrors from Belgium, something else from Japan, adding to the local methods of construction and architecture. One of this was where thousands of egg whites went into creating wall plaster that felt and glistened like cold marble.


But now the houses, tall and once proud, stand forlorn. Its owners live in Chennai, Coimbatore, and Madurai. Several are abroad because Karaikudi, Devakottai, Athangudi and other villages with equally rustic names are not where they can run air-conditioned offices. The weather isn’t too pretty either; the roads are dusty and the people are almost always on the verge of leaving for the cities, like in any other Indian small town.

Karaikudi seems like a place designed to get lost in. Which is just as well. If you aren’t there to sift through piles of antiques on Muneeswaran Koil Street, mansion visits are what you’d probably want to do, to admire the dysfunctional mix of styles and try to work out just how rich these families are. Which is exactly what I did, with a friend, two weeks or so ago, for two whole days.

The town is delightfully tourist unfriendly. They do get well-heeled visitors who stay in one of the expensive renovated Chettiar houses. There are pilgrims who make their way to Pillayarpatti, a 4th century temple, or any of the other residences of divinity that dot the landscape. We fall in another category and the locals don’t fully know where to bracket us.

We do some of what we are required to do—walk down the antiques street, pick up a lot of dusty things at less than quarter of what Mr B, the antiques man in Bangalore, would charge us. Then we take a trip to Athangudi, where the famous tiles are individually hand-made using the special local soil, glass plates and colours from Chennai. We pick up samples to use as wall hangings and incense stands back home. We see the excessiveness of Periya Veedu, the big house that starred in many movies until recently. We stumble upon, thanks to a nice old taxi driver, another house with a helpful guide who practices his routine with us; the house is on its way to being turned into a museum soon and he will need to spill the same spiel often. We do the touristy thing and take pictures of the blue bicycle leaning upon a cream wall holding up a latticed roof, of the narrow lanes, of the cold beer in the garden of The Bangala, the restaurant all tourists end up at. We do not take selfies.


It is all a sightseeing trip should be. But even when I am aiming the camera towards a street along which two school girls in blue checkered uniforms peddle down on bicycles the government gave them, I cannot shake off the sense that I am in a part-ghost town. The taxi driver lets on that most of those who own these mansions are too happy to lock them up for the greater part of the year. They do not need the money that could come from turning these heritage houses into heritage hotels. Several others hold on to the vestiges of Old Worldness, living in their ancestral homes surrounded by the past, the photographs and fading Belgian mirrors. We stumble upon one, with a board in Tamil. The one English phrase says ‘snacks available’. We enquire, are misunderstood, and an old man asks us to leave; his house is not up for sightseeing. All we wanted was snacks. The house around him is falling apart; maintaining what must be a white elephant can’t be easy. We imagine the tiles and window panes would soon end up on Muneeswaran Koil street, where the antiques are. It isn’t pleasant, imagining the ruins of the future.

In the villages around, where the Chettiar homes take up whole streets, it is quiet. Almost eerie is the silence, even though people are going about their business, kids are playing, a cow meditates in a corner, and tea shops send out their mixed scents. Homes of this size seem to mandate that they should bustle with the voices and footsteps of dozens of children, their mothers chasing after them, as sounds from the kitchen arrive as a familiar orchestra. But these days in Chettinad, in the halls of houses lined with tiles from Italy, silence is the loudest noise.

Monday, October 20, 2014

I have a text message from this day two years ago saved on my phone. The culture day had been wonderful. It still sometimes doesn't make sense, but it feels right, still. And that is why I am here, happy, safe, protected.

I want to say so much that I can only say little now. :) 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

On Prabhath Kalavidaru: In Indian Quarterly Magazine

I am told I sat through a play staged by the very famous Prabhath Kalavidaru when I was little. I have no recollection of it, sadly. 2014 marks the centenary birth year of their founder Gopinathdas. I spoke to his son T G Venkateshachar and grandson Harish Prabhath about the group's history, their contribution to the field of theatre and their continued relevance. The story is in the latest issue of Indian Quarterly.

All photos are courtesy of Prabhath Kalavidaru.

