XVI Ladyboys, Growing up in Charminar, the Sweet Spot & Headley and I

When I was a small child and lived in Chennai, there was a particular MGR film I fell in love with. It was called Ullagam Sutrum Vaalliban. I don’t remember much about the film except that MGR embarks on a world tour. In retrospect though all the locations seemed to be have been limited to South East Asia rather than the world.

But an eight year old child asks no such awkward questions and instead sat mesmerized by the plethora of images. Sometimes I think that was when I was bitten by the travel bug. To wander and see new sights, smell new scents, taste new foods, meet strangers…

One of the images from that film was of Bangkok and strangely enough while I had travelled to most obscure of places, I had left Thailand alone. I would rather go to Vietnam I told myself.
Then one October on a whim my husband and I boarded a flight to Bangkok. For many years most of my travel has been circumscribed by book events. My books took me to places and once I am there I explore and discover it. But this time there was no book event to plan my holiday around. So I told myself that all I would do is be a tourist. Except that tourists seemed to have only two reasons to visit Thailand – shopping and sex. Given this, my first thought on landing in Bangkok was what am I doing here?

Fortunately Thailand has one more thing that starts with a S to offer.. The sea. Our hotel in Pattaya was on the beachfront and was located on a quieter side of the beach. Once we had unpacked, I rushed into the waves with the same eagerness that most tourists show on seeing the shopping malls or a go-go bar.

Pattaya in the 1960s was just a little fishing village, until a few Bangkok residents began to take their weekends here and generated a modest local tourist industry. The Vietnam War saw the start of Pattaya’s international reputation, for the fledging resort was used an official R&R centre for the US forces. They were flown into U-Tapao Airport which was built for American use at the time, and shops, services, bars and hotel accommodation grew to meet the demand.

pat beachOur days fell into a routine. Wake up. Breakfast. Head to the beach. Read and swim alternatively. Lunch. Siesta. Beach and a long walk. Then dinner and bed. I would have been content with this but my husband was beginning to get restless. It was enough for me to stay on the beach all day. I was enchanted by the changing colours of the sea. My biggest adventure was to try out all the food the vendors brought my way as I lazed on a deck chair under a canopy – fried shrimp, green papaya salad, pineapple slices, ice creams…

By the third day, my husband had enough of this sea and sand routine. That’s the thing about travel. When we travel alone, we do not ever have to consider what the other person wants or doesn’t want. We are free to decide what to do, when to eat or sleep and when to do nothing.

Many travel destinations are perhaps best enjoyed alone but it seemed to me as we set out to discover Pattaya that this was one destination that needed a companion. For the flip side to travelling alone is you don’t have anyone to share anything with. Be it a meal, or the incredulity of something that caught your eye. There is no one to turn to and say: do you see that? Isn’t that unbelievable?

And in Pattaya, even if the shopping isn’t great, there is plenty to see. So much so I felt my eyes grow as big as saucers. Take the ladyboys for instance. The first time two ladyboys walked past me swinging their hips, tossing their hair this way and that, I didn’t pay much attention. What pretty women I thought.
Then my husband nudged me and said: They are the famous ladyboys.pat lb
That’s when I looked again. They were more prettier than many Thai women I had seen. And yet, there was something that didn’t seem entirely right. But unless one was looking so closely, one wouldn’t even know.

Then one evening we went to Walking Street. Rather like the red light district in Amsterdam which is a tourist attraction, the Walking Street in Pattaya too is a recommended tourist attraction despite its dubious reputation. The street runs from the south end of Beach Road to the Bali Hai Pier and the area includes seafood restaurants, live music venues, beer bars, discothèques, sports bars, go-go bars, and nightclubs.

They call it the most exciting street in the world if you want to have fun. The operative word here being ‘fun’ and not the fun you have at home. For it seemed to me that we were probably the only married couple there. Everyone else from Australians with gigantic beer bellies and tattoos on their biceps to clean cut Americans to a few shifty Indians all had a Thai girl hanging onto their arms. I cringed at this relegation of a woman to a mere plaything but we walked on looking this way and that. For what else does one do at Walking Street?pat nl

Eventually we found a restaurant on the pier and settled there for a meal. One of the key attractions of Thailand is its food. But everything else takes precedence and few people ever come back from Thailand raving about its food. Instead it is the cheap electronics or sex shows that linger in most minds.

As someone who is passionate about food, my main focus that night was the meal we were going to have. A gentle breeze blew over the waters and ruffled my hair. Some of the other restaurants in the waterfront had lights strewn across their decks and I felt a great wave of peace wash over me as I sipped my tall cold drink. Then I gazed at the next table where a group of very respectable looking Americans wearing pastel coloured shirts and ironed shorts sat. Each one had a Thai girl attached. They had come in much earlier than we had. So they were almost half way into their meal.

An elderly man who looked like he was either a bank manager or a college professor, someone who probably went to church every Sunday and was seen as a dutiful husband and father stood up and said: Let’s exchange places now….

The girls giggled as eight men who in their homes would treat their wives and daughters with utmost respect bodily shifted them. Almost as if they were bowls of short eats, each man was taking his pick…Something in me died then.

According to a 2001 report by the World Health Organisation: “there are between 150,000 and 200,000 sex workers in Thailand.” A recent government survey found that there were 76,000 to 77,000 adult prostitutes in registered entertainment establishments; however, NGOs believed there were between 200,000 and 300,000 prostitutes. Most of the sex workers see it just as another job. , I have been told again and again that there isn’t much of a stigma attached to it nor do they even feel exploited. Even if that was the truth, how could I condone seeing these pillars of society treat these women like they were a commodity. For that was the status of those girls that night. Pleasure toys to be used and discarded.

The food tasted like ashes in my mouth and I couldn’t wait to get out of that restaurant and the street. We walked back to our hotel in silence. In the morning when the sun rose and cast a golden light on the waters, I would feel differently, I knew. For I would see again the tranquility of the beach and there would come alive the Pattaya that I fell in love with.

Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel is Cut Like Wound. She is also the founder & editor of the online literary journal The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men.Anita Nair

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Speakeasy

Sampurna Chattarji Sampurna Chattarji PHOTO

is a poet, novelist and translator. Born in Ethiopia in November 1970, she grew up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi and is currently based in Mumbai/Thane. Her nine books include three poetry collections—Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010), The Fried Frog (Scholastic, 2009) and Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi, 2007, reprint 2008); and two novels—Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins. Her poetry has been translated into German, Swiss-German, Welsh, Scots, French, Gaelic, Tamil, Manipuri and Bambaiyya, and her children’s fiction into Welsh and Icelandic. Sampurna was the 2012 Charles Wallace Writer-in-Residence from India at the University of Kent, Canterbury. http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/

WANT

There is no face slower than yours no mouth I want
to snatch words from more than when you open yours
to speak in a tongue that is not yours let me
lend you mine and with it the speed that will save me
from waiting for your sentences to end I can finish them
for you here
let me there is no one person I want more
to shake no person who makes me rage more
than when I am with you
all edge
I want
nothing more
than to hurt you
so I press myself against you
like a knife against your wet stone
and now
help me
stop this blood

LOVE

Constructing itself piece by piece the evening around her like a Lego set
drink garden evening rain bells chime crayon cat cookie cheese olive hat
nectarine comic-book porcupine double-decker bed movie armchair love
out of all proportion but still fitting perfectly man woman child not hers
foldable table marked stone cartoon carrot toothbrush confession on stairs
in galloping cold this was what they made of it: an intricate emotion it would
take a long time to dismantle if they ever came together again like this

DECLARATION

Words that must never be said
even entire sentences
so simple they spring idiotic
what is it we hope to extract
from the bark of this tree we are leaning against
from opposite ends of the planet what can we hope
to incise on it that will resemble the marks of lovers
young enough not to care about foolishness
the foolishness of declarations like raw white sap

( )

This is the love you didn’t want
the love you were afraid to lay
your hand on (as if) stroking the
face of a she-leopard laying your
head on the thigh of a lioness
(this is) the love that made you
hesitant and shy ( ) a hunter
without his weapons nothing
that might make you say
here I am take me

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Pick-me-up

Hussain

When nine-year-old Ayman arrives in Hyderabad in the early 1960s to come and live at the Hussaini Alam House, she little realizes that the house, and its many inmates, will come to haunt her life and shape her destiny as she grows to become a woman.
The house is ruled over by her grandfather, a dignified despot, whom everyone but Ayman, her mother and sister, call ‘Sarkar’ (master). Her mother, ‘the eternal rebel,’ is irreverent, progressive and a communist: a bomb waiting to explode. Ayman herself alternates between being the ‘ugly duckling’ of the house and its little princess.
Huma Kidwai’s sensitive and vivid portraits of the characters who teem around the House, offer a window into the customs and mores of a traditional Hyderabadi Muslim family.

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SUPERCALL

S. Hussain Zaidi is a veteran of investigative, crime and terrorreporting in the Mumbai media. He has worked for The Asian Age, Mumbai Mirror, Mid-Day and Indian Express. His previous books include bestsellers like Black Friday, Mafia Queens of Mumbai and the more recent Dongri to Dubai – Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia. Zaidi is also associate producer for the HBO movie, Terror in Mumbai, based on the 26/11 terror strikes. He lives with his family in Mumbai.

A pulse-racing narrative, told in the voices of Bhatt and Headley, Headley and I publsihed by HarperCollins India traces the months leading up to the horrors of 26/11 and the long months of interrogation that followed. This is a complex tale of human relationships and the deceit therein. It is the story of Rahul Bhatt, an aspiring Bollywood actor, and his encounter with David Coleman Headley, the man who was responsible for a ruthlessly executed carnage, in which 166 people were killed and over 300 injured in the fifty-nine hours that brought Mumbai to heel and shook India.

• Soaring into heaven moment:

When my book Headley and I went for a record offer and the producers were keen on Hollywood collaboration for cinematic reproduction of the book into movie.

• That infernal fire time:

When I am attracted to an idea for a story, it does not allow me to sleep peacefully until I finish it

• The purgatory point:

When the book finally goes to print after laborious days and night.

• …….years, …….drafts and……….words thereafter, would you do this differently and again?
Its difficult to answer this question as I am not sure if I will think of changing any of my stories or drafts or words in future. Currently, am quite happy with the way my books have turned out, all of them

• What does Hussain Zaidi the writerzaidi

Fear the most?

—-A difficult woman

Desire the most?

—An intelligent woman friend

Hate the most?

–Hypocrites who claim to be intelligent.

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An Angel on the Rock

The Sweet Spot. Bliss, for those of us who have played cricket long enough, was finding the sweet spot in the bat. The sweet spot was every man’s personal search for excellence. We were, in a way, defined by our attitude towards the sweet spot.

We discovered early enough that for such a large contraption, the cricket bat has a surprisingly small space reserved for its sweet spot. And, we discovered, that this exalted spot is not physical. If you search for it you won’t find it; you must feel for it. You must work your way to it in your mind. We found out the hard way, our thousands of greedy swings resulting in missing the ball entirely, hitting edges, or finding spots on the bat that made violent sounds. Rarely, when someone hit that sweet spot, every one of us was touched by that moment, our lives elevated by merely being around that phenomenon.

It is special, that sweet spot. It is heaven’s music when the ball plays it, the angel’s caress that speeds the ball along with a new energy, the piece of paradise that everyone is granted at least once in their life, so they know they also belong to a special existence. Hitting the sweet spot made playing for all those hours, years, worth it.

Sadly, most of us hit the sweet spot by fluke, maybe once or twice, in all our lives. Everyone remembers those shots as clearly as their first kiss. I do. It remains deeply personal– the feel, the sound, the power. It is a drop of divinity. We were allowed access to it fleetingly. Unlike those blessed ones.

The best batsmen find that sweet spot often and easily. For them it is all so easy, so perfect, so well-orchestrated that it appears like magic. It’s the stuff of the masters where the maximum is achieved by the minimum. It is the soul of Zen.

Those elite batsmen stay still. They keep their eyes on the ball and wait, allowing it to come on to the bat. As they follow these delicate processes, their honed instincts, with single-minded concentration, all else aligns around them – the bat position, the head position, the body weight – producing the perfectly timed shot. Stuff that people go miles to watch.

It is an act of love. The bat never hits the ball; it meets it and sends it off as a mentor would send off an enthusiastic student on an errand. Everyone is in it together as one – ball, bowler, bat, and batsman. It needs balance, focus, practice, commitment. It needs peace. Only a chosen few have the power to access it when they want.
Me, it teases.

But the gods have been kind. Luckily, I find that bliss in the most unexpected moments of my life. It happens when I give up after trying too hard, messily, noisily. There is a moment of calm, of nothingness, and then a flash of that mischievous bliss.

It appears concealed in sudden, uncontrollable laughter. It appears in a wisp of a song that reminds me of a time long gone. It appears in the beauty of the sun rise, the sun set, the stillness of mountains. It appears in the sparkle in a child’s eye. It appears in a quiet moment alone. It appears in the faint whiff of perfume when her hair unfurls, in her comforting lap where I can drown and forget about life. It appears in that knowing presence, that affectionate touch, that understanding look, the warm word. It resides in all that is unconditional and spontaneous, all that is giving and caring. In water that is cool, in breeze that soothes, grass that lets you crush it willingly.

