Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Introducing 'The Forager'

Dear readers,

There is something called The Forager. Some of you know about this already, and each of your comments is getting us mighty excited. Others, please watch this space. I promise it is a very, very interesting idea that a team of us are working on. It is keeping some of us awake all hours of the day and night (like now, at 2.36 am). It's mostly all we think and read and listen and watch and talk about these days. We love the concept and I know you will too.

It is happening! 

Details coming up soon. Till then, blow some good luck this way.


This Writer (and 6 other excited people)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sonu and Shilpa, a Story for Autism Month: In BL Ink This Week

Picture courtesy: Dr Shilpa Rao

April is Autism Month. I met Dr Shilpa Rao, a mother with an autistic son recently, and wrote their story for The Hindu Business Line's Saturday magazine BL Ink. Read it here or see below.


April is Autism Month, a mother shares her story of helping her son embrace his uniqueness

“Dear Shilpa The egg curry was very good and it was very tasty that egg curry was nice and thank you for the lunch with egg curry and I love you Shilpa from dear Sonu.” (sic)

Inspired by the movie The Lunchbox, Sonu (or Shubham) wrote this letter to his mother, Dr Shilpa Rao. She saves a photo of it on her phone. The letter itself is elsewhere, as is Sonu, who isn’t currently at home in their apartment block that faces a forest in east Bangalore.

He is the one who keeps their home extremely tidy, his shoes and his mother’s slippers are all neatly lined up. Sonu is away at ‘Empower’ camp, somewhere in the hills near Mumbai, learning life skills, amongst people he has never met before. He won’t be able to talk to his mother for the next 10 days. Another milestone for both of them. Theirs seems like a partnership, each holding on to the other, each letting the other fly and soar.

Sonu was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was 18 months old. Born at 25 weeks, weighing under 900 grams, it took many months before he began to breathe by himself. When he did not begin to respond to his name or recognise family, doctors pegged it on delayed milestones. But Rao, a paediatrician herself, knew it wasn’t just that. “I got on to Google and searched some symptoms. That’s when the word ‘autism’ came up,” she says, adding that her journey began in that moment. A journey that would prove to be, and remains, a hard one — albeit wrought with laughter and inspiration.

Rao remained in denial for a while — “I didn’t want to read anything about a condition that has no cure” — but, soon, perhaps, the doctor in her came to the fore. It was four years before he spoke his first word, six-and-a-half before he formed a sentence. Now 13, he goes to Class VI at an open school, equivalent to Class VIII in a typical school. Acceptance from teachers and classmates hasn’t come easy, but she is sceptical about special schools, where “children are in a place where they aren’t interested in each other. In a regular school, he has to talk, he has to protect himself, that enriching environment is required,” she believes.

Her main challenge has been to make others understand that Sonu is different. “If a child is in a wheelchair or has Down’s syndrome, the problem is visible. But the inability to communicate, to have social interactions, is also a problem. Autism has to be treated like any other physical disability and those living with it shouldn’t be denied regular education,” she says.

Rao’s intrepidity, and the way she is raising Sonu spring from rejection. He was shunned for not being ‘normal’, not the sort her ex-husband and his parents thought could be a grandson befitting their medical degrees and the fancy nursing home they owned. “Being doctors they did not have the sensibility to accept his condition. That rejection was what propelled me to work with him. Sonu has made me stronger,” she says.

He understands that his family unit is different, as is his life; he even tells Rao to remarry. Electric switches are still an obsession, but he no longer covers his ears before the TV. He isn’t an autistic savant, but is great with English and spellings, though he takes longer to learn something compared to others. He is now working towards making friends and recognising the idea of community.

The lack of awareness among people, glaringly so among doctors, is a daily battle Rao and Sonu face. “It was very hard to convince schools to take him in. Even when I volunteered to hold a free awareness session for teachers at a top school, they weren’t interested. Most people are not sensitive enough to want to help,” she says. Rao has been giving him the special education he needs, following a prescribed format. He has never done art therapy, yoga therapy or suchlike.

Rao says she succeeded in making him what he is because of early intervention and thanks to the wholehearted support of her parents and sisters. “Losing my mother to cancer two years ago was a huge setback for both of us, she was my tonic. But then, nothing lasts forever, life moves on,” she says with a smile. Moving on in life, she now works with autistic children at her clinic. Sonu comes back from school, lets himself in and doesn’t open the door for anyone except his mother, who returns at 7.30 pm.

