Tuesday, January 21, 2014

One Rumination

I don't very often go to this website, only because I can easily ignore everything else and spend hours browsing through. They do some fantastic work there. The above image is part of a bigger picture. See that here. Today, the image seemed to fit in with some of the many things running through my mind.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Winter Skies

Even the winter-blue skies are bluer there
There in the earth I call mine
The sun burns brighter
Like all of everyone's love
The trees taller, happier, greener
But what I yearn most for
Is the black ink sky 
Studded with many a star
And the tall perch upon which
I could stretch my feet
And dream like a little girl again.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What the Festival in This City Smells Of

Nandini milk is the milk I grew up on after we sold our cattle and couldn't get fresh milk anymore. We used to have cattle, many cows that I could point out and many buffaloes that I couldn't tell one from the other. A cow named Jyothi, caramel brown and mild mannered, was my favourite. The other memory I have of her is that of her carcass lying by the small stream in the neighbour's unfarmed farmland. And eagles circling it and Amma leading me away. I wish she would still do that, shield me from the unpleasant parts of the day. There are times you wish you weren't let out into the wide world, to draw your own path, away from the nest, the warm, safe, white coffee flowers and cozy blankets nest. Do you feel that? For innocent, safer times?

The milk smells of the city, as does everything you touch here. The grim and the sweat of those that seek to be chewed up and spit out by this unforgiving city. That is what the milk smells of. Just like the rest of me.

The strands of vermicelli smell like lifelessness, pale and broken down. You could arrange them into a boulevard of broken dreams that the millions on these streets can trample on. They would do unto it what the city would have done to them, to their illusions. Hope dies everyday. Just like it is born everyday. The crackle of strands of vermicelli like the sound of the marching band announcing the deaths, the births. 

There are small, thin strands of saffron. They are the colour red but in milk they bleed yellow and smell of what I imagine the Valley must have tasted like before the guns and bombs and tears and cries began screaming out at the rest of the world. It smells of happy memories with the dear friend who brought that saffron box back. A whiff emanates also of the guns and arguments inside the heads of us that try to call this home, these people family, this life ours. Dirty secrets that we coat with red and yellow saffron strands, hoping the fragrance it collected from the Valley will mask the stench of unfairnesses. Red and yellow, dirty fellow. We used to say that as children. 

I add sugar, white sugar from a small tin box that once held white tea. And cardamom, the one thing that smells of the sweet mythologies of home. 

I bring all these complications to boil. A hot bowl of this payasa, on the day of this festival that decides spring has begun, has whirled together atop the fire to smell finally of melancholia. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Where Widows are For Sale

Stoic. That is the only word I can think of to describe Nagamma. After my first hello to her just outside the bus stand, then sharing a short auto-rickshaw ride to her colony, then listening to her life story with two dozen family and neighbours milling around in a small igloo-shaped hut, till after I wave my goodbyes, I cannot find another word after stoic to attach to how I find her.

When in her mid-30s, Nagamma became a widow and was sold off to a rich man. Nagamma had four daughters who she refused to leave behind. And with that one defying act, she changed the ways of her colony in the small town of Pavagada, 170 kilometres from Bangalore. With that and many, many interviews and hassles behind her, I don’t expect anything but stoicism from her. There is too much in her past for niceties and social graces to have remained intact.

To the outside world, Nagamma is the poster woman for the Kunchi Koracha or Koravanji Koracha community, a section of people that are too low in the social pecking order for any politician, any neta to pay any serious attention. The people in the community rear pigs, make brooms from a local tree variety, sometimes beg for their lunches and where articulate enough, offer to tell villagers their fortunes. They also sell off their widows to richer landlords, sometimes as second wives, more often as labourers and, or “keeps”.

I am in Aapbande, a small hillock of rough stone at the end of a residential area in Pavagada, an island of a town under Karnataka jurisdiction, surrounded on all four sides by towns that report to Andhra Pradesh. It has taken me five hours in a local bus from Bangalore. The ride is educative though, over the curvy rough roads and rougher driving; many fights break out among the passengers and I hear an all new vocabulary of Kannada cuss words.