It appears in a long drag, the first loss of inhibition, the taste of power and true freedom. It appears in the sheer gratefulness of being alive. It appears in the eyes of someone who loves you, in every act of kindness directed to you. Cushy as a pillow, warm as an embrace, deep as a drink, I find the sweet spot in all these places and more. Transiently, but enough to keep me going. This sweet spot that goes by different names – bliss, love, high, comfort, the zone.

My tragedy is that I could never own it fully. I cannot, because I never surrendered to it. It is too much for me to handle; I wake up at the first sign of comfort. It needs courage to surrender, it needs honesty, it needs me to be in the moment. Me, I am too full of myself.

But my vain quest continues. I want that sweet spot each time I hit the ball. I want that swell in my heart every time I feel. I want it undiluted, potent and clear. And I wonder. That sweet spot, is it in me, or is it in the bat? Is it in me or in the perfume? Me, or the lap? Me, or the song? And more disturbingly, do I find the sweet spot or does the sweet spot find me? I know there is a frequency at which that spot resonates with me. But where?

My sole concern now is this – how do I become that sweet spot entirely? From head to toe. Not just the bearer of an elusive sweet spot that even I don’t know where to find.

The one’s who know, they say that one needs to be non-judgmental, patient and compassionate to grow that spot. The elite batsmen agree. It’s their way.

Or perhaps it’s even simpler. Maybe all one needs to do is to let the gates open and one transforms into that sweet spot. Perhaps all one needs to do is to sink unconditionally and let go. It takes some getting used to, this sweet spot. This heavenly bliss. It must find you worthy, ready, else it will not appear. Meanwhile I prepare myself, season myself, waiting.

Harimohan ParuvuDSC_0294 is the author of two novels ‘The Men Within – A Cricketing Tale’ and ‘If You Love Someone’. A Civil Engineer and MBA from Osmania University, he worked for 13 years, most of them in an investment bank, before choosing to engage himself as a writer, motivational speaker, workshop facilitator and management consultant. Harimohan is a first class cricketer, having represented Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy in 1985-87, when it last won the Ranji Trophy.

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HAPPY ENDING

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Vol XV Rajnikant, The Urban Poor, Breakfast at Boogaloos, & Gauhar Jaan;

It was a sunny December morning. A stiff breeze whipped the leaves off the trees. In my little village Mundakotukurussi in Kerala, I soak in the sounds, sense and sights from a window. In the distance I could hear the whirr sound of the mill across the road from my house. The warm spicy scent of coriander seeds being ground wafts through the air. All day long the mill works. Rice, wheat, coriander, chilly, turmeric, coconut and sesame…. In a strange way the mill is symbolic of the village and its economic well-being. Its constant note of industry the music of prosperity.
In Mundakotukurussi, there are neither vagrants nor the homeless. Even the poorest man has a roof of his own over head and I think of how in The Better Man when I sought to capture the spirit of this village, I knew I had to be careful to not portray this village as the clichéd image of an Indian village. For while Mundakotukurussi may be rife with emotions, complexities and politics, there is no actual instance of brutal poverty.

The only homeless man in this village was someone who refused to have anything to do with his family after a quarrel. And even he has been carted off to an old age home by the villagers and when he needed to be treated for a stroke, they took a donation drive to pay his hospital bills. Genteel poverty exists – that is no escaping this truth. Luxuries may not have too much of a place in many houses but no one sleeps hungry or worries where the next meal is coming from. Children go to school and there are jobs available if one is trained or inclined to do them.

Once upon a time Mundakotukurussi is used to be called Moscow because of its Marxist leanings. Today several political parties – The Congress, The Bharatiya Janata Party, The Muslim League and the Communist Party of India – Marxist, all exist and thrive in this little village. Nevertheless this hasn’t changed the almost egalitarian society that so characterizes this village.

And as I sat there in Mundakotukurussi my mind wandered to the drive I took a few days ago from Bangalore to reach my village. 500 kms and three states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I drove through many villages, three cities and one big town. And perhaps it is this drive that made me look at my country differently than any other experience.up2

Everywhere the world media talks about the heart wrenching poverty in Indian villages. India still has world’s largest number of poor people in a single country. As per the Millennium Development Goals India Country Report 2011, of India’s 1.2 billion inhabitants, an estimated 37.2 percent are below the poverty line. And of the total urban population 25.7 percent are below the poverty line.

But there is a world of difference in the degree of poverty that exist in a village and a city in India. Perhaps this contrast in accentuated by the affluence that one get to see in many Indian cities. Sometimes the quality of life amongst the urban middle class would even beguile ourselves into actually believing that “India shining” is the undisputed truth. Where is this poverty the development agencies seem to talk about? I wonder. It is then a drive such as this prised my blinkers away.

In most Indian villages there is usually a handful of the very rich while the rest totter in and around the ‘below poverty line’. Good roads, power, drinking water and sanitation may all seem like distant dreams. But there is still to life a certain sense of wellness. Expansion of non-agricultural employment, the casualisation of labour contracts, agricultural labour becoming caste-heterogeneous, the improvement in agricultural wages etc. have all lead to a decrease in drastic poverty in villages.

What is alarming is urban poverty. The main causes of urban poverty are predominantly the breakdown of an agricultural livelihood that makes villages abandon their homes in search of some subsistence living in the towns and cities. In this process, they even lose the open space available in villages. When they come to the cities, they manage to forage food but everything else eludes them. In fact, sometimes they live in conditions that are sub-human.

While many of the Indian government’s development planning has focused on over all poverty reduction, somehow this doesn’t seem to percolate down to the urban poor. I think of the cities that I passed through. Starting from Bangalore in Karnataka which is a IT hub, corporate capital and glitzy cosmopolitan city flaunting the world’s best brands and expensive designer labels. The homes here would rival that of the rich and famous in world capitals. In fact, in a survey conducted by the global HR consultancy service Mercer found it the best city to live in India.

Then there is Salem in Tamil Nadu, the city with large textiles, steel, automotive, poultry and mining industries. The next city I drove through was Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, an important textile, industrial, IT and manufacturing centre. Palakkad in Kerala is a large town. Each of its urban centres has its wide roads, bustling shopping zones, a multitude of humanity all of which made me lean back into the seat of my car with a complacency of thought- India is certainly making rapid strides in all spheres.

Then my eyes lit on a street overflowing with garbage in one city, a group of raggedy migrants in another city, a hovel made of cardboard and tin in another and my breath snagged. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. In many ways I had always considered cities as nerve centres that could change the economic destiny of a person if they wanted to. Instead what I saw in the cities (and with a certainty knew would be replicated in most if not every Indian city) was an abject poverty that wrenched my heart. My own tubular vision until now made me feel both ashamed and guilty.

Of the five novels I have written the first four The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress  and Lessons in Forgetting  dwelt in the world of the middle class. This is an almost monogeneous strata where the human condition is dictated by societal pattern and the demands of the human mind. With Cut Like Wound  I moved to the urban landscape where there is no escape from the abyss that exists between the rich and the poor. For the first time in my writing social commentary made its appearance. That the urban poor is a reality and that I cannot close my eyes to it made a conscious appearance in my writing.up 1

In my travels as I have trawled various Indian cities, be it New Delhi or Kochi, Hyderabad or Bhubaneswar, everywhere I see the same multitude of images again and again: The speculating eyes of a young man, follow a Jaguar being driven down a road that he is sweeping. The parted lips of a child outside an ice cream parlour watching a teenager dressed in expensive clothes buying an ice cream the cost of which would be enough to buy the child a full meal. A diamond dripping woman emerge from a designer store with a hand bag that would have paid to keep a family housed for a year. I see the plethora of riches and the absence of a social conscience. I see how in the urban landscape the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and how every day for them is a feat in survival. And I ask myself: What am I going to do about this except perhaps be able to write about it. And ask the world – why? And how is this going to change….

Anita Nair annis the best-selling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound  was published in late 2012.

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Speakeasy

This week The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men features Kunal Mukherjee.

KM_69

Originally from West Bengal, he is a San Francisco-based poet and writer. He holds a Master’s degree in Physics, has done postgraduate work in Energy Studies and has worked as a restaurateur and an IT manager. His passions include acting, music, travel, the environment and animals. Kunal’s work has appeared in India Currents, Hot Flashes: Sexy Little Stories and Poems and Hot Flashes 2. My Magical Palace is his first novel and he is currently working on his second novel.
Connect with Kunal at http://www.kunalmukherjee.com to read about his creative works.

Breakfast at Boogaloos

A steaming cup of coffee
acrid and bitter
burns the last
wisps of my hangover
from the caverns
in my head.

I sit
at my table
waiting for my eggs and toast.
My back straightens
As coffee lashes my spine.
Neurons fire.
Caffeine drains
the bags from under my eyes.

You sit
so close,
I can smell
the musk of your skin,
taste the salt of your lips
and softly brush
last night’s dreams
from your eyelids
with my lashes.

If I stuck out my tongue
surely it would trace
the outline of your stubble,
taste the sweat coating
each hair
burnished bronze
in the shaft of sunlight
streaming in from the window.

I stab my eggs
with my fork.
Yellow yolk
Bleeds onto my toast.
For a moment we look
at each other -
you
and I.

My face feels hot.
Startled I drop the fork.
The diner stops still.
Flashing steel
turning slowly
in the sunlight
scatters the dust motes.

I am deafened
By my heart beat.

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Pick-me-up

How-It-All-Began

When…
Charlotte mugged and breaks her hip, her daughter Rose cannot accompany her employer, Lord Peters, to Manchester, which means his niece Marion has to go instead, which means she sends a text to her lover which is intercepted by his wife, which is… just the beginning in the ensuing chain of life-alerting events. Penelope Lively’s 22nd book How It All Began is a delicious read and for someone like me who has been trudging through mostly middling to bad books for almost four months now, it came as a welcome relief. The joy of good writing had almost seemed elusive. Read a review of thsi book at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/18/how-it-all-began-

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SUPERCALL

Naman Ramachandran is a film critic with Sight & Sound, a film journalist covering South Asia for Variety and the UK and Ireland for Cineuropa, and the author of the book Lights, Camera, Masala: Making Movies in Mumbai. His Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography was published last month by Penguin India.

Read about Naman Ramachandran’s experience working on his Rajinikanth: The Definitive BiographyRajinicover

• Soaring into heaven moment:
After a tremendous beginning (yes, I do say so myself and it still holds up after much re-reading), I stumbled badly, and then what poured forth was thousands and thousands of words, much beyond the agreed limit. I think the correct operative term here would be ‘vomit’. The soaring into heaven moment came after, when following a period of mature deliberation i.e. getting hammered, I reread the vomit (interesting aside here, can vomit be read like tea leaves? But that’s neither here not there) and found to my flabbergasted surprise that most of it made sense.

• That infernal fire time:
The stumbling I’d referred to earlier is just another word for procrastination.

After having passed the first deadline with some success, I took walks, naps, cooked elaborate meals for my wife, smoked too much, drank heavily, took more naps… the cycle continued and I played with my publisher’s patience as much as I could – all the while not writing a word.

My excuse to myself was the old saw – ‘the book is processing in my head and practically writing itself’. The inertia was finally gotten rid off when my publisher sent me a politely worded note asking if I would like to downgrade the book to a slim paperback.

• The purgatory point:
This came after the book’s publication when the subject called me up and summoned me to Chennai without indicating what his thoughts on the product were. After two days of agony, when the meeting happened, it left me walking on air. I still am.

• …….years, …….drafts and ……….words thereafter, would you do this differently and again?
No and no. Maybe add information to a later edition, but that’s it.

• What does Naman Ramachandran the writerRajiniNaman17_12_12
Fear the most?
I’m pedantic to the point of paranoia and fear providing wrong information. That’s my journalist side talking.

Desire the most?
The usual cliches of being a bestseller loved by both the intelligentsia and masses and being rewarded to the point of never ever having to write again.

Hate the most?
Again I will go with the usual self-loathing cliche and answer – myself.

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An Angel on the Rock

She was the stuff of fairy tales: a flamboyant singer much sought after by British India’s nobility; a socialite who threw lavish parties;a hedonist who went about town in expensive horse buggies;a diva whose image appeared on matchboxes made in Austria. And then, the inevitable end for someone leading a life as feisty as this: self-destruction, penury and a lonely death.

She was Gauhar Jaan – the Subcontinent’s first musician to record commercially on the gramophone when the technology came calling in 1902. Despite the cult status she achieved in her lifetime, she is a forgotten figure in the world of Indian classical music, and roams the annals of Hindustani music as a barely discernible ghost.

Gauhar Jaan entered my life in the most serendipitous way. It was while sifting through the musty, yet meticulously catalogued, Palace archives of Mysore when researching my first book,Splendours of Royal Mysore: the Untold story of the Wodeyars, that Gauhar Jaan first caught my attention. She had been a state guest of the Maharaja who had given her shelter during the most difficult time of her life. She died in Mysore in 1930, lonely and forlorn with none by her bedside to shed tears for her. The name had a certain ring to it and I somehow felt I had struck familiar terrain. She remained on my mind for a long time thereafter before I eventually decided that I would take on the arduous and seemingly impossible task of writing her biography.gj1

Piecing the fragments of her tumultuous life was akin to a detective trail. In a country that has little regard for history and documentation, more so in the performing arts, it was almost like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Gauhar Jaan had no heirs, no surviving relatives or friends whom I could talk to and gather information about her. Starting from the place of her death, I ‘chased’ her through the length and breadth of India- Azamgarh, Banaras, Delhi, Darbhanga, Rampur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai—where she had spent significant portions of her life. Looking for documentary accounts about her in newspapers of the times or regional literature, British accounts, records of stormy court cases that she was embroiled in or the exquisite Urdu poetry written by her and her mother Badi Malka Jaan—I was completely consumed by this mission.

