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. 


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. 

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. 


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.