Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Notes from Nottingham: In The Hindu's Sunday Magazine

The 'Notes From...' column in The Hindu's Sunday magazine is a delightful little place for quirky notes from distant towns. I wrote one on Nottingham a few days ago. Read it here, or see below. 

Published November 26, 2017

NOTES FROM NOTTINGHAM


Of late, I have begun to measure the size of a city by how many hours it takes me to walk around its see-worthy parts and get some sense of scale and a rudimentary understanding of its landscape. The flâneuse in me understands the flaws of this system, but for someone who finds it impossible to measure in terms of metres, feet or the other units, this feels more manageable. By this measure, twee York was three hours, certain parts of London, 15 days and Nottingham, or Notts, a day and a half.

The city nests within Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, like it did for me before the ball dropped, it’s because this is where the legend of Robin Hood and his band of men originated. His name and many legends have been predictably appropriated by the tourism industry. Robin was an outlaw, a very talented archer and swordsman who is supposed to have lived in Sherwood Forest in the Late Middle Ages. He remains one of England’s most beloved folk heroes for ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’ and taking on the Sheriff of Nottingham with his band of Merry Men.

High street and indie

A statue of Robin Hood about to release an arrow from a well-shaped bow draws several visitors who want to emulate this pose beside him. That this statue is just below Nottingham Castle, down Maid Marian Way, is another draw. A Robin Hood walk takes you across town, through various landmarks associated with the legend. As with all folklore, the details of his life story have of course varied a great deal over the centuries.

Nottingham was incredibly noise-less, almost as if there was a mute button that had been turned on somewhere. The newly ordained Unesco City of Literature eats, socialises and shops in the Old Market Square. The famous Lace Market of yore is now office spaces, schools of art and other functions of living. The narrow lanes that fork out from the centre are all crammed with gorgeous Tudor-style buildings, old heritage structures and delightful independent cafés and bookshops. The high street brands are of course all over.

Among the latter is the fabulous Five Leaves Bookshop that was set up as a publishing house 21 years ago and became known for its focus on radical and political literature. It continues to publish pamphlets along the same vein called ‘Occasional Papers’, but also stocks popular titles and independent publications across genres. The most fascinating thing about Five Leaves for me was that there was an entire large shelf for books on anarchism. What’s not to love about a bookshop that makes no bones about its leanings?

In hipster company

Alex Smith’s Ideas on Paper, which specialises in magazines, operates from within Cobden Chambers. A former derelict yard was renovated and is now home to several hipster, independent shops. I had time only to pop in to pick up something I knew he was one of the few stockists in the U.K. for. Those 10 minutes led to a hurried chat about love for the printed word, business, and a generous gift of a copy of Monocle.

Notts is big with the art scene. Nottingham Contemporary was constructed on a site where there used to be, over time, a Saxon fort, a medieval town hall, even a railway line. There was some skirmish among the townspeople regarding the choice of the site, Jennie Syson, who runs the Syson Gallery, an independent art gallery, told me. She then went on to give me a crash course in the people’s history of Nottingham.

The city is home to several artists, notably John Newling whose library lounge is one room I continue to dream of, months later, as too of the bent-with-fruit apple trees in his backyard. #homegoals. The New Art Exchange, with a focus on South Asian and U.K. art exchange, was also where I serendipitously found myself being part of a panel on colonialism and 70 years of Indian independence. Uncomfortable and hot topics on the island these days.

Autumn, that glorious of all seasons when the leaves turn to jewels and fall to the ground, as if in love, was just turning the corner when I left Notts. The poet’s weather, they call it. Whole roads in tones of yellow, russet, olive, peach and others.

The writer, when not flanuese-ing someplace and writing about it, can be found at the mercy of her brood of rescued mutts.

An Essay on Autumn: In The Hindu Business Line

Autumn has to be my favourite season. The leaves are turning colour, the wind is kinder and even in the death throes there is the wonder of new life, of change. This autumn has been, quite literally, a season of much change for me on the personal front, some of it uncomfortable even when anticipated, though most of it has been deeply wished for.

My autumnal tales are for a poem elsewhere. In the midst of all the changes I wrote an essay on the season for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk. Read it here, or see below. 

FALL UNDER A SPELL

Even when the leaves are dying and the natural world slowing down, in preparation for the cold months ahead, autumn still feels like the season of new love


The nights turned crisp here in the south, and I missed full autumn in lovely England by a whisker of a deep black cat late this September.

Crisp is a curious word to use, I have found, as if you could break the weather into odd-shaped pieces with a loud “crack” before munching on the crumbs between sips of something hot. Crisp like freshly washed and sun-dried sheets. Crisp like unripened, firm-to-the-touch red tomatoes. Crisp like acts of fine indulgence.

It demands a funerary entourage, it feels like, this weather: autumn, which will shortly turn into the dank mist of winter.

The coming of November and the novelty that autumn brings is poets’ weather, they say. From the well-knowns like Auden and Keats to the delightful Adelaide Crapsey, the American poet and writer of cinquains, to numerous others from several languages and cultures, odes to autumn have been a go-to muse in literature for some centuries now. And why wouldn’t it be?

Look at the weather of these months: the pleading sun that bursts from the seams and rolls like lava over hilltops. Russet, sepia-toned and pale blonde leaves catch the sunbeams flirtingly, and fall with the wind gently onto the hard floor of earth. “Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling, and they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground,” I quote Andrea Gibson. In the footsteps of this sycophancy, a host of adjectives trip over each other in the mind — pensive, mellow, fitful, melancholy, rejuvenating, wanton, grandeur, profound, baroque — to describe the season that once called itself “harvest”.

The birds are leaving. The trees are hurrying to take on pallid hues of decay. Even though the leaves are dying and everything about the natural world is slowing down, breathing in and preparing for the cold months ahead, autumn still feels like the season of new love. Love as much as lust, as much as unbridled passion, as much as letters that cannot help but be overly, overtly poetic and laden with sappy adjectives. “’Tis the season to be jolly….” As the weather would have it, in the dying and the dead is the conception of the new and the newly alive. Soon, soon, it seems to promise, just bear with me, meanwhile, the white winter.

***


I used to have a favourite tree at St James’s Park in London. I never tried to find out what tree it was, except to acknowledge that it was decidedly huge and spread its branches in a canopy that seemed to hug me into itself when I stood before its trunk and craned my neck. I used to be there every other evening during summer and sit with my book, a slice of too-sweet almond cake and hot but weak tea in a flimsy cup. The tea would soon get cold and I would abandon my book in favour of watching people, big squirrels and the gulls that knew no fear of people or their “shoos”.

Late this September I called on her again, and there she was, readying already for autumn to come. The leaves on the fringes were turning light unpolished gold. The breeze that would pass through the gaps between the tree’s branches had begun to cool. I wouldn’t be there to see the whole tree light up in a finale of amber before the litterfall. Nor would I be around for huddle weather under half-a-dozen layers. But I could imagine how the proscenium would look. For right opposite my favourite tree were a clump of smaller, shorter ones that had decided to begin turning blue for winter earlier than the rest. Perhaps they hoped to woo the summer tourists who thronged Buckingham Palace for countless selfies before spilling onto the Park to make pictures of its long paths or to rest their weary feet before moving on to tick the next sight off their to-see/do list. This clump was all shades of browns and reds and I made a picture memory, knowing that this was how my tree would have dazzled too, if only I had gone in some weeks later. I would return another time, and then the timing would be just right, I told her.