THE ENTERTAINERS


Raja Ravi Varma, in the late 19th century, showed us what our Gods and Goddesses looked like – heavy silks and pearls in place. A century after his works became well known, the whole theatre of Ramanand Sagar’s cult TV series Ramayana—and the equally cultish Mahabharat— perpetuated Varma’s imagery, and was to define the popular culture aesthetic of a generation: a generation, further, that was coming of age in an India between socialist policies and economic liberalisation. Perhaps it is nostalgia for who we were when these were our reference points; or, perhaps an old charm we associate with them that makes the dance ballets of Prabhath Kalavidaru as popular now as they were eighty years ago.

Based in Bengaluru, Prabhath Kalavidaru is a cultural point of reference, a pioneer in more ways than just being a good theatre group. For the last 84 years, it has influenced technical innovation on the proscenium, inspired changes in performance forms and come up with new narratives for popular culture in Karnataka and elsewhere.

It is well-known for producing dance ballets, some history-based like Karnataka Vaibhava, others fairy tales like Cinderella. Several, such as Bhagavad Gita and Shri Rama Prateeksha, are “mythological”, continuing the look and sound of the pop art-heavy 1980s and 1990s. The members of the group are also famous for the way they married classical dance forms with Western performance ideas and local folk traditions—an idea once so radical that their founder Gopinathdas was ridiculed by the puritans. This derision continued to follow him, through the technological innovations he continued to make, the fame the group accumulated and the entertainment empire that ensued.

It is Gopinathdas’ birth centenary year. A week-long festival of music and dance ballet to mark the occasion has recently concluded. I am in the drawing room of a modern, middle-class home speaking with his son TG Venkateshachar and grandson Harish Prabhath, who is also the group’s lead performer. Once upon a time, Gopinathdas, his three brothers and co-founders Karigirachar, Jayasimhadas and Dwarkanath, and their extended families lived together in an old sprawling bungalow. Their other related enterprises—a recording studio, costume and equipment rentals—were run from rooms that were added when new ventures were started and families expanded. Today, the businesses and families are divided and spread across Bengaluru.

A large portrait of Gopinathdas on the wall bears witness to our conversation. It was in 1930 that he and his three brothers, all proficient in harikathe—a traditional style of religious storytelling—started the Gururaja Vadya Vrinda, a group that staged live theatre productions. Having moved from their native town, Tumkur, to the big city, they opened the Prabhath Shishuvihara in 1947—the first of many ventures Gopinathdas would go on to found. The school, in the Basavanagudi neighbourhood, taught students theatre, music and dance. A permanent platform was built to stage the plays they devised.

With the brothers’ harikathe sessions drawing large crowds, a rudimentary microphone system was no longer enough. Mumbai was the nearest place from where they could rent a Chicago amplifier. Sensing a potential business, the family scraped together the princely sum of 3,000 rupees to import an RCA amp. When they weren’t using it, they rented it out to other theatre groups. Today, they rent out a whole range of equipment. Once, at the last minute before a show, the costume supplier backed out, remembered Venkateshachar. This gave birth to Prabhath Vastra Vaibhava, which continues to make all the costumes for the group’s productions. These are also available for hire.

To help those actors who couldn’t sing very well, pre-recorded music was introduced—a near blasphemy in theatre circles then. “It was the first time anyone was doing this in south India. There was a lot of opposition, with people saying that this was not theatre. But we recorded songs with singers like Yesudas, SP Balasubramaniam and Vani Jayaram. People would come to the studio to record jingles to be broadcast on All India Radio too,” Venkateshachar told me.

While these businesses were thriving, Prabhath Kalavidaru—named so from 1942 onwards—was introducing many changes in the theatre world. Plays were being shortened to two hours instead of five, or the then prevalent all-nighters. Unrelated comedy scenes showing while the painted screens were being changed in the background were done away with. Spotlights were brought in: a green light beamed a backdrop for a forest scene, blue for a river. “People laughed,” remembered Venkateshachar. “One side of the stage there is light, one side there is no light! ‘What is this?’ they mocked.” Gopinathdas stuck to the traditions of harikathe to stage his productions, while borrowing liberally from the technical experiments theatre groups were making elsewhere. When they began touring outside the state, songs and dialogues were recorded in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, English and even Sanskrit.

