Monday, March 30, 2015

One of Those Kind of Nights

It's funny how life turns out, I told a dear friend from university the other day. We knew someone who was married with two kids, living a quiet life in a plantation far away from the bustle of a city where she wanted to live and make films. She was the proverbial last person we had thought to ever end up doing something like that. Funny, this life business, I had said. What brought this on, my friend asked. I didn't know, a random thought, I told her.

Random thoughts are not too random, I was thinking earlier today. Another friend came by, today being Sunday. A little drama queen but, when given a chance, a surprisingly sensible girl. I sound condescending, I didn't intend to. In the intervening months from when I saw her last, this girl has found her voice in this little world, and I see that confidence oozing from her, making me so proud of her. We had a long conversation about - as it so often happens over girl talk - men, relationships, work and the jhumkas she wore to deliberately look pretentious in. It messes up your mind, some conversations. However uncomfortable, there are people that give you a slap in the face and wake you up from the comfort zone it is so easy to slip into. Good friends, these are, though you might not like them too much today. For they make you remember that just like the others have, you have taken yourself for granted too. 

It is in the middle of the night that these thoughts come, risen from the ebbing remains of the bottle of the beer you had saved for another day but couldn't help but flick open today. And they rise because you watch an old beloved movie, surreptitiously downloaded from a pirate website, and that movie makes you think some more.

On such nights, everything makes you think.

The movie makes you hurriedly try to name in your mind that one person in your beloved circle who is so eloquent that you wonder why he hasn't written his words somewhere yet. Or perhaps he is only trying out loud the sentiments his hero and her lover will say in his book that you will be the first to read. This friend as eager, as insatiably hungry as you are for words that his joy comes today because he read somewhere that 'the daylight was just a sigh away.' You want to name a person who is a reader, who 'gets' that smells of books old and new make you smile the widest, that you will read one line someday that will change the way you see the world. That there will be many such lines. And then the name you seek so desperately evades, there are only long lost loves and faded words that remain. It makes you want to drown in whiskey flavoured sorrow, because it is that kind of night. 

Instead, like the old times, you begin to construct words. Old movies that you will always love remind you of other people and of times when it was a different lifetime. It reminds you of things you stopped pursuing, just because. Of places never travelled to, just because. Of experiences you stopped yourself from having, just because. Of the many choices you made. Just because you are different people at different times.

Like a scab you are told not to pick at as a child, the train of thought now casually, haphazardly weaves through many randomnesses. You miss the grandmother, the only grandparent you ever knew, who passed away recently. You try to convince yourself very hard that the death did not affect you more than you will ever admit. You miss home, so desperately, because that is where you have the warmth of the safe, the familiar, the beloved - the only  such place you will ever know. You miss your dogs, because dogs are the only medicine you have ever needed. You miss certain people right this minute, because all that is wrong, it still feels right to love them. You cry, maybe it is the beer, or maybe it is the pressure erupting. They aren't really sad tears, you notice.

You miss all that you did not allow yourself to have. When it is morning, you will remember that the days are really kind, that you are...happy. But tonight is for suffering, for hurt and questions and misplaced expectations and repeated disappointments. Tonight is for taking for granted.

Then there are these words. They blow a wisp of fresh wind in your direction. At least there are these words, you think.

It is that kind of a night.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Patna Manual of Style by Siddharth Chowdhury: A Review in TNIE Magazine

The Patna Manual of Style, a collection of inter-linked stories by Siddharth Chowdhury seemed promising, but it was anything but. I reviewed it for The New Indian Express' magazine section. Here today. Or see below for a slightly unedited version.

PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

There is a certain quiet comfort in stereotypes. A character stretch that does not veer off from the generalization is familiar, unsurprising and hence, your reaction to it is familiar as well, predetermined almost. Life is easy when you can box people and situations into stereotypes, however untrue these caricatures may be. Thus we have the liberal left leaning Hriday Thakur who wants to lead a literary life, but is not always sure of wanting to deal with the near penury that marks the early years of such ambition. Every few pages, the reader is told that Thakur, from Bihar, smokes Gold Flakes and likes his Peter Scot, establishing, sometimes, hammering, the image of the struggling writer in your mind. Just so you don't forget he is also an aspiring intellectual, Thakur picks up a Turgenev, a Dostoyevsky now and then. It is thus that the interlinked short stories in Siddharth Chowdhury's The Patna Manual of Style tip a wide brimmed hat to an idealistic, stereotypical world of liberals as they down their sorrows of reality in Russian literature and cheap whisky.

The timeline of the stories goes back and forth into the now and when Thakur was a much younger man. In each, we meet people from his life, most of them women, from the slightly dubious Jishnu da, an 'importer of blondes' for his dance company to Charulata, a lost love, to the fiery Anjali Singh Nalwa, now a novelist courting controversy, to his wife Chitrangada, baker of the famous 'tipple cake', who on Sundays "smells of Sunday. Unwashed and full of sex." A hormonal young man at 22, Thakur, six months old in the big city of Delhi, spends evenings at his barsaati fantasizing about Surma Kaneez, his thoughts coloured by an element of the forbidden, for his mother would accept anything, save a Muslim daughter-in-law. He cannot wait to get a girlfriend, "bored with wearing my heart on my sleeve for so long, I want to wear a condom now, for a change."

As he grows in a reluctant career in publishing, the world of literature becomes the backdrop of narratives that take the reader through Thakur's memories of Sophia Singh, Sophia Loren to those who had a crush on her, through the funeral of Samuel Aldington Macauley Crown, proofreader par excellence. Along the way, in mildly erotic tones, Sadaf Khan Abdali tells how a particular book on the shelves of the man was what got her goat, in one of the more memorable pieces from the collection.
Hriday Thakur, lover, aspiring writer, reader, tells of his life in but a couple of stories. The ones where the women in his life narrate are the strongest in the collection. It is through their voices that the most interesting sketches of Thakur's life and loves are drawn, where he speaks, it is often matter of fact, bordering on the prosaic. The Bihari babu in Delhi runs through the book, his town-ness never wholly faded away, even after all these years.

The collection is a tad inconsistent in its ability to hold attention, though the straight faced unsentimentality is often refreshing. While some stories do interest, others merely offer a glimpse via stray sentences of what they could have instead read like, if only... In being so, The Patna Manual of Style falls just short of being wholeheartedly recommendable. At best, the book would make fair company on a long train journey, if you wanted something that was not pulp, but nothing too taxing either.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Post Dinner Conversations


Maybe I am a flowers kind of girl after all.
So much to love about this picture.

Monday, March 09, 2015

And Then They Got a Dog

And then they got a dog. 


It happened one night when there was a cyclone or a depression or some such somewhere near Sri Lanka, she hadn't been following the weather closely. It rained and the rain was much welcome in suburbia where the temperatures were soaring already, even though summer was still a few hurrying weeks away. The rain was welcome to the parched earth, to the few gasps of time they had left before parting, to the unhurried lives they would now live in their new places, welcome to the wish for petrichor to hit their nostrils after a hard day's labour. For labour it was, setting up home, hearth and a farm that stretched a few palms put together. 

It hadn't started lashing against the window grills, still not wholly dusted, as it would later that evening. And there he was, outside the lazily closed but unlatched gate. Brown, a shade of biscuit, that was the colour of the regular mongrels, each indistinguishable from the other and with big eyes that she knew, even before she looked at them, would melt her heart away. She had, all her life, being a sucker for those eyes professing innocence, even while knowing she was being played, every single time. Sometimes, she let the men in her life get away with it too.

Shouting over the water and the mumbled voices of friends in the other room, she asked him if she could let the mutt in. He said yes and she felt her eyebrow rise in surprise. She had expected at least token protest. Not waiting to see if he would change his mind, she dashed to the gate and let him in. A very friendly fellow. Knew how to shake hands and came to her the moment she called. Neither of her dogs at home did that, for the few days she visited for, she was their toy, to jump, chase and nibble on, and her half-hearted attempts at eliciting obedience failed miserably always. 