The park had some late-summer loungers spreading themselves over chairs that cost too much per hour — like everything else in that town — trying to catch the last of the sober sun. The ice-cream vending machines within the kiosks at the edges of the park were less busy, though the tea cups continued to sell. Hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows were starting to make an appearance on the handwritten menu boards behind the cash counter in the kiosks, and in the cafés around town. Beer remained a staple, but the gin and scotch paraphernalia were being brought out of the high shelves as well. The jackets on people were morphing into thicker layers to accommodate our hibernating tendencies. Writer Kathleen Alcott, a personal favourite, said this of autumn in her début novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets: “Autumn was decidedly adult: the nuanced colours — muddled oranges and browns, the uncertain gray of the clouds — were much harder to love, to understand, than the sticky pinks of popsicles, the confident thick greens of happy grass and plants, the haughty blue of the sky above it all.” Cotton candy has its charms, but even the allure of ice cream in a waffle cone of a hot afternoon doesn’t throw shade upon the desire for this stereotypical imagery of domesticity: cosying up with someone dear just before bed, with a book each, stray conversation at sporadic intervals and a kiss thereafter. Decidedly grown-up.

***


In India, at least in the constant tropics of the South, I might argue that the summer isn’t really too happy, increasingly not so with every passing year. We do not see ourselves afflicted by the pressure of having to be outdoors, swim the sea, sunbathe and make the most of summer, like the Europeans and their cousins across the pond do. Spring brings in the birdsong, but summer can make haste and leave. We seek the shade behind the sunglasses, and I am a winter child myself. I pause, though, to note the early first few days where the sunny tabebuias shower this city (Bengaluru) like misplaced sunbeams and the usually shy jacarandas hesitantly fall upon my balcony like they did not really mean to.

Even as I write this, autumn is boiling over and spilling into winter. The leaves have mostly arranged themselves at the feet of the trees they previously belonged to. They say that the trees communicate and have vast networks to see, smell, hear and taste things, that they have family structures, that they have a language. I wonder if they glorify their short-term deaths the way we do. Autumn must be the only place in time that death is desired. Perhaps the language of the trees is better suited to anticipate the lushness that will soon come. Meanwhile, we use the words we know to prophesise that the weather is to turn from crisp to nippy to a cold that will have nothing romantic to say for itself.

In the world of Greek mythology — the characters just as dysfunctional as in our homegrown epics — Persephone is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of grain, crop and harvest, is furious, and mourns her missing daughter by plunging the Earth into a winter where the crops wither and die. The equally devastated Persephone refuses to eat or drink in the underworld because that would bind her to Hades forever. Finally, Demeter manages to find her daughter, who, just before she comes back up to Earth, eats six arils of a ripe red pomegranate. She is thus bound to spend six months of a year with Hades as the goddess of the netherworld. During those months, Demeter mourns by giving the Earth its autumn and winter seasons, until Persephone returns and we have the warmth of spring and summer again.

Persephone must have gone to her kingdom now. Excuse me, while I seek some pomegranate arils myself and reach for a warm book, to fall in love with words and the weather all over again.


Published on November 24, 2017
Deepa Bhasthi is a writer living and working between Bengaluru and Kodagu

Saturday, November 25, 2017

On the Bronte Sisters and Haworth, England: In Literary Hub

"In our day-to-day lives, we may tend to assume all too often - and dread all too often - that tomorrow will be just like today, but in the pleasures that literature affords us, we may see immediately that tomorrow does not have to be like today. Such immediacy makes free."

- from the Introduction, Therigatha - Poems of the First Buddhist Women, translated by Charles Hallisey

I was given a book to see pictures from the day I could hold up my head as a baby, I am told. Literature is among the two or three other things that has sustained, inspired, influenced and taken me through all kinds of phases in life. 

When I discovered Literary Hub, or Lithub, it felt like search had ended. They curate the best of literature articles from around the internet, apart from publishing new things every day themselves. Some of my favourite writers have been featured or have written for it. 

It has been an honour and great joy to have one of my essays published on the website. I wrote something on the Bronte sisters (again!) and they published it earlier this month. Read the essay here, or see below. 


CHASING THE BRONTË SISTERS FROM SOUTH INDIA TO THE YORKSHIRE MOORS

Deepa Bhasthi on a pilgrimage 20 years in the making


Haworth, set in the Yorkshire moors, is rife with the terrible clichés of the English countryside that were woven into the literature I grew up reading. There are rolling green meadows with sheep, curious horses and hearty cows dotting the view. A lazy sun falls upon the steep slopes of a farmhouse roof before a cold, swift winds and sudden rain. There is tea, lots and lots of warm tea, in dainty porcelain cups of well-appointed traditional homes.

It’s as English a village as I could have imagined while sitting in my own little village deep in South India, is also where the Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—lived for most of their brief lives. This tiny, otherwise nondescript village is also where they created their masterpieces, respectively, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. The former two of these were among the first grown-up books I read, and I have carried their thoughts and ideas into my adult years. I have preferred Jane to Catherine Earnshaw, then the other way around—then haven’t cared for either in favor of some other heroine, and back and forth again—for as long as I have loved, and inhabited, the many characters I have read.

The bare bones of Brontës’ story are this: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë lived with their father Patrick, a curate at the local church, their brother, the ill-fortuned Branwell, and their aunt who filled in for a mother who died when the children were still very young. The adults largely left the children to amuse themselves, and this lack of supervision led to imaginations that were vivid and insightful; their minds traveled far beyond the boundaries of their village and the minor lives they were confined to. They would make up stories about soldiers and kings and imaginary kingdoms and write them in miniature hand-sewn books, in letters too small for anyone but themselves to read. The importance of the miniature in the Brontës’ lives was both a necessity owing to limited resources, one that resulted in diminishing eyesight, and a possible thwarting of unwanted adult attention. The Brontë sisters wrote most of their works around the dining table in the Parsonage, inspired by the long walks they were fond of taking in the expansive, all-consuming moors behind and around their home. Publishing first under androgynous names before they all publicly claimed their works under their individual, female identities, the novels they wrote were among the greatest of English literature of a certain period and place.

A slim volume of one of those get-to-know-this-novel-and-its-writer on Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre supplied these details to me, two decades ago. I remember a photo of the Parsonage in the book—it must have been taken just after a light shower. The greenery glistens, and the stone walls look like they could have held only happy secrets. The closely cropped image does not give away anything of what is around the house. I have carried the memory of this photograph with me, along with the mystery of what it did not show, for 20-something years now. Somehow, it seemed like this house was where all the answers would be.
My questions about the Brontës began in the small town of Madikeri, up in the hills of southern India where I was born and raised. The whole town is nestled at the bottom of a nearly round valley, with tall, green, imperfect mountains circling its corners. The district of Kodagu, of which the town is a part, is funnily enough, called the “Scotland of India,” a sobriquet from when the British took over and started the first coffee plantations there in the mid-1800s. The excessive rain, the verdant rolling hills, the dense impenetrable forests and the opaque mist that rarely parted would have reminded them of home.

Kodagu remains coffee country. We have words for our place-names in many languages, for this landscape that runs in the blood. But we do not have words for grey—grey weather, grey rain, grey hills. Moors and marshes are just as alien. The monsoons are hard, but desolation is incomprehensible. There is enough color to counter it in our kitchens, our wardrobes, our window views.

In the 1990s, there was not a single bookstore in town. (There still isn’t.) But when my grandfather died, no one wanted his vast library, and I inherited it—even though I hadn’t been born yet. In those dark, antiqued bookshelves, many summers before I was meant to, I would meet and fall in awe and love with the Brontë sisters and the fiery women and brooding men they created. In a pre-Google world, reading their books opened a world that did not seem part of this earth. For my earth, my women, my colors and practices, my manners were different—outlandishly so—from that of the Brontës’ and what they wrote.

