Sunday 30 March 2014

5 a day in Brobdingnag

Something terrible has befallen me. 

More terrible than the ketchup packet finishing before the McDonald’s burger does, or a plate of ordered fish and chips coming to me with the pitiful eye in place. Yes, even more terrible than this. Why, I am being held captive on a private ‘island’ called Brobdingnag!

Of course that is a real place, stop doubting me. Ask Swift. Or better still, turn the pages in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ beyond Lillliput and see this map. Here, the natives are giants and I don’t just say that because of how I stand, vertically. When I first came to after my kidnapping, I thought my eyes were playing games with me. Too much eye-strain on FB and taking its frustration out by shooting down characters living inside my PS2 must have done it. However, this was not about retina, iris, cornea or lenses failing me. 

This was real.

They were larger than church steeples and with voices like speaking-trumpets. I was sorry for calling my Mrs. Chadha-of-the-sarchy-comments a barbarian. At best, now, she seemed like an over-fed bird who spat the extra bird-seeds when she spoke. Nothing else, God bless her but I digress. These here were real barbarians of gargantuan proportions and I had no choice but to look at my humble bust-line and sigh – Alas! Raw mangoes have turned mosquito bites, over night! 

Size mattered here, and a humble melancholy tone I used at all times. No matter that all I wanted to do was laugh at the magnifying glass effect of the life around me right now. What is fair and white at a distance is moon’s surface at close quarters, thus spake Marlowe the Moon Man from Noddy? It is true, but greater details of humans up close thus would mean losing an appetite that was storming inside my stomach.

I was asked 5 foods which I wanted to eat for the day. No more, and could be less. But less is something no Punjabi blood can accept, of anything. I screamed five, five I will have most certainly, and secretly wondered if I could throw in a freebie .5. But I needed time to think. So one of them picked me up in his handkerchief and left me at the beach. Alone.

Here I am now.

And this is tough. From the most exotic to the most mundane are vying for place in the alimentary canal in my brain. Names of restaurants which served homely food and masalas which made home food like restaurants fly around. As do fat versus skimmed, organic versus inorganic chemistry and non-vegetarian versus whatever. I wriggle my toes in the sand to stimulate my memory and that is it! 

5 gorgeous dishes with pictographic details come to mind. And true to my ‘assi tussi kissi shissy’ bloodline, I want to mix up cuisines much like tamator sauce in Ming dynasty soup is by us, or butter-tey-scotch ice cream melting on a G-jam. I want my table in Brobdingnag, like any Punjabi table in fine dining, to look like a mini globe standing for equality, liberty, fraternity, conti and Punjaby.

In the order of the courses, I have picked 5 dishes. Now remember, these will be served to me in plates the size of a 12-seater dining table. So they had to be the best of the best, and those which I could never have enough of. 

Dish 1 – Maggi 

And did I hear a yay? I don’t know how long I have been in Borbdingnag, but the urge to eat what forms daily my Masterchef dish in The Deylee is so strong. No other dish can bring out the culinary creativity lodged deep deep too deep down inside of me like this one does. So first, I wanted a plate of plain and simple Maggi. Humble beginnings lead to stardom, they say.  

Dish 2 – Pizza

Isn’t this a sight to look at? Extremely delicious to taste too. Imagine getting a Super Super Large size of this to eat, for free. Why, I would roll like a drunk Goddess topping the toppings. Eat every single buckwheat base crumb and each piece of the pan-grilled vegetables. My food celebrity Sangeeta created the recipe and my taste buds went on an over-drive. So this has to be one of my five.

Dish 3 – Jackfruit Pulao

Imagine a hill of this in front of you, for in Brobdingnag that’s how it’s served. The rice the colour of noon, the coriander smelling fresh and the juicy pieces of jackfruit giving character to it all and binding the ingredients of this unique dish together. Jackfruit is manna for those rare vegetarian Punjabis who don’t eat meat, but consume this with relish, often remarking – ‘This tastes like mutton!’ for they all tasted blood once. The day my friend Rachna showed this to me I have wanted to eat it. Little did I know then that I would be having a mound of it soon, and that too ready-made! How about that freebie .5 in the form of pickle to go with it?

But wait? Three salty dishes and none sweet? The sight of the saline sea is affecting my sweet tooth enamel. Dear me! Dear me! 

Dish 4 – P-Nut Bar

I will lie down on this first, for who wouldn’t want to on a bed of chocolate? And then I would eat what a fun friend Sid made for me just before I was made captive. Oh, I could make a little house out of this, with doors and windows and call it my permanent abode. The plate outside will say 'Yum Residence'!

How full I will be after consuming all this! Satiated, and for all you know the size of one of these giants around me? Chhaijee, my grandmother’s cousin sister who was very close to my grandfather’s children told our family how jaggery digests like nothing else. So …  

Dish 5 – Gur Parantha

The finale for the day will be this, a dish made by Hrishikesh ‘the chocolate boy’. This is a guy who lives to eat and he has to has to know how to digest all that food too. Has to! In the  hot and melted jaggery that will ooze from a sofa-sized half I will swim all day ...

Of freedom from captivity, I will think another day. 

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was - 5 a Day - You’ve being exiled to a private island, and your captors will only supply you with five foods. What do you pick?]

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Book Review: Maya’s Revenge by Deepika Ahlawat

William Dalrymple’s blurb review of Deepika Ahlawat’s first book ‘Maya’s Revenge’ raised my expectations from it no end. I will go back to what he says, but first, my impressions about the book. 

The setting of the book is an India that is a federation of princely and republican states. Glittering princes are seen drinking wine with khadi-clad politicians and conspiring against them too. In this context, young orphan Bindy enters the palace of Sheerpur as PA to Princess Riddhima – sometimes entranced and other times repulsed by the ways of royalty. At the epicenter of the plot is a contract that Kamroop, a group of assassin yoginis with supernatural powers, has been given - that of murdering the crown prince, Riddhiraj. The blurb calls the book ‘a dark fantasy shot through with the piquancy of political drama.’ 

In a book thick with characters, unhurriedly walking around a mystery and wrought with topical politics, I pick three aspects to talk about - the treatment of Spaces, the idea of Power and Deepika’s use of the Supernatural element. All three interlinked and very telling about our socio-political and cultural milieus. 