There are about 50-60 houses in Aapbande, all igloo-shaped, though more elongated. The floor is hard, cold stone, the roof is of bamboo, covered tightly with clothes and some plastic. I settle down on a charpoy to listen to Nagamma’s story, narrated to me by her brother-in-law Sunkanna and my local contact Thimmaraju, a journalist and farmer. Nagamma speaks only Telugu, the language of her community; she understands snatches of Kannada but cannot answer me in my tongue.

A mother’s fight for her daughters

Nagamma isn’t sure how old she is and guesses she must be 35. One of her four daughters, also named Nagamma, after the maternal grandmother, shushes her. Being a Sunday, several neighbours are in their homes and have squeezed themselves into the hut, pushing me to the edge of the wire cot. They all offer their opinion of how old she must be; collectively, we agree she must now be in her mid to late 40s.

By the time Nagamma’s husband died a few years old, she had had four daughters. After his death, her father-in-law decided she was not useful enough to remain a part of his family and agreed to sell her off to a man in Narpala village in Andhra Pradesh. A sum of ₹42,000 was to change hands and she was expected to leave her daughters and her old life behind and go with this man to be his second wife. Her consent to go away would have meant that she would probably never see her daughters again, for these deals don’t include children from the woman’s previous marriage accompanying her. For the buyer, a second wife or a mistress is a status symbol that he will pay for; he wouldn’t want her children and add to his household expenses. The woman has to cut all ties with her children, her in-laws and often, with her parents’ side of the family as well. In return, she may be accorded the status of a wife. Not that there are ever any documents for the first, second or the subsequent marriages.

The prospect of never seeing her daughters again was what gave Nagamma the courage she needed. In an unprecedented case, she refused to go with the man who bought her. The council of elders, the Panchayat, heard her appeal and let her stay back at Aapbande, her mother’s colony. But it came at a very heavy price. Nagamma tells me that the council of elders made her pay back nearly ₹ one lakh, including interest, to the man who she had been sold to. Her story hit the headlines almost overnight but after the newspapermen went away, she was left to grapple with the huge loans she took from her brothers to pay off the debt. And pay off she did, she tells me.

Sogadu Venkatesh, a member of the community who is now a local social worker and a municipal councilor from that area gets to know I am there to talk to Nagamma and calls me up. He goes on a rant against the government, telling me that she has never been honoured for her bravery, that the government had promised her a house but it has never materialized. Nagamma’s daughter Nagamma tells me there is a small piece of land somewhere but she doesn’t know where it is located. There was apparently a government job as a helper in a hostel that fetched her ₹ 2000 a month. Nagamma stuck around for a year before she left; she doesn’t give me a reason why she quit, only saying that she preferred making brooms instead and that it fetches her ₹ 10,000 a year.

She is gruff with the neighbour’s kids, but a degree softer with her own grandchildren. She has gotten all her daughters married off, two live in the same colony, two others are married to men in Andhra Pradesh. Nagamma, the third daughter, cradling her third child on her lap, tells me that they are all happily married. Did their mother’s activism come in the way of their alliances? She says no. She has a daughter, but refused to carry the name Nagamma into another generation. She has named her children Sumathi, Santosh and Shreesha.

Where women are auctioned to the highest bidder

The Koracha community has another 8-9 sub-castes, apart from the pig rearing Kunchi Korachas. Amongst them are the Dabbe Koracha, Melada Koracha, Ooru Koracha who trade in plastic items, Aggada Koracha who make ropes for a living and the Gangedlu Koracha. Their predominance is in parts of Andhra Pradesh. Those in Pavagada and other bordering villages are mainly migrant labour families and former nomads. There is no inter-marrying within the sub castes, the local journalist Thimmaraju explains to me.

Though the context to the world was derived after Nagamma’s case came out into the open, it was hardly an aberration. The sale of widows has been a practice for as long as the elders in the community can remember. In case of incompatibility in a marriage, or in case either of the parties was involved in an affair, the council of elders would discuss the issue before the rest of the community. If the paramour could afford to pay the decided amount of money to the husband, he was free to marry the woman. The men in the community tell me it is entirely up to the women; they can end the marriage and go away with another man if they want to. In such cases, she has to buy her freedom from her husband. The skeptic in me wonders if it can ever be so easy. To me, the practice of selling widows and the freedom of choice somehow don’t go together.

