Thursday, January 16, 2020

The first post of 2020

Life in India has been immensely strange over the past several months, and since mid-December, the situation has become extremely distressing, to say the least. No inspiration to blog. Just keeping busy with mundane things, and snatching bits of joy whenever possible. Here's one little bit, gleaned from yesterday's pickle making session: I present to you the Garlic Herons.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book Review: Coming Back to the City



As someone with very little actual experience of Mumbai, most of the Mumbai lore I've absorbed comes from books and movies. Life in  Mumbai's chawls was exemplified for me by movies like Piya ka Ghar. One heard of the old textile mills being torn down, and being transformed into modern malls or expensive flats: real estate prices in Mumbai remain sky high. Politicians and their henchmen, trade union leaders, self-made entrepreneurs and their success stories, the NRI who decides to return, the conman and his moll, Mumbai has them all.

Anuradha Kumar uses all of these tropes, and yet goes way below the skin of each one of her characters. Each one of them is real, and each one's story links up with the others brilliantly. There are love stories, old and new, a deep sense of the history of a place and a movement. There is an act of raw physical courage, motivated solely by the need to save a few buckets of water for that day's assignment! The author has deep empathy for each one of her characters, whether it be the beautiful, unhappy Pooja, married to the henchman of the local don, her neighbour Richard with his constantly blinking eyes, his mother Rosie who finally finds happiness while working as a housekeeper after the death of her violent and abusive husband, poor rich girl Raina, who craves her wealthy parents' attention, Sneha, the extremely successful radiologist who is devastated when the sex education classes she conducts at a municipal school are shut down, Suhel who has seen the utter misery of his mother's life and his parents' marriage, the lecherous, successful Ghatge who will stop at nothing to save himself, his wife Gauri who manages to hold her own, Mahesh, the utterly frustrated henchman, Suhel's father, who decides to marry for love, despite his age, the doctor-artist, Pankaj Joshi, whose paintings have a seminal role in the story, Neera Joshi, journalist, who was romantically involved with trade union leader Ramakrishna Desai a lifetime ago, to name just some of them.

The writing is exquisite, painting vivid pictures of both people and locales with brief, succinct strokes. The book is beautifully constructed, layered delicately, in a spiral whose hub remains one single chawl. An unlikely love story makes you long for a happy ending. There is huge suspense.
And yes, the flamingos on the cover do find a mention!




Thursday, November 28, 2019

Unwanted, unheard


What is it about women’s voices that can drive men mad?
Mad with lust, desire, rage? When is it sane, their conversation?
Only when there is parity between them, a rare event indeed.
How much do people actually listen to others, especially across genders?
Fathers listening with rapt attention to their little daughters,
But for how long? Work or boredom will soon stop these precious conversations.
Wise women learn the art of silence, of how not to confront,
And yet do as they please, under a veneer of peaceable harmony.
What turmoil seethes under that veneer? Not known, until it breaks out
Sometimes as illness, depression, divorce, insanity, sometimes never…

And then you see these images of women in different countries
Across the globe, protesting violence against their gender,
Against the violence that has cost so many female lives.
And they have painted a hand across their mouths,
different colours in different countries,
A hand silencing their voices, their unbearable, unhearable voices
That sometimes lead to death. 
Femicide, a word I hadn't heard of before, is a reality 
in a world where feminism has been around for decades.

How hard is it to listen with attention and affection,
before the voice turns shrill and hysterical and unbearable?
And even if it does, the voice is demanding a hearing.

Shutting it up will not work. 
It will not work.
it will not.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Moment of Repose

A young child in her father's arms
A serious little face,
leaning back against him.
His chin and mouth resting on her hair,
looking down at her,
His look so gentle,
Gentle and loving.
Her dimpled hand, flat against his chest,
Not clinging, perhaps possessing,
perhaps just there.

A lifetime ago, I was that child.
I know I still am...



