Monday, December 18, 2017

Notes From Beirut: In The Hindu's Sunday Magazine

Still processing my thoughts on all that Beirut was, in those few days that I spent there. Meanwhile, here is a brief piece written for The Hindu's Sunday Magazine supplement.

Read it here or see below. Published on December 17, 2017.


It can be a tad disappointing when you land in a far away country and feel right at home. You want to be in awe when you travel, you want to feel lost, you want to take endless photographs and write mental notes of things that are different, alien, unfamiliar and unrelatable. More so when it is a city that you haven’t seen a million pictures of already, as if it were the mountain in your backyard.

So it was with Beirut, that which they once used to call the Paris of the Middle East. The roads are narrow, though rarely potholed. Cars are too many and traffic is painful. It is loud, busy, crowded and colourful everywhere, just like home.

Beirut is very much not like home too. The enduring capital of Lebanon sits with unease next to some of the worst war-torn nations of the modern world. Predictably, the off-spills of human tragedies, apart from their own war until recently, have seeped through the country’s borders. Yet, typical of cities, Beirut mostly lives as if the wars are everywhere but there. Beirut lives in its parties, its pretensions and in what it wants the rest of the world to see. Perhaps, that really is the only way to be when the memories of the war that wiped out its wealth, physical beauty and unborn lives are still close enough to touch, as if in the backseat of a bullet-ridden old Mercedes.


Some war-time Mercs, beautiful vintage pieces that splutter before rolling, operate as taxis in the city. As do several other beautiful old cars I couldn’t name, and many increasingly new ones. ‘Service’ is incredibly popular, and cheap. They essentially are shared taxis where you almost always pay a fixed amount, no matter how long or short the distance. It is usually 2,000 LL (Lebanese Pound) or about Rs. 85 per person. Sometimes the driver finds no one else to share the ride and you get the whole car to yourself. Sometimes they don’t really want to go where you want to and try to get you to hire the whole car at a higher fare — it isn’t really too much more. They are mostly nice that way.

Most taxi drivers first ask “which country?” I get assumed to be from Sri Lanka, for there are several workers from that tear-drop nation in Lebanon, I hear. I get asked a lot if I am “Hindi or Buddha” — Hindu or Buddhist, followed by a really sweet curiosity about my country. A man with one teeth, who is staring at the side of a beaten car, stops me on the road and wants to know what language I speak. He isn’t sure how to react when I tell him there are over 700 languages in India. Instead, he asks my age, if I have children, my marital status — like that friendly aunty in the next seat on your 42-hour-long train journey — and when we bid goodbye, tells me to go tell Amitabh Bachchan that he said hello from Beirut. I will, I say. I am not too surprised Bollywood is known and loved, for a day ago, a taxi driver has sung for me a line from the movie Sangam.


The currency system is really confusing. 1500 LL was fixed as one US $ when Lebanon took up a dual currency system. Everyone accepts both USD and LL, which is so weak that coins start at 250 and notes of 10,000 LL are things you casually place in your wallet. Converting into two different exchange rates and calculating what to pay in each currency tugs at the brain a bit much at times. People are nice enough to supply the amount in both currencies though, when they see your forehead straining under the wrinkles of concentration.

The food, the food! Lebanese food is worthy of every exaltation imaginable and deserves a long note all for itself.

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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What Does London Sound Like? An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

Many months on, I am still mining my time in London for essays that I have thoroughly enjoyed working on. This piece though took me over a year to write. Never had I had as much trouble to write as with this one. Nothing seemed to work no matter how I wrote it, and after a point it was physically painful, which is when I finished it.

London is all that a city is - it is crowded, polluted, dirty and noisy. But there is something about that city that gets your heart. Some cities are like that.

I wrote an essay on what London sounded like to me, for BLInk, The Hindu Business Line's wonderful supplement. Read it here or see below. Published on December 15, 2017.


Love in the British capital is airborne. Especially with a soundscape so diverse and beguiling

She stepped out to buy a pencil. He went out onto the streets to cure insomnia. And I? I went to see what it was that London had for me. The art of flâneur-ing or walking, seemingly aimlessly, with the sole purpose of observing has for long helped construct some of the finest wordage on cities and its people. Woolf and Dickens did so at the turn of the last century. There have been many before and after them, and London has lent herself graciously to those that seek their own essays.

Visually, it was all par for the course. In a Google-dominated world, there was little that stuck out in the streets of that dirty, crowded, dank city that I might not have seen an image of or read the words for. They stuck, the words of others and everything looked like it had been in your eyes. Yet, sometimes you need to conceive your own vocabulary, for cities are strange things. They draw you in, even with my disdain for them, and claim to their harem a piece of your soul.

While I sought relief in the words and images of others and wondered what the fuss about a big old place was, it turned summer. An un-ripened sunbeam hit the corner of a greystone building in the distance and there was a whistle in the air from a gull that seemed to have lost its sandwich. Then I understood why people fall in love with London.