When proficiency in language is a given, enjoyable descriptions – of the beautiful or the bleak – follow as night follows day. ‘Maya’s Revenge’ will gift you moments of sitting in palace balconies admiring the work on the marble fountain in all its regal detail. And then, it will snap you to a government office where cats occupy police officers’ workday, as the author’s pen playfully makes the characters its playthings. A room full of wedding jewels will ‘make your eyes draw breath, ‘tis so soothing’ but hold a gory nightmare a few leaves later, full of nothing but ‘bilious colour’ and a half-beaten Prince. Deepika keeps us moving between kinds of scenes, with the aim to impresses upon us exploitative hierarchies and manipulative beings. Be it Bindy feeling heady with attention but realizing ‘She was still standing outside’ the privileged circle, or Pran, the DC of Police, living on and for the ‘deeply ingrained awareness of hierarchy and respect’, even in his bedroom that is. What the author is actually conveying? How Power comes to occupy various Spaces.

Power – Political and Sexual

Whether in Sheerpur’s palace gardens or in the lawns of Lutyen’s Delhi, an Old versus New breathes. The old political order rules, while the younger lot indulges in inherited glory – royal or political. Difference of opinion and outlook runs like subversion. Most characters conform to the old order. While they exude and execute through power, Riddhiraj confesses ‘I would very gladly not be the Yuvraj.’ His occupation is apparent, as maids giggle, ‘Maharani sa is … reciting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra with guruji for the Yuvraj … and what is Yuvraj doing? Half the female population of the world!’ Noticeably, all prominent characters enjoy some version of Power, and most want to enjoy another kind too. It is this aspiration that feeds the leitmotif of the book – political intrigue. 

The concept of sexual power in the 21st century is shown as is. Women are objects in male hands – masturbatory trophies or for buying kingdoms. Roopa, Pran’s wife, ‘Obediently lay down on the bed and spread her legs. Five minutes later Pran was grumbling about the water pressure in the bathroom while his wife was back in the kitchen, chopping onions for his tiffin.’ Bindy’s ‘curves, disgusting and guilt-provoking in the convent, were Rubenesque and appropriate in this world of marble and frosted glass,’ and that is how spaces define sexuality. Despite her erotic dreams, Bindy’s ‘urge to twist her torso to prevent the invasion’ by Riddhiraj makes this ‘consensual’ encounter border on rape. The spoilt princess Riddhima plain-speaks her brother saying ‘There is no crime in saying I find you … unworthy of the throne. I am better than you at everything, and yet I leave here with nothing and you get everything. How is that fair?’ It is fair, in the patriarchal scheme of living. No more questions asked as she is silenced with her ‘punishment’, that of being married off.  

In the Maharani, sometimes, streaks of power shine like a thunderous silver lining. She threatens her husband ‘I will kill you with my bare hands and I will bathe in your blood’ if her son is harmed.  She questions the system – ‘My dear husband … he may say he doesn’t want the caste system, it’s archaic and evil, but how can one have kings in a world of equal men? And equal women?’ but continues as nothing more than a mute spectator, with an opinion expressed only under duress, or within her room of ‘restrained barrenness.’ 

So what does the author conjure as a way out of this real silencing and abuse of women? Supernatural Powers. Let’s see how.

Use of Supernatural elements

Deepika creates Begum, the ‘Woman of Kamroop’, surrounded by a wonderland and a thousand versions of her death and ruling over a secret group of women assassins, to challenge and threaten men in their politics. Even the powerful Thakur is ‘wounded by the arrow of thine eyes’. We see her dictating police transfers and contracting royal deaths, making a ‘pawn in an interesting game’ of those who call the shots in the ‘real’ world. A woman who sees inside the most devious of men’s minds, and dismisses it as child’s play. And a world where the women surrounding her are deadly vaporous assassins who can kill, can reveal a person to his own grime – like Riddhiraj’s ‘awakening’ at the hands of ‘maya, I am all things and I am nothing.’ 

Unfortunately, even this is no emancipatory Power. 

One, it is not real but what supernatural dreams are made of. Is Deepika then trying to say that in the real world of power politics women cannot hold their own? And is that why all powerful women belong to the legend of Kamroop here? It takes magic, no less, to give them an equal share in the power-pie? Is this reflective of a hopelessness?  

Two, by the end of the book we realize the Begum’s world is also a world full of hierarchies, subservience, power-play and violence. It is simply a parallel world to the real one. Nothing more. What is done to women in the patriarchal world is what they are doing to men in theirs. 

The Problems, and Questions for the Author

… and there are many. Let me list them out.  

1. William Dalrymple calls the book a mix of Indiana Jones, Shobhaa De and James Tod. Now, while this “multi-genre” porridge worked for him, it did not for poor old me. The intrigue is never deep enough. Threads of suspense get suspended with extra-long breaks describing palace rituals or the condition of ‘India Shining’. The extent of political realism, long passages on Sheerpur’s state-of-the-art affairs or Gandhi seem not just distractions from an otherwise interesting story, but needless elaborations. The effect of conspiracy brewing or magic plotting murder in this ‘dark fantasy’ is entirely diluted. 

2. One of the pivotal scenes of the book is maya holding the Prince captive in his own room. ‘She denuded him of his pride’. Sadly, the scene reeks of typicality. Calling Riddhiraj a shallow nympho and asking him to learn the name of ‘every single man or woman who works for you’ seems like a schoolmarm giving a moral science lesson to a man who had no choice in his royal upbringing. Nothing in the book prepared us for this sudden character assassination, especially since we had got enough peeps into the Prince’s mind.

3. We meet Bindy’s Leela while she is still at the convent, we even learn that somewhere in the palace ‘Leela had awakened’ but really, what were these stray references to what seemed like Bindy’s alter-ego all about? Or maybe I am missing something here?

4. As surprising as Bindy using the words ‘metallic penis’ is the sudden bonding between Adam and Bindy, as they visit the city outside the palace walls. Something that was not built up enough in the preceding chapters.

