Saturday, May 30, 2015

On Raduga, Mir, Progress Publishers: In The Calvert Journal

Now this story was a delight to write. Many years ago, I wrote a little post about Raduga, Mir, Progress and other publishers in the Soviet Union era who flooded India with Russian literature, children's stories, textbooks and others in translation. I continue to get emails from people asking to buy my collection. I reiterate, these books are NOT for sale.

I inherited a large collection of Russian literature from my grandfather. It sparked a lifetime love for Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin and others. It was also how, I realize now, I got to know my grandfather. I wrote about these memories and what these books meant to me for The Calvert Journal, an excellent online magazine run from the United Kingdom. They carry features on art, culture, books, etc from and about the former Soviet Union states, the New East.

Read my story here, or see the pre-edited version below. Do make sure you see the pictures with the story, on the CJ website.


During the 1960s and 70s, Russian novels were easy to come by in India, even in remote towns. When Deepa Bhasthi inherited her grandfather's collection of Soviet books, she didn't realise the impact they would have on her life.

Grandma would, every now and then, suddenly look at me, as if noticing me for the first time, and remark that I had my grandfather's forehead, and his quick temper. Grandpa was a Indian freedom fighter turned Communist card holder, an oddity in the 1960s and 70s in small town south India. He died, almost to the day, six months before I was born, leaving behind, among other things, several coats that grandma would later turn into recycled bags and a collection of books that by virtue of living in the house he built, I almost entirely inherited.

In the little village/town (we could never agree on which it was) where I grew up, it used to rain for over six months a year. In those days, friends didn't 'hang out' and phone calls, if the telephone lines were up, were usually for asking after homework. The only newspaper vendor in town sold only pulp fiction. And so it came to pass that the first novel I read as a ten year old was Maxim Gorky's Mother, a beautiful Raduga edition. The hard bound book had a cream jacket with the picture of an older woman in a black full length coat, a wrinkled scarf covering her hair, a half hidden suitcase in her hand. Perhaps I was judging by the cover when I pulled out the book from grandpa's library, but it led to a lifetime love for Russian literature. It was happily aided by the propaganda-ish books that flooded into India in the years before the USSR disintegrated, books on literature, science, comics and everything else by publishers like Raduga, Progress, Mir and others.

Before the liberation of the Indian economy in 1991, the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed, India and the USSR often sided up to each other. While Indian movies in Hindi were hugely popular in Russia, translations of Tolstoys, Dostoyevskys and Pushkins poured into India. At least a few generations of Indians from the 1960s onwards grew up reading Russian literature, not least because these books were sold cheaper than most others in the market. The books of the Soviet Union were almost always hard bound, beautifully illustrated and with the prettiest covers. I remember, as I write this, the swirling calligraphy of the P in Puskin’s The Captain’s Daughter and the little house, tree clad and mysterious, on the jacket of Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.

A whole generation of the 80s children, those that knew a little of socialism in their childhoods and awkwardly went on to embrace the excesses of capitalism has taken to the internet to talk of these books. I hadn't known how strong a fan base these books had until I wrote a blog post years ago about my grandfather's collection. I continue to be inundated with offers to buy my whole inventory at whatever price I asked for.

Every new mail sparks a little of the interest again to read up on the history of these books. The internet throws up some tidbits but it doesn't tell me what I want to really know.

It tells me that the Foreign Language Publishing House (FLPH) was started to centralize all titles meant for non-Soviet readers. They published books on how progressive the USSR was and how happy its working class, political titles and early literature. Sometime in the 1960s, or in 1931 - depending on which source you want to rely on - the FLPH became Progress Publishers with the Sputnik satellite on one half of its logo and the Russian letter for progress on the other half. A decade or two later, they gave up publishing literature to Raduga which went on to publish a lot of classic titles, a few modern day writers and several children's books. Alongside existed Mir Publishers, who were in charge of science and technology books. Others like Novosti Press Agency Publishing House for pamphlets and booklets and Aurora Publishers in Leningrad for art books made up the bulk of the Soviet publishing scene. Misha, published by Pravda Printing Plant was a children's monthly that had crosswords to learn Russian language with, cartoons, folk tales and a pen pal section I got addresses from and exchanged letters with two girls in Moscow.