There is something to the quality of champagne light that captivates and leaves an indelible mark upon the collective imagination of the millions that walk its lanes in pursuit of life, labour or love. The sound of every footstep forward is a knell to the inevitability of taking upon a city like London.

Thus, I ended up with a segued ensemble of sounds that, over the months, turned into the landscape of London town for me. One could argue that all cities in the world sound the same — the incomprehensible mix of languages, smells, sounds, colours and the same devastating tall-and-glass architecture brings up to boil a moment where one city would merge into the other and leave none the wiser.

One would agree that this is mostly the case too. Yet, when I really looked for it, there it was, what London sounded like. Like each of the photographs I took during those months, these sounds of mine own perspective.


Out on Catherine Place where I had my studio in a sharply sunlit room, there were several sites cordoned off for construction. Every morning,at eight am, a thick-set man in an orange jacket and safety hat climbed a long distance up into the tiny cabin of a version of the crane. He would remain there until 5.30 pm, though he might have taken a couple of breaks in between to return to the earth. I never heard him; nor would I have recognised him if we had crossed each other on the way to the Tube. But I always imagined he spoke some European language during a cigarette break, or on a phone call home.

Exactly like the workers in salmon-pink pantsuits next door who were tearing down the insides of a vintage building, sometimes with their callused bare hands, though mostly with loud hand-held machines. Keeping similar hours as the man in the cabin in the sky, they arranged themselves outside the expansive kitchen of my building for long breaks. They spoke swiftly and loudly. I never found out the language they were conversing in, though their ‘hello’ to me a stray few times was in English.

The kitchen they lounged outside of took up a chunk of my sound assemblage. Kitted with the most state-of-the-art German stove there was, which let out a pitiful huff before breaking down for a few weeks, the kitchen was also sometimes thoroughfare for people visiting our quarters. Apart from the sound of courtesy hugs and introductory handshakes, there was a beep-beep of the stove being turned on and adjusting to a temperature that wouldn’t char the pasta. The kitchen saw a lot of hiss and splutter and whoosh of mustard seeds and frying onions that are staple to the repertoire of Indian cooking. Those were my sounds of the kitchen, and the clatter of cutlery accompanied the pop of the cork off many a wine bottle over endless dinners with informed people.


London dresses up for summer. It is easy to forget how bad winters can be, Dana, an actor from Israel I had met at dinner in a friend’s very well-appointed garden, had told me. It had been a warm night, and Archie, the sausage dog that owned my friend, had gotten over the excitement of new people to play with, retreating to his corner with a toy longer than him. Earlier, while walking up to the house in a soon to be gentrified neighbourhood, I had passed by tall brick walls of former warehouses that were decorated with graffiti, past a skywalk above a four-lane highway and alongside a park. Parks steaming in sunlight.

This one, and the other park close to home, gave up their every corner to summer sunbathers, hordes of shirtless and shorts-clad tourists from across the white world, dogs chasing frisbees, canoodling couples and mid-of-the-day joggers. Those like me would buy hot but bad tea for a pound, a slice of some cake too sweet for my liking and position myself with a book that would soon be abandoned in favour of watching the other inhabitants of the landscape. That is when a seagull, gutturally clanking to let me know it knew no fear of me or other humans, would inch toward the neglected cake.

They were everywhere in the city, the seagulls. They were large birds, unafraid, unaccustomed to not getting what they wanted. I heard that in the memories from the childhood of people in the Blighty, they would screech and snatch the ice cream from the cone at the beach during holidays. I never went to the beach there. The birds filled rooftops, park benches, night lamps and rims of overflowing trash cans all over the dirty city. And they were loud everywhere. I had also heard that there were foxes that lurked about in the night, even in the posh postcodes. Slight fellows out to prey upon the other creatures of the night or the seagull that hadn’t flown away. I never met any though; or maybe I did not peep into the right alleyways.

The gulls were sometimes drowned out by the very many buskers. Filling blind corners in Tube station exit passages, along the very long pathway underground that connect the museums, in squares and across traffic lights, they occupied every handsbreadth of street space. There were some mediocre renditions of Vivaldi or some such, music the sorts I had found playing sometimes in my head when I walked through an empty street and spotted a window in the distance, the light within bouncing off a stack of books or a Neruda scene: “I like on the table/ when we’re speaking/ the light of a bottle/ of intelligent wine.” The buskers sometimes played the piano, or rapped into boom boxes, or sat next to dogs and strummed sad songs on a beat guitar.

The ‘Mind the Gap’ announcements of the Tube, printed as well on yellow strips that made you want to peel a yellow off your skin, the honks, the anger, the despair, the constant hustle, the hush of the Roman walls and everywhere, all the time, the predictability of tourists underlay what London sounded like for me.

By the River Thames, a passing ship hooted its signal and bid adieu to the waters of many centuries. A drunk must have, somewhere in the East, slumped against the wall of a public house. “Hic, hic."

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


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. 


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