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

There Are No 'Others'

Rakhshanda Jalil's latest book, But You Don't Look Like a Muslim, is a beautiful collection of essays dealing with many aspects of modern Indian life. Her joy and pride in her identity, both as an Indian and as a Muslim, shines through the book. She is, like so many of us, deeply distressed by the 'othering' of Muslims that has been the leitmotif of the past few years. Her book is hard to put down, being eminently readable: entertaining as well as highly informative. There are some delicious walks down memory lane, for example when she speaks of gharelu daavat, a special, celebratory meal for the immediate family, with no other guests! The beautiful quilts her grandmother made for each member of the family, a very different rhythm of life at her grandparents' home in Aligarh, the difficulty of getting her daughter's friends to attend her birthday party when they moved to the Jamia neighbourhood, her own childhood memories of being ostracized by schoolmates during the 1971 war with Pakistan: Dr. Jalil shares many vignettes of her own life as an educated, city-bred,middle-class Indian Muslim.

The book is divided into 4 sections, the chapter headings telling a story in themselves!
In Part 1, The Politics of Identity, we have My Father Did not Take the Train to Pakistan, Living in Jamia, Coping with Ghettoization, Burqa: Moving Tombs for Women, Busting the Myth of the Monotonous Monochromatic Musalman, among others.
Part 2, The Matrix of Culture, is perhaps the most entertaining. We have Memories of Summers Past, Fasting, Feasting: Foods for the Faithful, From Amma's Razais to Jaipuri Quilts, Cooking in the Age Of Homogenization, The Bad, Mad World of Jasoosi Duniya, Telling the Story of Ram-e-Hind, and others. The Begum Who Sang of Love and Longing is a beautiful, poignant chapter, but also one that had me laugh out loud!
Part 3, The Mosaic of Literature speaks of Urdu and Urdu literature and poetry, in chapters such as Urdu: "Rest in Peace" or "Work in Progress"?, Abdur Rahim Khan-e Khanan: the People's Poet,
Nazir Akbarabadi: Voice of the People, Poet of Protest, Ale Ahmad Suroor: The Grand Old Man of Urdu Tehzeeb, Shakeel Badayuni: The Resolute Romantic, Batwara vs. Azadi: Two Versions of a Cataclysm, and others.
Part 4, The Rubric of Religion is most enriching and enlightening. 'On Sighting the Eid Moon' brings alive the suspense of not knowing whether the next day is one of fasting or celebration. This section is rich in the eclectic poetry of many Urdu poets, such as Hasrat Mohani in "When Hasrat Pined for Krishan Ji Bhagwan." Independent and liberal-minded, he was a practising Muslim who had performed the Haj all of eleven times yet liked to call himself a 'Sufi Muslim' and an'Ishtiraki Momin'(communist Muslim)! And to top it all .......he was a devout Krishna bhakt who went to Mathura often to celebrate Janamashtmi and also wrote the most lyrical ballads devoted to Krishan Ji Bhagwan. In his poetry, Hasrat shows how it is entirely possible for a panch-waqta Musalman, one for whom worship of any deity is kufr, to adore the 'other'.  In 'Bada Din: Rejoicing the Birth of Ibn-e- Maryam', she writes of  Jesus as a recurring figure in Urdu poetry. Ghalib's lines, of course, are well known. Darshan Singh Duggal wrote an entire poem describing Jesus as rooh ki azmat ka aina
(the mirror reflecting the greatness of the soul), ahinsa ka payami sof non-violence), the one who gladly wore the crown of thorns upon his head. The Urdu poet, forever subversive,.........is irresistibly drawn to the figure of Christ on the cross. The greatest sense of ownership by far comes from Mustafa Zaidi who says: Mere maathe pe jhalakta hai nadamt ban kar, Ibn-e-Maryam ka woh jalsa jo kalisa mein nahin
(Like the patina of penitence, it glimmers on my forehead
That lustre of the Son of Mary that is not found in any church.
The chapter, Holi: Celebrating Gulabi Eid is a joyful one. The coming of spring, traditionally marked by Basant Panchami,was celebrated with gay abandon by the Sufis whose dargahs became great melting pots where cultures and civilizations met and flowered. Amir Khusrau and Baba Bulleh Shah's compositions celebrating Basant and Holi are sung to this day. There is such beauty in these lines: Rang rangeeli ohi khilave, jis seekhi ho fanaa fi Allah
Only he may play with these colours who has learnt to immerse himself in Allah.
Many other Urdu poets have written with passion and verve on this most fun-filled of all Indian festivals. The author ends this beautiful chapter with these poignant lines from Saghar Khayami:
Nafratke taraf-dar nahin sab-an
Detey hain sabaq pyaar ke Gita ho ki Quran...
(The supporters of hatred are not people of discernment
Both the Gita and the Quran give lessons of love...
This section concludes with chapters on 'Diwali: the Night That Dispels Darkness', ' On Nanak, The Mard-e-Kamil', and, finally, ' Dil ki Kitaab: The Gita in Urdu.

