Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Curious Case of Hanging Laundry


I am extremely perturbed today. I have learnt from various sources that it’s against gentle manners to dry your laundry out on balconies, your balconies of your houses, out here in Brussels. I also learn that this is true for many countries around the world, but about those mennu kee. I’m not looking for comfort in numbers here. I am, right now, looking at the sun shining on my balcony, and with a gentle wind calling out to the washed laundry piled in the bucket near my feet, waiting to be freed.

Yes, freed. I’m sure wet clothes have feelings too. That they like to hang freely after what they go through in the washing machines. To wave their arms and legs and hems and holes as they dry in the wind and sunshine. And what about their daily dose of Vitamin D? No, this isn’t my angry state of mind muttering untruths to me. This is the absolute truth. It pinches as hard as the hardest clothes-clip the very moment you have to push your clothes rack into your drawing room, and start hanging your soaking laundry there, hoping this summer of 09 will last forever.    

For a city which barely manages to get enough sun in a year to make rai ka achaar, I find this tradition absolutely unbelievable. Or maybe, they just don't know what they're missing! We who have been line-drying our clothes in India since the planet of the apes know what it’s like. The wafer-crispiness of clothes dried in the warm embrace of sunshine is orgasmic to hold. The towels become prickly happy, the separated socks feel loved, the bermudas reach their sandy beach of dreams and even the underwear, for once, feels wanted in public gaze, with nothing to hide!

Why, our clothes proudly unfurling their insides outside is as much a part of our core identity as a flag is made out to be. That is why I say to whomsoever it may concern, that this foreign rule of drying clothes inside the houses is nothing but an affront to my patriotic spirit, my nationalism, my national song, dance, drama and costumes.

Costume makes me wonder. Consider the salwar of the salwar-suit fame. It has many, some even secret, parts which need proper wind and sun to dry. The amount of cloth which goes into making just one of those could cover a whole war bunker against attack. Something so valorous about it, in keeping with the sex which wears it. See how ‘nada’, the string, or ‘bookrum’, said in the right tone, can veritably be war cries. Rebel! Nada! Charge! Bookrum! How is it then expected to humbly hang on a clothes rack, in a forgotten corner of the house, waiting to dry without bellowing with invasive might in foreign winds? It’s just mean.

A man’s most prized all-purpose possession, again nothing less than a steel armour, the baniyan, is also to be met with the same fate. No matter that the vest has been with the man since his mother darned the fifth hole that it got with age, as it went from white to less white to yellow in its first three washes. It is forced to swallow its ‘VIP’ tag, forget that it was once a ‘Boss’ and hang alongside other wet bits of a man’s inner world. Sadly, the new-born sixth hole teeming with curiosity to have a peek at the world around is to suppress its desire and get denied its basic education. Heart-breaking! Here they call the vest ‘gilet’, and assuming the ‘t’ is silent, because just anything in French can be silent anytime, it’s sad they don’t see the message the vests are screaming through their names. ‘Geeley’, we are wet! Dry us outside! Learning Hindi needs to be made compulsory here, for equality and fraternity sake!

Talking about equality... nothing acts as a bigger leveler than one, long, sturdy clothes-line. Like a traffic red light in New Delhi, where Maruti 800 meets a Jaguar without reservation, the clothes-line quietly works on a similar principle of erasing class boundaries. On your line, be it a rusty wire or a plastic rope, the Zaras and the Rupas hang shoulder to shoulder, sans prejudices and biases, with a message of gender-equality subtly thrown in. So here will be your precious Benetton pair of socks bought for the price of your kidney and next to it you’ll see your Lee jeans, custom-made in two hours at Mohan-Singh Place, CP, choice of tag included! And you know as well as I do how now, more than ever, we need to stand visibly together against any kind of oppressive regime.

Like this anti clothes-line rule, for instance!

For now, I have hung my washed laundry on a rack and placed it in the warmest part of the house, inches away from the balcony. Like a ‘nearest to heaven but farthest from god’ approach. But the nationalist in me is itching to twist and tease some gentle-manners, and hang one, just one, piece of my clothing on the railing outside. Like my banner of protest; of rejection of some things foreign. That will be my war-cry against this mind-boggling rule.

That will be my Nada!!


From 'Aliens Love Underpants'


Friday, 7 July 2017

Hairy Legs, Brussels and ‘I think she likes me’




The hair on my arms is the length of my toes. The hair on my legs has reached my toes. I wouldn’t say it is a completely new experience, but it is certainly most novel to experience it when a country is celebrating, yes celebrating, all 13 degrees of its summers with skin and sunshine. On the cobbled streets of Brussels I am probably the only one wearing stretch denims while the world is sprinting ahead of me in airy, breezy and frivolously delicious summer clothes. The moment I spot a pair of smooth legs enjoying the sunshine, it is as if the jeans grow four sizes smaller to kill me with asphyxiation, or whatever the hell tight jeans can do to your health when the heart burns green. 

But my hands are tied. 

I am thousands of kilometres away from a long-trusted tin of Shabnam Cold Wax (Rs 70) and a packet of disposable white waxing strips (Rs 25). Are there no salons in Brussels, you ask? There’s one in every Rue, but with my level of fluency in French I believe I might as well discuss foreign policy with a plant, and succeed in having a path-breaking dialogue, than explain to la fille successfully that I need a wax. Um, there is another reason why I have been Google translating salon menus but not garnering the courage to enter and ask for a pure and simple wax. 

It seems to me to be a secret kind of … something. It caught me by surprise. And I have been trying to unravel it as much as I have been my overgrown eyebrows from my lashes. 