As life moves along, by age 21, Sonu plans to drive a Jaguar XF, go to a big office where he is the boss and where people bring him documents to sign. An aeroplane would drop Rao off to her clinic. Later, he would have a beautiful wife called Natasha (“where did that come from?” wonders Rao) and children whom he would sit down with and teach, like Rao does with him. She smiles at his imagination, and must mentally be counting it as another of Sonu’s milestones.

Deepa Bhasthi is a Bangalore-based freelance writer

(This article was published on April 25, 2014)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

To Gabo, With Love

“What do you think inspiration is? Does it exist?”
Marquez: “ It’s a word which has been discredited by the Romantics. I don’t see it as a state of grace nor as a breath from heaven but as the moment when, by tenacity and control, you are at one with your theme. When you want to write something, a kind of reciprocal tension is established between you and the theme, so you spur the theme on and the theme spurs you on too. There comes a moment when all obstacles fade away, all conflict disappears, things you never dreamt of occur to you and, at that moment, there is absolutely nothing in the world better than writing. That is what I would call inspiration.”

From The Fragrance of Guava – Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in conversation with Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Picture from Esquire

Last night Neruda's lines came to mind -
I like on the table
When we are speaking
The light of a bottle
Of intelligent wine

I ate almonds last night and gave a thought to the greatest of them all, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He who shall never cease to inspire. One hundred times.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"We Are All Pinocchio"

Photo by Norman Seeff, from here.

Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinocchio.

And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

~ Patti Smith
From here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Things My Notebooks Carry in Them

Purge. How ugly that word sounds. Like something you pluck off your skin, something puss filled, reeking of all that you don't want to have a memory of. Yet like the bitter tonic mother forced down your throat, with the promise of a drop of honey later if you drank it down quick, purging is often the final act. And then you get on with the rest of the days.

I did that sometime ago. Not that it made much space in the tiny rooms here that have seen so much of me, my mind change and banalities, wonders transpire these past few years. But tearing up cards, shredding things and papers freed me of my 20s and what I will choose to remember of that uncertain decade. It was the discovery of many past notebooks though that made me smile in varied layers of horror and amusement today.

As a journalist, you develop a habit, and later a taste, for writing down every other word the person you meet for work speaks. As a writer, my training in forming words, beautiful, wholesome, dancing words on paper started much earlier. It started when mother left me with a pen and a volume of lovely photos from Soviet Union, the first book I'm told I looked at, I looked at them all the time. I scribbled over the polar bears in blue ink. On the back of other books, on scraps of napkins, on Post-Its, on lined notebooks when I couldn't keep a straight line, I still almost can't, in pencil along margins, as inscriptions on the second page of books gifted to friends, in the many notebooks I love collecting, I wrote words and made them sentences and turned them into paragraphs. Words, each a perfect word for the time I made them mine to tell my story then. Lovely, therapeutic words. 

Like my 20s, my notebooks have sometimes been scattered, rarely tied below a red string and followed me to all the homes I have lived in. Sometime ago, when I did my purging, many notebooks that I had at different times decided I wanted to keep, fell into the bed I was sorting my papers upon. I had got rid of skeletons, after the last major house move, I had developed an instinct for the notebooks I wanted to keep, and those I didn't. Your constructed histories always throw up surprises though. 

My notebooks have taken different shapes and grown to varied sizes over the years. The only consistency I follow is in variety. The Moleskines are mostly unused still, their prohibitively expensive pages don't seem to welcome my impulsive scribbles. Like to a song, you have to take to a kind of notebook. The cheap spiral bound ones made in my old school are more familiar, they know I like to doodle too between the words, they know I like to scratch out entire sentences when I don't get them right. There are the cloth bound ones, beautiful pieces that I have managed to convince myself to use. And those handmade paper ones that blot the ink from the fountain pen I write with. Other inconsequential ones slip in once in a while, impulsive buys because the cover looked nice. 

In them I have my histories, my poetry, my one liners, phrases that came to me on early mornings in a half awake state that I knew I could place well somewhere, dates and ideas, quotes I liked and quotes I made up, phone numbers, emails, stubs from movie tickets, boarding passes from holidays, pieces of string that must have meant something, petals and chocolate wrappers and much else I no longer remember the significance of.