Prabhath Kalavidaru’s repertoire has about 20 productions today. Their Cinderella was staged for the 1000th time recently, and made big news. But Harish says it is the only play where they track the number of shows. “It needs very specific space dimensions and is technically very difficult, so we have kept count. Some of our other productions would have been staged some 5,000–6,000 times over the decades. We haven’t counted.”


Their popularity—and relevance—in the face of newer entertainment avenues lies, claim the father and son, in how they fall somewhere between the styles of company theatre and modern plays. “The entertainment quotient should be very high in our productions,” said Harish. “That is what will bring in both the pandita (the intellectual) and the pamara (the common man),” added his father. Audiences are more discerning these days, they explained, but almost all shows run to full houses. Those who loved Prabhath Kalavidaru’s plays in their youth come back with their children and grandchildren. Reading a story from the Ramayana might stay with a child for a fortnight, but seeing it visually will last a decade or even a lifetime, Harish’s grandfather believed. It is this premise—or perhaps the world is just big enough for all entertainers—that continues to keep Prabhath Kalavidaru’s aesthetic relevant and the group thriving.


Monday, October 06, 2014

...but I have always loved you, and if one loves anyone, one loves the whole person, just as they are and not as one would like them to be...

Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Boiling Coffee, Burning Beirut: In The Forager Magazine's Inaugural Issue

A few months ago, someone introduced me to Mahmoud Darwish's works. Some Googling later, I started on Memory for Forgetfulness, August, Beirut 1982, some of the most powerful prose I have ever read. It was disturbing and thought-provoking, the use of language utterly gorgeous. What emerged was this piece I wrote for The Forager's inaugural issue. I edit the magazine with some friends. 

The art work for this work is by Sujith S N, an artist living and working in Mumbai.


Sujith S N, Stains of Stimuli, watercolour on paper, 44 x 58 inches, 2014

BOILING COFFEE, BURNING BEIRUT

A war. The war. A war never ends you know. Even when it does, it remains. On bodies. In hearts. In past economies and future histories. War. Mine. Yours. Theirs. Yet, all of ours, this war.

From a to be or not to be to this or that to choices and clich├ęd existentialism this conflict within and without is a wake-up call. It rings at 6 every morning, precise, on the dot, like the cheap plastic clock beside your bed – a discard from an old love affair. I – the ‘I’ being you, being all of others – wake up to a bugle that announces the day’s war. Toast vs cereal. Idli vs Uppittu. Red vs blue. Lover vs spouse. Living vs existing. Mundane vs mundane.

I don an armor, a different one every day, to suit what battle has been called for that day. You have to prioritize you know. A city can be unforgiving at times like this. The metal in these buildings, the skies, in these roars is what kills you on the frontline. Even when it keeps you alive, it takes you away. The metal, garnished with your dreams and individual minds, preparing a feast for metal the master. But before I am battle ready – they don’t leave me a choice – let me have five minutes please. That is all Mahmoud Darwish asks for. That is all I need too, just five minutes, to do that one thing that matters. After that, I don’t care – they don’t leave me a choice – I will battle the day, the world, you.

I need five minutes to place this dawn, or my share of it, on its feet and prepare to launch into this day born of howling. I was born in a coffee estate. I grew up on the way it smelled. And right now I want the aroma of coffee. For it is only the aroma of coffee that I have between this morning and the chaos that will soon take over on the streets and in the nerves of my mind. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. After that coffee, we can go, the day and I, looking down the streets for another place, a safe place. A safe place where someone else will fight my biggest wars for me, wear my armor and keep me safe.

For this, I need five minutes. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. I know coffee well, just in the way I know instant coffee is not coffee, it is just branded, stamped and sold as coffee. When you know coffee, you also know that you have to make it with your own hands. It is solitary, silent. The day’s first coffee, the virgin of the silent morning will absorb any words a bearer of your cup on a tray will utter. It could be a simple greeting, yet, words burn the coffee. When you know your coffee, you know you don’t want it to burn.

Coffee is the morning silence, early and unhurried. When a war is waging outside your window, waiting for the five minutes to be up, waiting for you to pick up your gun, your mind and open the front door and let it in, the silence is all you have. Don’t be greedy now. Five minutes is more than what most people can ever fantasize about. These five minutes devoid of the shelling, the screams, the roughing up of your naked body comes with a privilege that you have acquired. Let’s not examine by what means you came upon this luxury.