I am curious as to how the price for each widow is agreed upon. No one has a satisfactory answer. All they say is that the Panchayat decides the amount. I wonder if the price is determined by how young or old the woman is. But there is vehement denial all around. Sometimes there is much demand for a widow and that’s when a bidding war starts. Prices then reach one or several lakhs of Indian rupees. Does selling broomsticks and rearing pigs fetch such high incomes, I wonder. “There are landed people in our community too,” says Nagamma’s brother-in-law. Plus being able to buy women is a status thing; there have been cases where a man has had three wives in his harem as well.

Nagamma’s daughters do not see her as a heroine. They don’t have any opinion of the old practice that they say is no longer observed. The protests seem to come too much and too quick to me. Almost no one studies beyond the first few grades. One of Nagamma’s daughters wrote her public exams in tenth grade. The highest educated so far are two of Nagamma’s nephews, Venkatesh and Sunkanna who are in the final and second year of graduation in commerce, respectively. They are both called in to offer their views. Venkatesh is openly aggressive, asking me why I am there and what ill I will write about his community, until he is led away. Sunkanna insists that he knows nothing about the practice of sale of widows. The others prompt him to say something but he shakes his head. I ask him what he will do after he graduates and he finds his voice then. “I don’t want to continue in the community’s professions of pig rearing and broom making. I don’t like it and I cannot work as hard as my father. I don’t mind even if I earn ₹ 1000 a month, I will go to the city and find a job,” he says.

Though electricity lines go above the heads of the Koracha community’s bunch of huts, they have never lit a bulb in their houses themselves. Drinking water is a walk of some distance away. There isn’t much distinction between where they keep their pigs and where they sleep at night, so hygiene is an alien concept. Sometimes the men might hunt with nets, when a farmer calls them to rid his fields of wild pig menace. They roast the pigs in the open and have a feast then. There is one Veeerabhadrappa who says he works with the Dhan Foundation in Pavagada. He and some others are forming a committee “to fight for the rights of the community.” The day I visit Pavagada is when they are scheduled to have their first meeting.

I want to meet others who have seen or been part of this practice. Almost unanimously everyone gathered there insists there are none others at Aapbande. They tell me that the practice is prevalent in parts of Andhra Pradesh where several members of their community live, mostly in Ananthapura district, Dharmavaram, Kurnool and Nagarjuna Sagara. I go to another small colony a few miles away, looking to see if there are any cases there. People are welcoming and smile when I pat a little kid who is playing with a makeshift doll. But they remain tightlipped about the practice. There are older women in the colony but it is indicated that I am not welcome to talk to them.

It is almost as if they have let only Nagamma be the public victim at the town square, to be pointed at, whispered about and privately stoned for having a voice. It is hard for me to believe that a practice that was never seen as demeaning or wrong for generations would suddenly disappear in a couple of years’ time. I have a feeling the community is merely more careful now. They let the stoic Nagamma speak, that buys the rest of the community the silence they seek.

I can only hope I am wrong.

Monday, January 06, 2014


Incomplete. Unfinished. Broken. Cracked. Open. Free. Verses. Lines. Words. Language. Ideas. Response. Query. Fear. Don't want an answer. Why? Answers are scary. Unbound. Unravel. Unravel. Inspire. Write. Right. Stimulation. Intellectual. Cultures. Tea kettles. Cups of coffee. People watching. Conversations. Other tables. Shoes. Open road. Possibilities. Mysteries. Attractive. Walks. Observe. Recordings. Sentences. Sounds. Colours. Smells. Tastes. Smiles. Joys. Happiness? Song. Music. Art. Circles. Lines. Ideas. Stories. Aesthetic. Beauty. Mountains. Sunbeam. Breeze. Food. Evenings. Candles. Conversations. More ideas. Collective. Things to do. Check list. Write. Stories. Respond. Inspire. Live. Experience. Feel. Express. Happiness!! Yes. Words.

Written December 03, 2012

Sunday, January 05, 2014

And That is Why They Offer You Betel Nut

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a rich man in a village. There was also a poor man in the same village. The poor man lived with his wife. The rich man must have also had a wife, but she is not part of this story. 