An English-medium education and a vast collection that could feed my voracious reading guaranteed that I read a lot of British literature, and a disproportionate number of Russian authors—all the mains, and then some. My choice of literature was really my grandpa’s; his tastes percolated into mine. His reading is where I met him at all. But of the array that he left to me, it was the Brontës that I kept returning to. Perhaps the love stories were desirable in my own hormone-raging teens. Perhaps the proto-feminism in them was buffing the ideas of feminism I had begun learning myself. Or perhaps it is because of what makes them such endearing classics—they are really just great literature.

Years later, I became something of a writer myself. I moved to London for just a few months last summer, and of course I fell in love. But I had a photograph of a house to seek and search for magic in.

In the notes I took during my trip to Haworth, I write that I am overwhelmed. It is a long way from the hills of southern India to the moors of Yorkshire, and not just in the geographical sense. The afternoon that I arrived, the sun struggled to come out, teasing with hints at what could be. Haworth is pretty, as quaint as a tourist destination that centers around literature can be imagined. And the Brontë association is milked everywhere, from jams and jellies named after characters, to the pubs where Branwell is supposed to have drunk himself into first oblivion and then death.

Walking up the famous steep main street of Haworth that is paved with setts, I landed before the church. Past a slim kissing gate, by the side of the church, past a school building where all the sisters taught and where Charlotte had her wedding reception, I walked to the Parsonage, which is now a museum. It is the house I grew up dreaming about, and it looks exactly the same. To describe myself as breathless from the steep climb alone would be too prosaic.

It was nearly closing time at the museum, but I rushed in anyway—the exteriors could wait—and zipped through the rooms, all meticulously decorated the way they would have looked when the Brontë family lived there. They are all simple rooms. Never ostentatious. Sometimes too close to frugal, but mostly just functional. It’s a regular house with bits and bobs, things and corners. But for us later day voyeurs, the old clock that the father wound every night on the way to bed, the kitchen corner where Emily would have baked the bread and kept house for the rest of the family, the dining table that bears an “E’ carved into it alongside ink blots and signs of wear, and these other mundanities gave futile glimpses into a brilliant family. Futile, I say, because materials do not impart or imbibe talent, yet here we had come to seek the genius in the material, as if, peering closely enough, we would find that which countless have searched for before us, and will look for after us: that elusive muse.

I stayed in a room at The Apothecary, a 17th C. building that has been variously used as an inn, a bookshop, a co-op, and a home for 400-odd years. The guest house overlooks the cobbled street: my biggest indulgence of the trip. The morning after my tour of the parsonage, I had to see the moors. I remember thinking that much as I would have loved some happy sunshine, it was more appropriate that the day was cold, windy, very grey, and wet. Suddenly, it did not matter that I could never, in my childhood, imagine what the moors looked like. When I did get here, they sure had put up a show.

I walked on trails that are, oddly, marked in both English and Japanese. A disproportionate number of Japanese devotees of the Brontë sisters visit Haworth every year—there are papers written about the phenomenon. The moors are vast; they stretched as far as my eyes could see. I struggled to associate it with a piece of the geography familiar from back home but could not find anything satisfactory. Desolate was the word that immediately came to mind. Though it sounds unsavory, the moors in shades of brown and green are full of something like emotion. Like the human condition, they seemed both a bit pointless and yet terribly resilient in their ability to inspire and influence.

And It rained. Oh, how it rained! I had aimed to reach Top Withens, that point that, despite repeated denials by the Brontë Society, fans of Wuthering Heights believe to be the inspiration for Emily’s picture of the Earnshaw house. But it was too cold to walk without cover from the fierce winds and the lashing rain. I admitted defeat, scurrying back to the guest house to buy a postcard of the ruins later at the gift shop. It was easier to brave the cobbled streets and pop in for a shot of local whiskey than to find myself feeling naked in the moors. The land wasn’t ready to give up her secrets just yet.

Buying souvenirs, taking pictures, sipping champagne-colored whiskey and peering into the enveloping mist was much easier. It was so safer than trying to process all that this visit meant. I was at the culmination of two decades worth of expectation. All that imagining, both of the trip itself and how this geography had influenced the Brontës’ literature, had come to a head. It was emotional and overwhelming—like reading the Brontës for the first time.

Chandrasekhar Kambar's Shiva's Drum: A Review in TNIE

Read the very short bare bones review of Chandrasekhar Kambar's Shiva's Drum here on The New Indian Express website, or see below. 



DEVELOPMENT THAT USURPS NATURE
Express News Service | Published: 11th November 2017

Amongst readers in Kannada, the language that Chandrasekhar Kambar has built his oeuvre in, and in which he won the prestigious Jnanpith Award, he has always been known for delving deep into the mystic, the magic and the realism of folk culture. His language has rarely been easy for a superficial reader, urging one, instead, to pay attention to, and constantly grapple with what being connected to an older world must mean.

Within these premises, Shiva’s Drum, originally published in Kannada as Shivana Dangura, and translated into English by Krishna Manavalli, stays in line with Kambar’s larger concerns and worldview. In the complicated plots and multi-linear narratives, Kambar again tells a story that reflects the problems that plague various societies, being at once both a story of just Shivapura, and set in the universal.
Shivapura, the fictional village that appears in several of Kambar’s works, “didn’t have history. It only had mythology”. It is a quaint old place, this village that lives on the banks of the Ghataprabha river, where the people gossip, like all humans everywhere do. They fight, plot against the other, grow things and go about their usual lives, like all humans everywhere do again.

The sweet waters of the Mallimadu pond feeds the verdant trees that line the expanse of the village, and the villagers are relatively at peace within the social constraints they have invented and now follow. The affairs of Shivapura are running rather smoothly as you enter the novel, though you know enough to anticipate the disaster that will unfold in future pages.

The villain on the scene arrives in the cloak of the headman and rich landowner, Baramegowda, who wants to hurtle Shivapura and its people onto a path of swift ‘development.’

The lifegiving crops are replaced with sugarcane, pesticides are poured into the previously un-poisoned soil and the earth around the village is changed faster than anyone can recognise. The flesh and cash-worshipping Baramegowda, goaded by men who recognise and encourage his follies, signs away land to city folk to build a private English-medium school and college over where Mallimadu lies. By the time he begins to comprehend the effects of his actions, it is, as the familiar story goes, already too late.

Parallelly, there is the story of Chambasa, Baramegowda’s estranged nephew, who stands against age-old convention, social stigma, caste differences and accepted worldviews to marry a devadasi. He tries to

save the pond and correct the course of events that life has taken in Shivapura, but then again, it is inching towards being too late.

Kambar’s novel is layered and demands full immersion into its several plots for the reader to be able to stitch together the magnitude of the whole story. The addition of folklore, characteristic of his works, places another layer of nuance that becomes, at times, difficult to negotiate for the reader.

The translator does a fine job at bringing to English the complications that Kambar’s Kannada presents. And in doing so, she helps further universalise the oft-told story of ‘development’ and what it can mean to a people.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Coming Full Circle in Beirut

The war is still visible in the rear view mirror in Beirut. It is of course heartbreaking to see buildings, people and cars nursing the wounds of a war that ended not too long ago. It was inspiring, in all sorts of disturbing ways and I am still processing my too brief time there. It will translate into words that are better articulated than the ones hurriedly scribbled here. Soon.

For here, I write briefly about A.R., the bookseller of Beirut who I met at his little bookshop called, The Little Bookshop. It is always such a joy to meet a fellow bibliophile. I shared with him this piece I wrote for the very first issue of The Forager, three years ago because it was informed and inspired by a book that was written on the invasion of the city in 1982. He loved the essay so much that he asked me if he could print it and distribute it to those that walked in through his shop's doors. He has this practice of printing passages from poems he loves and giving them away to people - what a lovely way to introduce and share beloved writings! I was of course extremely honoured that he wanted to print my work. 

Upon my asking, he sent me two lovely photos of the printed papers sitting upon his table at the shop. I was thrilled to see Boiling Coffee, Burning Beirut (the title thought up by The Forager co-founder Sunoj D) in Beirut. 