Good biographies seldom get written unless the creator is not maniacally obsessed with the subject and it was no different in my case. Putting together the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle to paint a portrait of a forgotten diva was both immensely satisfying and at times, intensely frustrating when one hit road blocks.

But as a musician myself, analysingGauhar’s music was as important for me as reconstructing the pattern of her life. Listening to the voice of the woman I was in ‘love’ with became another obsession! In her illustrious career Gauhar recorded close to 600 records in over 10 languages. Her repertoire was vast, and ranged from the weighty Khayal and Dhrupad to the supposedly lighter forms of thumri, dadra, kajri, hori, chaiti, tarana and bhajan.Thus began another odyssey, of looking out for her old 78-rpm shellac discs which I purchased in their hundreds from record collectors and scrap shops, bargaining for a reasonable price. The early recordings were from the acoustic era, when there were no microphones to amplify one’s voice. Singers had to shout into a horn and a stylus would vibrate at the other end depending on how loudly one screamed, thereby cutting grooves on a shellac master.To Gauhar Jaan goes the credit fordevising a unique template for presenting something as expansive as Hindustani music in just three minutes of sound, which was all that a single disc could record.

The experience of listening to her record for the very first time would remain etched in my memory forever. I never realised that an old gramophone player at home which was the prized possession of my grandmother, but seldom used by successive generations, would come so handy. Nervously placing one of Gauhar’s earliest recordings dating back to 1904 on the rotating turn-table, I switched the machine on and placed the needle on the grooves of the shellac even as I literally froze with excitement and anticipation. A young, sultry, melodious and piercing voice struggled through.gj2

The song was a cheez in Raga Sur Malhar that symbolized the monsoons and the accompanying thunder and lightning and was sung in a breathless fashion, in increasing tempos and with single breaths packing more and more notes with each progression in a melody.

“Ghoor ghoor barasat meharava, bijuriya chamaki anek baar
Gun gaao more piharava, aap jage aur mohi jagaave
Bhar bhar surava, ghoor ghoor barasat meharava.”

The rains are pouring down the skies, the lightning flashing across them many a times
Sing along my beloved one, you keep yourself awake and don’t let me sleep either
Are these torrents of rains or torrents of musical notes that are ushered in?

Almost on clue, nature seemed to respond. I was shocked to see the clouds gathering in the sky suddenly,engulfing the room in an envelope of darkness and a loud thunder that virtually shook the antique gramophone player and made the needle jump over a couple of grooves. I had gooseflesh and simply could not believe what was happening. As the record drew to a close, there emerged a shrill and flirtatious voice dipped in child-like mirth that proudly announced ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!…you have liked my song!’: the second part sounding more like a command rather than as a question or comment!

On that May evening that left me dazed and numbed for several days thereafter, I knew what the title of my biography of this diva was going to be—it undoubtedly had to be ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’ After all she was telling her own story to the rest of the world that had forgotten her through my book and what better way to do so than with her trademark signature at the end of every record!

Vikram Sampath  is a Bangalore-based author of three acclaimed books‘Splendours of Royal Mysore: the untold story of the Wodeyars,’ ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!: the life and times of a musician’ and ‘Voice of the Veena: S Balachander, a biography.’‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’won him the Sahitya Akademi’s first Yuva Puraskar in the English Category in 2011, as well as the ARSC International Award for Excellence in Historical Research in New York. Vikram has been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin and a guest speaker at the University of Queensland. RA trained classical vocalist, Vikram is the Founder of the ‘Archive of Indian Music’ (www.archiveofindianmusic.org) and the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF).

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HAPPY ENDING

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Vol XIV Readers & Reviewers, Auden, Overwinter and Chicken Curry for the Pampered Indian Male

Some years ago I decided that I wasn’t going to torture myself with more than one literary festival a year. And I would try, if possible, to avoid going to the same literary festival. The reason being that as a writer, there is very little one gets out of being present at these literary jamborees. Apart from the wining, dining, networking and air-kissing, that is.

As a writer, meeting other writers don’t cause that adrenalin surge unless it is a writer one has always admired. Airing my views or non-views on a panel isn’t a great draw either. I am a rather dismal panelist. I tend to clam up or I am so engrossed in what the other panelists have to say that I forget that I am expected to contribute to the discussion. What is exciting for me though at these lit-fests is the thought of actually meeting readers. However reader interactions in a foreign country don’t have the same effect as when speaking to a reader in one’s own home territory. And so it really seemed too much of an effort to go a long way just to drink bad wine, eat cold limp vol u vents and air kiss people I would rather avoid.

But now Bangalore has its very own  literary festival and even my phlegmatic soul knew a frisson of excitement at the prospect of being part of it. For one this is a lit festival in one’s own city. And secondly, for the first time here is an opportunity to meet the bulwark of any writer’s writing career – the reader who actually reads you and knows your work well enough. The greatest draw about readers is they read unconditionally. They are not looking for flaws or pit falls on how to trash a book. Instead they read because they are interested and are reading for themselves.

As most writers know firsthand, reviewers are a different kettle of fish. Not all but some reviewers seem to colour reviews with their personal prejudices, agendas and laziness. In contrast, readers actually make an effort to read the book for what it is rather than what it should have been.

In my fifteen years as a published author, I have seen what readers offer a writer and have always been gratified. Even if the comments are not high praise and may veer towards criticism, they tend to validate it with reasons that are usually sound.

Sometimes readers bring in more than writer have invested in their writing. In the last ten years that Ladies Coupe has been around, I have often heard it referred to as Ladies Coup by various readers in various places. Did the ladies in the coupe in a train actually stage a coup? Perhaps that is the residual feeling left behind in the reader’s mind about the novel.

Very often, I have felt either overwhelmed or humbled by the thought a reader puts into the reading of a book. At an event for Mistress in Kerala, I walked into the venue with great trepidation wondering how it was going to go. One of the readers there was a Kathakali performer. One of the few woman kathakali artists and she talked about how she began reading the book with skepticism. “What is Anita Nair going to tell me about Kathakali that I don’t know?’ She said.

My intestines descended into my knees.

Then she talked about how the book had her look differently about an art form that was her life. Of how she identified with the character Koman and how humbled she felt at the end of the book.…

As a writer, I couldn’t have asked for more. No starred review or being part of a notable books list would compare to this feeling of knowing that a book had worked in its fullest sense for a reader. Especially such an informed reader.

Or, take Cut Like Wound, my most recent novel. It is not readers who are  questioning me about taking a detour away from literary fiction or pondering about the title. But a reviewer who supposedly has read the book and could find the explanation to the title strewn across the book, will ponder at great length on the absence of a hyphen or its meaning. Meanwhile a reader will ask around or show the intelligence to google and figure out that Cut Like Wound with or without the hyphen is a lacerated wound; a term medico-legal officers use in their preliminary reports of a patient admitted into hospital.

The essential difference is readers who are neither grammar Nazis nor pedants make the effort. Reviewers don’t.

So for me literary festivals are all about readers who tell me what my books did or didn’t do for them.2-Aug-2011 Anita Nairanita in fava

Anita Nair is the best-selling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound  has just been published.

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Speakeasy

This week The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men features Vijay Nambisan, the well-known poet and writer. vijayHe has worked and written for journals in many parts of India. His published work includes poetry, a journalistic book, Bihar Is in the Eye of the Beholder and a translation Two Measures of Bhakthi  featured in Vol VIII of The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men.

You, Wystan Auden

Now six feet beneath the air
The Nordic shape of skull is bare
And behind the august frown
Worms have gorged on verb and noun…

The baffling lines that used to trace
Maps of care upon his face
Now nothing between brow and chin
But maggots have tunnelled in…

And the hands whose fingers’ ends
Once touched the keys to common sense
And the truly careless wrist
Which cherubs have often kissed

Now open lie without pretence
That they enclose arguments
To shatter prison doors, or shake
The steps of wisdom on the make…

The compassionate eyes that hate
Could not face, and grew desperate
Now bony voids where worlds once turned
In agony at being burned…

The heart that could some pity find
For every shape of human fiend
Now less than dust, because from thence
No spring of friendship does commence…

Of all those works of lust and pain
No mortal fragment can remain
And all that foolishness is past…

Yet the world remains so vast

And in that vastness since we speak
Strong words of love, though we are weak
He cannot know — something survives
The carrion bleaching of our lives.

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Pick-me-up

Carpenter scan

One of the finest books that I have read  is The Carpenter’s Pencil by Manuel Rivas, a Spanish writer. A slim volume, the book is set in a prison during the summer of 1936 where an artist sketches the famous porch of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Instead of the sculptured  prophets and elders he draws the faces of his fellow Republican prisoners. He uses a carpenter’s pencil that has passed from hand to hand and with which several memories are drawn. Woven into this is setting is also a beautiful love story. A splendid read.

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SUPERCALL

Ratika Kapur worked in publishing and multimedia before cutting loose to write full-time. She lives in New Delhi with her husband and son and is currently working on her second novel. Overwinter is her first novel and was published by Hachette India

GPL Overwinter

Soaring into heaven moment:
For me, such a moment often comes from a sensory experience; typically, a quite ordinary sensory experience: the sound of light rain, the taste of good meat, the smell of pine, the feel of my son’s chest against mine. These experiences tend to circumvent thought altogether. They strike at one or more of the body’s sense organs, which instantly triggers that “soaring into heaven moment”. They are, very simply, sensations generating sensations.

And then there are sentences, those exquisitely strung sentences by such writers as Kawabata and Sebald, that may not send me soaring heavenwards, but their sonority and insight and clarity produce in me an equally powerful effect: a feeling of plenitude.

That infernal fire time:
It is that long and painful time when an idea begins to form, you sense it grow within you and your body feels like it’s changing. You must carry it to completion, but there are so many things that can go wrong between now and then.

The purgatory point:
The novel is over, the hard work, the hard years are over, and then you wait. You wait for an agent to respond, then you wait for publishers to respond to your agent, then in comes the editor and you wait for her feedback, then … you get my drift. And, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be one half of a two-writer household, you wait for responses not just for your own work, but for your partner’s too. Fun, fun, fun. Or purgatory.

Three years, three drafts and 60,000 words thereafter, would you do this differently and again?
What I’d do differently is change my posture. Take it from me: three years slouched on a couch, laptop in lap, will damage the strongest spines. Would I do it again? I wouldn’t write Overwinter again. I couldn’t possibly; I’m no longer that person who wrote that novel. But write other novels? Yes. Again and again.

What does Ratika Kapur the writerIMG_1341
Fear the most?
Certitudes, the kinds of certitudes that calcify your mind, that lead to smugness, that keep you from the sort of free thinking that is fundamental to writing.

I’m terrified of how such certainties – often borrowed blind and always absolute – insidiously make their way deep into your consciousness and then come up for air in your work.

Desire the most?
Certitude, of the other kind. I spend some fraction of time earmarked for writing wondering whether I’m truly any good as a writer, whether there is any real point to my writing, and so forth, so a little more of that wondrous stuff called self-belief would, I suppose, be nice, even if it only means a slightly improved daily word count.

Hate the most?
I hate hate. Seriously. There is no emotion more consumptive, more crippling than hate. It is, in my opinion, a writer’s greatest enemy. The generosity of spirit and humaneness that are essential to art – to any art – flounder in a climate of hate. I haven’t hated all that much, thankfully, and when I have, the target of my hate has largely been systems, rather than individuals. Even so, I know well how hate makes you small, so small, I know how it silences you, and some day I hope that I will hate nothing other than hate itself.

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An Angel on the Rock

Oxford, January 2001. I was back after taking care of my father’s funeral and the challenges that accompanied the untimely death of my dad. He was 57. I was back to what was then, for me at least, the land of the unknown. Oxford had an aura strong enough to challenge my confidence. Was I good enough belong to the best university in the world? Had the Rhodes interview board made a mistake by giving me the scholarship? Should I have taken a year off and not rushed it back?

And to add to my misery I hated the bland food I was forced to eat in the bleak Oxford winter. All taken, it was ‘the’ perfect recipe for depression. Nervous and frustrated, I had trudged along to St Antony’s College for yet another of the South Asia Seminars that we were asked to attend.

And it was then I met a colleague who very kindly asked me over for dinner. He cooked while chatting and I gawked! Is it this easy? A delicious chicken was being made in front of me and the world hadn’t turned upside down. It wasn’t rocket science as I’d always imagined it to be. Seeing was indeed believing. Can I do it? May be I can.

I must confess the chicken I made the very next day was profoundly different. But it certainly was edible. In fact, more than edible. It was one of the best tasting chicken preparations I had had in days. I had finished off the entire 200 grams of chicken I had bought and each rice grain the Sainsbury’s 50 grams basmati pack had to offer.