5. And all attempts at dropping hints – real or false – confuse. From ‘someone in the palace was trying to help Bindy’ secretly to the Maharani saying ‘How … suitable’ when the orphan girl’s background is told. Even Adam’s idea of the ‘serpent stone’. The book tries to mislead in its intrigue but ends up confusing its own self.  

If anything, it is the end and the mysterious epilogue, which might keep you thinking. Does Maya stand for Greed, or Carnal Desires or Evil ruling supreme? And was there really a ‘revenge’ achieved? 

I appreciate the author’s attempt at a dark fantasy of epical proportions set in a world devoid of any kind of love. Her language is impeccably expressive and some characters, like Adam and the Thakur, are well created. And I admire her “appearances” into the book with her honest opinions about ‘India … where misery was the standard finish on existence’ and where ‘casual and unthinking cruelty that children of men show to those who are the slightest bit different from them’. It is in such passages that the victory of the author’s female voice is achieved. And it is in her portrayal of Power and Sexuality that a thematic victory for the book is attained. 

Title: Maya’s Revenge
Author: Deepika Ahlawat
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins

Sunday 23 March 2014

Going Local, in Kumaon!

On a tiny hill but one teeming with temples, I caught myself sitting on a parapet scribbling a little letter to Golu Devta. He accepted petitions for fulfilment on stamp papers, post-its or behind business cards tied around bells with red threads. Of course, to do as He pleased with them. I looked around and then I said to myself – ’Am I really doing this? Was I home only yesterday?’


One fine summer vacation, I was jolted out of all-things-Delhi-college-vacations-are-made-of-in-Dehradun by a certain Prof. Kiran Sood. Now, when it’s your mother’s colleague from the local girls’ college and a reputed Professor of Political Science you have to sit up, no matter how your vertebral column craves to go back on the folding bed under the sky. But sometimes, it takes no time for all sloth to leave them bones. 

She asked me to accompany her on a road trip across the Kumaon hills. We were to visit a few key places of divine interest to forward her Ph.D, pass through the rest and reach a small village called Gangolihat to address a gathering of village women – about local problems, awareness, education, livelihood, etc. I was to assist her in a few surveys she wanted to conduct. My head nodded an 'of course' with such excitement that the tree joined in and sprinkled a little aam bor on our heads.

Clocking four days, the trip was to involve more time on the road than off it and at any time of the day or night. With a trustworthy driver bhaiya behind the wheel and two ladies in the back seat, our white Ambassador left the Doon valley behind even before it had opened its eyes.  How ashamed I was to notice how little I knew about the towns around my home town. At what point I left the Garhwal Hills and entered Kumaon I knew not, but what I did realize was that two camera reels would not be enough. I had under-estimated the marvels which would cry to be etched in my memory through my point-and-shoot. Not beauteous hills and snow-clad peaks peeping from behind them. They were there too, regal in their glory. But the local flavours that every bend on the hilly roads made me see. 

Now, we from the hills are quite strange. The site of a lake amidst the mountains can excite us no measure, so what if it’s a 2 feet deep man-made tank en route concretized Mussoorie. We paddle excitedly nevertheless, as if crossing the English Channel in a swan shaped two-seater. And matching that boating excitement in magnitude is the pride we feel for those real tals which may adorn our hamlets. What you see in the picture below is the lake in Bhimtal. Half a day on wheels and this is where our knees finally stretched, and where an animated red-cheeked passer-by took this picture. Not a word he shared, just a ‘come quickly’ wave of his hand that made us cross the road, another gesture to show us the expanse proudly and then taking the camera to shoot his lake, with a little bit of us in the picture too, thankfully. A strange guilt he made us feel, for thinking him a con. Does he want to offer us hotel deals? Guides? Run off with our camera? Nothing! He just stopped in his tracks to shoot his lake. For us. And suddenly, we felt we had indeed come a long way from home already. 


Our halt for the first two nights was Sri Aurobindo Ashram, built on the highest hill top of Nainital (or so the deadly ride up made me believe, just like it made me pray to the complete pantheon of Gods.) To be honest, I was not comfortable. Was it the bleak grey edifice standing alone or the faulty door lock to our room I know not. But the spooky silence of the empty corridors disturbed me. Nothing came for me at night, but neither did sleep. If it wasn’t for the early morning meditation I shared with students I had eaten a humble breakfast (and washed used plates) with, I would have missed noticing the humility writ large in every corner of the famous establishment. Something I was not used to, coming from a college famous for pampering its girls. The second night I slept a sound sleep. After all, the silence that was gnawing at a city-bred me was actually only Peace, walking softly. 

At sunrise; Book-reading and meditation

The next day was both long and curvaceous. We reached Almora around noon for a 30 minute break no more, for we still had to make it to Jageshwar before twilight. The eateries dotting the roads did not promise you facilities, but they all assured you splendid views of the hills beneath your feet. A very sumptuous meal over-looking disciplined terrace farming was had. That dal was new to me, as was eating some green leafy vegetable without gawking at it. But the rotis were piping and the sight of the dessert inspiring. Almora is famous for Bal Mithai a sweet which may remind you of Homeopathic pudiyas, but is a delicious combination of soft and crunchy, and hardy enough to last you a lifetime. It took inane super power to keep my eyes open post this culinary experience. But then my being awakened, when Jageshwar Mahadev Temple happened. 

Bal Mithai

Gulping it down, admiring the dessert 

I have always loved the sound of temple bells playing catch with the morning Sun. It calms me and reminds me of a simpler life which I have never known, but which the chimes make me wish for. But to hear bells and see nothing but glades upon glades of trees is a different feeling altogether. As if your mind is playing tricks with you, turn after turn. Cocooned, as if by choice, away from all eyes was the Jageshwar Mahadev Temple. The trees had formed a green shell around the place, gathering the temple in their arms like a protective mother. As I took in the numerous structures, for the first time ever a place of worship felt real to me. Perhaps how it was made, and how the public was allowed to pray – fuss free, frills free and fees free, added to it. There was something very primal about it's simplicity. Most magically and so unlike me, in the middle of the forest with no habitation around and rumours of leopard sighting, I sat on a stone exposed to uncertainty yet feeling safe and secure. Very secure.