The internet tells me this, without giving up any specifics of the people behind them and their stories. I don't know who to ask.

It doesn't, for instance, tell me the first names of Babkov, Smirnov, Glushkov, Maron and others, scientists, engineers at government institutes and universities who wrote manuals and textbooks on things like airport engineering, heat and mass transfer, radio measurements and such like. My ambition in astro-physics, before I began to dread the physics part in high school, was fuelled by a small blue book called Space Adventures in your Home by F. Rabiza. I wonder who Rabiza was, none of the many fan sites for Soviet books say that. I have to be satisfied with an initial before these surnames. Author bios were probably not important in the service of the motherland.

Navakarnataka Publications in Karnataka, my home state, who were supplied with hundreds of thousands of books in every genre, sold a wholesome image of the Soviet Union for Rs 5, Rs 10, at most Rs 50 for a real fat book. Still much lesser than a full dollar. Some stray copies creep into the second hand book stores, now and then, selling like hot tea in a park on a cold day, often at three to four times the original price. They call them collectibles, these days.

My copy of Mother was possibly a Progress edition, I forget now. Most of the titles grandfather owned, and the ones I continue to collect, are either Progress, or Raduga. Each prettier than the next. One has Pushkin looking over his shoulder, a tall lady on his arm. The other has Tolstoy, a much older Tolstoy, frowning, long white bearded. A young Chekov looks handsome, and serious, intense. Pushkin again, leaning against a pillar and staring out, casual, one leg up against the pillar. A blurry structure, grey, fluid, befitting for Dostoyevsky's Notes from a Dead House.

Apparently, most of the works were available in several Indian languages. I only ever read them in English. I wonder who the translators were, for the other Indian languages. I wonder a lot of things. The internet hasn't bothered digging up too much it seems like.

Let me tell you here the story of the fox and the grapes. There was once a fox that tried and tried to jump up to eat ripe grapes. But try as it might, it couldn't jump high enough. It then walked away, loudly remarking that the grapes were probably too sour anyway. I am going to say that I prefer the mystery and no-information, because probably the history is too prosaic anyway.

The 1980s were when I discovered and grew up with books that made names like Boris and Sasha and Nadya and Tatyana and Olga and Vera as relatable as Rama and Sita and Arjuna from the Indian epics that grandma told stories from. They seem like fabulous years, seen through the eyes of wistfulness for the good ol' days and simpler times. Russian writers, and by extension, the Soviet Union seemed exotically foreign and thus especially intriguing. But perhaps more importantly for me, these books were my connection to my grandfather. Perhaps it was through these that I came to relate to a man who in his own way was the rebel I would turn out to be - left leaning, liberal - in a household and a community that insisted on voting Right.

Or maybe I don't really want to know. The invitation to imagine your own stories and endings is what lends timelessness to a work of literature after all.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Blue Lassi, A Tale from Varanasi: In TNIE Magazine This Week

If I were religious, I would damn Varanasi for the grip it continues to have, years after I went there. That city, there is something very unique about that city, like it were the core of all things. Or the manifestation of many myths. It is indescribable, that feeling in that city. But if you have been there, you will know what I mean.

I wrote of an old story about the famous Blue Lassi in Varanasi for The New Indian Express. Read it here or see below for a slightly unedited version. 


This is an old story. They say that the city where this story is set was the first city of the world, that it was birthed before time began to be calculated as time. Few of the buildings and the alleyways that form the confusing labyrinth of this city are more than perhaps a couple of centuries old, to stretch the passage of time. Yet, it feels like they have always existed. Maybe it is the myth talking, the myth of Varanasi being the centre of the earth - the Hindu earth at least - of it being the oldest, once the grandest city in the world. A childhood of listening to granny’s tales of its preciousness takes its toll. But then, there is something about that city, anyone who has ever been there will tell you. It may not always be a good something, but it is one place that sticks to your itch for the rest of your living days. As it continues to do mine. And so I remember this old tale again.