Like the discovery of a love letter you wrote as a 14-year old to the then love of your life, some of these words make me laugh, though I laugh to mask that momentary longing for the innocence we all once used to have. The poetry in them have footnotes, entries for where and why they were written. In that annoying professor's dull class, in a snow covered park in Chicago, the first time I saw snow, for a joke that is no longer funny, for a friend urging him to move on, I'd only ever be just his friend, while in transit between airports or homes or people, on this day or that month when nothing mattered, when everything mattered.

I couldn't bring myself to throw these notebooks away. Not yet at least. Some were work notes, from stories chased and deadlines met, notes of stories I had forgotten I ever thought of. Some were yellow and in a handwriting I didn't remember I had. One day, perhaps during the next great purge, I will throw them away. I will look at them all again once before. They will make me laugh, even the heartbreak years one day make you laugh. These notebooks, torn, bound, embroidered, painted, drawn upon, these are who I used to be before I turned who I am when creating these words.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


After I spring clean these rooms
I always light a stick of incense
To dispel the freckles of dust
That the sunbeam manages to catch
Or perhaps to imitate 
Smoke rings that escape from this cigarette. 

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

For Us to Know

"The two of you romance like you're characters in Prince of Persia," she laughed.

I asked if that wasn't a game of treasure hunt. 

I pronounced us vintage souls. As if poetry and music, love and romance were the charming cornerstones of just the old world we prefer being part of.

She called that LAME, spelt in all caps.

It was okay, I thought then. She did not have to understand, neither did anyone else. 

It was enough that the magic sparkled in shapes of wispy stars and golden glitter between him and I when we recited each other a poem.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

On the Many Englishes We Speak: In Filter Coffee Column This Month

This month's Kindle magazine is a language special. It was a revelation of sorts, apart from great fun, writing my Filter Coffee column on the various Englishes we speak and the politics we attach to each. 

Read that here or see below.


How many Englishes? Three hundred? Three thousand?

Was it the Queen’s English we started the ABCs in? Americanese doesn’t like ‘colour’ with a ‘u’. I won’t call ‘z’ ‘zee’, however foreign-returned it might imply. A girl in ninth grade, in the corridors of the hostel, chanted the word ‘sex’ for days, naughty seniors had taught her the word, not its meaning. She was from a village in the interiors; we all had had a laugh at the simpleton. The snobbery of KV-ites, the posh school in town, extended to and ended with how accent-less your English was, how fast you spoke, how flawless. The girls from the Convent, our traditional rivals, had better handwriting, round cursive, but they didn’t have our English. So we thought. Thus we had sniggered.

If the ‘purity’ of various Englishes in high school defined our local pedigree in a cosmopolitan small town (contradictory as that should sound), years of college, a broadening of minds and geographies perhaps took the sheen off the edge of the judgment sword. It lies dormant though, I want to not admit this, but it is what it is. For generations that were brought up to think English is the pinnacle they ought to touch and hold on to and not slip away from, how and where and in what manner someone speaks English is the scale for judging them, though not necessarily for passing judgment on their histories.

English is no longer a language. Was it ever one? Were we bequeathed it to hold at arm’s length, to view it casually, to place it alongside the thousand languages this big country speaks? Can something so political ever be just a language? Was the English leaving, leaving behind English, a parting attempt at unifying the scattered threads of this country? I wonder if it will make me un-Indian to say English has perhaps done more to make people love (and hate) each other than any other defining factor in their demography.

I realize I write these words in the very language I politicize. You can call me a hypocrite of sorts, I won’t mind. English has allowed for much worse.

A few days ago, a piece of writing somewhere led me to I Am 20, a documentary filmed by SNS Sastry for the Films Division. It interviews young men and women from all over India born on August 15, 1947; they talk of their hopes for the country and themselves, their dreams, complain of corruption and giggle when asked about girl/boyfriends. In that sense, the film could be timeless. Most of those interviewed speak in English, theirs is the diction, the tone that today I’d associate with people in their 60s who sit facing the mountain ranges in the town park, shake their heads sadly and talk of how the ‘country has gaan to the daags.’ That perhaps too lends the film a sense of timelessness, for as of then, as it remains now, there is little that we have in common except for the language we have collectively inherited. Leaving aside the common history of having been under white man’s rule.