It was more poignant because the project in Beirut was the last one we at Forager Collective did. We aren't working on new issues of the magazine henceforth either. 

The work truly came full circle for me with this.




Here below is the essay again. 

BOILING COFFEE, BURNING BEIRUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

----

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

There Are No Words: Text work for a Forager Collective Event

I am at Nottingham, East Midlands, England on a short residency at Primary, an artist-led space. The summer residencies look at Work in Commons. The following text was developed last week and looks at the idea of language as Commons and the politics of there being both an absence and a presence of an adequate language. 

The text was performed by the lovely Sooree Pillay from New Art Exchange, and was followed by a conceptual meal that Forager Collective cooked. On the menu were dishes made with ingredients that were 'untranslatable' in many ways. While there are of course words in English for the ingredients used, the politics they carry, the cultural, geographical and social baggage they come with in the Indian context and in the context of the Commons in India could not be rightly conveyed here. The inadequacy of an appropriate language led to a menu that was quite lost in translation.

THERE ARE NO WORDS

What is left there now, to say? Was there anything to say at all, in the first place? It is a conversation I have had with my head endless times, like a bad song on ugly loop. There could never have been any answers, not after everything. But there were all these possibilities, mainly the possibilities….what now of them? What happens to these stories when their storyteller dies?

Language is the signature of culture, it seems. Lan-gu-age. My tool of trade. My daily bread and prayer. This language occupies the head but not the soul. These words in the language that you are hearing is a language that is learned, not inherited from the sisterhood of grandmothers before me. What language are your dreams of the deep night in? Mine? In none. For I can no longer claim to have the desirable words. It is a language of prosaic head matters now.

In my head right now, there runs a time-lapse video, complete with the whirring white noise from the speed in which the scenes change. Sporadically there are notes of a music track that, in an ideal world, I would always want to be the soundtrack of my days. Like a wordless undersong really. Wouldn’t an OST performed aloud when you went about things be absolutely impressive? Just like in the movies. I wouldn’t want a movie for myself though. Even I think that would be a bit too excessive.

In my head right now, there are no words really. And that I have come to realize is both the problem and the solution. Most so when I am thinking of that hill, as I do too often these days. That hill raises behind home. It raised me too, in a way. I like calling it a mountain though, the magnificence of northerliness is the sound that sounds well. The words to attribute to this hill-slash-mountain are those that I seek. I seek in vain. There is a language that I cannot bring myself to articulate in. A language exists too that is only in my worst imagination, enclosed, engulfed outside of actualities. How then in this inadequacy of both presence and absence, do I say what I want to say about this mountain? How indeed.

This hill would be my point X, if it came down to wanting to try to pin down such a point and understand its significance in a small non-descript life. Behind the hill is where I have been, time and again, bringing different people and places in my head, below my feet and around my arms. Behind the mountain – I shall now begin to use hill and mountain interchangeably – there is a thin bridleway that I have always meant to walk the entire length of. Some who attempted said that the path gives away in places, and sinks to the earth in shallow abandon. First the king is said to have ridden along the path, inspecting his small kingdom and perhaps the craggy mountain ranges that sunk suns beyond the edge out there. Then his commoners would have gone by, I suppose. He wasn’t a very good king, he wasn’t caring enough, you could say. The commoners have had a chequered history as well – the usual wars, killings, conversions, betrayals, losses of the things of our heart, etc. But mountain people are hardy people, and we have weathered it all well and for long.

Going to further specifics, there is a point on the bridleway that is behind this mountain of mine. I have been standing there, facing outward from that vantage point, all my life. I cannot remember the first time, it must have been a year or so after my stint in this geography began. Where the crazy crows always make a commotion, where the animals are always over-spoilt and two hundred birds come to feed, this land is home to me. From that point onward, I have looked out in some ancient-like search. What I see ahead and around is this: an expanse of green mountains in rows one behind the other that I can see further into if I stood on tiptoe. A few dotted houses, red roofed. Green fields in the foreground. If it was evening, as it almost always was, cranes circling in a spiral fashion to raise themselves up from the far fields below to my point X and then to the other side of the mountain towards the town and perhaps beyond. It is all so set up and dramatic and cliched. The mountains always behave themselves so well. Then there is the mist that cloaks the scenery and parts the veil if you had the patience to wait for it. All so unnecessarily theatrical. It means so much more than a picture postcard. Will you believe it if I said so employing only these words?

This language that you hear right now isn’t the language of my attic. It is not the language of my streets or my heath or my unspoken rituals. There has, for long, not been a language for that. Some would argue that there really wasn’t a language required for something that is not physical, that is not visible, that is not quantifiable. What is the use of its value if it cannot be measured in money and economy and all that other vulgar stuff? Some would argue thus. And they would be right, of course. Why need poetry when you can spend money that you don’t have? Why nurture the soul of a language when you can text in smileys? What the words don’t lack, they must lack in irrelevance.

Yet this language is all I have to mourn. I mourn the view. Nothing has happened to the view though, in all the years that I have gone there to reset myself into sanity, to re-wild myself. To be able to live my days with poetry in my head. In a cloud. But I still find myself in black for reasons I don’t have the language to explain in. They have a word for it, rather ironically. Solastalgia, a definitive disease of the 21st century that imparts an unspeakable sense of being torn from the earth, a homelessness without leaving home, a disconnect even with grass beneath your feet. There is a word for the unease, for the yearning, for that which there are no casual answers for. They call it solastalgia. I call it a good cry on a white cloud.

The estate has a stone that they call god. It is uneven and there is no right angle to see it from. From point x it becomes a god. It lends a name. And then you go closer and are enclosed in what it carries, on itself and for you, in its ancient rituals, in unnamed ideas, empty gestures and other signatures of things as they are. And then you are driven back to a place from where you assign names and categories for people, for the tongue they can use, for the land they can touch, for the words they can whisper. Vantage point. Point x. Distance to make it distant and clinical enough to justify all the injustices of identity, names and marked lives. “For who is ever quite without his landscape?”

Like a beloved prayer I go to this point behind the mountain from where I see other mountains whenever words fail me. Sometimes I go there physically too. In that post-pastoral terrain, these mountains are my experience and there can never probably be a particularizing language for everything I wish to tell you. I quote from elsewhere generously because there are no words in my own language for this. “There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Sometimes on top of a mountain I can only say wow, silently, in my borrowed syntax.

I am certain of this uncertainty, that I can only ever know this knowledge incompletely. This geography is my destiny. Tall words. I reconcile to not knowing them, for I am inadequate to create the articulation it requires. It is not the landscape that can ever fail. It is always I, in this tragedy of expectations. Again and again I go to that place, again and again failing. A tragedy of my common life.

This a prayer then: Spirit of the water/give us all the courage and the grace/to make genius of this tragedy unfolding/the genius to save this place.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Head Over Hills - Ooty, Blue Mountains and Summer Tales: In The Hindu Business Line

Published on August 11, 2017

Read here or see below for a tad unedited version.


HEAD OVER HILLS


Every textbook cliché about colonial ‘hill stations’, a term that even the British no longer understand, is alive and kicking in ageless Ooty
Someday, most certainly, I will learn the names of the red pink yellow white purple flowers that are gaily distributed all around me this summer afternoon. But today? Today it is too much work to google away and learn their genus and species and common names in three languages. Let me, for now, refer to them by the rainbow colours that have seeped into each petal, like tea from a teabag. There are no roses around; roses being the only kinds I can readily recognize, anywhere you take me. Someday though, I will know how to differentiate my sorrels from my hydrangeas from my buttercups from my nasturtiums. 