The rich man used to invite all his friends and feed them well and give them kiad to drink. The poor man also was part of this group. After many months of enjoying the rich man's hospitality, the poor man began to feel bad about not reciprocating. So one day, he invited the rich man to come to his humble home. The rich man came. The poor man's wife realized that there was no food or drink in their home to offer to the rich man. Ashamed at not being able to feed their guest, she killed herself. 

The poor man came into the kitchen looking for his wife and saw her dead. Realizing what had happened, he was deeply ashamed as well and he also killed himself. The rich man waited for the poor man and the poor man's wife for sometime. Not hearing from them, he also entered the kitchen in the poor man's humble home and saw both the poor man and the poor man's wife dead. He realized why they had killed themselves and was sad that they had died because of him. So he also killed himself.

There was a thief who was running from some villagers who were chasing him. While trying to find a place to hide, he came to the poor man's house and hid there. He fell asleep. The next morning, he saw the three dead people and he got worried that the village people would think he had killed the rich man, the poor man and the poor man's wife. So he also killed himself.

Later, the elders sat around in the dorbar talking about this incident. After talking and talking, they made a decision. They decided that no man, however rich or poor, should feel ashamed about not being able to offer his guests something. So from then on, it came to be that every guest in every house would be offered kwai. The pale red betel nut symbolized the poor man's wife, the betel leaf was the poor man and the sliver of lime smeared on the leaf was the rich man.

And that is why in every Khasi household, they still offer you some betel nut to chew.

~ Retelling of a Khasi folktale

Saturday, January 04, 2014

You Bring Out the Persian in Me

Poetry. That which I love, I love. That which changed me, my life, many full moons ago. Poetry. That which came alive and became the days of my life. Then. Now. 

And then I found this. 
Pritha Kejriwal, the wonderful poet, let me share her poem here. She is the editor in chief at Kindle magazine and also a poet I greatly admire. This poem was published here. Her ode to Pablo Neruda's fantastic Book of Questions (How old is November anyway? - that question!) was in the magazine's current Editor's Note here. She tells me there are more of these questions that she is working on. I can't wait to read that collection. 

I found this poem and I became the Persian too.


You bring out the Persian in me

Wrapped in a white toga
Walking in veiled languor
Through narrow dark lanes
Entering arched doorways
Touching pillars of blue mosaic
Running my fingers on ruby roses
Embedded in white marble

You bring out the Persian in me

That feeling of being ancient
Bombarded, contested
Wounded, smelling of
Zata’ar, dyed in henna

You bring out the cat in me
A wide-eyed curiosity
A majestic walk
A long, dense mane that loves the wind

The star-lit magic of the Arabian nights
Becomes me
The red wine pouring from
Becomes me
The magic carpet
Becomes me
The genie of the magic lamp
Becomes me

You bring out the Persian in me

Heavily embroidered
Dripping rose petals
Baked in a tagine
Preserved in lemon and oil
Brewed in sugar and mint leaves

Bathed in orange blossom water
I fly out of the window
Sitting on a verse by Hafiz
And come back in the night
On the wings of Rumi

I want to build my little Riyadh with you
Two tangerine trees in the courtyard
And an olive tree that stands at the door

You bring out the house in me
The history in me
The memory in me
The dreams in me
The love in me

- Pritha Kejriwal

Friday, January 03, 2014

In Kindle this Month, I Map my Food

In this month's Filter Coffee column in Kindle magazine, I tried drawing up a food map. Read it on the magazine website here or see below.


Exploring our way through the meandering uncertainties of life, food may be the one constant- mapping where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. Deepa Bhasthi explores food maps from the plate to the social interaction… and beyond.

“Are these the heydays for the 1980s’ children of innocence to walk the nostalgia path?” I ask myself this moment. Thoughts of cassette tapes and coloured popsicles from handpainted, weather beaten, wooden carts, ten-paisa coins and plastic wire flowers. Of atlases and the many maps they contain, political colours, ecology green, touristy, crisscrossed, that sorts. Maps of people come to mind, and of things, places, lunches, highway teas and milk biscuits to have along the way. Afternoons spent drawing lines of imagined journeys across continents, bent double over the Oxford version of table length student atlas editions. Maps and memories of history learnt and lived through.