I cannot do justice to the beauty, elegance and deep knowledge with which Dr. Jalil has written this extremely readable book. Her Afterword is both moving and en pointe. 
This collection of essays is in the nature of a celebration.It's akin to opening the doors of my house and saying: Come in, come and see who I am. Come and celebrate my festivals, relive my memories, travel with me, share my doubts and dilemmas. Yes, I am different, but then who isn't in a country as plural, as multi-cultural, as multi-lingual and multi-ethnic as ours? ....... Are geographical, cultural, linguistic differences erased by the commonality of religion alone?

I sincerely believe in celebrating differences and enriching our lives as we do so. Thank you, Dr. Jalil, for this truly delightful and enriching book.


Friday, April 12, 2019

One month later


Dr. S. Anandalakshmy, my dear teacher, friend, and life-long mentor, passed away on the 13th March, 2019.



One Month Later…

It’s just been a month, but it feels endless:
This month full of loss, of absence.
Of no more calls from that number,
No messages on WhatsApp, no mails.
Impossible to imagine Ma’am’s home
Without her warm presence.
The heart and mind are full of loss
Acceptance, too: Life is finite.
It has to be.
Love isn’t though: it lasts,
Way beyond this mortal coil,
In the memories of so many…
My magic years in Gummidipoondi
Which meant frequent visits,
Often early in the morning,
After dropping the spouse at the airport.
Ma’am and Kalyan, my bonus Ma’am,
Would mostly appear draped in the same colours
Sheer twinly serendipity!
Ma’am giving me hearty breakfasts
of crisp dosai and hot coffee
endless lunches at that table,
always creative meals, with warm rasam,
something exotic and unusual,
Kalyan and I sharing our diabetic indiscretions!
Shopping for sarees with Ma’am,
At Nalli’s, and Sundari Silks,
Concerts, Lalgudi Jayaraman and TM Krishna
The magic was constant.
Of course I was privileged
I had Ma’am come and stay with me,
In Kochi and Kolkata (once with  Moni).
I came to the old house, too,
And was blessed to meet Amma.
Kalyan gave us chamomile tea the first time I visited
( from Kochi, for a wedding, with my daughter’s friend).
Ma’am gave and gave and gave
So much of herself, to me, to my family,
And to so many more.
I hope I could give her something too,
I hope she knew how much I loved and admired her.
She gave me so much strength whenever I needed it
With her uncommon good sense and wisdom.
I think of Kabir’s verse on the guru,
Who like the potter, firmly removes imperfections
from the pot he is shaping
while providing a supporting hand from within.
(Guru kumhaar shish kumbh hai,
gadhi gadhi kaadhey khot
Antar haath sahaar de,
baahar baahey chot).
That was what Ma'am did for me
and for so very many others.
I was truly blessed to have had her 
in my life for nearly forty seven years!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Bliss of Not Knowing

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A year ago, on this day, I had two events to attend. My son Anand was having the first public talk of his year's sabbatical, at IIT Delhi, about his book Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, And Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. It's an immensely fascinating subject, and his audience was soon deeply engrossed. Anand's talk started at 3 p.m., but we both knew I couldn't attend the full session if I was to reach Ramjas College in time for Ankit Chadha's newest offering.