Today, I have my socked feet up on a wrought iron chair that is painted white. The table top is glass and speckled with the remains of a light drizzle from half an hour ago. There are three generations of sparrows under the pine tree, chattering away. A gossamer mist will set in in a while, but for now the whole of Udagamandalam (Ooty or Ootacamund, if you prefer the colonial name) is coloured rose gold by eventide and lies sprawled beneath me. A crescent of the Nilgiris mountains – they really are blue-blue – circles the part of town that makes my view. I have a book and my faithful weathered- leathered traveller’s notebook before me. I could be journaling lines overloaded with adjectives – there is enough to describe around me – or I could catch up on the reading. I contemplate the choices and choose what I really want to do, which is nothing. Doing absolutely nothing, staring in the direction of the Blue Mountains, sipping on the tea R and his wife, the housekeepers of the century old colonial bungalow I’m staying in bring me and just…nothing-ing feels pretty darn good. “Summering in the hills” is something I could do for a bit of every year, I tell myself. For us non-believers, we make up traditions and rituals as we go along.

“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then to rest afterward.”

***

Come summer, I complain about the heat, a lot. I am a pain that way. The heat is how I begin sentences and close all conversations with a sigh. “The winter you were born, it was a particularly cold year,” grandma used to tell me, in that tone she employed just before she morphed into the rajas and the princesses of her stories – I always thought, still do, that it was magic that turned her into a magnificent storyteller of the sorts they never make anymore. Maybe it was the particularly cold winter up in the hills the year I was born that made me detest every passing summer. At least that is what I tell myself.

This summer seemed particularly bad. We had skipped the feeble winter on this city and whooshed past a brief spring to plunge into a heat that seemed to justify murder. We were always on the edge, waking up and going to bed exhausted from the air that seemed to sap our will to live and laugh. We were constantly angry.

The heat was also driving brown ants out in their thousands. They were everywhere – on wheat, on soap, on glass bottles, on books, on all inedible things, on every ingredient in my kitchen. Summer seemed to have driven them mad too. We felt often like killing the other, or the ants – anything, something, to be able to take a long deep breath after. So for our sanity, we decided to go up to the hills when the search engine on the www promised weather in its twenties and teens, even a spot of rain. We packed a sweater, just in case, brandy for my half-there cold, and booked ourselves into an old bungalow that overlooked the lights of the city. I secretly hoped this might become that one place in those hills we would keep going back to each year, even when we were old and overused to each other’s company.

***

Ooty was ‘discovered’ hundred-and-ninety-eight years ago by the Brits, who promptly acquired it for a summer capital. This part of the country, it remains a much favoured weekend getaway, honeymoon destination, family holiday and next door picnic spot for people in mufflers and monkey caps far thicker than most times necessary. That Ooty is christened the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, that hill stations are itself a colonial construct which they now in their own country no longer know the meaning of, that there are sights to see and things to do in their dozens if you look up travel websites, that several houses are old and large and breathtakingly beautiful is not new news. Neither is the fact that a hangover from certain ways of life is still thick as the water in Ooty’s man-made lake – thanks to which you are spoilt for choice over fancy locally made cheeses, preserves, jams and jellies, cakes, breads, sausages and other Western food.

The churches and old buildings now turned into government offices and bookstores are still marvelous. Some are well maintained, some are not. Some take the baggage of history associated with their homes and offices in their stride and get on with the business of daily things nonchalantly, for routine is very tedious work. Others wear this history like a heavy crown, uncomfortable, but still overtly proud of the anachronisms they won’t let go off. There are old quarters of town with stone bungalows and immaculately maintained colourful gardens within expansive compounds, and then there are newer, busier, more congested neighbourhoods. The former will shop at Modern Stores or pronounce Ooty to be too pedestrian and drive to Coonoor instead, while the latter will bring in the malls and supermarket chains but still patronize the local grocer in the shop around the corner. Members of the former will have memberships at the Ootacamund Club and ‘lunch’ in chiffon and pearls, while the participants of the other will go to Adyar Anand Bhavans and eat paani-puris by the roadways.

If these stereotypes of hill town societies sound archaic, it is because they aren’t. These clichés are alive and thrive in places where time is unhurried by the mountains that dictate its days and weather. I know, for I come from one such.

***

We rode through the night, arriving at the bungalow just in time for morning tea. Cold under my windcheater. The scores of wild spotted deer, an elephant and her month old child, wild boars, blue and green necked peacocks within arm’s distance along the Bandipur and Mudumalai Forest Reserves made up for all discomfort. On the return, taking another route, we passed through a pine forest, then a eucalyptus forest and then a bamboo forest, in quick succession. The eucalyptus trees, standing to attention in straight lines for just a brief stretch along a road that seems to swirl around you was surreal. It has become one of those things you need only to half close your eyes to conjure up an instant image of. Downhill and through the reserve forests – more animal sightings – then into bigger villages and bigger towns till this gargantuan city. This city where you always need to be doing things. Nothing is just not relevant here.

***

After not seeing the sights and not doing things, we meet the lovely T and A, poet and artist, respectively, who live within a tea estate. Tea turns to whisky on a balcony from where they say they sometimes spot bison herds and hear other wild things. The house is full of books and art and antiques, and stories, so many, many wonderful stories. A courtesy call turns into, I hope, a burgeoning friendship, promises of returning to stay and of meeting elsewhere to buy books and talk shop. Just as we are leaving, T points out that it is a full moon’s night. I remember reading that it is a pink moon – April’s full moon is called so, signifying the blooming pink flowers of spring and heralding new beginnings of the year. So it is a pink moon in the Blue Mountains. T even quotes Auden later,

“But once in a while the odd thing happens,
Once in a while the dream comes true,
And the whole pattern of life is altered,
Once in a while the moon turns blue.”

It all sounds terribly staged. We had not made these exact plans. The first time I went, it rained all along the way, the man-made lake was dirty brown and swollen and there was litter everywhere, the homemade chocolates were made in large factories and I had vowed never to bother returning. I gladly change my opinion of Ooty. “The mountains are in my DNA, I think, for this is where I am most content, the happiest and the most inspired,” I announce, sitting pillion, on the way downhill, with as much a dramatic flourish I can channel. A feeble grunt in reply. I am still basking in the pleasure of having done all those nothings to begrudge that insolent lack of ready agreement though.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

On Ruskin Bond: In The Hindu Business Line

I have read Ruskin Bond all my life and have always loved him. His books, to me, are like coming home. His autobiography 'Lone Fox Dancing' was published recently, and though I am not a big fan of autobiographies generally, this was one I had eagerly waited for. I wrote an essay about his enduring appeal, about him and my grandfather and bits about the book for The Hindu Businessline's BLInk, one of my most favourite places to write for.

Read it here or see below. 

A LONG, ENCHANTING WALK IN LANDOUR'S COMPANY 


Dear Mr Ruskin Bond watches over my writing desk as I start with these words. In a black and white photograph that Mr Murthy, of Bengaluru’s very old and famous Select Book Shop gave me to keep years ago, Bond looks down – it is a low angle shot – with two books and a rolled file in his hands that rest over his stomach. The shop and half its signboard is behind him. The beloved author looks like he was about to smile but the photographer clicked the shutter a millisecond before he could do so. For years the aging photograph, undated, remained within my journals. Now it occupies a place on the wall alongside several other pieces of papers, Post-Its with reminders and whatnots that I haphazardly have sprinkled before me. I try my best to avoid the reminders, but Bond catches my eye now and again. 

I have recently finished Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing and am meant to write my words on him, and it. I falter, I gloriously procrastinate, read other books, look up things like how many characters there are in War and Peace and what the seedcake kiss in Ulysses means, things I really don’t need to know right this minute…because frankly, it is a bit intimidating, writing about Bond. How do you write about someone who everyone feels they have a familiar, familial claim to? There will undoubtedly be a lot I will have to leave out; here comes in my worry about all the things that I will not end up saying about him.