I remember being really tired when we reached Gangolihat very late in the night. We were to be housed at the Forest Guest House which rejected our bookings for election candidates and left us on the road, literally. Ganga Devi, who worked at the Lodge as a cook, took us home. What ensued is what I never imagined myself a part of. Ever. Her two-room house transformed into a flurry of excited activity it had never seen before. For two city women with nowhere to sleep is not something the mountains get to see very often. With her husband away in CRPF, her children beamed curious smiles as they made themselves useful. We cooked over her chulha, and slept on the divan you see in the group picture below (behind our driver bhaiya), while the woman and her kids huddled together on the bed. I remember waking up with a bursting bladder, asking her where the loo was. She opened the room door just enough, asking me to cross over the gravel and use the 3-walled-no-roof brick structure. She seemed scared. It was 3 am, and when I came back I found the door open just enough to let my whiskers in. Only the next morning I was told how leopards walk the night in this area, looking for peeing prey and open doors. While the gathering around the food laughed, I swallowed hard and swore to have a bladder made of steel the next time around. 

Ganga Devi, our Goddess, in the purple shawl

Kitchen, and smoke
By 9 am at the village commons, women had walked from all the surrounding hamlets, some miles away, to be a part of this day. I wondered awe-struck where from came that stamina in those frail bodies and the will to wake up before sunrise and walk in worn out rubber slippers to this ‘hall’ to meet us. It is only when they started sharing their tales and pleading for deliverance from drunkard husbands, no electricity, wayward children, diseases and an unheeding administration, I realized why they were here in droves. In the group of ‘speakers’ they saw hope. I looked around at the natural beauty, of mountains a mix of shades of green with brown in between, of lazy clouds stopping to admire the scenery and tiny brooks criss-crossing the vales wildly and I realized – Within the folds of Kumaon hills are lives barely living. The beautiful peaks seem like a charade, veiling the reality of these women away from the visitors’ eyes and lenses. The irony of the names painted on the wall in the picture did not escape me. Goddesses they were but sans any worshippers, it seemed!      

The four who chatted with me, about everything. Sent them this picture.

In the hall
I promised to send Ganga prints of pictures I had taken, and Ganga's daughter promised to wear my blue drop earrings. The look in her eyes when she saw them on me assured me that she would prove a better lover to those than I had been. It was time to turn back and retrace our steps to where we came from. So far removed from these people and their places, but to Life as we knew it.

But we couldn’t have gone without seeing Patal Bhuvaneshwar. We were right at its mouth. A most interesting series of caves with a gut-wrenching tumble down a narrow tunnel as its doorway. It made me want to scream ‘oo’ and ‘oye’ to hear my echo telling me, Dear child grow up! So I did not. But all blasphemous lessons from Geography came tumbling out my brain as I saw stalactites and stalacmites in the shape of Gods and Goddesses. Try as I did, I could not see Shiva’s hair in stone or Ganesh’s trunk in rock. What I did see were the miracles the natural marriage of water and rocks could create together over aeons. Marvellous and a sculptor’s delight! But I climbed back into daylight before the pujaris read my geographical mind. The apparently healing ability of the divine cave would not have been able to save me from their wrath for such unholy thoughts. While wrath I did not pick, I did find a bunch of tourists to trail all the way to a rest house in Mukteshwar, owned by the Professor’s friend and where I found myself some good friends, including the most handsome one in black!

Travellers around a table

The best one
I remember reaching home quite spent. It was a most unusual holiday, or off-beat as they are called. For the first time I had experienced at close-quarters not just the natural beauty my hill state is famous for but the daily struggle of those who live in those very mountains, even as divinity continues to be worshipped in the many temples. It’s been a decade since the trip, but I will never forget the flavours the unbeaten path got my way!

Post script – I apologise for the bad quality pictures. A travel post without good photographs is like chai without tea leaves. Plus, such a long post! But then, too many places and too much to tell is not bad for a traveller’s health. Do Wiki interesting details about some of the places I mention. I also saw, most coincidentally, this piece of news in TOI around when I wrote this. I am hoping the coincidence means Golu Devta remembers what I wrote on a post-it 10 years ago, even if I have forgotten what I requested him for!

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Local Flavour - Write a piece about a typically “local” experience from where you come from as though it’s an entry in a travel guide.]

If Timmy were alive ...

… but he’s not.

That spotted Dalmatian-mixed-with-Pointer with a pirate patch around one eye and a black and white living of 12 human years. The brat who sneaked up our quilts at dawn, resting his head on the pillow and kicking us till every rib was awake, with a wagging tail that hurt the shins. The dog who had the remarkable ability to dislodge us from the charpai and plant his behind there, making the winter sun position itself for His Highness’s snooze time. The one who ate every leechi that fell not caring about dire gastric consequences, and made every raw mango that monsoon dropped into our yard his play-thing. There went the ambi ka achaar! He preferred boiled vegetables to bones, and flaunting his stuff every morn tied to the main gate, looking at the beauties walking down Rajpur road. Energy he was when young, and a guardian angel when older. For was it a mere coincidence that every time a family member took ill, he "took upon himself" the same ailment, even as his owners got hale and hearty? 

His Highness sun bathes
Timmy was a member of our family. He came to us at 2 weeks and stayed with us for all of our schooling days – like a baby one has to rear with care. And that meant responsibility. Timely feeds and healthy food, hygiene and ample place for exercise, company and cocooning from loud sounds, vet visits and fun rides in the car, complete. So much responsibility, that my parents barely holidayed away from home for they had not the heart to leave him in a dog hostel or the confidence to take this 30 kg fellow along. 

Only when the cat was the same size
And like all other pets, he made us understand what it is to love an animal, to the point of not thinking him to be one. He made us feel compassion and care for a mute being (but with different barking sounds for different needs!). A kinship not out of blood or community but one born in the heart and borne within us all. No wonder then that the biggest atheist in the house prayed for him when the doctors gave up on his parvo-virus attack, and he lived. No surprise either when children took turns to bathe him, aunts to feed him and uncles to walk him. Timmy was named after my mother’s first dog as a child but stood for beading the members of this family in one beautifully made necklace.   

Eventually, he was put to sleep. Because those who know said it was the right thing to do. There was no question of delaying it. Not even out of attachment for him.

