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

Image may contain: text 

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...

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Ashaji: A Remarkable Life

I first heard of Ashaji from my older daughter, a little over a year ago. I was on my way home after watching an amazing, brilliant, heartwarming play. (Contempt, by Danish Shaikh). A friend of a friend of a friend of my daughter was looking for someone to write/ghostwrite his mother’s memoir. My daughter’s friend had read my book, Of This and That, and felt that I might be the person who could do this.                       
It sounded interesting, and challenging, because I had never done anything like this before. But since my older son and his family were in town for the year, I also wanted to be free to spend time with my grandchildren. However, Ashaji sounded interesting: a lady who had lead a glamorous life as an air force officer’s wife, who had worked in the hotel industry, who had divorced her husband, remarried, divorced the second husband and went back to the first, and then became deeply involved in the spiritual life, and also did a great deal of social service. She happened to be suffering from a relapse of cancer, five years after the first bout, and her son felt that she must record her story for posterity, especially for her grandsons. Her husband had passed away early in 2017, and her older son had passed away as a young man decades earlier, so she was the chief repository of the family’s older memories.
A few weeks elapsed before I heard from her son. He was based in London, but did come to India to spend time with his mother. We spoke at length over the phone, and then we met. He was trying hard to convince his mother to agree to this memoir, which was no easy task. She finally did agree to meet me at a mutually convenient time. I reached her home, which was a short car-ride away from mine. Ashaji was a petite, short-haired lady of indeterminate age. We had a very casual conversation that first day, just to establish a rapport, and Ashaji was, as always, very hospitable. She seemed to be in reasonably good health at the time, and I found it hard to accept that she was terminally ill. She didn’t really feel that her life or achievements were in any way noteworthy, but was willing to give it a shot.  (My husband was the one who knew that it wasn’t going to remain an easy situation: he could anticipate the pain of loss that I underwent several months later). In the meantime, he bought me a voice recorder to help me with my work. I would meet Ashaji twice a week, on an average. I would have a list of questions for her, on a particular aspect of her life that I wanted to know more about.  She also gave me the telephone numbers of people who knew her well, and I was able to conduct some personal interviews and some on the telephone. A pattern was emerging, and slowly she also began to believe in our project. She was very frank and forthright about her life. It was a remarkable life indeed, especially her seva journey which was marked by her dedication, generosity, managerial qualities, and her willingness to put in great efforts of her own, as well as motivating others to do so as well. After various spiritual experiences, she was now a staunch devotee of Shri Sathya Sai Baba. When she went to London for a few weeks, we remained in touch, and on her return we resumed our frequent meetings.

Her warmth and kindness invited confidences. There were days when we would simply chat together as friends. She planned to visit me at my home some day. She always insisted that her driver drop me home on the days I came by taxi. If ever a scheduled meeting couldn’t take place she would phone, most apologetically, and we would fix up another date and time. We spent hours going through stacks of photographs, trying to shortlist what seemed useful for the book. Voices acquired faces, and her family and friends all became people that I felt I knew!

And then, towards the end of October, the disease struck, hard. Her son, purely fortuitously, was in the city. Perhaps it was ordained that he was there to look after his mother at such a critical juncture. Along with all the medical arrangements, he and a friend of his also managed to put the book into the shape he desired. I managed to do a final interview with Ashaji on the 14th November, in her hospital room, and they had some copies of the book ready for her 77th birthday on the 20th November. She came home from the hospital around the 22nd. I went to visit her on the evening of the 27th, but couldn’t meet her as she had had a very bad night, and had just dosed off. On the morning of the 30th, I had a dental appointment. As I came out of the clinic, I felt an overpowering urge to go and see Ashaji. When I rang the bell, an unfamiliar person answered the door. I asked about Ashaji. She had passed away the previous evening. Her body was laid out, beautiful in eternal peace, in a refrigerated glass container. Sai Baba bhajans played softly in the background. Her son sat on the staircase. He insisted that I have a cup of tea. It seemed fitting to have one final cup of tea in Ashaji’s presence…

It now seems unreal, this intense interaction over eight brief months. But I do have pages and pages of notes, her voice on the voice recorder, and a copy of the book, a testimony to this remarkable, affectionate, courageous and generous soul. I am glad that I had the privilege of knowing her.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Inspired by a video taken by my younger son

Our little inspector
Made new discoveries
All the time.
How fascinating
Is the world
And bewildering too.
One afternoon
Grandpa is asleep
On his side,
The loudest possible snores.