Were we all taught that Hindi was the national language? At least I was, and so we learnt it in school, aided comfortably by the 4pm Bollywood film every Sunday on Doordarshan. In those days of the 80s. It was only recently that it began to emerge Hindi is nowhere mentioned as the ‘national language’. At least the last time I heard, there was plenty of confusion on the matter. Makes sense perhaps, the sometimes-derision, sometimes-contempt, sometimes-ignorance Hindi elicits in some states, for that seems to me one language far more political than English, which is seemingly more neutral, more inclusive a tool. Speaking Hindi (or not) is a political statement for some, English, that way, is safer. You don’t betray your allegiance to the cause of the mother tongue if you speak English, it is only what you employ to further the bid to ‘save your culture’.

Interestingly, even as English has become neutral, it is also the whipping horse for everything contradictory. It is everything that the fundamentalist finds wrong, it is all things evil-West, it is all that takes India away from the mythical utopia it was once supposed to have been. It binds and unifies, yet draws, often stark lines, of difference and discrimination between peoples.

I cannot help thinking it’s somewhat like caste in modern India. It is there just below the surface, yet, in a globalized world, it is vulgar to bring it up and talk about it. Just like asking after your caste in the urban workplace. The prejudices remain though, wouldn’t you say? The three hundred and more different Englishes that we speak is the modern caste marker, for it is possible to make many assumptions about you and react to your actions and words accordingly. With the diction, the accent, the tone, the lilt and the body language of the other, it is possible to list down, with a high degree of accuracy, if the other person learnt the language in school, as the main medium of instruction, or at work, or at an English learning institute, from films like Die Hard, if that person is from the south or the west or this state or that.

If that is one layer of Englishes we employ as modern day identity markers, the other part, spun from the inferences we derive, is the manner we use the larger construct of English to communicate with these different interest groups. One English for friends (further classified into very close and casual). One English with the storekeeper in the mall. One English with the partner. One English with family in America. One English for the workplace, work emails. One English for Kindle. One English even for those with a shared common language, for their dialects, their words are rooted in a geography wholly different. Thus, how many Englishes? Three hundred? More?

From an anthropological angle, it does make for a compelling study, this role of a language that has outgrown its limiting description and become more an idea, more a lot else than a mere tool of communication. I can only touch and go, if I am to apply the construct to the entire world, if I am to suggest that English is as much a universal currency for merging borders as is the US Dollar for the world’s businesses. But remaining within India’s official borders isn’t too small a sample either. Each state could well be a different country, for its differences in everything. But English, however few Indians might actually speak it, has probably become the more accepted ‘unifier’ than the concept of the nation state, in the backdrop of ongoing and past separatist movements.

Deriving a thought process from Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint, the word English to describe the language we speak and write with has less to do with it being a ‘language’ than with “trying to forge a unified political constitution out of a divided people.” As with religion, as with caste, English long lost the luxury of being just what it is, a language. Instead, it morphed, after the I Am 20 years, after the liberation years, after the urbanization years, to be a national idea, a political ally or an opponent (depending on how you see it), a contradiction. Like India itself, in many ways.

There used to be a temple in Uttar Pradesh for the Goddess of English. I wonder if it still stands.

Following the Postman: In The Hindu Business Line's BLInk this Week

I grew up in the years when letters were written and read and sent. For us, the generation that saw that and now live through the email era, for us the postman is more than the man who delivers letters, I want to believe. The khaki-clad man with the odd shaped bag is our living past. Nostalgic for him and the letters I no longer get, I followed one around on his beat in Basavanagudi. The story is in this week's BL Ink, The Hindu Business Line's weekend section.

Read it here or see below. Photograph was not part of the published article.


Real mail, that is. We follow a Bangalore postman as he offers deliveries and counsel to all

The lumpy deep bags are of indescribable colour — not quite military green, and not yet completely grey, from years of use — and brimming with registered letters, magazine subscriptions, money orders, bills, notices, advertisements and the odd inland letter. If reality came with a soundtrack, like in the movies, I would hear the opening track of Malgudi Days every time a postman walked by dressed in all-khaki, a stack of letters in hand and many more in his bag.