And today, after all those years, I look around to see how ‘pet parenting’ has undergone an oceanic change. We love them, and we also love to display them. Like a … menagerie. Maybe out of that feeling of kinship I talk about or perhaps just out of pride, both somewhat justified. Social media shows us Spotty Sharma who maintains a blog and Goldie Garg the fish who has an FB account and congratulates you on your new baby. Mithoo Mehra, the parrot, tweets in 140 characters to Omar Abdullah in Kashmir and Nuki Nathan, the turtle, swims in our aquarium, banned as a pet but a children’s delight nonetheless (Just like Amarinder Singh’s exotic bird collection!) And then for some, the more imported the pet, the greater the reason to carry it like a designer bag for the expats’ party in New Jersey.

Yes, we like to display them as prized possessions, much like our holiday pictures, or our children winning debate competitions. Out of love or out of pride, while the reasons remain justified, the green eyed monster in me rises every time I see a good looking dog or a sweet little kitten adorning someone’s house. I feel a pang of jealousy, even as I take vicarious pleasure in spotting lovely dog pictures on the www, or with those lucky evening walkers with a leash around their hands.

In such moments, I get that close to getting myself some fur-and-bones to love. 

But, I am not ready to bring in a pet. Not as yet. Not because I am too attached to let go of Timmy but because keeping a pet is akin to becoming a parent to me, just like it was for my parents. It comes with that R-word I only recently learnt to spell. While I simultaneously envy and congratulate those who keep their animals with so much love and how, I need to wait my time to be more ready than this to become a “pet parent”.

I smile as I conclude, remembering the first ever 'essay' I wrote in school, a copy of which my mother must have preserved, although I hope to dear God she did not. It said 'My Dog', with 5 sentences which went - 1. I have one dog. 2. He has two ears. 3. He has one nose. 4. He has one tail. 5. I love my dog. While I had got the spellings and the numbers right, little did I know then that I would grow to love a real dog as much as the hypothetical one written about in the four-lined notebook.

And little did I know then, that after all those years, I would write another 'My Dog'. But about a real one, this time!

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Menagerie - Do you have animals in your life? If yes, what do they mean to you? If no, why have you opted not to?]

Thursday 13 March 2014

Guest Post - The best days of my life! by Ruchira Shukla

I don't know how to welcome Ruchira Shukla to my blog. If I drum roll her in, I might disturb the elegant sobriety that I associate with her person. If I go hyperbolic with adjectives, it will fail to suit the understated beauty that her blog stands for. So, I introduce her to you as a friend I found recently, as a woman who I admire for more reasons than one and as a writer whose writings I look up to as calm in stormy waters. 

Ruchira's stream of thoughts flow into Nirjharini, a blog she believes she cannot do justice to (thanks to her job) but a blog which does justice to her readers' lust for quality writing, post-after-post. Be it quirky travelogues or musings dipped in philosophy, Haikus or a turning back into history, the blog carries a unique character of its own. Like an exotic place where she back-packed solo, or the adrak chai she found in a shanty in a place we know only as a dot-on-the-map, but a place where she found herself. 

And I needed her to be my lucky mascot. To initiate on my blog a section on travel writing, for I could think of no one better - in craft or as a friend - to cut the shubh ribbon for me. She sent me a post this morning called 'The best days of my life!

Here it is then ... 

The best days of my life! 

I have spent many happy years in the Land of the Rising Sun and have lived in almost all its major cities, but the place that remains the closest to my heart is a quaint little city called Kobe. 

Kobe lies on the southernmost tip of Japan. It’s almost at the other end from Tokyo, but what separates the two cities is not only the physical distance but also their two totally different characters. Tokyo is all about big corporates, high rises and technology. Kobe on the other hand is quiet, laid back with an old world charm.  If we were to assume that these two cities are people, Tokyo to me would be an aggressive Businessman but Kobe would be a graceful and elegant lady dressed in a Kimono.

The time that I spent there was perfect in all aspects. I loved my job, I had great friends and most importantly I was bang in the middle of the two things I loved the most - History and Natural Beauty. There was not a single cloud to mar my bright blue sky!

Kobe is just an hour away from two of the greatest tourist spots in Japan - Kyoto and Nara. Anyone with even a remote interest in Shinto shrines and Zen simply has to visit these places. At the core of Shintoism lies the belief that God as well as inner peace can only be found in nature and that is why the ancient monks laid a great emphasis on building their shrines amongst spectacular nature beauty. Most of the shrines are either set deep in the woods or high up in the mountains.

I made many pilgrimages to these shrines over the year. They had their own uniqueness, their own
perspective to offer in each season.

In spring, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, they seemed to promise hope and new beginnings. Autumn, inspite of all its palette of colors, made the shrines look melancholic and they seemed to be teaching us about the impermanence of things. In winter, when they were covered with snow, they seemed to signify austerity and solitude.

But I didn’t always have to travel out of the city to enjoy nature. Kobe is wedged between the hills on one side and the sea on the other. My corner apartment on the 14th floor had huge glass windows. Although it was scary when the windows rattled during earthquakes or when the wind and rain lashed at them during the typhoon season, I didn’t mind because they offered me spectacular views.

On two sides they looked out on the hills. During the cherry blossom season, it seemed as if soft pink and white clouds had floated down to cover the hills.  In autumn the trees would be rust and red and yellow, as if the hills were on fire. Summer meant looking out of the window at a carpet of blue and purple hydrangeas and irises.

The third side looked out to the sea and in summer if the day was clear, I could even see yachts floating on the shimmering waters. Even when I had a chance to exchange my small apartment for a bigger one, I didn’t simply because I so loved the view I saw out of my windows!

Even going to work was a delight. The 30 minutes in the train never felt cumbersome because the monotony of the houses and buildings was broken by fields full of Hydrangea flowers that seemed to grow in such abundance in Kobe.

Work hours were long and often stretched into weekends but who would mind staying late when we just had to lift our heads from our laptops, and look out of the window at this!

Kobe was my home for almost two years. I haven’t been there for a long time now, but the years that I spent there were truly the best years of my life!

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Book Review – Cough Syrup Surrealism by Tharun James Jimani

I read 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' recently. And then I re-read it, that being the fault of the Epilogue entirely. To write a non semi-literary review of such a book would have been a challenge, which I did not take. It is an unusual book and in a very good way. 