I had found my survival mechanism, my stress buster and my way out of misery. Oxford wasn’t that bad after all and I wouldn’t have to come back to my own little room after a dreary tutorial to a bland meal. A traditional Bengali male, food was central to my existence and I was finally seeing a silver lining at the end of the tunnel. The chicken made way to a simple egg curry and to machel jhal (mustard fish) and finally I arrived at my biriyani in a few months time. I did belong to Oxford after all. In fact, Oxford was incomplete without me or so it finally seemed!

I can never forget the sensation of taking the chicken off the burner. It wasn’t raw any more, there was adequate gravy to have the rice with and the aroma tasted very much like the chicken curry I was used to at home. I had made it from start to finish and hadn’t used curry paste or any other shortcut. And it had taken me less than 30 minutes!

I clearly remember admiring the preparation for a good few minutes in a way I have only admired Bnatul (my Doberman), with unabashed fatherly affection and fondness. It was too precious to eat and was proof of my mastering the Oxford lifestyle. I now knew that I could go back to my chicken curry after a rather frustrating seminar at the History faculty or a tiring walk from Cornmarket Street. Also, if I missed formal hall at 6.45pm in College I needn’t worry any more. I had my chicken curry to fall back on. In fact, it soon became an excuse to miss formal hall. Enjoying my chicken curry in the privacy of my room and licking my fingers laden with gravy- it was my own little moment of pleasure. I’d sit on the floor, lay out the red prestige non-stick frying pan, which I used for years, pour myself a soda and put on the music. It was a perfect romance. A romance with myself, my date with food was good enough to lift my spirit for days. Cooking-on-the-run-spread (2)

I was an incompetent and pampered Indian male who had finally learnt to deal with the world. I had finally learnt to appreciate home food, the effort taken by the people at home to make it and serve it for days on end. I had finally grown up.
Sri lanka 1Boria Majumdar is one of India’s leading sports scholars and commentators. But if anything can rival his love for sports, it is his passion for food. Born in a bhadralok family of North Kolkata, his meals don’t finish without a mishit. At one point it was a Sunday ritual to drive to suburban Bengali towns to try the local mishti – he cannot comprehend how someone could live in North Kolkata and not try the various delicacies offered.
The kitchen was alien to him until hostel life in Oxford finally forced him to cook, for he was missing home food more than he was missing home. Having had several interesting experiences with exotic food (like being served scorpions and turtles for breakfast in China), Cooking on the Run is about his encounters with food and his escapades in the kitchen, which he hopes will inspire many like him to cook in order to eat good and healthy food, and in doing so, appreciate home food that much more.

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HAPPY ENDING

botero

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Vol XIII Double Fault, Ghosts, Memories, An Inner City And The Curious Case of Binayak Sen

We do not choose the worlds we write about. Most often than not, we write about what is the temple of our familiar. We locate our stories in the world that we believe we have a rare understanding of. A world that we internalize to an extent that it seeps into our every breath and thought. For only then can we recreate on paper that world with almost the life force it pulses with.

At first the urban landscape failed to stir me. Even the books I read were based in quiet villages and small towns. To me, they offered a harmony between man and land strewn with a wealth of sub-plots. And so this became the landscape that I wished to set my novels in. In the books I wrote I sought to narrate the stories of men and women who would inhabit such a world. And then a little over two years ago, I decided to write my first true urban novel. It would be a novel dictated by the city as much as the characters.

I had a choice of two cities. Chennai where I had grown up, Bengaluru where I lived. The danger of locating it in Chennai was to be swamped by nostalgia. And I wanted this to be an edgy piece of writing with no room for sentiment or memory.

In Bengaluru that has been my home for the last two decades, I sought a world that was far away from what is commonly perceived to be Bengaluru ─ The glittering cityscape of the IT companies, the orderly lives of the middle class, the joggers, the parks, the hi-rises and the international brands─. For I was certain that somewhere within Bangalore was another city that would be mine, as London had been for Dickens and New York for Woody Allen. I too would have to carve out a little circle and within that space present all of humanity.

One evening as I drove through Shivaji Nagar, I had a moment of epiphany.For twenty years, I have driven through its narrow roads strewn with shops that dealt in everything from nuts and bolts to automobile spare parts to old newspapers to meat, vegetables, fruit and flowers to clothes and shoes…
My eyes had paused at the doorways here and there on the streets. No one would realize what lay behind those doors. That on opening the door, the narrow corridor flared into a small square courtyard and around it was a warren of two room tenements. Clotheslines would be strung in the courtyard and on a corner would be a couple of brick stoves, so each household could make its own hot water to take to the two bathrooms that was all there was for everyone who lived there. When it rained, the road turned into a stream of fast flowing dirty brown water in which garbage floated. To open the main door of the house was dangerous then. There was no knowing what would float in. An old tyre or a single chappal or a dead bandicoot.

I had trawled the streets of Sivaji Nagar with more the curious eye of a tourist rather than the calculated gaze of a writer. But that particular evening, I knew a sense of preordination. Was it the whiff of meat cooking or the sight of a raggedy group of children nibbling at cotton candy or was it the dying sun reflected in a window pane? I thought then of Dickens writing of his London. ‘The amount of crime, starvation and nakedness or misery of every sort in the metropolis surpasses all understanding.’

Over the next few months as I made countless forays into this world within modern metropolitan Bangalore, I glimpsed it again and again: How late in the night the Shivaji Nagar bus stand area was still simmering with activity. Of a certain excitement that resonated through the alleys and lanes. Even the vendors had their carts edged along the roads. The smell of meat cooking on charcoal mingled with the aroma of samosas being fried in giant vats of hissing oil. Chopped onions and coriander leaves, pakodas and jalebis, strings of marigold and jasmine buds, rotting garbage and cow dung. The high notes of attar. The animal scent of sweat and unwashed bodies. Men of all sizes and shapes trawled the alleys. Some seeking a hot kebab to sink their teeth into; some seeking a laugh, a suleimani in a glass and a smoke. There were men looking for a fuck and men looking to be fucked. Men returning home from work. Policemen on the beat. Autorickshaw drivers and labourers. Whores. Eunuchs. Urchins. Beggars. Tourists. Regulars. A composite cloud of a thousand fragrances and needs in that shadowed underbelly of the city.

So when I chose to locate my novel in this world, I was only seeking to replicate a city that I had discovered. An inner city that to most people didn’t even exist. A black city; a shrill city; a gritty city and yet a city where hope and hopelessness balance each other, tilting this way and that every day. Just as I have laid bare the woman’s mind, her trials and triumphs, her glory and failure and of what it is to be a woman. Just as I had explored the psyche of an artist and what it means to be one. Just as I had delved into the minds of parents and children and the dynamics of parenthood.

Only here I would use this inner city to explore humanity itself. When one is exploring the mindscapes of characters, this takes a predominance over social commentary – to present the world we inhabit and the human condition in particular. With a noir novel, I found a glorious viewpoint: the mindscapes of my characters were as relevant as their social setting. My characters were born of the world they inhabited. Who they were was determined by what they had or would have to deal with in the course of their every day. It is this that made the writing of a noir novel like Cut Like Wound so immensely fulfilling for me.

Walking into a world that was far removed from my reality. Police stations and morgues; postmortems and murder weapons; politics and eunuchs; criminals and corruptions; love, lust duty, apathy, anger…. In many ways the writing of this novel Cut Like Wound opened my eyes as much as I hope it will my readers. For to be human is to engage with the world we live in. To look at it from within than from the outside.

Anita Nair is the best-sellingauthor of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound  has just been published.

Photo essay by Balu Divakaran who is a biker photographer and whose other avatar is writing for software geeks.

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SPEAKEASY

This week The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men features Jeet Thayil,  one of my favourite poets. 

Jeet Thayil (born 1959 in Kerala) is an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. He is best known as a poet and is the author of four collections: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar, 2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). His first novel, Narcopolis, (Faber & Faber, 2012) was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

DEAR EDITOR,

Two reasons I like writing sonnets—
and why two, why not fourteen
reasons, the shape compact and clean
on the page, why not, since we’re on it?
Well, one, I like the way it leads
you by the hand down the stair
of the page, leaves you resting on air
as on an armchair, while someone reads
to you the words you want to own.
Two, I want to say something about bliss.
I like bliss. And if I had to narrow it down
to a couplet, I’d narrow it down to this:
You start with a line and follow it through,
the sonnet writes the sonnet, not you.

 

LIFE SENTENCE

Let’s say you’re not opposed to the ghost
In principle, you understand her neediness,
Let’s say she’s distracted, or busy,
She’s busy looking for a way back in,
But from there the shore appears distant,
Not to mention, impossible to attain,
A far-off place where her former friends
No longer speak her name, which is lost,
And no word she hears will be audible,
Not through the static and clatter;
So let’s say you forget to speak her name,
You do not repeat her lovely name,
Because your talk is of meat and money,
And let’s say you’re not crazy or bitter,
It’s just that you don’t want to hear her say,
Why, why didn’t you look after me?

 

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Pick-me-up When I read We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, I remember wanting to crawl into a deep dark hole and mull over what I had read. With Double Fault, I felt it all over again.

“Love me, love my game,” says twenty-three-year-old professional tennis player Willy Novinsky. Tennis has been Willy’s one love, until the day she meets Eric Oberdorf, a gifted sportsman who took up tennis at the age of eighteen. Low-ranked but untested, Eric, too, aims to make his mark on the international tennis circuit.
They marry and life together begins well, but animated shoptalk and blissful love-making soon give way to full-tilt competition over who can rise to the top first. Driven and gifted, Willy maintains the lead until she tears her knee ligaments in a devastating fall.
Lionel Shriver shows once again that she is a peerless chronicler of contemporary relationships. This is a brilliant book that goes to the heart of the battleground called marriage.

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 SUPERCALL

Dilip D’Souza  trained in engineering (BITS Pilani) and computer science (Brown University). For years, he worked in software in the US (8 years) and then in India (13 years). At some point he began writing, and soon realized that was where his passion lay. He has published four books (before this one, “Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America”) and has won several awards for his writing, including the Newsweek/Daily Beast Prize for South Asia Commentary. He lives in Bombay with his wife Vibha, children Surabhi and Sahir, and cats Cleo and Aziz. His new book of non-fiction The Curious Case of Binayak Sen has just been published by HarperCollins India. * Soaring into heaven moment:

Probably when I realized just how obviously hopeless was the evidence the prosecution presented in court against Sen. Because it struck me that I didn’t need any legal training to recognize it as such. I couldn’t help thinking that anyone who looked at it all would be as perplexed as I was by how weak and empty this evidence was. Not that I expect the case to easily wither away because I happened to realize this about the evidence. But at least it gave me material to write about, and — I hope — material for my readers to think about.

* That infernal fire time:

My manuscript went to an editor who did two things: one, found a fair amount of repetition and overemphasized points that I cleaned up, for which I was very grateful. Two, tried to change, it seemed to me, nearly every sentence I wrote, for which I was not grateful at all. Wading through all that in search of the useful things was annoying and dismaying.

There were points when I felt I couldn’t even see the end of this process; and when would the book come out? Infernal’s a strangely appropriate word.

* The purgatory point:

Oddly enough, about a month before I first thought of writing this book: December 24, 2010, when Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison. I hadn’t even met him then. But I was despondent that my country had decided to come down so hard, for no clear reason — I knew it even then — on this man. What did that say about us, about our democracy, our judicial system? For all my cynicism about where we are, for all I feel I know about the venality of our politics, this was still a low point. Where have we reached when a doctor in rural India can be given a life sentence, only because he stepped on some powerful toes?

* 1.5 years, I don’t know how many drafts and 50000 words thereafter, would I do this differently and again?

Certainly again. And again. It may have been depressing, as I perhaps indicate above, but the process of researching and writing this book was a great intellectual stimulation. I love reading and analysing, and this gave me plenty of opportunity to do that. Would I do it differently? Unlikely. Maybe change around the order of the chapters slightly, that’s all.

By and large, it’s about what I wanted to achieve: a relatively slim book that would make its case without going into every detail, a book that doesn’t amount to a biography of Sen, etc. So I don’t think I would do it very differently if I was starting out again.

* What does Dilip D’Souza the writer - Fear the most?

Probably unalloyed praise, because I always worry that it will turn my head and leave me complacent about my writing. When I write, I want to be thinking always that what I’ve written can stand to be improved. That is, that I’m not good enough yet. That little bit of uncertainty is what I need to keep myself working hard, striving to get better. I greatly fear losing it.

- Desire the most?

The ability to make readers think. The day I give up on the pursuit of that ideal is the day I think I’ll have to give up writing.

- Hate the most?

Hypocrisy, and being accused of it. The one thing I try to do in my writing is to be true to myself, to be myself. Readers don’t have to agree with me and my views. But to turn disagreement into an accusation of dishonesty, hypocrisy: I find this not just personally abusive, but a dismaying snapshot of the place for dialogue.

Why is it hard to assume about the other guy that, despite your disagreements, he is a thinking person who came to his views via much the same process of reason you believe brought you to your views?