Soon, here, a plastic mug was found, the remains of planters the boys had constructed for the greens they would grow. He wouldn't eat rice at first, spoilt on the cheap, sugary biscuits the people on the street had gotten him used to. The friendly uncle across the road warned that he would demand rides on the bike, the little girl next door had named him Mr Angry, for he always chased her, she said. But it did not matter, none of it did, for here was a dog that had decided to stay.

Then a name was found for him, after a tie between two. She had liked both, but Kobri had sounded cuter. Kobri, what people in this city called a coconut. Where she came from, and where he came from, there were other names for the ingredient that was so staple to their diets. But this fella, she reckoned he must be four or five years old, was from this city where they were all living now. And he was a lighter shade of clean shaven coconut shells from Tiptur. So Kobri it was that they began to call him.


An old gunny bag was found for him to sleep on. In the rain, he seemed to like it. But then there was claps of thunder and lightning and he began a slow whine. She went up to the door and sat next to him, talking to him, like she had done hundreds of times to the dozens of dogs that had let her love them and broken her heart each time, when they died. He seemed to like that. She had worn all black that evening, also because that was the colour of her how she felt that day. But she talked and Kobri came and nuzzled against her legs. And she broke into a wide smile. She smiled because they had let her keep him, because really, that was just what she had wanted always, because it meant so much, all of this.

And now Kobri is pampered, and she suspects the boys mildly envy that. He has a shiny bowl to himself. He loves riding on bikes and creates a scene every time they leave. They gave him a bath the other day, and that was an adventure. He is adept at wiggling out of a collar and is learning to jump the gate. Every time she leaves after feeding him, he whines and barks and wants to come along. It breaks her heart but she is used to being firm, all the dogs in her life have been drama queens. She has to plan her day around his meals now and it feels like having accidently stepped into a very adult life. But as she walks up to the gate, he comes bounding at her, wags his thick tail in swift circles before he, without warning, leaves the ground far below and jumps up at her, already so trusting that she will catch him. 

And she falls in love with him and him, all over again, for making her so happy, for the way things are.


"Loving a dog means, among other things, making peace with kitsch, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to make goo-goo eyes at every puppy picture you see in a magazine or bake your dog birthday cakes. But if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience. … Dogs are a national religion with a catechism composed by Hallmark, so heresy is necessary. I suspect some people resist the dog culture with such passion precisely to avoid the kitsch, the appalling melodrama: if you give in to it, you’re trapped in a narrative you can’t control. You feel like a dope, buying into it. The emotions around the dog can be as neotenized as the animal itself." John Homans

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Belur and Halebeedu, Happy Places Always: My Thoughts in TNIE today

Belur and Halebeedu temples, built in the 12th century, have always been amongst my most favourite places. I return, again and again, and they continue to take my breathe away. 

A hurried written train of thought on these temples is in The New Indian Express' magazine section today. Read it here, or see below.

A HOLY NOSTALGIA

Bow your head down, fold your hands and come inside the door, dear traveller. This shrine is not just a sculpture, it is a web of art.

I like to think that the Kannada poet laureate Kuvempu was as mesmerized by the Belur and Halebeedu temples when he wrote these lines of a poem as I will always be. The 12th century structures, separated by some 15 kms on the Hassan moodseeme, the dry plains, tend to always mesmerize, leave one speechless.

The remnants of the Hoysala dynasty are familiar picnic spots. Visiting family always called for a day trip to these two places when I was growing up. Home was a mere two hour long drive away on terrible roads. We didn't mind the bumpy rides at the back of a Jeep, we were young then, and the only roads our countryside had seen were bad roads. The tarmac on the roads here are still chipped away, the trees along the way have copper dust upon them. There are too many loud families picnicking and dirtying the quiet, but then, we were young families once too, I try to remember. Despite the constant now and then juxtaposed in my mind, these two temples are familiar, beloved and unexpecting, like a sense of home, happy and warm like mangoes on the sunyard of childhood.