In the only silence in which you can be creative, be yourself, in these five minutes, you get to pour some water into a small copper pot with a mysterious shine – yellow turning brown – and you place that over a fire. It is not a wood fire. Even with your privileges you are not allowed that. Not here, not in the midst of your wars.

The street is outside. Some wars have begun long before you were up. Peep down and you see them. Fruits and vegetables are being sold from carts by vendors; they lavish praise on the pathetic wares they peddle, hoping you, or someone like you, will pay a few coins extra. The reality of the street can wait. By now, two elements, fire coloured green and blue and water roiling and breathing out tiny white granules that turn into a fine film and grow, have made contact. I do not take my coffee with sugar, but for the man still lying across my bed by the window, fast asleep and snoring, I would add two spoons of coarse sugar. The bubbles in the pan settle down when the granules fall through, but spring up again. Only one substance will settle them now, coffee – a flashy rooster of aroma and Eastern masculinity.

Remove the pot away. The way you orchestrate the dialogue between hand and liquid will tell you the flavor of the day. Maybe you will get to stay in and escape it all, maybe you’ll have to walk into the streets, ready for life, prepared for death. They say that the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul.

Is history not bribable? Asks Darwish. The history we know is full of bigger wars, of big kings and big armies and bombs that efficiently obliterate my personal history, your personal history. Who documents our wars? No one wants to forget. More accurately, no one wants to be forgotten. Some build forts to last longer than the name that will be forgotten. Some give birth, burdening children with the task of carrying a name forward. But what if one wants to forget? Forget an old identity, an old name, an old mistake?

Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

But enough of this talk of the coffee shops of Beirut where identities are measured with pieces of paper. I will make my coffee now. Conquerors of my soul and my body cannot deny me the aroma of coffee, at least not the memory of it.

Take a spoon of ground coffee from the blue jar you bought, on a whim – it cost you a day’s wage – and let it fall on the spluttering surface of the boiling water. Stir, clockwise, up, down. Add another spoonful. Stir, up, down, counterclockwise. Add another spoonful. Remove the pot from the low fire between these spoonfuls, bring it back. Dip the spoon, lift up the dissolving powder, let it fall back. Smoothly.

If only wars could be melted away in a spoon of hot water.

Repeat the above. Water will begin to boil again, your blond coffee buoys on the surface, threatening to sink. Turn off the heat, let the metal scream and be crushed outside, the vegetable vendors can wait too. Pour the coffee into a little white cup: dark-coloured cups spoil the freedom of the coffee.

Then a first cigarette, flavoured with existence itself, with this first coffee.

No coffee is like another, and my defense of coffee is a plea for difference itself. There is no flavor called coffee, just like textbooks in school describe how water has no taste. Coffee is not a concept. Every house has its coffee, and every hand too, because no soul is like another. Like water it meanders and bends and sighs and runs over many surfaces. It wraps itself around me and melts with longing to go up the mountain, the way I long for you. It does go up the mountain as it disperses in the gossamer of a shepherd’s pipe taking it back to its first home.

Like the sound of drums that a dying fire carries into the faraway hills, the aroma of coffee is the offspring of the primordial. Its journey began thousands of years ago, like yours and mine.

Coffee is a place. Coffee is a breast that nourishes men deeply. A morning born of a bitter taste. The milk of manhood. Coffee is geography.

I have made my coffee. I have no other excuse now.

The war slipped through the creak in the window panel and has come into my bedroom now.

----

In these times of war, in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere within each of us, this piece pins down to the making of coffee that small sense of normalcy we all seek to move on from one day to the next. The writing emerged from a reading of Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. The sentences in italics are direct quotes from the book.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Forager Magazine Goes Live

Like in finding love, in life too, it is all about timing. Some things work, some things, however brilliant or perfect they might have been, don't, and that's all there is to it. 

One evening in mid March this year, over a Skype session between two countries, a casual conversation began to snowball into something that I will always be the most proud of having been part of. We began talking of how our lives are so centered around food. If we are not eating it, we are cooking it, or talking about it, or thinking about something around it. As a practice that lies at the very fabric of what builds human beings, food is, at once, both deeply personal and communal, frivolous and political, ritualistic and routine. In its many stages of producing, cooking, eating or talking about, food plays a communicative role that again, at once, can both bind and divide people. As an idea, food lends itself to multiple narratives, as a political tool, an economic parameter, a personal memoir, an anthropological study aid, among others.