Bond and his writings have meant different things to different people, articulated variously every so often, as memoirs, in travelogues to Landour where he lives, as anecdotes and as chance meetings. He has inspired several generations of readers and writers over a career spanning six - something decades. I find something appropriate that I paraphrase here: At this point there is so much about (Bond) that it’s difficult to tell what of it matters, and how much. It all sort of cancels itself out. (…) even writing about your own feeling and reaction (…) feels extraneous and unnecessary. Didn’t someone already say exactly what you want to say in much better words?

But one gets over oneself and attempts anyway. Bond’s effect on how I read and what I write has been, like his writings, sometimes subtle, sometimes sublime, even subversive; I am still working it all out in my head.

My grandfather was a freedom fighter Communist card holder doctor, the three too entangled into the personality I’ve heard he had to be separated by commas when I describe what he was. He was a big reader. I never met him because he passed away six months, nearly to the day, before I was born. I got to know him through the large collection of books he left behind and owing to no one else claiming it, I got to inherit. His books are how I ‘met him’. Ruskin Bond’s books were not part of his collection but in the simplistic annals of childhood memories, it all meshes into the same thing. It was in the hills, where I grew up, that I first chanced upon a Bond book. The walks he went on were relatable to the walks around town and to the library and elsewhere that I had gotten used to taking. The birds and flowers he wrote about were relatable because though the ones we had in this part of the country, far-far from the Himalayas, were not same-same, they were still pretty and colourful and in plenty. We were also that generation that was blessed with the wild imagination of the pre-screentime days, so could imagine pines and sorrel, nettle and other unfamiliar things by giving them our own understood shapes and colours. Yearning for a grandfather and jealous of the time older cousins had had with him, if his books were my connection with him, Bond became the grandfatherly figure who instructed how to walk the hills and notice the flowers and birds and other dancing things. Perhaps that is why I find myself returning to their books – one who wrote, the other who read and collected – again and again. Bond’s books feel like coming back home.

As sweet luck would have it, I happen to be back in the hills when I begin reading Lone Fox Dancing. It feels right that I am in hill country. Throughout the autobiography I cannot shake off the feeling that it hints at a swansong, from his Dedication and Acknowledgements page onward to “the evening of a long and fairly fulfilling life. And it is late evening in Landour.” It closes on a late evening with a small boy bringing the author fresh apricots that are “still very sour, very tangy, but full of promise.” In the pages in the middle, Bond lays out a life “journey that has gone on for eighty-three years, sixty-seven of these spent writing.”

For a fan of Bond’s books, the autobiography is a bit like being shown how the magician manages to pull the hare out of his hat every single night. Bond lays out incidents, anecdotes, inspirations and memories of a lifetime, several of which he has turned into some of his best loved stories. That he was born in Kasauli, that the years he spent with his father in Delhi were the best years of his life, that he was a misfit when he had to live with his mother, step-father and their children, that he was in England for a brief four years before India was too hard a pull to resist, that he settled in the hills and never left them for too long is as familiar to his fans as are his penchant for nursing sick plants to health, his love of a good walk and the small room with a large window that is his workspace. There are lovely photographs in the book from all these periods of his life, for added pleasure. The humour is characteristically subtle, quiet and all too often, poignant, emotional. He is perhaps more willing to be vulnerable here than he has ever been, even though several passages have been published earlier either as is, or interpreted into short essays or added on as passages in his short stories. The book, like the man himself, feels familiar, and quiet – two qualities I keep repeating in my head. Quiet is the word I have always remembered the effect his work has had on me, a slow breeze filled with the fragrance of the flowers of the mountain, carrying a mix of bird calls, stray conversation, dog bark and undersong.

Then there are stories that can only be called sensual, sexual; of restlessness, of the discoveries of youth, of love affairs, “…there were loves; some unrequited, some mutual and intense - … and a few will not be spoken of, for some passions are private, and the world is no poorer not knowing them.” There are writings that aren’t exactly children’s literature that he is a lot famous for. The image of Ruskin Bond as the benevolent grandfather figure endures though, and takes precedent over the romantic that he continues to see himself as. This popular portrayal of him, padded on – sorry! – by panegyric essays such as this, is one that he finds odd enough to mention several times during the book. He wonders if honeymooners – “some of the most frequent visitors to my humble flat” – ask for his blessings because they are under the impression that he has been a celibate man, “and the blessings of sexually innocent adults are believed to be potent.”

It is an image he seems to have only half-heartedly tried to shake off though. It perhaps hasn’t helped that his writings have always captured the innocence and the uninhibited joy of reveling in nature. Also that he has retained that child-like curiosity, appreciation of and love for the beauty of birds and animals and trees and well-walked paths and flowers and friends and a good time. In a world that hurries along the act of growing up to be an adult, more and more so, and doing the things that adults are supposed to do, reading a Bond essay feels like a time out, a reminder that it is perfectly good to stop for a while and look around. Quite literally a cartoon by Kim Casali, Love Is…stopping to smell the roses. Perhaps this is why his writing appeals to the vast age spectrum that it does: for children, it is a revision of the natural world that they are familiar with, thus relatable, and for the adults, it is looking back into what they remember was a simpler time. That old romanticized Ideal. Nostalgia is a potent drink, after all.

Given how much of Bond’s life experiences have lent themselves to his stories and essays, directly or otherwise, Lone Fox Dancing oftentimes plays the role of filling in the gaps, joining the dots of how everything transpired and in what order. An extra touch of poignancy hops along for the ride. There is plenty of material still for him to mine, you get a sense. He writes of science and politics having let us down, but notices then that “the cricket still sings on the window-sill.” The hoarder of words hasn’t tired of the two windows in his room, the windows that have yielded him stories from the other side for decades, for different generations now.

“I am happiest just putting pen to paper – writing about a dandelion flowering on a patch of wasteland,…”

Stand-up Comedian Aditi Mittal: A Profile in OPEN Magazine

Ahead of her show on Netflix (premiered July 18, 2017), I interviewed Aditi Mittal and wrote a profile of her for OPEN magazine. 

Read here or see below for a slightly unedited version. Published July 07, 2017.

ADITI MITTAL: 'I AM NOT HERE TO BE QUIET'

“Comedy is one of the strongest forms of dissent,” she had said, elsewhere. Appropriately, it was in some ways dissent itself, from a it’s-21st-century-but-still-intensely-patriarchal entertainment industry, when Aditi Mittal bagged a special show ‘Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say’ on Netflix. It feels necessary to acknowledge that edging in the gender angle in happy stories such as this is tedious at times. I am certain Mittal would rather be a comedian instead of a ‘female comedian’, as if the feminine is a comedy genre she is affected with. But we are not there yet, when it no longer matters what gender one identifies with, if at all. And that is why the Netflix show gains credence, especially when the online streaming channel’s main rival Amazon Prime had signed up more than a dozen comedians a while earlier – none of whom women.

In a culture where stereotypes reduce women to being made fun of, rather than internalizing that they can be side-splittingly funny too, but of course, Mittal is among the talented crop of women who are active, popular and thriving in the Indian, mostly English, comedy circuit. We chatted about all this over Skype, her in Mumbai, me in Bengaluru. Her, just back from her very first capoeira class that morning. Her, in her room in the family home. Her with her almost-rainbow coloured hair that looks divine in photographs.