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An Angel on the Rock

Scars in my memory…not quite I doubt if it will be staged again. The first play I wrote and directed. After a decade of engaging with different forms of writing, I find it awkward to read the plays I wrote in the early years. They don’t feel like my works anymore. Four of them have made their way into a collection so I don’t think I will ever live them down. But as far as the others are concerned, I try and pretend they never happened. So it comes as a bit of a shock that when I am asked to go back in time and recall a high that surpassed all other highs in my life, I find myself in Yavanika, an auditorium in central Bangalore, where I staged the first three shows of the first play I wrote and directed, ‘Scars in my memory.’

I think it was the second day and the auditorium was packed to capacity. I sat with the audience in the darkness, sensing they had connected with the characters. And just as the last line had been spoken, one gentleman stood up and started clapping. There was something in his cheering that mobilized the others who were present and they too got to their feet and started applauding. I realized I was experiencing a standing ovation for the first time in my life. It was a curiously humbling experience and a lump came and settled down in my throat as I walked to the stage to join the actors for the curtain call.

It took a long time for all of us involved in that all male production to get over that experience. The rehearsals used to take place late in the night in a flower shop. The city still had its wits about it and roads would get deserted as early as ten in the night. On my way back home, I was discovering the joy and liberation of being a theatre person and basking in the beginner’s luck the first few shows had produced. Anything seemed possible after that night. Everything was within my reach.

We did a few more shows. A few of the actors departed and others replaced them.

The play turned oppressive. I could sense some of the actors were getting dependent on the production…not because anyone was making any money from the shows but because they were discovering the thrill of being recognized by perfect strangers in Koshy’s and lavish compliments being heaped on them.

One night in a fit of pique I deleted the soft copy of the play and dumped the few hard copies I possessed in the garbage bin. I wanted to move on. I wanted to experiment with other forms of writing. Work on a novel. String together a screenplay. I tried my best to free myself from this awkward, contrived piece of drama. But it came back while writing this piece. A standing ovation beats the smell of a freshly printed book that you hold in your hands. The headiness of it refuses to go away. And of course, the thing with memory is that it does not know how to discriminate.

Vijay Nair is the author of Let Her Rest Now (fiction, Hachette India, 2012), The Boss is Not your Friend (non-fiction, Hachette India, 2011), Master of Life Skills (fiction, Harper Collins India, 2006) and The Gloomy Rabbit and other plays (Drone Quill, 2003). His essays have been included in international anthologies. A recipient of the Fulbright Senior Research Grant and the British Council Charles Wallace Award, he was also awarded a US State Department Grant to attend the International Writers’ Program at the University of Iowa. Vijay is currently on a Fulbright scholarship and can be reached at vijay@vijaynair.net. ************************************************************                              HAPPY ENDING

For everyone who has accused me of looking through them or ticked me off for not listening while in the middle of a conversation or for  just being my whimsical erratic self, read this and take your pick: Creativity is often part of a mental illness, with writers particularly susceptible, according to a study of more than a million people.

Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found.

  • Novelist Virginia Woolf, who wrote A Room of One’s Own and To the Lighthouse, had depression and drowned herself
  • Fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, had depression
  • US author and journalist Ernest Hemingway, who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, had depression and killed himself with a shotgun
  • Author and playwright Graham Greene, who wrote the novel Brighton Rock, had bipolar disorder
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Vol XII A City of Books, 9 Poets, Chasing a Cloud, Wild Cats and Honey

By now I ought to like Kilroy mark my attendance at Literary Festivals and Book Fairs with a proclamation: Anita Nair was here.

Over the years the festivals and events have blurred into a morass of pointlessness. The essence of which is a single thought: I may write books but what am I doing here?

And yet, I continue to do them. It is an occupational hazard and amidst the notional loss of time – nightmarish sequences of introductions, media interactions, long boring dinners and trying to figure out the hot water settings in strange bathrooms – there is always a moment of truth.

Of when face to face with the reader/readers, a writer can see for herself if her book worked or was it the hype machine that had. There is no escaping this unflinching truth and any writer worth his or her salt ought to take this reality check every once ina while. Just so they don’t end up a victim of their own hype. 

So I came to Mantova to be part of the Festivaletteratura (Festival of Literature) with no expectations of any sort except to know what did my body of work signify to an Italian reader.

Perhaps the first intimation that it was going to be unique occurred when I walked through a narrow corridor connecting one piazza to the other. It was a walled walkway, dark narrow and with interesting twists and turns. Against one wall was a book shelf with a line of books. No one manned it. There wasn’t even a notice advocating dos and don’ts.

I saw a group stand around and leaf through the books. Would they borrow it and put it back? Would they take it away and never bring it back? 

In the next two days I was to use that narrow corridor several times as I walked to the Press room and back to my hotel. Each time there was a group. Once even a man who had brought his own folding chair and sat on it reading.

Everywhere I looked I saw the imprint of literature. In the most unlikely of places.

In the city centre as I ambled through, I saw books everywhere. One would expect to see books in book shops proclaiming super discounts of the writers attending the festival. But what lingered were two images:

One, outside an haute couture store, several mannequins were stationed. The mannequins wore clothes fashioned from newspaper.

Two, on a little street was an installation using books.

There were significant highlights. Getting to know Roddy Doyle and Shalom Auslander.

An event with the well known Italian actress Lella Costa – a full house, a keen appreciative audience who had forked out money to get in, long lines of readers clutching brand new waiting for my signature on their new and dog-eared copies of my books. Watching Toni Morison at the next table light a cigarette and linger over her breakfast. Waving to group of readers who would hail from across the street – Buongiorno Anita! Pausing for an ice-cream and having readers come to me. In the absence of a language to communicate in, gestures and smiles worked just as good. The cab driver who fished out a copy of a book of mine for me to sign.

But what would be the most significant of them all would be a little bit of trivia gleaned from the young man who came to pick me up from Milan airport. He was a student of translation, he said.

“I guess, it makes perfect sense that you have been roped in as a volunteer,” I said. I was merely making conversation.

“Actually almost everyone in Mantova is a volunteer,” he said.

I blinked. I liked the notion of a city that almost in its entirely paid obeisance to the written word. I liked that indeed.

Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound will be published in September 2012.

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SPEAKEASY

This week The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men features not a poet but a book The HARPERCOLLINS BOOK OF ENGLISH POETRY that perhaps is one of its kind featuring eighty-five Indian poets writing in English. Published By Harper Collins India and put together by Sudeep Sen, this is a landmark in Indian publishing showcasing poetic concerns that are as varied as staggeringly expansive. This is a volume where ‘Indian poets are in full flight’.

9 POETS FROM SUDEEP SEN’S “ THE HARPERCOLLINS BOOK OF ENGLISH POETRY” 

LEELA GANDHI

SWAYAMVAR: SITA

The way you bent that bow
made me love the place
your spine begins its declensions
(base/apex, high/low),
yet dread the symmetry
of man and weapon;
the deadly circle
of your combined inversions:
you rigid
with complex curvature of bone,
the other turning all that is liquid
into stone.

MAHENDRA SOLANKI

SLAUGHTER

We offer as sacrifice, a goat
Stunned into two by a sword.

A ritual made real by blood;
An act to make us whole.

MANI RAO

SHIVA’S DIGS

Fragrant floured
Nude blue bloat
Last seen by the boy who
Wanted to be a ghost

The scavenger hooks
Fingers in the rim
Bone pots conk
Dangling swing

Finger a ring ran away with
Knobs and bits
Found in ash spills

It’s his job but gravely notes
Soil bored with air
Fluids laying cesspits

MICHELLE CAHILL

THE PIANO LESSON

My hands are stricken. Do they not brush your sleeve?
Are they not stripped by this embrace? Such brevity:
light aslant on the maple, flooding us with its promise,
as if there were things outside our selves, or our words.

There are cities whose landscapes we chart. How dry
the river seems as dusk blanches. I twist in your arms,
where my aches and stings are electric. Your hammers
strike my strings, then rest, until the sound uncouples.

You have spent epistolary days rehearsing a solitary
composition; variations on the same étude, to balance
what you have abandoned for loveliness. No exception
to this, I fasten my bra, as you lie, perfectly naked.

There’s no indignity. I think we’re saved by the purple
darkness. I return to the street, unable to disguise a flush
in my cheeks. Absorbed by stilettos, subways, the slow
traffic, for a few hours, I feel immortal as any fugitive.

What bitter chords should I wait for? I forget to ask.
You have tried to get behind all the music this world
makes. My hands are stricken by the lustre of ebony
at my keyboard. Now I work. Play the silent harmonics.

R RAJ RAO

FEMALE EUNUCH

FEMALE EUNUCH 1
The female eunuch
Claps so hard the neighbours think
It’s firecrackers.

FEMALE EUNUCH 2
The female eunuch
Exports her castrated part
To America.

FEMALE EUNUCH 3
The female eunuch
Gets the barber to dye her
Pubic hair golden.

RANJIT HOSKOTE

BOTANY

Prickly garden where voices flower and run to seed:
this conversation could go up in a sheet of flame
any time, any leaf could be a bait, any tendril
a booby trap. Watch your words, and hers, theirs,
and all your stranded thoughts. Clove and mandrake
open the mouths of your mind, all dialogue here
is rolling transcript for a police state:
check the names for shadows, the verbs for stains,
turn connoisseur of signs, yogi, give nothing away
except your deep-shelved archive of silences.

RAVI SHANKER

AN UNVERIFIABLE THEOREM

The gun once introduced must be forgotten
because its snub-nose gives a pocket the weight
of syllogism: no posthumous event can affect us.

Or, say, after it occurs, death cannot affect us:
it’s impossible to imagine what we have forgotten
when who we were no longer has any real weight.

Stripped of consciousness a body has the weight
of water evaporating from a lake: breath leaving us.
Once introduced the gun cannot be forgotten.

The weight of the forgotten: not what leaves us.

RUKMINI BHAYA NAIR
LOVE’S LANGUAGE LOST

She thinks

She thinks that he knows

She thinks that he knows that you believe

She thinks that he knows that you believe that I feel

She thinks that he knows that you believe that I feel that they imagine

She thinks that he knows that you believe that I feel that they imagine that we sense

She senses that he imagines that you feel that I believe that they think

She imagines that he feels that you believe that they know

She feels that he imagines that I believe

She believes that he feels

She imagines

LOVE’S LANGUAGE LOST

VIKRAM SETH

THE HERMIT ON THE ICE

The hermit sits upon the ice.
The bluish light burns all around,
Immune to flame and sacrifice,
To breath and death and scent and sound.

The scent of pine, the river’s roar
Are muted in his breath and pace.
The blue earth with its iron core
Spins on through time, spins on through space.

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Pick-me-up

Every once in a while there comes a book I wish I had written. I have always loved the Sebastian Faulks style of writing but with Engleby, the love turned into reverence.

This is the story of Mike Engleby, a working-class boy who wins a place at an esteemed English university. But with the disappearance of Jennifer, the undergraduate Engleby admires from afar, the story turns into a mystery of gripping power. Sebastian Faulks’s new novel is a bolt from the blue, unlike anything he has ever written before: contemporary, demotic, heart-wrenching – and funny, in the deepest shade of black.

Sample this :

If you can picture Mahler’s Fifth, particularly the Adagio that plays over the opening shots of the film [Death in Venice] – that’s the kind of feeling I’m after. It’s not that easy to put into words because words have too many meanings that clutter everything up. Very blunt instruments, words – because of all those useless but unavoidable connotations. Though if you could find the words to go where Mahler went in that Adagio, I’m not sure you’d like it. A bit of the vagueness of music stops you going completely mad, I imagine.

Or this:

Lust is to some extent an expression of optimism: breed because life’s good, let’s have more of it.

************************************************************

SUPERCALL

Nilanjana Roy  spent most of her adult life writing about humans before realizing that animals were much more fun; The Wildings published by Aleph is her first novel. Her column on books and reading for the Business Standard has run for over fifteen years; she also writes for the International Herald Tribune on gender. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in several journals and anthologies, including The Caravan, Civil Lines 6,Guernica, The New York Times’ India blog, Outlook and Biblio. . She is the editor of A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Food Writing. At one time, she used to blog as Hurree Babu at Kitabkhana, India’s first literary blog. She lives in Delhi with two cats and her husband, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nilanjanaroy.

• Soaring into heaven moment:

There were a few. Discovering after six years of not writing The Wildings because I kept telling myself that I was not a fiction writer, that the story, and the cats and the cheels of Nizamuddin,
were still alive in my head. The first chapter I wrote that didn’t have to be dumped into the (very large) Outtakes folder because my characters finally seemed to walk across the page and into life. And going for a virtual jaunt across Delhi with a tiger and a kitten. That
was a lot of fun.

The unexpected surprise of having David Godwin and David Davidar say that they loved the book, even at the messy first draft stage. They were The Wilding’s first readers, after my husband, and their enthusiasm made such a difference.

•That Infernal fire time:
I’d spent years as a reviewer myself, so I wasn’t afraid of being judged—you know that some people will love your book, some won’t, and so long as you’ve done the best you can, you take what’s useful and discard what’s not.

But the most terrifying moment was picking up the few pages I’d written in 2007, looking at them again in 2009, and wondering if I had the courage to start writing again, to put the story and myself “out there”.

Oh, and killing off a character I’d loved very much. That was really hard, like losing an old and much-cherished friend.