The way he would holler out ‘Madam, post’ to catch mother’s attention; the tring of the bell on the handlebar of a sturdy cycle; the image of him by the doorstep — all seem sepia-toned now. He has time only for a line or two of small talk. In the movies, in books, he is the herald of all news, rarely, if ever, the main man, but crucial for that all-important twist in the tale. Secret-keeper of sorts, the postman is what the memories and mythologies of childhood look like for those of us belonging to a certain generation.

Postman Shankar (fondly called Shankarappa) is among the thousands of postmen in the country who walk miles every day to bring people their bills and letters. India Post lets me follow him around on his beat one day. He covers a few roads in Basavanagudi, one of Bangalore’s older parts where houses still have front yards, where jacaranda and tabebuia grow along wide roads and where the pace of life seems just a tad slower. By the end of nearly two hours, most of which I spend running to keep up with Shankarappa, I leave glad about some things that don’t change and some things that do.

Sixty-year-old Shankarappa is due to retire this May; he looks 15 years younger. The wise men are right when they say exercise keeps you younger and fitter. He gets plenty of that, from 7am onwards when he sets off on his bicycle from home , well over 10km away. Duty — that all-pervasive word for every work, the dharma you are born for — begins by 7.30am with sorting the mail in a large room filled with government-style metal tables and chairs. The other postmen in the office look up for a second at the flashing bulb when the photographer takes a photo, but quickly fall back into the rhythm of work. Any disarray in the stack will only mean more walking that day. The size of the stack of mail varies on a daily basis, taller at the start of the month when companies send bills, and closer to elections when politicians mail fat letters seeking voter support. He sorts them according to house numbers and street names, depending on the route he will take that day.

For the last 25 years, Shankarappa has been at this routine, six days a week. With a bag on either shoulder, he runs out, and I behind him. I get a running commentary of who lives in each house and what they do. “There lives Muniyappa, he loves the postal department, always asks me about our day. You see that big house, madam? It used to belong to two brothers, both are dead now, there is no one to claim the house now, it’s abandoned. That’s BJP leader Ananth Kumar’s office, this is a women’s hostel,” he reels off. A day of duty takes him through offices, residences, apartments, local fast food joints, printers, garages, travel agencies, tailors, fruit-sellers, tender coconut vendors and the sheds of security guards whom he reads out letters to.

He tells me that his beat, the roads that he has to cover, changes every two years. Given non-existent door numbers and haphazard hashtag streets that crisscross each other back and forth, how does he locate any address at all, I ask. “It takes a day at most. We get trained by the postman we are taking over the beat from. And then we draw our own maps,” Shankarappa says. Mentally, I presume.

He knows retirees Vanjamma and Ramakrishnappa well, they still get inland letters, Shankarappa says, as they belong to the pre-email, pre-mobile phone, analogue generation. The tender coconut vendor gets letters too. Apart from narrating his replies to Shankarappa to post, he sends money to temples, and our friendly postman even fills out all those money order forms. Shankarappa doesn’t give me names, but speaks of his friend the tailor who he insisted open a savings account. The owner of a house being torn down asks if he has had ‘tiffin’, a lady for whom he fills out money orders invites him in for a cup of coffee. Many passers-by ask for directions, who better to find houses than the neighbourhood postman?

Shankarappa insists I have a tender coconut, the March sun in Bangalore is cruel. He has been doing so all morning, insisting I have a fruit, some coffee, perhaps some juice. I relent for the coffee.

Along the way, Shankarappa tells me of the village in Channapatna that he left behind many years ago. He visits often though, to see his mother. Two sons are in college, a daughter now married has a child of her own. He helps the ‘missus’ in household chores once he reaches home at the end of his duty, around 4pm.

Two hours quickly pass by, today has been a short beat for Shankarappa. When a colleague is on leave, two beats must be taken on. He still has to give back the undelivered post, deposit money from Money Orders and Value Payable Post, fill files and forms for people. After tagging behind him, I have learnt this: for all the hoo-ha over emails and mobile phones, post is not yet endangered. There still exists a wide world where Shankarappa is relevant. Television did not kill the radio star. The world is big enough for them all.

The author is a Bangalore-based freelance writer

(This article was published on April 4, 2014)