In kindergarten perhaps, the picnic of the year was to these temples. Then we learnt about the Hoysala dynasty in history class. Then I went on to read G V Iyer's Shanthala in Kannada, an enduring favourite. Queen Shanthala, she of the perfect features and unsurpassed talent in dance and music, was the wife of King Vishnuvardhana, he who commissioned the Belur temple in 1117 AD for his lord Chennakeshava. The Queen is supposed to have posed for some of the sculptures herself. Every so often, she is said to have danced at the centre stage within the temple, her dance was her prayer to her god.

The guides still rattle off the same jokes I have heard all my life now. They are funny I suppose, if you hear them for the first time. The stories they tell when showing some of the sculptures have mostly stuck. There is the lady with the hand held mirror, just above one of the entrances at Belur. You could mistake her haughty look to be a vain one, or you could just call her a beautiful lady who knows her lovely she looks. There are the ones inside, overlooking the stage where the Queen once danced, whose bangles are said to slide up and down their wrists. Each of these were carved out of single blocks of soapstone, the bangles not slipped in later, but carved to perfection within the wrists. The guides point it out to you now, they don't move the stone bangles, fragile that they have become over the centuries.

My favourite is the most intricate pillar inside the Belur main temple. The minutely carved pillar is said to contain miniatures of all the main sculptures from the outside of the temple. There is one panel that is plain, smooth and shining from the millions of hands that have felt it. The story is that the main sculptor threw open a challenge to the future generations, daring someone to carve as well as him and his team. The other story is that he was but a humble artisan and left the panel empty to say that he was not the best, that there were and would be others better than him. I often wonder if this story is another of the rehashed anecdotes that the guides have made up, but I love it nevertheless. It is sometimes best not to know the facts.

The temples are cool inside, darkened further by the long shadows that the afternoon suns throws our way. I go look at the two rows of seven holes each that have been dug into the seats along the sides, board for an old game. No doubt the villagers came here to escape the harsh summers. I fleetingly wonder again whether the ruins of the Hoysala palaces remain. History lessons did not cover that, we just read about the temples.

But the temples are overwhelming as they are to allow for straying thoughts. This time I visit, it is the same music again, the song in my head that bounces off the pillars, each unique. It is like going home to familiar people, like always.

On the Political Incorrectness of Claiming My Body as Mine: In Kindle This Month

So, Kindle magazine has an issue on political incorrectness this month. What fun! Go read, there are some fabulous articles there. I was in one of those body politics mode and wrote an essay about how this body is mine, and mine alone. Through this, I also talk about the freedom of expression in writing and about sexual freedoms. I had a great time writing it. Read it here or see below.

IT'S MINE AND MINE ALONE

Deepa Bhasthi takes a look at the freedom of expression in writing, the politics of the human body and what it takes to be sexually liberal in today’s times.

How dare you insinuate my body is worth just Rs 31,000!!? As if you can put a value on something that has never been for sale.

The body is the temple? Sure it is. It is also a dance floor. A fast ride. A slow dinner. It is what I choose it to be.

I shall abuse it with alcohol in a smoke filled room as part of an ongoing Sunday ritual. I shall torture my never bent bones with gravity defying kicks in a martial arts class. I shall become a jalebi for postures in yoga. Or I shall sit and stare today, vegetate, at the birds on the jacaranda tree that overhangs my balcony.

Here is something you need to know. You, the khap, the men in my life, the men on the road, the @$%&@ ministers, the 'people' in 'what will people say'. This here that you see, imagine, assume, judge, want? This body? This is wholly mine and mine alone. It is mine when I wear whimsical shorts in summer (and monsoons), mine when I go on holidays with my partner who I am not married to, mine when I inhabit it. Mine alone.

****
We humans ask ourselves and others several questions, don't we? Most of them rhetorical, like this one. Like who owns this body, even when I call it wholly mine. I ask myself if I do. I ask myself if I am really free in the words I choose, in my medium if it is the body that I choose to use to express what I feel, who I am. Or am I, like all of us, bound in chains, unbreakable, even at their weakest links?