•The purgatory point:

Not writing for so long that I had no voice left, in fiction; and feeling that the journalism I had loved doing for years was now becoming mechanical. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing the next Ulysses or a novel about a clan of Delhi cats. At some point you have to stay true to whoever you are inside, and if that someone is a writer, then you have to find your voice. Realising that I had once loved what I did for a living—reading, writing columns—and that it had begun to feel like freelance factory hell was hard. Oddly, opening the door to fiction brought back my love of journalism.

• …….years, …….drafts and ……….words thereafter, would you do this differently and again?

Again? Since I’d mentioned Joyce: “Yes I said yes I will yes.” The sequel to The Wildings is in the works, and I realize that writing is a little like morning yoga: it’s a series of co-ordinated movements that you go over again and again, always hoping to do it better, knowing that there’s no finishing line; it’s a routine, everyday habit and you’re one of a thousand practitioners; and when it changes your life, it does so slowly.

If I could have changed anything, it would be the years of not writing. I suppose we all want to write our books better, but perfect’s not a goal for me in the same way that continuing to show up at the desk is.

If you’re lucky to have good editors—and I did at Aleph—you can take risks, you can go out and attempt something that might fail, knowing that someone will prevent you from making the very worst mistakes. The rest is accepting that you’re just a learner, and enjoying that space.

What does Nilanjana Roy the writer

Fear the most?
Losing language or losing the love of language. Also, I believe everyone has their private daemonophobia—the list of weaknesses in oneself—and I fear the ones that would stop me from writing fully, or living life as richly as possible.

Desire the most?

Freedom from fear.

More writing time and space. The sense of open, unconcealed awe and joy I had at the world when I was a child, and that I’m too cynical to admit to as an adult. More time spent playing, more time with friends and close family. Peace of mind, and to that end, more dark chocolate.

Hate the most?

This is odd: I don’t really have a list of hates, though there’s the usual list of fears etc. Cruel people? No, I’m scared of cruel people and unhappy people, but hate’s still hard to carry—it’s such a toxic emotion that you don’t want it in your life.

I could hate anti-storytellers, I suppose, people who are so scared of challenging ideas that they will shut other people’s stories, real or written, down. Also: stewed tomatoes and limp, boiled cabbage wedges. They’re disgusting.

Now I have to go and raid the fridge for dark chocolate to get that taste out of my mouth.

***********************************************************

An Angel on the Rock

We sat beneath the tamarind tree, the goat-herd and I.  I had been walking along the track when I came across him tending to his goats. He was thin as a stick, like most villagers in the valley. His knobbly knees were like cricket balls beneath his worn dhoti, pulled up and tied between his legs in the traditional manner.

I stopped to allow his goats to cross the path, perhaps half-a-dozen of them: bleating, looking almost as emaciated as the owner. The goat-herd was neither old nor young, of average height, with an angular face and a rough stubble.  But when my eyes met his, they seemed to have a knowing twinkle.

He called to me in Telugu, “Where are you going?”

I pointed west. “There.”

He turned his head and gazed long and hard at the hills to which I had pointed. There they stood, dominating the horizon: the magnificent triad of Rishi Konda, Centre Peak and Bodi Konda. Each distinct, as old as time itself. The sun was half-sunk behind them, an orange ball of flame lighting up the land with a russet glow.

The man was still for a long time. Then he turned to me and said, “Don’t go too far, it’s coming.”

“What’s coming?”

“Rain.”

I looked at him incredulously. The sky was glass-clear. Not a breath of cloud in sight. The monsoon had passed and the valley hadn’t seen so much as a drop for many months.

I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so.”

The man smiled. “Thammudu (younger brother), come and I will show you.”

He took me to the shade of the old tamarind and made me squat with him, facing west. He pulled out something from a cloth packet and held it out to me. Two ragi balls. He nodded at them. Take one he said. And watch the hills.

I nibbled the ragi. We were in that moment when day meets dusk and the land stills with a peace that is as old as the hills. The sky was burnished grey—and clear as slate.There was no way it was going to rain. No way.

And then I saw it. A tongue of dark purple pushing over the top of Bodi. I watched, mesmerized, as it emerged. Soon I saw it entire: a single, pregnant, tightly wound ball of cloud. I threw a quick glance at my companion. He was also watching it with a still intensity.

“It’s quick today,” he said. “Do you want to race with the rain?”

“Race…?”

“Yes, race. See if you can beat it?”

I looked back up at the sky and was shocked. The grey balled mass was already much closer, racing towards us, growing bigger by the minute.

Suddenly, my heartbeat was up, my mouth dry. Yes, I said, yes. I’ll race it.

He nodded. “Good. Stand there, there on the path. When I tell you—run. Run…run and don’t look back.”

I said to him. “What is your name?”

“Gopal.”

“How did you know about the cloud?”

His eyes locked onto mine. For just a fleeting moment, I thought I saw in them a shining light, and then he turned his face away and said: “The cloud is an old friend. We know each other very well. He always tells me when he is coming. He’s almost here. Go.”

I moved off onto the path and half-crouched there in the manner of an Olympic runner; Gopal stood beneath the tree, leaning on his stick. I kept my eyes on him. All was utterly still. My heart was going like a trip hammer. Then I felt it: a rush of cool air, a moving draft coming up from behind, whipping up the sand; and with it came up that heady perfume of earth about to be touched by rain.

Through the haze of dust, I heard his cry: “Go…go!”

I took off, legs and arms pumping. I accelerated round the curve. I put everything I had into it. The air current was stronger now, pushing against my back, and all around was a hissing and roaring, as if the very elements were a crowd, watching the race.

Then my foot snagged a stone; I tripped and fell. Before I knew it, I was flung forward and hit the ground. The breath whooshed out of my lungs and I lay there, heaving, facing the other way.

Before me was a sight from another world. The cloud was above me; hanging down from it was a narrow – perhaps forty-foot – curtain, bridging earth and sky: a red coruscating wall set afire by the rays of the setting sun. It sped towards me with blinding speed…thirty feet…twenty…ten…and then it hit me.

In an instant, I was cocooned in another world. Water everywhere, a hissing spray stinging my skin, drenching me in seconds. And then it was gone, racing away eastward through the valley, lashing the ground in its wake.

I lay there for a while: all thought and feeling suspended by the intensity of the moment. Then I raised myself and hobbled back the way I had come.

Gopal was not there. I cast about feverishly, called his name aloud. Nothing. He and his goats had vanished. I never saw him again.

That was sometime in 1976 or ’77, I think. When I was sixteen or seventeen. Thirty-six years have passed, but he stays with me still, fresh and alive as if it was yesterday: the man called Gopal who had a cloud for his friend.

Aroon Raman has a post-graduate degree in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, USA, majoring in both Finance and Marketing. He runs his own R&D Company working in the area of materials science, with a unique innovation model that relies on taking high school / early college students into accomplished experimental scientists who develop world-class products. His first novel – an espionage thriller called The Shadow Throne –has been just published by Pan Macmillan.

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HAPPY ENDING

10.5 kgs of wild honey….what was I thinking of when I bought this? What kicked in? The death instinct [honey as embalming fluid?] or the hoarding instinct [ I will sleep easy knowing honey waits for me even if time won't] or was it a literary obeisance of sorts [ remember Sylvia Plath and her jars of honey] ?

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Vol XI The God of Travel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, The Black Guitar, and Fathers and Daughters

The god of travel is a peculiar god. He doesn’t just dominate your travel stars: he has a decided planetary influence on where your family and friends live as well. That would perhaps be the only rational explanation as to why my brother has always worked in some of the remotest and most beautiful places in Southern India.

Most of my friends have siblings who live in big cities – Melbourne and Paris, Delhi and Mumbai, London and Dubai… but these are places I would have visited on my own. But my brother Sunil’s places of work have always been destinations I may have dreamt of going to but would never.

And so after Kaiga in northern Karnataka, Vythiri in Wayanad and Kumbazha near Pathanamthitta, Mooply in Thrissur, the god of travel deemed to send my brother to Valparai in the Annamalai Hills in Tamilnadu.

That we were going to a hill station with limited resources was obvious to me from the moment we stopped at Spencer in Coimbatore and I watched Sunil and Rajini my sister-in-law shop. For those of us who live within walking distance of markets and stores, the idea of such stocking up seems strange. But the fact remains that remote locations change you into a different sort of person. You learn to adapt what your life demands of you.

We head towards Pollachi which has always seemed to me like a bustling town based on what Malayalam cinema has made it out to be. Pollachi is known for its markets, especially for jaggery, fresh vegetables and cattle. In fact, the Jaggery Market in Pollachi is Asia’s largest of its kind and the cattle market, the biggest of its kind in Southern India. It was said that anything could be sold/bought in/from Pollachi market (including elephants) except one’s parents.

We stop at Sakthi, a little restaurant that has a big menu and many sign boards placed here and there. One reads: Try our Special Fish Manjurion Chicken – 555. Another says: What is Biriyani – Biriyani is Derived From The Persian Word ‘Biriyan’ which means ‘Fried Before Cooking and finally Non Veg: Food Halaled.’

I didn’t need much convincing. I opted for the Mutton Biriyani and ‘Nethli’ fry. The Tamilian biriyani is robust and very heavily spiced. Unlike the Kozhikode biriyani which is delicate and high on flavor, the Tamilian biriyani has an aroma that is unmatched by biriyani from any other part of the country. It is an aroma I know from a childhood spent in Tamilnadu. Of eating at Madurai Muniyandi Vilas and other such places where food is supreme and all else – ambience, place settings, staff manners – is cursory.
The nethli fry was crisp and succulent and as I am someone who reads omens in everything, the lunch at Sakthi seemed like an auspicious start to my travel this time. Replete with food, we hit the road.

There are two ways to reach my brother’s home. From Chalakudy via Athirampally to Malakipara Check post is 80 kms of forest road where wild elephants abound and trees falling cause sudden road blocks. Or there is the 40 hair pin bends to Valparai from Pollachi. Either way, travel is long and high on the spirit of adventure.
En route, my nephews throw up into plastic bags. This too is part of the routine like the stocking up at Coimbatore.

At every second or third hair pin, the boys leave a bit of their lunch behind. By the time we reach Valparai, they look pale and drawn. and I think of the two of them – one 20 and the other 11 and of how they brave this trip every few days to see their parents. Love completely obviates reason. Love makes us do things we would otherwise flee from.

At one of the pins, we stop for a cup of tea. The mountain air is crisp and cold. The estates flank the sides of the hills and there is a serenity that fills me even in those first few moments there.

On one of the hill slopes, I spot a derelict house with a wooden box that must have held the electric meter still clinging to an outer wall. Alongside it is a stream. Trees surround the house and it seems removed and separate from the real world. I could see myself restoring that house and living there with several dogs and cats and a couple of cows and goats. I imagine a flock of hens pecking on the grass outside and the coo-ing of pigeons… I tell Sunil my dream.

He smiles and says, “I could find out if the house is available. But I need to warn you that there are leopards here and they are exceptionally fond of dog meat…. Or, you could just stay with me.”

Murugally Estate where Sunil works as a doctor is 30 kms from Valparai town on towards the Chalakudy side. From Valparai, the roads change. The smooth tarred roads with embankments give way to hard narrow roads gutted with potholes. On one side the slopes press down and on the other side the hill drops into ravines that seem bottomless.
“This morning as we drove to the airport, we spotted a leopard here. He was standing there by that bush,” Sunil said matter of factly pointing to a clump of trees and bushes.

Animal-man conflict is a recurrent theme in Valparai.
But it is the human-elephant conflict here that is most worrying. The tea plantations are a hindrance to the movement of wildlife, particularly elephants who walk large distances to reach water bodies and feeding areas.

Sunil is caught between this delicately perched balance. His bungalow edges a forest directly in the path of elephants. A few months after he moved there, they arrived one night and broke open the garage door and smashed his car. They bent a window grille and tried to reach within the house. They pushed open a bathroom door and pulled out the toilet roll. Eventually the elephants went their way. The first time Sunil and Rajini were petrified. Now when they spot the elephants on the hill behind the house, forest watchers are summoned. The watchers beat drums, light bonfires and burst crackers. Nevertheless ever so often, the elephants come. They topple the plastic water tank, trample the plants, forage whatever they can and leave.

The bungalow is old and huge. The rooms are enormous and the setting is picturesque. My room overlooks a panoramic view. The window is wreathed in creepers.

The night came in abruptly as it does in the mountains. One moment the sun was a red disc in the western horizon, the next moments the stars blazed up the skies. A cold breeze left a trail of goose-flesh on my arms. All around was dark and strange.

As Sunil and I stood outside enjoying the nightscape unfamiliar sounds punctuated the stillness.
A twig snapped; something heavy on the carpet of leaves; a giant breath. A few months ago Sunil’s dog, a dachshund Mili went missing. They found a tiny scrap of her fur on the barbed wire. A leopard had taken her. I felt as though there was something out there in the darkness. I didn’t wait to find out. Sunil and I fled into the house.

Later that night, I left the window open. Never mind elephants, snakes or whatever else may choose to come in. I decided I would go to sleep breathing in the mountain air and with star light on my face.

Morning dawned and I was plagued by choices. I would like to have stayed in bed watching the skies. Or, I could wander in the garden that turned into a forest after thirty feet. Or, I could go for a walk through the tea slopes. Or, I could sit with a cup of tea and watch the grass grow.