Tonight, from a blip in the map of Karnataka’s Konkan coast, as I sit writing this, the thought catalogue lists the 1980s, along with childhood meals and the learning of where the salt goes and where the papad is to be served on the plate. The other very colourful maps were on the dinner plates, lunch, or even breakfast once a while, where lines and rules were nearly as strict as those laid out on intercountry diplomatic tables.

As children, with morsels of curd rice – comfort food, survival food – you are taught to meander your way around the plate, starting here, moving across, cutting down diagonally, and ending there, with a coin in your hand and a paan in your mouth. Mapping food, for everyday meals or elaborate, festive ones, is as political in its ferocity of dealing with dissent as it is congenial in its solidification of social, community bonds.

The Havyakas,my community, a sub-sect of the Brahminical order said to have come from, depending on whom you ask, Kashmir or Orissa during the times of some king at some point in history, takes their food very seriously. As do, and as should, most other people, because food is at the heart of constructing personal histories. When weddings are arranged or when a thread ceremony (a coming of age ritual for boys) takes place or when an elaborate puja or some such event happens, people bond over the meal, an intricate feast running into many courses, spread over nearly an hour or more. Sitting beside my mother on small raised wooden platforms laid out in neat rows, my own little leaf before me, I learnt to navigate my way around, negotiating the portions and the servings, and I learnt when to divide what into how big or small a helping.

I’m reminded of much imagery, like a young father handholding his toddler son and showing him how to do namaz in a large white mosque, a baby eagle spreading its wings and learning to fly or generations of a household that ties a borrowed cat to the front yard tree on festivals just because the father– the grandfather– did so (the original was probably a truant cat that needed to be reined in). Incidents that invent blind beliefs and practiced rituals, like tying up a cat, which, after a point, become so internalised that you no longer stop to wonder, to question, to ask. I employ such imagery when I wonder why the maps were invented for the food plate, why the hierarchies, the order. Were they invented for convenience alone?

Food maps exist in every community, with seasonal, sometimes geographical variations. This is what mine would look like: a certain part of the plantain leaf laid out facing a particular way, starting from the top left corner, pickle, salt, a range of vegetables prepared in different ways, on the left, papad, a heap of pearly white rice plunked in the middle, a teaspoon of payasa (kheer) next to that, to be eaten first. Then a series of curries are served, you learn how to divide the heap of rice, taking portions to your right for each curry, adding the appropriate vegetable to go with it. Down in the hierarchy come the sweetmeats, ending with curd and buttermilk and rice.

Somewhere in the middle of the meal, young girls learning Carnatic music are coaxed to sing a hymn, or an older uncle belts out, in staccato, a poem from the folk art form Yakshagana. Then there are nosy women nudging each other and trying to fit you into a box of stereotypes, old friends catching up, new friendships being made, gossip, and the usual politics among somewhat cantankerous people. Alongside all of this, the food is evaluated and compared with precedents, the process scrutinised, all while navigating the map without missing a step. It is rather beautiful, the whole process, and even makes the drudgery of distant family functions slightly better bearable. Or so we shall believe.

I wanted to imagine an elaborate scheme that led to the rigidity of these food maps. That would probably be too conspiracy-theorist of me. With lesser number of dishes and at a quicker pace, mini maps exist on everyday dinner tables too, the order of serving, eating so internalised that, it registers in the mind as ‘oh, that’s just how you eat.’

I asked around, approaching old scholar-academics and grannies with questions about why we eat the way we do. The grannies could not fathom why I would want to know, and give me a plateful of snacks instead. I felt like a little girl who had to be entertained so they could go about their day; I allowed myself to be distracted. The academics were better, though I don’t get any answers there either. I was again reminded of the old borrowed cat tied to the tree analogy- used to mock things we do without much logic anymore – just because that’s the way it has always been.

There is quite something about food though, wouldn’t you agree? You could step away from every embarrassing family anecdote, every community stereotype, and yet food can never be a total rejection. You need it more than it needs you. Theorise away a meal, but the simple end of it is that food is endless conversations, beautiful evening parties and forever memories. Food maps – inconspicuous, lines faded or otherwise – are for what maps do. They tell you where you are, where to go. In a lost world, sometimes that’s the only thing you should need.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Friends I Love Featured in the Mag I Like

I have come to deeply admire the Kindle magazine, for the ideas they promote, the freedom of style they encourage and the intellectualism they subscribe to. And I don't say this just because I write for them. Recently, two of my favourite people wrote for Kindle's website.