There is no gripping plot here, if that is what you like to read books for. There is Charlie, in love with the 90s and hurled into a world of drugs, sex, love and music in the 21st century. He is surrounded by characters his age and stage, as he journeys through some months of being high in love and on drugs, full of self-hate yet living out his fantasies, somewhat. We are shown the ‘depressive’ trying to figure out which life he really wants for himself. That is, if he decides to live at all! Still, the book has no suspense, not a drop. No twists, no turns, no fatalistic dead ends. Nothing. Plot work is not what the book hinges around. 

And neither does it solely revolve around issues that beset youth today - drug addiction, casual sex, hedonism, peer pressure, ambitious parents and even the complexities of gender construction in early childhood. These may form the label on the bottle, but not what it contains inside. 

'Cough Syrup Surrealism' stands out in the crowd for how it has been written rather than what has been written about. Tharun James, using impeccable language and his background as a pop culture aficionado, has created a book which goes beyond the usual trappings of interesting plot, believable characters and realism. It is significant for the tasteful and mature ease with which it is written. 

What stole the show for me?

An Omniscient Narrator: Charlie, is that you? 

Much like your God, the narrator (not author) is present everywhere in the book. Charlie is telling us his story quite like a long dialogue, even as he is a character in the book himself. So in a way, the narrator and the character get collapsed together in the narrative. Got that? And when that dissolution of hierarchy happens, the reader sits wondering: Who is the real "author-ity" over these characters after all? 

Charlie, the ‘smack-and-Paloma man’ is the only one we hear (or Mao, his imaginary friend). He shapes and breaks the characters in our mind. And he himself comes to us as a dichotomy personified - a constant flux between the outside him and the thoughts in his mind. Like here: “I’m not really into that kind of a thing, man. I’m not?”

At no point are we readers allowed to believe in one set reality. Not even Charlie’s. Look at this:

Where I lay my head is home. The right side of Paloma’s bed, my regular bar stool at Rewind, my spot on the guy’s balcony, the passenger seat in Mao’s car, they were all my places, whenever I chose them to be. Or were they? Maybe I just thought they were my places.’  

Charlie slips from between our fingers like sand on a closing fist, even though he is the narratorial voice throughout. For this reason, he as well as the characters brought to us through him remain like impressionist caricatures created by Charlie, for us. 

Tharun has managed a post-modernist literary technique rarely found in first time writers. While, as the author of this book, he continues to be the over-arching puppeteer, all the Charlies – the narrator Charlie (looking for bearings and hungering for ‘almost-respect’), the Charlie of thoughts (‘Charlie the Invisible Man’ with his ‘melancholy whores’) and finally the Epilogue Charlie (I say no more!) do a surreal dance before our eyes. And what helplessness I feel as my fingers itch to type a deconstruction of Charlie but do not, for another word may mean the curtain falling down. I rap my Literary knuckles to stop and move on, leaving for you to discover not just the mastered technique but a character called Charlie, who will grow under your skin, in a good way, with all his ‘fucked-up emotional conundrums’ much like a ‘Dickensian creature in a rubbish, modern world’.

Surreal Descriptions – Of drugs, music, sex, 90s, you name it!

The book propels you forward with the beauty of its language. How language used a certain way makes art out of the most mundane. From drinking water on a parched throat to masturbating, from dancing under influence to the feel and smell of books, from a running SRK to a bathing one, from an aging father to Trivandrum the town – every corner you turn in ‘Cough Syrup Surrealism’ will fill with delight your reader’s mind, thanks to wonderfully penned descriptions which move – sometimes powerfully, and sometimes in slow motion, as if immersed in cough syrup. Some favourite bits:

The pain, when Charlie publicly reveals Paloma, his girlfriend's, act of stealth – ‘It was surreal. I actually felt the thought … transform into a mechanical force. I felt the words slide cautiously up my vocal chords in second gear and ease over the bump of my larynx… they inexplicably lost all shape … as they gained speed, and suddenly, it was a desert storm: a zillion sound particles bellowed out of my mouth into the cruel night … I’d regretted the words for many years before they were even uttered or exited. It was the … emotional apocalypse’.

That syrupy immersion in emotion, when Charlie looks at Paloma's bed – ‘The bed was an unruly mess; musky sex-smells lingered around it like wall flowers at a party, too timid to join the conversation, too turned on to leave. It made me miss Paloma.

And surreal descriptions of drugs and getting drugged, those scenes which border on their celebration. A wrong message? No, not at all. Just exceptional passages of great writing, telling you how these “medicines” are used to escape the deep-rooted sadness within, or maybe to feel the ‘fucking Microsoft of Candyland’.

What smack means to these rudderless characters looking for a bearing? Charlie says – ‘Smack didn’t leave you feeling empty and used…it was your favourite break up song. Smack was your best friend superimposed on the world’s most beautiful woman; and she wanted you. Smack was sympathy, empathy…the only thing that was real in an unreal plastic world. Smack gave meaning to a meaningless existence, and questioned it. Smack was beautiful, like a drug’. 

And ‘songs that had sound-tracked our relationship’ dispersed all over the book. The conviction that ‘You can take my lover, you can take away my pride, but thou shalt not taketh the metal out of me’. Only at some points, Tharun uses his knowledge of music albums to such an extent that scenes of significant importance sound nothing more than dum-de-da-de-dum to my musically semi-literate ears. You can only wish you had heard it all in the 90s, and move on.

But you smile. How drugs, music and sex bind the characters in a whirlpool of sadness and desires, and how the author makes it all soar in the reader’s mind with his language.

Post-Epilogue Shot – Spot the author!

I finished the book and started turning the pages frantically. I think I knew now places where Tharun spoke to his readers. And wasn’t he speaking as Mao too? I found places of writing about writing (meta-writing) where the author was talking to me, hinting ever so lightly towards what the Epilogue will tell me. As a writer, this appealed to me beyond measure. Like an aside in a play, or like a Sutradhar – one with the scene on the stage, but whispering to the audience ‘Hey, you are watching a play. Don’t get so carried away!’ 