None of the mobile networks have coverage here. There is a landline that worked erratically and the net connection has a mind of its own. I felt a great sense of escape, and relief. Out here I could forget reality and just be.

Then Kesavan appeared with an offer to take us boating, I agreed readily. It would be perfect to glide in a boat on water watching the clouds, I thought.

Ever since childhood Sunil has always been part of most of my adventures. Perhaps I became the person I am only because I had him to support and encourage me all the way. From my first bike ride to my first visit to the anatomy lab to see the human body cut open; from my first travel to Kanyakumari to that first visit to a second-hand book shop, we have done and seen many things together and so once again when Rajini and the boys balked at the notion of riding a coracle, Sunil was prepared.

From the Sholayar dam which is nearby a stretch of water flows to turn into a river that separates Tamilnadu and Kerala. This is the water body the elephants come towards to drink and bathe in.
A steep slope of tea descends to the river. Only a 4 wheel drive jeep can handle the almost nonexistent road and to a point. Thereafter we have to walk to the water’s edge. As we climb down, I stop to admire the view. It is sunny but a cool breeze blows down the green slopes.

I have my first moment of misgiving when I spot the boat. I had expected a coracle but this was just three stout bamboo poles held together. And there wasn’t a jetty or even a bank to step onto that contraption called the ‘boat!’ I didn’t speak and proceeded towards getting onto it. But how?

So there I was one foot on a wobbling rock and other foot on the raft when it began to move. Like in a slow motion shot, I began to stretch my legs wider and wider until I had no option but to jump into the water with one hand holding aloft the camera. The river is cool and clear and I emerge fully drenched with a wrenched left wrist but the camera was safe. Somehow being wet made it all easier. I didn’t have to worry about staying dry….I also discovered that the raft floated at precisely the water level so I would have got wet anyway. This way, soaking wet, I could experience the river at its fullest. No sounds of life but bird songs and above me a blue blue sky.

“This must be a beautiful place to swim,’ I said.
The boatman frowned, “Hmm…. yes but there are crocodiles in the water.”
My heart sank a bit. The shore (if you call that line of wobbly rocks one) seemed very far away.
I heard the sounds of branches breaking on the other side. I asked the boatman about it. He said, “Those are wild elephants.”

On the other side, the shore didn’t seem that far either. Between elephants and crocodiles, we didn’t stand much of a chance if either decided to attack. And then, I thought : what the hell…I would worry about that when it happened. Meanwhile here I was on a bamboo raft with all of nature’s beauty spread before me and around me…

And this was the joy of Valparai and this trip. The joy of taking a chance. Sometimes life throws up certain experiences our way. It is upto us to know it to the fullest or ignore it. As for the god of travel, he is a great one for offering challenges to his devotees.
Seize his offerings and life unfurls in a way you never thought possible. That is the blessing the god of travel offers.

Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound will be published in September 2012.

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This volume’s poet is Paul Henry.

Paul Henry was born in Aberystwyth. Originally a songwriter, he freelances as a creative writing tutor and radio presenter. He is the author of six poetry collections and his work has been widely anthologized. The Black Guitar is published in India by Dronequill Publishers

The Black Guitar
Clearing out ten years from a wardrobe
I opened its lid and saw Joe
written twice in its dust, in a child’s hand,
then a squiggled seagull or two.
Joe, Joe
a man’s tears are worth nothing,
but a child’s name in the dust, or in the sand
of a darkening beach, that’s a life’s work.

I touched two strings, to hear how much
two lives can slip out of tune
then I left it,
brought down the night on it, for fear, Joe
of hearing your unbroken voice, or the sea
if I played it.

Geta
She’s fine white yacht
a cool airy distance away.

Make space for her, make space.

Make space and you will notice
she’s drifting nearer the shore.

Make space, make space.

You have waited long enough
for this love to harbour.

Ingrid’s Husband
The roadside leaves leapt out
as if to flag me down.

I stopped for some razor-blades.
The shop assistant asked
Are you Ingrid’s husband?

No. But afterwards,
all the dwindling miles,
I wondered what she was like,

Ingrid, what soap she used,
if her hair was the colour
of these crazy leaves

and if she was mad or sane
or some shade in between.

Perhaps if we met
I’d grow to love her name.

I have seen leaves migrate
to parallel lives –

blown through an underpass
from the eastern side
of a motorway to the west.

Perhaps I should have answered Yes.

Sold
Others want this house and soon
we must either leave or stay.
Is it the house or love
we are moving out of?
Perhaps we cannot say

but it hurts, all afternoon
our marriage has moved inside me –
the boys, the prints on the stairs,
the broken-down cars, the holidays
in heaven and hell, long Saturdays
in market towns, mad neighbours.

I pick you a pear from the tree
but you have disappeared again
into that silence you inhabit,
your second home, where a whisper
might fall heavily to the floor –
an incendiary, pear-shaped
and loaded with pain.

Shall we stay or leave then, love?
It’s only the years moving inside us
and everything hurts in autumn.
Where shall we put them,
the years, in our new house?
the years we are moving out of?

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Pick-me-up

Wikipedia says pretty much everything that can be said about this book. The characters, the style, the metaphor, the intertextuality but nothing will prepare the reader for The Reader by Bernhard Schlink…Neither will the film, I think. The only way to know it is to read it.

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Manu Joseph is the editor of Open magazine and a columnist with The International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times. His first novel Serious Men is the winner of The Hindu Literary Prize and the PEN/Open book award and was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Bollinger PG Wodehouse Prize for best comic fiction.

Manu Joseph’s second novel  The Illicit Happiness of Other People has just been published by HarperCollins India

· Soaring into the heaven moment?

Several times in the three years that I took to finish the book. There were these stretches of time when things just fell in place, breakthroughs came when they were not sought and the prose flowed for no good reason, and I even suspected I had taken literature to the next level. Most of these moments were delusions and I had to delete thousands of words. When you are writing your book and you feel you are soaring into heaven, you must immediately suspect that you are probably writing rubbish.

· That infernal fire time:

As I do not trust anything, especially computers, I always email myself all that I write, several times a day, and this becomes some kind of a historical record of the novel’s progress. In the first twelve months of the novel, as I can see, I had written less than 4000 words. It was a horrible time for the novel, though everything else about my life was joyous as always. I had never been happier but somehow the novel was just not moving. As a journalist it shames me to realise that I took one year to write 4000 words. But then I was helpless. I am someone who writes reasonably fast and I believe that the writer’s block is the myth of the amateur. But I struggled for months to find the tone of the book probably because I wanted the central character to be a nice person and he just would not allow himself to be formed that way. Every novel has a pre-destined beginning. If you try to tamper with it you have to pay for it.

· The purgatory point:
So, three years after I started the novel, I finish it. I email it to my agent and publishers. They reply saying they are very eager to read it. Then there is this silence. For several days.

· …….years, …….drafts and ……….words thereafter, would you do this differently and again?

What I think is, if you don’t write a book at a particular point in your life you will never write it. You will probably outgrow it, or it will become stale inside you and rot and you will never see its beauty. I know that is true of Serious Men. I would not have written that book now. But this novel is too biographical, too real, I think it would have survived for many many years inside me. And, of course, I would have written it differently if I were sixty.

· What does Manu Joseph the writer
Fear the most?
The realisation that great writers, especially men, write shit as they age.

Desire the most?
Apart from quick unambiguous glory, I want the world to read my novel the way I intended it to be read not how their psychiatric conditions dictate.

Hate the most?
The exclamation mark.

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An Angel on the Rock

We have tried several times. Pa and I during our annual holiday catch-ups.

We know we should be meeting more often than we do. He refuses to
travel and I can only make it during the children’s summer breaks.

Dehra Doon is no longer what it used to be. The valley once surrounded by hills is now missing a lot of its green. Every summer as we make our journey home, the mercury sizzles just the way it does in the rest of north India.

I’d like to blame it on the temperature. The reason why I picked one
of those air-conditioned restaurants dotting the area near Doon’s
up-market Rajpur Road.

Work wise things were looking good. My standards when it comes to
money aren’t exacting and in my book, the bonus was good.

“Pa, this time let’s make it a fancy meal. A real treat from me to you,” I told him, not thinking of the many emotions which would play in his head soon as this line was uttered.

He put on his stoic smile and I regretted my words instantly.

Having made do with so little all his life, he had saved his best for
his children -always.

Never once did he let us feel the burden of expensive hostel fees as
he took us through what was even then a crowded Paltan Bazaar, where we made our stops at the hole in the wall Sunshine Bakery (the best biscuits can still be found there), taking a break for lunch and ending our day with faluda kulfi at Kumar Sweets.

As we made our way away from these usual haunts, sitting in
air-conditioned comfort thumbing through the menu which felt as heavy as a book, he said he was confused.

So was I.

A lifetime in hostels hadn’t left me with a perfect palette and menus
running into several pages leave me wondering where to start. I
ordered things we were familiar with – butter chicken, naan, dal
makhani. It arrived with the perfect cutlery, plates and serving
bowls.

We ate in silence and in that silence I knew something was missing.

I looked at Pa, this man who had dealt with so much including
rejection when he attempted to join the Indian Army in the 1960s.
Standing 6 feet tall but weighing just 50kg, this lightweight farmer’s
son was dispatched home and told to get on a banana and milk diet
pronto before attempting to be man enough for the army.

He did not give up. He was eventually recruited as a jawan, working
his way to the rank of officer and eventually retiring a proud
colonel.

He often used this real-life example to stress the need for learning early and good English: “I was from a small village in Punjab. I could not understand much English. As an officer I had to know English. I would watch English movies on Tuesday nights. If there was a joke in the movie, I was the one laughing after everyone had stopped.”

Apart from his army gear, he outfitted himself solely in a pair of
Bata sandals and three sets of civilian clothes, which in typical army
style were donned on allocated days of the week, to put his two girls
through an expensive boarding school.

Frugal with his own material needs, he gave generously to us in so
many ways, from outings to treats to those most precious of gifts,
love and time.

Before we moved to a hostel, our family ate out once a month, always at an idli-dosa place – think India Coffee House.

As we scooped a bit of the butter chicken with the naan, I knew we
were both thinking of the same thing.

Idli, dosa, coconut chutney, watery sambar, in a non-frilly place.

Two days later, we were re-tracing our food steps letting the aroma of idli-sambar be our guide. There were no fancy plates or table
settings. But we were happy in the knowledge that bliss can be
filtered often through a simple cup of kaffee.

Born and brought up in India, Deepika Shetty started her career as a print journalist in India before relocating to Singapore in 1996.Here, she dabbled in television before returning to print. She launched the region’s first weekly TV show, which profiled several leading authors such as Kiran Desai, Jeffrey Sachs, Thomas Friedman and Alexander McCall Smith. She has been interviewed extensively on visual arts and literary developments in South and South-East Asia and is a regular moderator at leading writers festivals.

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       HAPPY ENDING

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Vol X Koshys, Pictures of Paris, Kings and Queens, and A Picnic in Kabul

There is something to cafes that make me think of it as the gangly, loose limbed cousin of a restaurant. Someone who is all style rather than chic; someone who never did the right things but made just as good without the stars, grades or official recognitions. Someone you can count on any time of the day to be there….and won’t turn his nose down at you if you prefer to shred your lettuce rather than eat it.

I think it perhaps is the reason why I have always preferred cafes to restaurants. And it is a café, I usually identify a city with. So there is the historic Café Pedrocchi in Padua , the Pascal de la paix, a converted railway station in Oslo, and my all time favourite the Czuly Barbarzynca in Warsaw, part book store, part art gallery, part cultural meeting ground and mostly café.

In the environs of a café, you may never see the who’s who of the city but you will not miss its pulse. If you are an inveterate people watcher as I am, then only a café can satiate that compulsion and so it is with Koshys.

I come to Koshys often. Not as often as I would have liked. But each time the soul yearns for a whiff of time as it once were; of a city that perhaps exists only in the memories of its long time residents now, untouched by all that has come to pass, then I seek it.

It’s been only twenty-two years but I have already appropriated the Old Bangalorean’s chant : Really, Bangalore is not what it used to be…

For once upon a time, Bangalore still had several of its sprawling bungalows with monkey tops, a profusion of silver oaks, and a nip in the breeze…there were not as many jobs, people or cars. St Marks Road was a thoroughfare you thought nothing of sauntering across and Koshys had two entrances.

But within Koshys time stands still. Push its door open and saunter in. The darkness of its interiors will curl its tongue out and lick at your feet. No matter what secret fears bubble within you, it doesn’t matter. Your date may not turn up. Your meeting may get cancelled. Your life could fall apart. But you won’t encounter speculation or pity in a pair of eyes.

For Koshys hums. The buzz of a hive where the everyday business of eating and drinking, talking and laughing, arguing and even loaded silences all mesh and fall apart to form a single drone that encapsulates even the lonely and the alone.

A friend Chetan Krishnaswamy and I find ourselves there again and again. We talk of meeting else where for lunch; of discovering new menus and another point of view. But Chetan and I find ourselves inevitably back in the restaurant section of Koshys. It is as much a ritual  as the beer, chilli chicken and the many laughs that punctuate our afternoon. And then, post lunch, when the section is ready to be shut, we move into the cafe side for coffee and people watching.