The Netflix show is obviously big, and guaranteed to chalk a new roadway in her career. Predictably, she was over the moon, though she said she has imagined every scenario that could lead to the show getting cancelled. She refuses to believe it is actually happening, “till I put it on on my own laptop I don’t believe it,” she said. But before that: it was post-2008 recession when the production company she was working with in the US shut shop and she was back home in Mumbai. “I happened to wander into an open-mic night, saw a couple of people doing these things (stand -up comedy) and I was like, this looks fairly simple,” she said. Her first attempt was met with mostly silence, except for two laughs for some Punjabi joke she had in stock, thanks to being half-Punjabi herself. “I loved the sound of those two laughs. I got so addicted to that feeling,” she remembered. It helped immensely that she was a self-confessed “bit of a nautanki” from childhood. Her initial interest was in getting into television, and she did the rounds – facing six auditions a day for random bit roles, each of which she had to wait hours for, for her turn. She made her living writing about food for a food magazine. Open-mic nights continued for two+ more years before she got her first paying gig.

“I do believe I was at the right place at the right time to a large extent,” Mittal admits. The comedy scene in India was growing fast and she was there to catch the first wave. Opportunities to perform abroad, including a show with BBC, a documentary on stand-up comedy came, “very quickly, very easily, too easily sometimes.” Several corporate shows where her gender and the way she looked/dressed was deemed more important than her talent happened, in the interim. “Now there are things I can put my foot down about,” she said, quick to add that having a management was of immense help, “for a long time, it was up and down, trying to figure out what to do, who to trust, who to confide in.”

The sexism that is rampant in the entertainment industry, and the active resistance to women doing comedy was something she encountered later on, she said, after people began noticing her and writing about her work. “Stand-up is a very lonely profession. You have a thought, you write the thought, you express the thought, you perform the thought. It is you and your thoughts in these four processes. In that way it is one of the purest art forms. And that can seem a little lonely, especially in an environment where you are presented with active resistance to what you want to say. But with distance (from these things), you become free,” she said.

Predictably, there was an older man who told her off over her jokes, asking who would marry her if she stuck to saying the things she did. Berating comedians – always the women – about who would marry them or what the future in-laws might think springs from a sense of ownership over a woman’s body and life choices that society in this country has always felt it possessed. I asked Mittal if she had had these experiences, and she said she hadn’t, not from women in her audience. “I get very excited when people are like, my mom loves you. I am the biggest suck up when it comes to parents (of friends),” she said. An aunt, who she calls her mother, raised her. “I have realized that a part of me will always die for her approval and that is where my desperate desire to want to connect with older women comes from,” she added.

Speaking about working in a still male-dominated section of the entertainment industry, she said, “I realized any woman working in a male environment…we are going to be inconvenient. I am okay with that. I am not here to stir shit up, but I am (also) not here to be quiet. I am now in a position, more than ever, to keep my mouth shut…but it is time to speak up as well. So apparently, I am navigating that.” Mittal has talked elsewhere about desexualizing herself on stage, something she said she did because she “didn’t want her sexuality to be there” and that she “just wanted to be funny.” She told me she learned recently on a Steve Martin masterclass online to ‘always dress better than the audience’ and now dresses however she feels like, recognizing that people will anyway say muck no matter what she wears.

These various navigations she has found herself doing also birthed two characters that are immensely popular – Dr Mrs Lutchuke, modelled after her 6th standard Marathi teacher and a college best friend’s grandmother, and Dolly Khurana – modelled after an aunt who moved from a small town in Punjab to Mumbai and Mittal saw the way her aunt’s mind was processing life in the big city. Both allow her to say outrageous things, the former comments on sex – “sex is one of the funniest things on this planet,” Mittal said – and the latter on social issues like foeticide, as nonchalantly as can be. “Characters are basically foils. (You) nicely wrap up in a foil through which you can speak,” she pointed out.

Given the current post-truth political environment in the country, I asked Mittal what she thought the future of comedy in India was, whether we would ever see political commentary modelled after those like John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and others. She pointed out that in India channels catered to the lowest common denominator very quickly because it was the easiest way to get large numbers. She hoped for the level of industry and the amount of phenomenal money, logistics and talent that exists abroad for comedy shows to come to India. “In terms of political commentary, if an Indian reflects on India the way a John Oliver reflects (on the US), …a lot of our self -respect, confidence and ego as a collective nation will come into play. It will be interesting to see how we take someone talking to us, even talking down to us,” she said. Reflecting on the diverse variations of who we are as a nation, she added, “The future of comedy is empathy. When it includes everybody, thought processes from everyone, (that’s when) it will be truly potent, truly effective. Comedians of the future have to be very, very empathetic, very, very ears to the ground.”

Mittal is, like the rest in the comedy circuit, hilarious at times on social media as well. It is exhausting sometimes to be consistently funny across all platforms, she had said earlier. She understands though that she “probably wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for social media. I don’t have a conventional TV face, neither do I say TV friendly things.” Calling social media an odd thing, she said, “We are in that odd place in our lives where we are dying to see a curated version of intimacy. We want to think of the person as extremely human.” She has taken the pressure off of herself regarding what she puts on social media, she told me, thankful though she is for the fantastic tool that it is.

I asked her what she is reading at the moment. A little embarrassed, wondering how it will reflect on her, she holds up several titles from Pratham Books she picked up the other day. Also a MAD book, and one on the economics of poverty that she is “pretending to read,” she giggles. Capoeira will be her new thing now, she told me, when she is asked what she does apart from comedy.

Is her family excited about Netflix, I asked her. Her brother knows it is a big deal, she said. Her father isn’t clear what Netflix is, when she told him that it was like the Star Plus of the internet, he asked her if she would be on Star Plus. Her mother does not care. “I love how she doesn’t care. (She will probably be impressed) if I do something substantial like…clean my room or if I remember to switch off the fan every time I leave the room,” Mittal said.

So what can we expect on the show? “You can expect laughs. You can expect to improve your Vitamin D levels. I am not gonna lie, it might help you lose weight. It’ll smoothen your hair cuticles,” she told me. We both cracked up and agreed that she should probably put that in her description of the show.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Mosaranna/Curd Rice: In Roads and Kingdoms

Roads and Kingdoms, one of the websites we greatly loved when we were conceiving The Forager magazine, has a cute little series called Breakfast where they feature stories around breakfasts from all over the world. I wrote one on having curd rice - that soul food - for breakfast one late morning and got it published here.

Or see below. 



Photo by Sharmila Vaidyanathan of The Yellow Turmeric

This city feels sometimes like a wide and long river in spate, and I try to reach for the other end where all my friends and acquaintances are. We tell ourselves we are too busy and distances too long, or that the summer this year is particularly bad, to meet more often. We don’t always tell the truth.


It has been varying degrees of time since I have seen these friends. We are at Koshy’s. The most Bangalorean thing to do in Bangalore is to hang out at Koshy’s, an old restaurant in the middle of town that retains an unimpeachable disdain for the new business of hurriedness. People grow old around its tables, and we talk about how one day we will, very likely, be them.

Liver on toast is the best thing to eat at Koshy's, I am told. I am a vegetarian though, and for me it has always been a dish that I am not sure is even on the 300-something list of things on the menu card. Koshy's has been for years a place to meet for work and otherwise. I have conceived a food journal there, begun a relationship, made new friends, gossiped, grown older. It is our village square. And whenever it was close to any mealtime, sometimes even when it wasn't, at Koshy's I have always asked for curd rice, or mosaranna or thayir sadam.

No one I know believes me when I say how good Koshy's curd rice is, especially in relation to the gooey paste-like nonsense you get in every other restaurant in the city. Curd rice is something you eat at home, not something you order for a late breakfast as a standalone dish at, of all places, Koshy's. But here, the cold bowl of perfectly tempered rice is like the ones we make at home. They are an ode to mama's cooking, to the soul-food status that curd rice, very deservingly, has attained in the palates of us true-blue South Indians.