Sunoj D had one of his works featured here. His works revolve around issues that I closely relate to. They are one of those things where you don't have to have concrete reasons to love something, you just do. Be sure to see his other works here.

Aileen Blaney is like a soul sister and is a writer I greatly admire. I don't like it that she is some ten thousand miles away now and our very long email conversations are but a poor substitute, though they always make me smile. She reviewed the Turner Prize 2013 here on the Kindle website.

I say, watch out for these two. They are hugely talented people both and I remain excited about what they will come up with next.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Note on the Year that Ended Yesterday

This should have been written yesterday, an obligatory year end post, significant more so because 2013 has been, what I can only describe as a beautifully insane year. But people wish people wishes weeks after an event even, and I am yet not too late I hope to talk of the year gone by. With Abida Parveen's intoxicating voice in the background and bellies happy with food derived from a century old recipe, we rung in the new year last night. I took a second to reflect how mixed the old year was, though the good, the very good, far over weighed the stressful and the not so good parts. For many reasons, I knew 2013 would be a crucial year, and I was right.

It was the year many things happened. The dreaded month of March passed by safely, perhaps breaking the curse of it on my life permanently. I finally realized that there wasn't anything else I wanted to do in my life except write. And farm. It was a relief to be able to have that clarity, and I promptly resigned from my job, much to the horror of my family, yet again. You would think they'd be used to it by now. Many months later, I have much work to do, a column to myself, good stories and some repute in certain circles. I am happy. That's all I want to ever be. I became a workaholic again.

The months went by swiftly. I made some fantastic new friends, lost a few old ones, re-discovered beloved writers, took to cooking again. I trekked and found my now forever happy place, I won't tell you where. Realized how much I love growing some of my food. I took up Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial arts form from Kerala and continue to enjoy it tremendously, despite the swollen knee and aching bones I struggle to sit with at the moment. I also quietly changed the name of this blog and continue to promise myself that I'll get a new website as well. Soon.

I started learning Arabic. Discovered that having female friends is a basic necessity. Acquired antiques. Gave away half my things and lost the urge to possess things. Started on the path to living differently.

There were many evenings and late nights of precious conversations and music and poetry and priceless stimulation. There were some pre-dawn lemon tea runs. I also discovered in myself the ability to really, truly, fully love again, people, myself, things, life. 

I turned 30. It wasn't as depressing as I thought it would be, neither did I wake up to new wisdom the next day. But with me was a bright smile on my face all year around, much laughter and three beautiful beloved people when I brought in a new age. They say the 30s is a fabulous decade for a woman. If the years ahead are anything like the people I spent 2013 with, I will have nothing to complain about. It was also a year of leaving behind the foolishness and mistakes and regrets of my 20s, to start afresh, to make newer mistakes. This was the year I felt like I truly grew up and discovered myself, a lot about who I was and what I wanted to be. I stopped pulling out the lone grey hair atop my head.

I discovered art and it changed my life; I will say so emphatically. I remain overwhelmed by this fantastic world and cannot wait to learn more and ever more. I have a list of personal favourites even! I started learning things again. I opened up. I began singing again while going about my days. I began to write again. I allowed myself to dream again. I smiled a lot. These were my 30th year presents to myself. In return, I was given a dream, a plan that is all I would ask for. 

This year I travelled. A few short trips, one long journey. As with all travels, it allowed me insights into myself. And into people I went with. I wouldn't change a thing. This year I also spent feverishly thankful for people and some beginnings and some ends with them.

I realized I didn't want to share much of my life here anymore. It must be growing up. Or perhaps it must be that I am scared of invoking someone's evil eye. Call me superstitious, but after some tumultuous years past, I couldn't be too careful. I deleted my Facebook account and locked up all photos. Made more of my personal life off limits everywhere. And loved it. The reclusiveness of it. There might not be a similar post end of 2014. Or there might. The joy of creating is in not knowing anything for certain.

So, here I am on the first day of a new year wishing you, my dear readers, a great year ahead. Mine last year was laden with love, friendship, music, writing, books, poetry and travel. I hope yours was too and will continue to be so for you and me in 2014. Thank you for being on the other side of these words.