Rhetorical questions don't seek answers, do they? Or do they demand responses?

Body politics.

It isn't easy practicing the whole ownership of this body. No man an island and all that. It is my partner's, when he makes love to me, I lend it to him then. It is my parents', they gave it to me and set me free. It is a friend's, when he embraces me in a tight hug and talks of mundanities of the day. But I always claim it back, whenever it suits me. I am whimsical that way. I will unclothe it the way I want, especially within home. I am not a 'good girl' that way.

It is not the house owners', at the flat I moved into, so they can raise their eyebrows all the way to the first floor when the boyfriend visits, stays over. It is not the town lecher's, he can whistle all he wants at the saree I wear. It is definitely not the vaguely termed anonymous society's, so they most definitely cannot tell me how my body must behave.

***
Old lessons don't go away though. Ideas of propriety ingrained from childhood gains credence as you grow older and choose to listen to what the social fabric permeating your routines has to say. Even for the hippie, I suppose, there are rules to follow. I sit before the computer slightly mortified. The food politics magazine I edit will have erotica in its next issue. I wrote it. I talk of figs as fruit and figs as the traditional metaphor for vagina in art, literature. And I invite my lover to eat the fig. I am mortified because my mother will read it. She will not say a word, for we have a don't-ask-don't-tell going on, but she will read it. And somewhere, there is a little girl who cringes, because in the eyes of her mother, she is still that little girl and anything of the adult body is not for her. Except for modesty and honour.

The erotica emerged after a bitter fight with these old lessons subtly trying to get me to censor my words, that even when my lover was called to eat the fig, I was blushing for having to write these words. It seemed easier to just do it on old cots, behind doors, against the wall with the delicious risk of discovery looking over us, rather than write a metaphorical piece that may or may not be about us making love. Morality is such a loaded word, so convenient, so controversial, so intrusive upon lasting memories.

She will read this too.

***
I ask myself this. I never wear nail paint. Yet, on a whim, to celebrate moving to a new neighbourhood, I bought a bottle the other day. I wear red nail paint today, as I write this. It is slightly chipped in some places, from cooking last night. I can never keep it perfect for long, for these hands work. But I ask myself this. Red is vamp. Red nail paint is sophisticated, for the confident woman. Apparently. Does the fact that I wear red as I type this help in shedding inhibitions of what will people think? The librarian glasses and pajamas I wear apart, do the cultural connotations that advertisers and fashionistas have fed me with about red make me feel sexier because I wear red nail paint?

I think it does. Though please don't ask me again if I say this because I feel so or because I have to say so. It's just nail paint on the tips of my fingers.

***
I get scared more often these days, because the FOE hashtag is so viral everywhere I see. Writers, comedians, artists, every creative person is being shortchanged on that freedom which is the most important. It matters a lot where the desire for self-censorship comes from. "Because mother might read it" is ok. "Because I might be caged" is not ok. I am not a dancer, so the body is not what I tell you stories with. My body is like the words I employ to translate the voices in my head for you. I neglect it, I take it granted, but when I go back, like an understanding old friend, my body embraces me back. Like these very words that never fail me. The possibility of cages gets stronger these days. There is, most often, family to think about, no man an island and all that.

But then a caged bird sings too. He "stands on the grave of dreams/his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream/his wings are clipped and his feet are tied/so he opens his throat to sing." He sings of freedom and his tune is heard on the distant hill.
Tuneless or otherwise, the only recourse in this chained, changing world is to continue to sing, louder and louder.

***
Body. Pimples. Muffin tops. Unthreaded eyebrows. Unwaxed hands. Granny panties. Beauty. Cellulite. Tattoos. Expression. Scars. Roses. Ripe red figs. Love. Sex. Yoga. Long walks. Music. Dance. Cramps. Stiff neck. Breasts. Summer dresses. Overeating. Faded pajamas. Whisky. Draught beer. Soles. Soul. Celebration. Sexy. Fluid. Flexible. This body. Mine.