It must have been day 3 or 4 into our stay at the legendary Ganapati Guest House, with its bright walls and sweet smells from various sized cigarettes on the balcony, come every late evening. Large mesh windows opened out to a swollen Ganga from three sides of our room. We would hear urgent whispers later that the guest house used to be a house for dying widows who would be made to sing the names of Gods all day. They said the wails of the fated women could still be heard from the walls at night, if you listened carefully.

One evening on the balcony where fleeting friendships that never lasted were always being made, we met J, South Korean by birth, American by citizenship, visibly overwhelmed in the event of being a first time-in-India traveller. The three of us girls got talking and quickly bonded over Asian mothers, pressures of family and such like, the usual traveler talk.

J wanted to go to the Blue Lassi the next morning, after we found our way to and out of the 150+ year old Nepali temple. We like her enough by then not to want her to get lost and lonely again so offer to go with her. Along the way she tells us that this shop is very popular among South Korean tourists to Varanasi, which takes me by surprise, not so much for its popularity, for every city has its must-gos that travellers pass on to all and countrymen, like a favourite secret. I am curious because we have not seen many Asian tourists so far, most that are chased by little boys asking for money and youths offering good bhang are Western. We follow a particular kind of footway that we are told is the one that will take us to Dasaswamedha Ghat - the burning ghat. Just at the turn of a corner is the bright blue walled Blue Lassi. There are a bunch of young South Korean girls inside, typing furiously into their phones, giggling, ignoring us grown-ups. There are dozens of photos stuck carefully on the walls of more tourists from that country, notes with hearts around them, caricatures, smiling, happy faces.

Blue Lassi dispels the myth about the simplicity of a glass of lassi being curd whipped with sugar or salt or both. There are innumerable flavours, some sounding very odd, like coconut, banana and others that have no business mixing with a good cup of curd. But defying all known principles of taste and fusion, each flavour debates with the other to emerge utterly unique and buttery delicious. I cannot remember now what we ordered. It tasted fantastic though, propped and prettied in a clay matka. I remember sipping on our drinks and watching several parties hoisting dead bodies and passing by to the burning ghats, where legend has it that Shiva himself lights the pyre. It is a common sight in Varanasi, a city where unusualness is normal, everyday, routine, even boring.

Blue Lassi is three generations of owners old, started sometime in the 1920s. Rather new and shining, by the city's standard.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Pakoda-Frying Feminist: On Feminism, in Kindle this Month

Kindle magazine has an issue on feminism this time with some kickass articles, as always. Here is something I wrote. Read it below too.


It’s okay to not question whether every move we make furthers the cause of women worldwide, says Deepa Bhasthi.

A high handed, moody, often fussy and illogical a chronicler, this memory is. What you should want to forget only ever resurges, over and over again, your attempt to forget mocked by the opposite of what you wish for. If memory serves me right, it was an evening in October last when we were all recovering from a rather successful party. There were the greasy remnants of dinner and drink to scrub clean and table runners to set straight. By the time that was done, it was evening and the boys were ready for a slower, more inner-circle-only after-party. I made onionpakodas, my first time, to go with the leftover whisky and vodka. I have this vivid picture in my mind now, of standing there in the kitchen, frying up the pakodas while just outside, three men stood, sat around swirling chunks of ice in their yellow drinks and talking of real estate, old histories and such like. I remember it had felt oddly—what’s that word I cannot find now—right. The ‘feminists’ would be horrified.

Then there was another time, a few months before when the same set found ourselves in another kitchen in another town. Freshly caught fish was dipped in bright turmeric and a fiery chilly powder sat on the counter marinating. The crickets cooed outside and I leaned back against the cool wall, watching the three rib each other while they cooked biriyani for themselves and some vegetables for me. Dinner was on a pretty little table. I had opened the window that overlooked a large yard glowing in the aftermath of a summer rain. This picture too felt right.