I remember the first time we met Ankit Chadha. It was on the 15th November, 2014, at Chounsatth Khamba, Nizamuddin, where, along with Bindhumalini, Vedanth Bharadwaj, and Ajay Tipaniya, he had given a performance of Khusrau ke Rang: A Musical Journey. It was truly magical, and so very moving. The SRE and I were both delighted when Bindhumalini introduced us to this team of very talented young performers. After that, we made it a point to attend this young Dastango's performances whenever we could. We saw him perform dastans on Sant Kabir, Rahim, Partition, The Little Prince, etc., some solo, some with a partner. We would always exchange a few words with him, either before or after the performance, sometimes both times, and it was always wonderful to have those moments with him. He was always warm and friendly, and had the gift of giving you his complete attention. On a cold winter evening we attended Dastan-e Khanabadosh at the IGNCA (December 2016), a solo narration about the nomads of India. It was, as always, scintillating. When we met Ankit before the show, and asked him what he planned to do next, he said he was going to stay in Sabarmati Asram for some months, working on a dastan on Gandhiji. So this particular dastan was truly long awaited...

Given my paranoia about punctuality and the cooperation of the traffic on that day, I managed to reach Ramjas College with a little time to spare. I was delighted to meet Anand's teacher, Professor Mukul Manglik, and exchange a few words with him. He was happy to know that Anand was in India for the year, and hoped to see him.(The world is a strangely miraculous place: Anand was the first person to tell me about Dastangoi, and thanks to him, I attended performances by Mahmood Farooqi and Danish Husain, and Ankit knew him as a friend of both of these dastangos!)

I greeted Vedanth, who is a singer and musician par excellence. Ankit and I had a brief conversation. For the first time I asked him about his family. His father wasn't keeping well, so Ankit was planning to travel less, after meeting his present commitments. That same night they were catching a train to Bhopal (or was it Indore?), and in late March were performing in Bangalore. In April he had several performances on the East coast of the USA. I told him that Anand and family were around, and he said that he hoped to meet him this year. There were many people at the venue who wanted to meet him, and soon it was time for the performance.


It was an open stage, with tall trees around. There were some traffic sounds, but they could not muffle the power of the narrative. In an interview with The Indian Express, Ankit speaks at length about Praarthanaa.

It's been a year since I saw this. I remember being deeply moved by the narrative. Ankit had interwoven many beautiful, little known stories about Gandhiji among the popularly known ones. He speaks at length of Gandhiji's teen years, his desire to commit suicide at one point, his sorrow mixed with guilt at his father's death and the death of their first child, their experiences in South Africa. Death is omnipresent in this narrative, often in the background. His account of Gandhiji's and Ba's response to the death of his secretary Mahadev Desai was heart rending. Vedanth's rendering of bhajan's both familiar and unfamiliar, was exquisite. The Kabir bhajan he sang after Ankit's extremely moving account of Ba's passing, was heartrending in its beauty:
Kar le singaar chatur albeli.
(I wish I had Vedanth's version to share with you).
When I am deeply moved by a performance, I get goosebumps. Many a time that evening, I had goosebumps. I had always had great respect for Ankit's dedication to his work and the depth of his research, as well as the brilliance of his performances. That evening, I recognised him as a truly evolved soul, 'bahut hi pahuncha hua'. I remember also a moment of fear, that he had come too close to Death for Death's comfort. I brushed that fear aside, and went to congratulate him on this absolutely scintillating, extremely moving work. As an elder, my heart was full of blessings for him, and as a seeker, I felt that I needed his blessings. For me, that day, he had become a wise sage, a guru.

Little did I know then that it was the last time I would see him alive. About two and a half months later I would meet Vedanth at his funeral...