We wanted to explore various facets of the food on our tables and facilitate conversations about the provenance of the food we eat, its significance throughout history and in contemporary life and as the most powerful medium of cultural expression available to us.

Starting from these ideas, we set about planning an online magazine. A duo grew into a team of seven. Sunday evenings began to be reserved for magazine meetings. Few weeks into April we had a name, by May a rough idea of what would not go into the magazine, by July a web developer and a design. Hundreds of email exchanges, hundreds of hours of phone calls, a lot of eating around the meetings ensued. Six months, nearly to the day, we have The Forager live online from today!

The last few weeks have been stressful. From not knowing how to make a magazine to launching an online journal at midnight today, we have come a long way. Along with creating something beautiful, we have all learnt much about each other and ourselves, bonded, and created wonderful relationships. 

The Forager is an idea that is growing bigger as the day passes, we have the world planned for ourselves. But more on that later. Tonight, in the aftermath of a very memorable launch party, all I want to do is stop working for now. But all this is too exciting, I don't want to stop. Share in my excitement, log on to www.theforagermagazine.com and give your feedback. We are on social media too, follow us there. 

As for me, right now I shall sleep, knowing that there is something very precious that we created out there, that there is a lot of learning, beauty, love and friendship behind it. 

Baby, we actually did it.

It is yet to sink in.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On URA, Gabo and Others Who Died: In Kindle This Month

In this month's Kindle magazine, I write about two beloved writers who passed away this year. Read the story here or see below. I also wrote two reports on the Voices from the Waters International Travelling Film Festival 2014. Read them here and here.

ON U R ANANTHAMURTHY, GABO AND OTHERS WHO DIED...
The legacy of those famous personalities who have left us is not just that of sweet remembrance of their contribution to our lives. It is also about “perceived kinship”, humanity and a lot more … Deepa Bhasthi talks about the culture of ‘celebrity worship’ …

It was better that I was at home in the hills when I heard that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died, aged 87. I immediately ran upstairs, to where I house my library, and stood before grandfather’s antique teakwood cupboard, behind whose glass doors stood in line my Gabo books. All of them Penguin editions, hence mostly with orange spines. It was as if I wanted prrof that Gabo was going to be alive still, on my bookshelves, on the bookshelves of millions of others. Genius doesn’t really die. It cannot.

As if from Macondo itself, as I write this, the flimsy broken wing of a dead dragonfly drops down from the roof and lands on this page. Dreamy, from the world not like ours, transparent silver. The broken wing is like the wing of Macondo.

I would never have met Gabo, even if I had made that planned pilgrimage to go to see him, his village that I was told is remote and at the end of a full day’s walk. Yet, I feel a dull sadness that I never knew before at a celebrity’s death. Gabo had long stopped writing. It isn’t that, it isn’t anything I can name. Perhaps it is because of how he inspired my own work. His presence somewhere in the world seemed enough.

He retreats to Macondo. That’s where we will go to see him now. RIP Gabo.

Journal entry dated 18 April 2014.

More recently, the Kannada writer U R Ananthamurthy passed away, after a prolonged illness, as the newspapers worded it. When I interviewed him for Kindle last year, he was too sick to receive visitors, we stuck to an email exchange. And then he bounced back, travelling to London for an awards ceremony. In the madness that was the elections this time around, he said he’d move out of the country if Modi was elected. He got a lot flack for it, predictably, when he died, the fundamentalists burst crackers in mocking joy in places along the Konkan coast. He would have been amused. Till the very end, he wore his heart and his humanity, his humility on his sleeve. Vocal about what many people said ought not to be his areas of concern, politics included, URA was defiant and most importantly, self-critical of the dualism of thought, issue and action that came to define his personal politics.

In the same fashion as Hemingway’s writing episodes in cafes, URA had the luxury to be able to sit in a cafe in Kathmandu to finish a novel, my professor remembers an anecdote he had heard in college. But not restricting himself to the privileges that went with a well-recognized writer in a pretty ivory tower, he immersed himself in mentoring scores of students, involving in politics and remaining deeply concerned about the directions of society, from the local city level to national.