Memory serves up many instances, varied dinners in our lives when I cooked or he did or we all did. We do not define our roles depending on what our bodies look like. But even as I write this, I realise I speak from a very privileged position. Let this be an article about privilege then, for the privileged too make up who we are—it’s not just the ones on the other side of the table.

Memory serves up many instances, varied dinners in our lives when I cooked or he did or we all did. We do not define our roles depending on what our bodies look like.

I watched the documentary India’s Daughter right after it was banned and like most women, was horrified by the statements the lawyers were making. This has been said several times before: the only thing these lawyers did was to vocalise what a disturbing majority of men in this country (and elsewhere?) think. But we were going to talk about the privileged. My dad cannot cook—at best he can make rice and pour fat dosas into a pan—but he did not believe that mother had to line up a five-course meal every evening, just because. Neither did a number of uncles, cousins, boyfriends, male friends over the years. Well, full disclosure? There were a few misogynists along the way, including female, but those are in the memory of the past, a dent in an otherwise polished shield.

Privilege comes in many colours. There is rose tinted, there is the slight pinkish and then the full white, blinding, high altar-ed one. Unless slapped in the face with statements like those of the chauvinistic lawyers in the still-banned documentary, it is easy to cloak yourself in the warm feeling that comes free with a world that respects you in spite of your gender.

In this privileged world we don’t practice gender-defined roles. I am a lot like the girl in the ‘Ek Buri Ladki’ poster. I cannot make round rotis. I can, and do, cook well otherwise though. The rotis are made by one of the boys. Few girls in our group can make round rotis; buri ladkis seem to stick together. We are almost uniformly better than the guys with technology, computers and gadgets. I pay everyone’s bills for them online, sort out their taxes, that sort of thing. Most times, we don’t stop and notice that strictly speaking, it is not in our respective genetic makeup to do or not do what we do. Subtle feminism is feminism too.

Mother did not teach me to cook, not for lack of trying, of course. She got me to read, sewed my broken buttons back and made me breakfast this morning so I could write. A homemaker, she is fiercely protective about her me-time—her beloved dogs aren’t allowed in either. She will have food ready when it’s time to eat. It’s usually a chore she wants to get over with, but never has she cooked without love, or at least amicability: the most important ingredients, she taught me. Doing household chores is feminism too.

“Women are always told to try and put themselves first in a relationship,” I remember reading somewhere. “Men are never advised this because they don’t need to be told what is natural for them.”

Funny how the mind works. The other day I fussed about what the partner was eating. Enough greens? Too much red? Too much tipple? Like the way I have seen all the women in my life do, everywhere. I confess, I do enjoy housework, immensely. It is a great workout and gives me the time to brew work ideas while getting other work done. Humans were built to be physically active and don’t we know, nothing gets the creativity flowing as much as a good round of doing the dishes. Oh well, lofty excuses apart, it does feel good to keep a clean, pretty house. Why should that make anyone un-feminist? Clean, pretty houses and making a partner a good meal is also feminism.

Like any world ideal, feminism isn’t just one thing. Even from the privileged position I speak from—and feel guiltily obliged to keep apologising for here—I know it is so much more complicated than black and white. It is all shades of grey and the other colours of the spectrum. There are overlapping areas, unsure times when you can’t be definite of your stand. That’s ok, I tell myself. We women expect a lot more from ourselves. We should; we’ve never exactly had it easy. But sometimes it is okay to cut ourselves some slack and not question every move we make to see if it hinders or progresses womanhood in the world. It is okay to be a concerned spouse, a worrying mother. It is okay to be a “bitch” too, if being one means you are the sorts that puts your happiness and peace of mind above everyone else’s.

“Women are always told to try and put themselves first in a relationship,” I remember reading somewhere. “Men are never advised this because they don’t need to be told what is natural for them.” It’s a generalisation, of course. Or maybe not.

Being a bitch is feminism too.