I found how he had hinted already - ‘I don’t believe in “The End”. The people in films and literature … are not merely fictional characters to me, they are real as we are … their lives never begin nor end with the movie or the book’. Post-Epilogue, we realize Tharun has managed exactly this with us. And I don’t just mean an open-ended closure, if you can call it that! 

And this – ‘You research and mould and develop a concept for 10 years and create a character but once the character’s alive, you’re not indispensable to him. He’s quite happy to journey on, to write his own story…he doesn’t need you any more. You’ve already given it your all.’ 

I clear my throat now. And stop. I am swimming in spoiler waters now. 

Read it for nothing but to get drugged into reading more, thanks to the language that describes so beautifully beauty, ugly truths and deathly sadness alike. All, from the reality that surrounds so many of us from the younger lot. And for those who not just enjoy the use of language but also aspire to understand (and reproduce) the craft behind writing a novel, this is it. 

Deserving of an evolved reader, 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' is not just another novel to be rated, but a piece of Literature written by a literary genius. You must read it!  

Title: Cough Syrup Surrealism
Author: Tharun James Jimani
Publisher: Fingerprint

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Who will write my biography?

There are some questions which take you by surprise. You are surprised because you wonder how come you never thought of them. You are also surprised because you will have to think before venturing an answer. Such questions are not intrusions, no. They strike you like a flower dropping from a tree and onto your head. Your reflexes cannot hide the ‘What was that?’ but when you take in the question, it’s a beautiful thing you discover. Like the flower the tree let go of. I was asked something recently – If I could have any author – living or dead – write my biography, who would I choose?

I stood before the book shelves at home, ran my finger left to right on the spines, head tilted a little to the right. The books were throwing names at me, some popular, some not so. I could spot my favourite authors looking at me with a scowl, saying ‘traitor’, as my finger brushed over their names and ignored. I could see Sam Walton (Walmart?) bribing me with his smile, selling his biographer to me with offers attached. I even saw children’s authors of varied nationalities prattling ‘try me’, on books tucked secretly between the big people books, by my son.

I didn’t pick any first, and then I picked three. Yes, a combination would be good. Why not!

Let Mark Twain write about my childhood. Look what he did with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. You read about them as a child and you enjoy the adventures. You read them as an adult and you realize there is more here than meets the eye. Let Twain paint my childhood for me, for I too have climbed trees, had gangs of friends, tricked or treated them. Sought freedom from civilized society, created fiction and ‘some kind of a yarn’ (okay, lied) with ease that equals that of Finn. Like Sawyer I have domineered over my cousins, called pretend play adventures, thrown some style into it and how! And despite all “laws” that are supposed to govern childhood, sweet subversion has been my constant companion.  And then, with characters like ‘Jim’ around, I too have thought ‘Human beings can be awful cruel to one another’. Twain would know, how the Finn in me grew away from the Sawyer. How, as children too, there were larger issues that we all handled.

But then, I am no longer a child. I am a mother and am married to a man who is married to the Government. Something like ‘The Mammaries of the Welfare State’, with an ‘and’ in between, is what my daily life is. Yes, Upamanyu Chatterjee would understand the comic fable that is a part of our pillow talk night after night. I want this part of my life to be put in the best, most savage satire which makes you laugh– exactly what my life comprises right now, and will for a little while. Who else will know from firsthand experience how opening your own car door is as anathema as cleaning your toilet with your toothbrush, or picking your own bag! That ‘Efficiency Bar’ that ‘Hubris Ascending’ and even that ‘Pest in the Corridors of Power’. Yes, no one can document this wifely stage of my life as Upamanyu can.

However, these are the external trappings of the person I call me. Stimuli which shape me, but are not me. After all, who am I, if not my thoughts? My streams of consciousness. Descartes said ‘I think therefore I am’? Should not my biography be about what is within me as much as what is without? There is only one author who surpasses all others when it comes to portraying the reality of her characters, and that is Virginia Woolf. Her novels have dealt with memory and her characters, like Mrs Dalloway, have been thinking minds, not just material beings. My reality is my thoughts, and Woolf will know how to pen them down. Put into words what was storming my mind even as I served tea in china cups, with a broad smile. Or waved good bye to my son leaving for school with a similarly painted smile, but a heavy heart.

I sit staring at these three books before my eyes. These three, together, will write my biography for me.

But something doesn’t seem to satisfy, still. Something is amiss. These people are masters at their craft but strangers to my life, my times. Yes, like most biographers are. But then, if I could I would want someone who saw me live my life to write about it too. Who was there when my tomorrows became yesterdays as the road-roller of time laid the path to old age. Who was a witness to the greying, and his own growth in my hands. Who will know how to fill in the gaps, of incidents and feelings, when my memory fails to sit by my side. Let my son write my biography, if my life is indeed worth a tale. 

Let my biography be my son’s story of my life.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Ghost-writer - If you could have any author – living or dead – write your biography, who would you choose?]

Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Numbers this March

There are all kinds of numbers in our life and not all are Natural. Some are Odd, some are used to getting Even. Some we do not want to divide like a cheese pizza between five, others we wish would subtract themselves on their own from around our girth. But some numbers feel more Prime than others. They feel special. Dates or times, calls or discounts – we all have a little number book in our heads, The Anthology of Celebratory Numbers. I do. 

A double-digit maths score from school (I passed?) or a three digit electricity bill (thanks AAP). High score in Mario Bros (always!) or shoes inside new shoe boxes (to the power zero). Certain numbers come to occupy a certain place in our minds, even hearts sometimes. They may be forgotten the next day or remain etched in permanent ink in that anthology I talk about. But numbers, like our ages, are always on an onward march in their own sweet ways. It’s March, and I talk of some such digits.  

Say for instance 22. Two little ducks 22, says the man announcing the house in Bingo. Why the number becomes significant for me? After 22 years of teaching, my mother decided to hang her boots. Over 2 decades of spending 1/3rd of each day going to the same school to teach her children, and be taught in return, she put in her papers. She says it was instinctual. She was not tired but other things suddenly seemed to seek her attention more. She wanted to swim freestyle now in her pool of life. She made her decision on her own. But the storm in her mind continues. That angel-devil marriage that says “right thing done-wrong thing done”. It’s done, but she keeps repeating it to me ‘22 years is a really long time.’ I know how long it is numerically but I will not know how long a time it is in this passionate teacher’s mind. The only certainty is that on the 14th of March she will be given a grand farewell by a school which taught her brothers, her husband, her children, and now her nieces and nephews too. By teachers like herself! (Yes, we are unfurling the school flag on our roof top soon, maybe on the 14th of this March itself!)