She toddles into the room
To see where this sound
Is coming from.
She gazes at him
In sheer fascination.
Such a strange world,
So much to observe.
A strangely rhythmic sound
As Grandpa snores on...

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Sins of the Middle (aged)

Well, more aptly senior citizens than merely middle-aged, but since this post concerns our middles, well...
The RE used to be skinny. Extremely so. For a very long time into our married years together. That he was a heavy smoker  probably contributed to the skinniness. Circumstances forced him to stop smoking, and we had a man who actually had an appetite. Waist sizes went up, slowly, and after many years of abstaining from all forms of alcohol, beer was rediscovered.
Retirement and grandfatherhood found our erstwhile skinny man approaching my size and weight, (although I remain the heavyweight champ in our house), and now we are a comfortably matched Dadu Bear and Dadi Bear.
Last year we went with our younger daughter and older granddaughter on a road trip to Agra. Much fun was had, but even more fun happened at bedtime, when Grandpa realized that he had forgotten to pack his pyjamas. The four of us were sharing a large room which had a huge double bed for grandparents and grandchild, and a curtained alcove with a single bed for our daughter, (and one huge bathroom). Modesty was required! It was too late to go and buy a pair of pyjamas. Our daughter had a brainwave: the RE could wear my spare palazzos! So our man retired for the night in comfortable beige cotton loose pyjamas, which just happened to have sequins and pintucks on the hem!
         I'd spent several days last week worrying about the whereabouts of my blue Levi jeans. I thought they'd been laundered, but I couldn't find them anywhere. I checked the hooks on every bedroom and bathroom door. I checked the laundry basket. I even checked the RE's wardrobe, but no. His size 36" Levi jeans were on their hanger. But wait a second, he'd been wearing blue jeans the last couple of days too. ( He owns several pairs in various stages of wear and tear). I checked the pair draped over the chair in our bedroom. They were a size 38. They seemed to be mine. I asked the spouse if they hadn't felt odd when he wore them.
(I had obviously hung them up in his wardrobe). The poor man has been suffering from sciatica for a while now, and thought that he also had some mysterious major ailment which was causing this sudden weight loss, as the jeans were obviously much too loose for him!!!!!
I was very glad to reassure him that such was not the case, and tried on the jeans to demonstrate to both of us that all was well!
          We were all at lunch at my older daughter's place when the jean story was shared. My younger daughter, extremely loyal to the RE, said that I also had to post about all of his clothes that I have pinched (I'd say borrowed) over the years. Yes, but I insist that I only borrow/pinch clothes that he doesn't wear! In the interest of accuracy I concede that I have (sort of) pinched his black fleece jacket, and his black Levi's crew neck pullover, which he only wore the year we bought it. (I bought a similar one in navy blue a year later). The man is still thinner than I am, so the only other garments of his that I can pinch (and do) are his thick socks, a great comfort in winter. Full disclosure!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Wisdom of the Infant

Babies know what they need
For their well-being
And it might not be
what you think they need!

On Holi last year our little one
Was tiny, just over six months old
A little bewildered by the strange,
Colourful behaviour of
otherwise sane adults
And her older sister, who completely
Revelled in the revelry.
She was thoroughly upset by the noise
Of dholaks and loudspeakers
In the neighbourhood.

People came and went,
And we were all supposed to go
To our oldest child's home
For further fun and food.

Grandpa and I decided to let her nap
And take her there later
But the young one wasn't happy
A nap in the noise was difficult
But only possible in Grandma's arms
And only in vertical hold.

We survived, somehow,
Baby slept lightly, not allowing
The slightest tilt bedwards.

Cut to late December,
almost ten months later.
She spends the day with me
While parents and sibling
Are out, doing whatever
They have to do.
Playful, chattering,
Exploring, inspecting....
But then sleep comes,
Time for her sole nap of the day.

I hold her, and rock her,
And she falls asleep
But cries whenever I try
To put her down.
The people she knows
Vanish while she sleeps.
This smart infant isn't taking any chances!

Granny decides to nap too,
Infant on top of her,
In a cosy coccoon of cuddly comfort!