Let your eyes sweep the room. They are all here. A crowd of lawyers with the shut-in demeanour of Emperor Penguins on an ice floe; men with a stolen hour sipping at a stealthy beer; a lone blue-eyed shaggy haired tourist sprawled on a chair nursing an omelette, reading a book; another group of student tourists comparing notes in loud raucous caws ; a bunch of ferocious-faced women in khadi kurtas and terra-cotta earrings holding court; a young couple brushing shoulders, entwining fingers; academics, writers, actors, film makers, artists, photographers and somewhere amidst such a cornucopia of the intellectual and the artistically inclined an old man in a tweed coat quietly stirring sugar into his cup of south Indian coffee….

Waiters who like silverfish scurrying through the pages of an old book, dart between tables. Bottles glint from the bar at the farther end. Walls the colour of watered down chicken curry. Fans mounted high whir their heads this way and that. Laughter, the clink of cutlery, the scraping of a chair leg and stray words will rise to greet you.

If you are fortunate, the brown rexine sofa of the corner table by the window will beckon inviting you to pause there awhile. For in the early evening, Koshys pauses briefly. And this is my favorite hour. I ask myself: what tea time treats shall it be this evening? Egg sandwiches, mutton cutlets, patties, apple pie. fruit salad with ice cream…

You may be on first name basis with the staff at the most happening places in Bangalore but unless the waiters here recognize you and Prem Koshy, the charming and ebullient owner stops by at your table for a few words,  understand and heed this : In the city of Bangalore, you are still a mushroom come lately….

That then is the power of Koshys. Cousin to a restaurant and the most happening place in Bangalore since circa 1940

[A version of this essay first appeared in Talk of the Town Stories of Twelve Indian Cities edited by Jerry Pinto and Rahul Srivastava, Puffin Books]

Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound will be published in September 2012.

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Speakeasy

This volume’s poet is Tanya Mendonsa. 

Tanya Mendonsa is a poet and a painter who at twenty-one moved to Paris, to paint, major in French literature at the Sorbonne and run a chaotic language school. After nineteen years in Europe, she returned to live in India, with the abstract painter Antonio E Costa. They moved from Bangalore to Goa and now live in the Nilgiri hills in South India with their dogs.

She has exhibited her paintings widely, but writing is her focus. In her poems, she draws deeply from a poetic tradition of the wonders of the natural world, which illuminate her first book, ‘The Dreaming House ‘ , published by Harper Collins India in 2009. The following poems are excerpted from this collection.

She is currently at work on her second book of poems. Her poems have been anthologized in the US and in India.

Read more about Tanya Mendonsa in Anita Nair’s Goodnight & God Bless – a collection of essays.

Metamorphoses

Belly into baby
Cloud into rain
Flesh into grub
Flower into fruit
Story into legend
Day into night
Throat into song
Arrow into flight
Reed into flute
I into you
Body into dance
stumble into chance

The Pomegranate and Persephone

Of all trees I like the pomegranate best;
for the celebration of its being and the way it all hangs together.
Its slenderness leaps upward, as if rejoicing
in the airs of the world that blow through all its parts;

its new leaves are the colour of its flowers

and its flowers the colour of its fruit

and the rind of the fruit the colour of its flesh.

This feathered being raises its arms to dance the dance of the universe,
and the mouths of the flowers
open to birth the fruits of desire…

Inside the fruits of desire there are a million jewelled kernels,
each planted with a milky new seed of desire,
like a baby tooth in a translucent gum.

Persephone could not resist you, either:
she strayed where she should not have ventured;
she paid for the pleasure of one crimson crystal crunched in her sharp teeth
with four months underground in the arms of the dark god.

Appetite grows with feeding:
although she burns with impatience to escape back to her world
she burns, too, with new desire bred of new knowledge
and knows she will return to Pluto’s embrace
─his tongue in her mouth another kind of fruit─
because she is bound to the wheel now.

It is not the fault of the pomegranate tree:
men twist the natural world by their own devices
but in the end can never attain natural perfection
─nor satisfy natural desire without entrapment─

so that the pomegranate and Persephone
─although the luscious kernel is now her luscious flesh─
can never really know each other.

Pictures of Paris

My years in that city were like a dream.
There were good dreams and bad ones,

but I was never awake,

My eyes took photographs of the streets,
of the people,
of the gardens,
the river
and the glories of the monuments,

but I never really saw them.

The face that friends and lovers saw was not my own:
that one was only seen by strangers

when they caught me unaware,
when I was walking the roads of my real world in my head.

There was a clock in my breast that ticked off the moments;
that tocked me into motion when I had to keep going:
to work, to dinners, to lunches in the country, into men’s arms or to the theatre.
That clock stopped and stuttered into a heartbeat when I came home again,
where there was no more need for masks,

and where I saw my old world with new eyes.

One Last Sip of Sap

I have never seen the star jasmine
burn
so bright
as in this early spring:

it buds fiercely against the tough boughs.

Even withered, it clings to them,
as if craving
one last sip of sap.

So certain old people are,
with their eyes still as bright as stars;
their gnarled fingers still milking
joy

from the smallest of pleasures.

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Pick-me-up

Biographies are more than the life and times of a person narrated. They also offer us a glimpse of another time, another way of life. In this charmingly written account of the last queen of Travancore Maharani Setu Lakshmni Bayi, Lakshmi Raghunandan offers us precisely this.

Published by the Maharani Setu Lakshmni Bayi Memorial Charitable Trust, this is a book worth reading and keeping.

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                                                 SUPERCALL

Krishna Udayasankar is the author of Govinda: Book 1 of The Aryavarta Chronicles, published by Hachette India.

A graduate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, Krishna also holds a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where she presently works as a Lecturer.

Krishna is currently working on the second and third books of The Aryavarta Chronicles and a collection of prose-poems entitled Objects of Affection.

A resident of sunny Singapore, when she’s not busy writing and teaching, Krishna loves to watch Rajinikanth movies first-day, first-show, complete with applause and whistles, and to go on long drives with her husband, Jai, and two Siberian Huskies, Boozo and Zana.

• Soaring into heaven moment:

Many, many such, when I am writing.

Some are epiphanies, particularly when I find that research corroborates my plot-based construction of what I think may have happened, or even opens new doors altogether. Others are sheer moments of pleasure in the craft, like when I manage to write what I see as an intriguing scene.

Could be even simpler though, like the joy of a particularly (In my not-so-humble opinion) well-constructed sentence. Most often though, it’s that peaceful sense of just being in the story-world.

• That infernal fire time:

There’s just one?

For me, each of the many (inevitable) periods of waiting involved turned out to be difficult, sometimes even excruciating. But perhaps that says more about my patience, or lack thereof, than it does the publishing process. But between the manuscript submission and the offer, the editing pauses, the time between typesetting and proofreading and the final OK and the actual ‘sent-to-press-now-get-a-life’ moment, I have been a pain to others, even in my own, narcissistic opinion.

• The purgatory point:

Wondering, more than once, whether I have done right by my characters – some of them epic men and women in their own ways. All I can do when that self-doubt hits is to take deep breaths and remind myself that the story is much larger that I am.

• …….years, …….drafts and ……….words thereafter, would you do this differently and again?

Probably not, though I am tempted for a moment…. No, definitely not. This is a journey, and while I’ve loved every moment of it, the next adventure, the next book beckons.

• What does Krishna Udayasankar the writer

Fear the most?

False modesty. I fear I will fall into the trap as I try to stay grounded, but end up feeling far too proud of being that way.

I also fear that when the times comes, I will lack the strength to let go of that which must be let go of – Including the ability to dream and to write. To not be able to write would be bad, but not being able to let go of it would be even worse.

Desire the most?

Answers. Come to think of it, questions too.

But that’s at another level. Frankly, I have all that I could ask for – a loving family and the gift of words. There’s little more I could want.

But every now and then the harsh reality of what wrong in the world conflicts with the defensive claim that all is illusory till the debate consumes me with a vengeance, and brings with it the rather excruciating need for answers… Sometimes I make my peace with it, at other times I laugh at how pompous I sound.

Either way, it ends with a lot of doggie fur, satisfied woofs and tummy rubs. And when, ultimately, I get rewarded with canine-kisses I know I can honestly say: No desires at all.

Hate the most?

There are certainly things I dislike, but few that I hate -the following being an exception: People who abandon, abuse or neglect dogs (any animal companion, for that matter). Frankly, such people both scare and disgust me. But that’s a personal thing.

As a writer, I hate helplessness – particularly my own. I associate it with failure as a socially-responsible being.

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An Angel on the Rock

The summer of 2004. Kabul was brown, broken, hopeful, romantic in a dangerous way, and exciting. I was on a holiday, and like in the Cliff Richards song, young, newly married and nervous.

It was only my second day in the country that the Americans had ‘liberated’. And it was nothing like I expected. Kabul was quiet, for one thing, Very much so, if you ignored the helicopters that hovered around, especially at night. There were cars, enough to populate a mini-sized city, all four-wheel drives—all white—on choked Kabul streets.

A mall, straight out of Delhi, Chicken Street—my first stop after the airport to stock up on ice cream, movies, everything you could wish for from BBC adaptations of Wodehouse to Kurosawa and the newly released Shrek, the original. And then there was Anna, the Italian architect who had come to Kabul armed with a head-light and a penchant to party like Paris Hilton (She was an instant hit on her first night out. She had been invited to a wedding party and had kissed the groom. She stayed on for years, but never spent the evening at home).

If those were all too many contrasts to take in, my trip to Istalif lived up to real Afghanistan vs reel Afghanistan image.

It was Saturday, the Sunday of the Afghan world—which meant only one thing—a picnic. For some strange reasons, Afghans love picnics. Families pile into cars, tandoors are brought out and the whole khandaan heads outdoors. Kababs and carpets are the two staple Afghan images. Following the Afghan tradition, we jumped into a white four-wheel drive and took off to Istalif with loud Hindi movie music playing in the car.

And it wasn’t to make me feel at home. Tere Naam was a hit in a way that would have made Salman Khan weep.

Istalif is historic. Alexander’s army is said to have camped there, Mughal emperor Babur’s mother is buried there – in a garden he laid out – and it was vine country. There were fresh green vines peering out of the ground all the way through. It was also the closest place to picnic if you wanted to get out of the confines of the city.

Picnic in my limited knowledge involved hampers, sandwiches, cake and a ball of some sort. I was wrong. We all had a back-pack each. It involved a walk, along a stream, for about two kilometers. I still remember distinctly feeling like I used to when my parents forced me to go to birthday parties to mingle—cornered and embarrassed. It didn’t help that my significant other was chatting away with people.

I was an outsider. In my blue sneakers, my head covered, long sleeved shirt and loose jeans, I was uncomfortable, hot, shy and unnerved. I was also hungry and was traumatized that I may need a loo break. It was a bit like an episode of Survivor. Certainly nowhere close to pleasant, and far from bliss.

Reading, writing, watching a movie is about an unbeatable high. It is like the first flush of love—giddy, uncontrollable and exciting in a heart beating drunk-on-four-glasses-of-red wine sort of way. It is the rush of emotion when I read “Midnight’s Children’’—it was like being on a roller-coaster and I never wanted the ride to end; Aga Shahid Ali’s neat four-inch postcard of the Himalayas, it is watching the train scene in Pather Panchali on a hot Mumbai afternoon.

Bliss, however, is a beast of another kind. It is much calmer, deeper—a more mellow whiskey high, Begum Akhtar vs Farida Khanum. And for a former fat kid, there is usually something edible involved—a piece of carrot cake, a perfect cup of coffee, chocolate, biryani, phirni, kababs, parma ham lurking in the corner of the memory.

In Istalif, it was mangoes—sickly sweet ones. The king of fruit can trigger off many heated arguments. The langra vs the alphonso debate in my family is legendary –gives Mohammad Hanif’s “The Case of the Exploding Mangoes’’ a different twist. But these were neither. They were ordinary ones, sans the rich mango smell. In India, they would be ordinary. But there, in the middle of the mountains, within shooting distance of men with AK 47s, who were also out for a picnic, sitting on those rocks—they were much better than any Alphonsos would ever be.

Perhaps, it was the danger—or well lack of it, or the absurdity of sitting in the middle of one of the world’s most famous battleground and doing something as banal as eating a mango without a knife. But it was bliss, in the dictionary definition of it. It was an out of world experience, much more peaceful, than anything in Delhi; in the heart of a country that was still waging a war, one that even 10 years later, it is losing. It was magic, may be, because it was well, surreal. And rare, not because it didn’t exist, — most of Afghanistan is like that — but because that is a side we rarely see.

Kabul was littered with blissful memories—eating tut (mulberries) under trees, reading on the roof of the Shahjahani mosque, sipping chai and sour doh (Afghani lassi) post-lunch on vivid carpets, trying to find a patch of sunlight under thick walnut trees in the Panshir Valley and water–always lots of it — sparkling streams in Baghe Babur and deep still green waters littered with decoy ducks outside.

If a high is fleeting, it is the joy of extraordinary, which is more common; Bliss, is the ordinary, strangely tougher-to-pin-down episodes. And for moments of bliss, it has to be Kabul.

Mandira Nayar is a journalist. She now has the fortune of many heavenly blissful non mango moments as she gets paid to read. She is currently with THE WEEK magazine.

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HAPPY ENDING

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