14 too is a special number actually, called ‘school leaving time’ by the Bingo man (must tell mummy about the coincidence). It is a permanent favourite in my Anthology. 14th March is when my son was born (after 14 hours of labour, but that’s just a gory irrelevant coincidental detail no more). Which means, the day my mother retires, my son turns 3. Naturally, 14 becomes special to me. Double reason to celebrate it now, save up on an extra cake, and calories too. Clutching a cliché, time flew at mother fussing mach speed as 1 turned 2 to turn 3. Magically, as if! Very few special dates transform whole months to red velvet strawberry cheese cakes – smooth and delicious, like your child's birth date does. (We can cut a strawberry cake that day, why not! I can never eat just 1 slice.)

1 reminds me of those dreadful computer classes from school time. Binary was the name of a language (and you thought it was only that video game with an overgrown pac man eating balls?) and it worked with 1s and 0s. Dreadful, but I repeat myself. Those combinations of 1s and 0s made knots in my mind and earned me crosses in my report card. Only, March ’14 brought to my blog a combination I had never seen for myself, not even in the bank, I swear. 100,000 page views. Such a long number, like two trains put together with an engine combined. I still start counting backwards when I see big numbers to make myself sure (remember at the start, my Maths was bad?) – unit, tens, hundreds, thousand, ten thousand, lakh lakh vadaiyaan. My blog was viewed so many number of times. A round figure number and a fleeting favourite I froze before I refreshed the page. Before it turned to just another number in the series, albeit higher. See it in the picture?


This March brings me some really special numbers. Like a water-colour painting of a sunny sky. Tinged in different shades of bright and happy yellow, and a little blue too. 

Do you too have some memorable ones circled in red ink, scribbled in that book I call The Anthology of Celebratory Numbers? Hiding in your head or maybe tucked deep inside your heart?

You know some of mine, the numbers this March.

Monday 3 March 2014

Advert-ently wrong? Honda City’s latest advert

Remember Cibaca Toothpaste? I do. Not the paste’s taste or how it helped make my pearly whites even whiter. I remember, as a child, I used to open the box for the tiny rubber animals that popped out as freebies. Despite the fact that all animals looked like dinosaurs even when they were meant to be something else entirely. Still, till the offer was ‘open till stocks last’, my family used Cibaca. Two members out of four were hooked to it, after all.

And that phase of 7Up challenges? You collected a certain number of those rings inside the metal caps, snail mailed and claimed goodies like magic coins and fancy straws. What a rage it was! I don’t remember drinking that much 7Up, but I do remember managing a museum of ‘collector’s items’, the biggest one in the colony. But Maggi I ate, all of it, for the empty packets got me fish stamps to feel like an unbeatable philatelist.

But today, my perception of the consumer’s world has changed. I view things differently, not because I am no longer a child but also because I am a mother to a child. And when you bring that role in, just about anything in today’s times transforms into a big warty ogre out to gobble up your little one’s mind. This, mostly through the crystal clear high-definition TV sets that make life flash before our kids’ eyes. And most irresponsibly through the strange advertisements that occupy a large chunk of our viewing time.

Today, it’s Honda City’s latest advert ‘Masha Allah – The Greater Drive’, which amazes me and scares me – for its nonsensical premise and its intent to influence my child’s mind, respectively.

[To read more, please click here.]

Sunday 2 March 2014

Doing it

Oh! I could do it on beach. (Is there a drink named after it? I must be mistaken). Any time of the day, or night. Although, night might be a problem. Visibility issues. You cannot do it if you cannot see. Sure thing, a lot depends on what’s on the mind, your thoughts, your imagination, blah blah … but still, some light is necessary, which can be arranged I’m sure. So yes, I could do it on a beach.  I know, your dream too, maybe? A clean and quiet beach, swaying palm trees, setting sun and … warm wind. I don’t like the cold. It disturbs it all. I like to keep it warm. It’s not the same thing otherwise. Never tried this before, but some vodka and lime alongside might make imagining even better. They say a lot of men and women do it under influence, and are masters at it. I will try! Oh but wait … crabs. Would I want to be bitten when I'm least aware of my surroundings? No, not me.

How about a mountain? A mountain sounds good. But you know, I’m not the kind who likes to get tired. I like to take it easy, not sweat it out like mules in heat. So I have to be transported to the destination comfortably. And then, just lay sit back and enjoy the view, as if created especially for me. The hills and valleys, the wild grass. The terraces the contours and the sun-kissed … oh yes, I could do it in the mountains. Lee-ward side, so no rain disturbs me doing it. I’m as wary of getting wet as a cat is. And then knowing you are actually on solid ground, rooted and down to earth yet still on the top. That feeling of being on the top! What a feeling. The wind and clear air might make me do it like never before. I know some who have tried the mountains for it. They swear by the experience. Only problem? Cold. How much can you do with frozen hands? Or goosebumps all over? What if the light goes off, they say mountains are haunted. No, I could do without scary spies in the dark, thank you. 

Forests are charming. You are sure you are alone, the quiet is undisturbed. The birds call, the sun tries to peek inside through the thick canopy, wondering, what exactly are you up to. Maybe on a log or a bed of dry leaves.  The rustle will echo and add to the sounds around, to your ideas too maybe. What better than being in the most untouched and primal place to get down to it? To get in touch with your own pith, the core that makes you what you are. Primal! Like all worldly thoughts shed, no rules no lines not even any fear. Just do it. Keep doing it, for who is there to stop you? No door bell, no phone, no bathroom … no bathroom? No, wait, stop the dream. We all need a little ceramic close at hand. Sorry forest but that just broke my dream. No more of you too!

I guess it is okay then. Why dream. My dining table does just fine. Teak and glass, combined. Solid and with a plug point near at hand. We’re staying right here, lappie, and this is where we’ll do it, you and me combined.

This is where we will write.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Places - Beach, mountain, forest, or somewhere else entirely?]

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