Curd rice at Koshy's is, I like to think, a well-kept secret. It comes when we are in the middle of discussing our current reading lists, in a shallow bowl, all jet-white and gleaming. It is tempered with mustard seeds, mildly spiced, and has a big red chili garnish, "like cherry on ice cream," says one of my friends. It is cold, the perfect temperature to soothe a belly fired up by the many cups of coffee we have had while going through small-town gossip from back home in the hills, where some of us are from. It is milky with a hint of the sour from the curd, and vanishes within minutes. Every mouthful feels good for the soul.


I am tempted to order another plate, but by then we have made plans to go to Pecos, another of those ancient establishments, for beer. We are, all of us migrants from elsewhere, as close to local Bangaloreans as we could get that bright May afternoon.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On Afternoon Tea: In The Hindu Business Line

Last year (it's already become last year!), I was in York in England on holiday and bought myself afternoon tea, that extremely English tradition. There was too much clotted cream and too many sweet things but it was among the most English things I did. 

An essay I wrote about it for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk is here. See a slightly unedited version below. 

Published May 26, 2017.

ON AFTERNOON TEA


We seldom now live in times that grant us an hour which may, without a morsel of guilt, be spent in leisure and luxury sipping on tea. Delicately bending down to balance a slice of cake, thin and as light as air, between manicured fingers and nibbling at its edges while being scandalized by what Mrs X from the Club said to Mrs Y the other day. It smacks not least of anachronism but also of a feminine architype that though alive and well in several parts of the world in many mutated forms, still heckles the sensibilities of us modern feminists as stereotypes that should best be hurriedly tucked under the carpet before the liberals walk in. We live in various stages of denial, don’t we all?

And then to begin. There was tea for one and one for tea, late last year, one semi-cold autumn afternoon, in the very English town of York that was built by the Romans. How that came about was like this: The clipped accents of traditional England that arose, stern and almost disapprovingly, from the elderly participants of one of those package bus tours across countryside historic sites contrasted gaily with the new-to-college squads that still had school shopping to do at GAP and Boots and elsewhere. One could sit in a toasty café in The Shambles, the cobbled street flanked on both sides by overhanging timber-framed buildings, some surviving from the 14th C., and out of the way of hasty shopping tourists, to make informal notes on human behavior in that moment. And so one does, in a weathering leather traveler’s notebook. A well-chosen notebook is as important as the adventure itself, one has learnt to remember.

York is, as a friend called it, charming but twee, the American in him sounding as British as it gets. I have arrived from the Pennines that mid-morning, and in three hours or thereabouts, seen all there was to see and do in York. Just an afternoon and I have finished walking the town. I fret, for I have two and a half days more to spend here. I would rather be back in London, be this flaneuse there. Something about that city, like every damned cliché, worms itself into your heart and vamooses away with a pound of it, to hoard in its harem and never give back. But I am in someplace twee now, the only place I can practically be in. And so I walk, once this way and once the other way, backtracking, going in circles, passing by the same shops and open markets. I peep into objects of touristy desire and read titles off jackets of thick books I will never be able to carry back home. I stop to admire things and cakes on display, and pass by old people and people several generations young. I long for the easy warmth that the indoors would bring, for a glorious summer is reluctantly giving way to autumn just then; you can nearly see them passing the baton one to the other where the Micklegate Bar meets rush hour traffic. Yet I am happier, any day, in the outside, on foot, filing away sights, smells and sounds like a glutton. It is never enough.

Half of day two and some half dozen rounds around town later, it is just half past three and like they say on that island, everything stops for tea. I cannot recollect now what my lunch was, I haven’t included it in my notes. Maybe it was something commonplace like a salad, or a sandwich but it has filled me up, if I still remember this tale right. But it is the last day of my fortnight’s worth of holiday and what better way to tie the ends of this England experience with than in the indulgence of afternoon tea, I tell myself.

My loyalties lie unwaveringly with coffee. It feels necessary to say this, to reiterate this. My coffee country in the hills, much ironically carrying an epithet – Scotland of India - that links it to the land I am now walking, has my whole heart. No Darjeeling could ever match the indescribable fragrance of those white jewel-like flowers that erupt to birth mournfully red cherries. They will at some point then become the coffee that runs in my blood. On a postcard I buy for 50p, Verlaine’s words: “The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart a languorous monotone.”

Anything warm now though, tea will do just fine, thank you very much. Betty’s Café Tea Rooms is brimming with people, in all the four and quarter times I have passed before its full glass windows. I decide to be tardy tourist a little more in private instead and on a whim, walk past a larger than life teddy bear and a teddy bear shop – sickeningly sweet fluffy things on every inch – and climb the narrow flight of stairs to what in my mind has decided to remain a yellow tinged room. Lunch was a wee bit ago but I order the afternoon tea bravely at Stonegate Teddy Bear Tea Room. At 13.95 quid, that is how the locals name their money, it is among the more expensive snacks I’ve allowanced for myself. The pound is low and fear of the outsider is high, in those weeks just after Brexit.

In about the 1840s, Anne, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began to ask staff to schedule tea and snacks at about 4pm in her boudoir because she would feel hungry between breakfast and dinner. Those were the austere days of two square meals a day. Soon invitations for “tea and a walking the fields” began to be sent to her other well-heeled friends. Tea soon moved to the drawing rooms, and when weather permitted, to the lawns and gardens of country homes. Pausing for tea became a fashionable social event and by the 1880s, upper class women turned up to these in the season’s must have long gowns, gloves and hats. While men did partake in the leisurely tradition, it remained a feminine activity. The picture of domesticity, of delicate-ness and the fragile, of the fashionable and the flimsy, qualities that were inevitable in the Victorian woman of a certain stature, hallmarks the afternoon tea.

My tea room overlooks the Shambles street, and I make notes on how the tradition brings to my mind a very British lady, prim and proper in her chiffon and pearls, stringing along her perfectly clipped sentences to companions as she gossips about the neighbor ladies. Years of reading Victorian and English literature growing up pours into what I know will one day likely be my Proustian madeleine moment. The foreign land of the past. And there I am in my scruffy traveler clothes – a cheap pair of jeans, a tee, a sweater that is now loose at the sleeves, my trustee old jacket that has been with me from the Himalayas to the north east of my country and here and elsewhere. And old shoes from another lifetime ago that I will discard, shedding the last of old skin, outside a metro station in London. There isn’t anything ultra-feminine or quaint about me, though I almost wish there was.

The culture of tea rooms, by the next century, had become more commonplace. Lyons Tea Rooms optimized the English sentiment and identity of the time – gallantry, sophistication and wholly civilized or what some half of the world would see it as – imperialistic, snobbish and operating of slavery. Nippies, waitresses in iconic uniforms, so named for the way they nipped about serving at great speeds, became national icons. Empowered, independent, yet, compulsorily pretty women who had to be unmarried to don the uniform. By the 1920s, use of their imagery and other attractive females to sell products was established in the advertising world. Alongside was the stereotype of the tea lady, whose sole job was to sell beverages and snacks in offices, as the popular gossip who leaked important trade secrets. Narratives of the female go round and round in circles, no mystique there.

The tea I order has by now arrived in a pale white pot and three tiers of open sandwiches, dainty little cakes, slice of Victorian sponge, strawberries, pot of jam, macaroons and more clotted cream than I ever want to see again. The waitress is Italian, from a village tinier than York, and here for better wages, to practice English, I overhear her telling a couple at the next table. They turn to admire my tea, as do I, before I endeavor to finish it. So much cream! I couldn’t possibly. Clumps of it get leftover. The rest of it is too sweet for me, but finish it, I do.

I read later that afternoon teas are holiday or anniversary indulgences these days, another relic that is nudged now and then to fluff the air of tradition and nostalgia around. I read too that young women are baking cupcakes and donning pearls and chiffons more, in rebellion against ‘modern’ womanhood, taking back domesticity and embracing the gossip.

Me? I walk some more, to burn off tea, wondering what everyone is doing back home, as I step on to those old cobbled streets.