Daily newspapers had a strange concept of collecting “celebrity quotes” on an important issue, a breaking news. I wonder if they still do that. It fell upon the junior most reporters to call up a “celebrity”, sometimes even tell them what the news was and ask for their reaction. Every newspaper would have a stock of people who would always respond. If it was a social issue, URA was always on the list. As a cub reporter, unused to randomly calling famous people, I remember the first time I called him. I remember how patiently he gave his reaction, waiting for me to take notes, wording his sentences in a way that would look perfect as a quote. His gentleness, rare even among the aam junta, let alone among those like him, is something I shall always remember.

He was close to an aunt and uncle of mine and I would remind him that the few times I met him. So I knew him personally, in a way. Not close enough to be too deeply affected at his passing, but nevertheless, it was sadness at the loss of a firebrand who was never afraid to show that he was just as human and thus just as susceptible to faults and contradictions as everyone else.

Why does it matter so much though? I wonder. Famous people are human beings, they are born, they live, they die, just like the rest of us. Yet, be it with a favourite writer, a singer whose songs took us through a rough patch, a sportsperson whose story motivates every day, a film star even, why is there an outpouring of grief, most notably on social media, the new playground for the sharply opinionated? Most of us would probably never meet those who we call our inspirations, our heroes. If you ask me, we best don’t. There is something about meeting a celeb crush that dulls the sheen off the deities we make them to be.

A writer is not the characters he shapes out carefully with his words. A singer is not the romantic he becomes for that favourite song. An actor is just acting. They put their heart and soul into what they create but they are never that which they create. You know that. Yet, something feels not right when one of them dies. I have wondered if it is the perceived kinship we share with them. What they made, made us think they must have felt what we did. Or perhaps it is the loss of who we think they are. Should it matter if a creativist is gone when their works make them beyond death? Gabo didn’t write for a long time before he died, his last work was criticized as a mild embarrassment, at best. He never wrote another One Hundred Years of Solitude again. URA leaves behind a work, soon to be published. He never wrote a Samskara again though.Perhaps we are a species of celebrity worshippers. The Facebook feed, tweets, the onslaught of different tributes in different media perhaps oblige you to think of making a personal tribute too.

The news has moved on now, no one is writing on URA anymore. Yet, here is my somewhat tribute. Though perhaps that’s the thing, not waiting for them to die, or till their news fizzles away, before you speak of them, URA, or Gabo, or any of those others. Genius doesn’t need a publicist. In a quiet moment of a day when you have a minute to think of those things that most touch you, they, and those of their ilk, across the creative disciplines, will always be remembered.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Other Day, We Went Fishing

When a lot of other shit was happening all around us, two of my favourite boys took me fishing. It was my first time. 

Armed with one hook and a bamboo rod, some snacks in an old cloth bag, we start out, three troopers, one mid-morning. Stopping along the way under a tall tree where the mud was still damp, they dig up some worms, thin earth-toned earthworms, some fat, juicy albino types. Some get away, but most end up as a pile upon a sheet of silver foil. I hold on tight to the bamboo rod all along, morbidly fascinated with the wiggling, poor worms.

We come to the pond inside the estate. Would it rain? It threatens to, the whole time we are there, which is a few hours. It drizzles, not enough though to pack up and run back. 


The pro shows us how it was done. Having fished from the time he was little, in farms with the neighbours' boys, he has to only lazily fling the rod into the water and out would fly a struggling fish. As for me, it was like this one time last December when I watched a man place the head of a cow atop a wooden pedestal and yank, yank its jaws open to pull out its tongue, a delicacy for Christmas, apparently. It was both fascinating and horrifying, all that blood everywhere, the smells. 

You can never tell when you will realize there is in you a streak of the morbid. Or the tad self destructive, for that matter. 

The apparatus we share consists of a long pole, at the end of which is a metal hook tied to string. Through that hook, you push in a live worm and arrange it in a lump, partly dangling off the hook to tease the fish in, but not too much either. Towards the end is another small stick tied to the bigger one. This one floats on the surface of the water. When the fish has swum up to the worm on the hook and starts tugging at it, this small stick wobbles slightly because of the pressure. You have to judge this one right now. Remember to yank out the pole with a swift hand, the old hand veteran instructs me. If you pull out too fast, the hook won't have gotten stuck in the fish's throat yet, too late and a fish would have swum away, happy on a juicy worm. 

It takes me a couple of tries, of course. My favourite boys thread the worms for me, I can't bring myself to touch them, very much alive as they are. I feel sorry for the worms, the boys, well they would rather just start catching some fish soon. I take the pole and lower the hook into the water, arrange the short stick appropriately and prepare myself for a long wait. I am told to concentrate and watch out for slight movements. Then I feel a slight tug. It's hardly been a couple of minutes. I am a bit disappointed, for I had all these visions of sitting companionably for endless minutes, pondering on life's questions and that day's dinner. You can hardly answer existential stuff in two minutes now, can you?

I am told to pull up the pole. I do, with a jerk. And at the end of it is a shiny little fellow, wide eyed and fighting to get free. He lands in the bushes nearby and the three of us poke around the grass a bit before we find him, beating against the ground. There he is, my first catch! He is struggling and I want to throw him back, almost. But the veteran fisherman has told me that the hook hurts the fishes bad, and they don't survive long that way. It is more merciful not to throw them back. Maybe he says so to make me feel better. 

You can never tell when you will recognize the hunter in you. Maybe deep within, we all are hunters. You cannot wish away the primitive residual DNA. It is the one that stirs longing and dance in you when the drums beat, the one that arouses the hunter in you. Something hidden, never previously used, never acknowledged stirs. I take to this act of killing fish for food. There is something indescribably stirring, disturbing, fascinating about foraging.


They say the first kill is always the hardest. After the first fish, I go on to catch five more, different kinds that have beautiful names like Silopi and others I cannot remember now. Beginner's luck, the second greenhorn grumbles. He fashions a bowl out of banana leaf and some twigs - he is excellent at those things - and we put all our catch there, to heave and gasp and die slowly. He manages two fishes, the teacher, even when just showing us the ropes, catches two. I show off the number six often after that. I like fishing, I tell everyone.


Those few hours there are wonderfully peaceful. There is scant conversation, a slight drizzle, a lazy sun now and then and the unhurried ease that comes with being with people you are comfortable with. We leave when we realize we haven't eaten lunch yet, it is close to 5 pm. 

Later, they will clean the ten small fishes. They will scrap off the scales and pull out the guts. They will shoo away the dogs that wait nearby for scraps. They will mix turmeric and chilly powders and let the fishes marinate till when the rest of the cooking begins. One will make excellent biriyani. One will fry these fishes. I will cut some vegetables for myself. There will also be some left over pork. There will be a warm fire, around which toasts will be raised and stories exchanged. Much later, around a small table next to a window that I open to let the cold wind in, four friends will sit and share a lovely meal over laughter, drink, stories and merriment.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Pretty Jar

It is a ceramic jar in the colours of blue flowers upon cream. 

The lid is wood with a small, smart round handle on top.

That is to hold and tug the lid free from the pretty ceramic jar. 

I washed it and let it dry. Jar and lid.

Then filled coffee powder in it, up to the brim. 

What this jar calls for is this: early mornings when I, lazily, the bed/blanket still inviting, a cool cloudy breeze hushing in, will lift a wooden spoon from where it hangs on a vintage wooden Kerala-style holder. I will tug at the wooden lid of this cream-blue jar and bend down a little to take a whiff of coffee and comfort. I will not count, or measure the coffee powder, just fill the stove top for a fresh batch every morning. The water in a hundred year old kettle will begin to boil as I look out the window - two clay birds perch on the grills. The light has begun to stream in, but it is cold yet. And I would rather have five more minutes under the covers. 

The coffee is nearing done too. My little home fills with the fragrance of fresh coffee, the day warms, it feels like unsliced bread fresh from the oven. 

The morning coffee ritual. This cream-blue jar filled to the brim with coffee powder is among the rituals we devise and accustom ourselves to in our adult lives. The first whiff of coffee, that indescribable smell of different lives, bodies gone by, that, now, is what these days remind me of 

our slow mornings

black coffee

comfortable silences 

together

in the sun-coloured yellow room.