When you shift to a foreign country for the first time, complete with lock, stock and barrels of homemade ghee, you are ready and raring for the new life ahead. You are confident that it’ll be a great experience. So happy you are that it’s not wind under the wings of the airplane but actually your excited panting which floats your craft ahead, right till you land. 

Then a few days later you land again, with a minor splash into the pool of reality that surrounds you. It is different!

There is newness at every step of the way. This is not that kind of newness which tourists make happy selfies or informative photographs out of. Their tryst with newness is temporary. It happens with a bang and begins to fizzle once the trip is done, all #nofilters dusted and suitcases of fridge magnets unpacked. I talk of a more permanent interface between you and The Foreign – a kind where from bread and beer to office and school, everything has to integrate harmoniously and seamlessly into the language of your everyday life. Much has to be done, made possible, understood and learnt. And this includes ideas about your sense of self. Very basic and visible ideas too, I do sheepishly confess.

Like my hairy legs. 

‘Gosh! No one has body hair here, unless it’s golden and invisible! Were they dipped in bleach before being sent to Earth?’ and  ‘Can I really walk my legs into the salon without having the ladies there run out scared of King Kong?’ … just two of the many thoughts which rattle my mind as my caddy rattles behind the French and Dutch ones at supermarkets. During one such musing, with a twang that a thread on an in-growth feels like, I heard a loud ‘What will they think?’ inside my head.

The loudness echoed inside me. I caught it lingering longer than the smell of tadka in an 8-storied building. What will they think? What will they say? It stalked me all over the park, walked behind me right to my building, went up the same elevator and even entered my flat. It is only later that the stress shifted itself, and thank Gouda that it did! What will they think? Hold on! When before have I been so conscious of what people think? Have I not managed to live and let live most of the 34 years of my life confidently and sans self-consciousness? So why am I now eager to theorize ‘A comparative study of hair growth between French and Indian legs’? 

More importantly, who is this ‘they’ that I talk about? Who is this … Oh Crêpe!

I realized how, rather easily, I created an entity. I attributed to a whole population homogenous characteristics and in doing so created an absolute ‘other’. In my head! Simultaneously, I ‘othered’ myself in the process. A kind of alienation, where I was alienating not just the others from me but my own self from them too. Hello wall, I built you for free. And now I’m wondering why…

It felt odd. It felt wrong and unfair. Especially so when I looked back on my few weeks here only to realize the locals never made me into a ‘they’. If anything, they had been kinder to me than many of “my own”. Be it book shops or tram stops, Carrefour queues or bars, nowhere and not once did I get a feeling that I am being seen as different. Forget a second look, even a first look doesn’t come your way. You’re just going about your day, like everyone else. At first it feels unflattering, as if everyone else is invisible to everyone else and it’s a very self-centered life out here. But gradually, you realize how it also means you’re being taken as a part and parcel of everyday life here. You’re being integrated as a ‘resident’, a person among others, and not an ‘exotic import’ who ended up guilty of training a magnifying glass on her own Indian identity when no one else cared. 

And yet, there continues an acknowledgement that we are new and may need assistance. Where language was a barrier, the toy shop owner drew a map on a napkin to show us the mobile recharge kiosk. Where language wasn’t a problem, people made sure to tell us with pride that they’ve seen the Taj Mahal! If Shakespearean Mercy droppeth from heaven above, then this is Merci heaven itself. It’s what you hear for the smallest of gestures. It is also what you feel right back. 

To even linger on the border of a limited world which propagates difference and divisiveness, of any kind, is but missing out on the vast expanse of a very warm and welcoming world, around the world. But then it is easier to commit this crime, than to not commit it at all. I confess guilty to that.  

A few moments before I wrote this my son and I bumped into our concierge in the elevator. She only understands French, while I am yet to not pronounce oui as oye! Lots of animated gestures and smiles and words (without comprehension) were shared. She kept pointing at my son, kept circling her face with her hand. Her eyes wide and happy. I have no idea what we spoke but felt good anyway after our “introductions”. There was something more than looks, language and identity at play. And as if to confirm it all my son beamingly chimed soon as we entered our home - ‘I think she likes me’. 

Recently, we were given a very old copy of ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. We have been reading it aloud, together. This precious copy has lived more than half a century, with a handwritten note that is older than me. This personal note to an ‘Auro’ quotes from the book and says:

It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

It is with this thought that we begin our short stint in Brussels. It is this that I hope my child learns. And as we go about acquainting ourselves with a new world which is our home now, something tells me he already understands that. [Apart from believing what the little boy in this book staunchly does - ‘Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is so tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.’ Oh well!] 

As for my legs, I’m sure this social media addict will update you with a picture soon. But in case I don’t, you know where they’re headed, don’t you?  

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A lovelier world

Everybody has their own definition of Indulgence. For some, it’s busying themselves with their hobbies, and for others it’s about exploring the world and finding their true selves. You know, long drives in their beloved cars! I must confess, though, that there are moments when Indulgence seems like the very reason I wait for the 1st of every month. Pay cheque time! And food, (good food) served at beautiful places brings out the best in me. The best black dress to wear, a limited edition car to transport me, and a most exclusive culinary experience at the end of it. Sigh. Somehow, the mundane makes way for a lovelier world when you accept how divine indulging yourself can be. Here are five fine food places in Delhi for finding it!

1. Tamra, at Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel - Tamra is a ‘world in your platter’ place, offering Asian, Japanese, International and Indian fare, straight out of its five interactive live kitchens. It's fun and vibrant.

Pic - shangri-la.com
2. West View, at ITC Maurya –The exquisite view and the fine variety of mouthwatering delicacies make West View a must-go. But better be a proper meat-eater if you’re coming here. The European style menu is focused on meat dishes and all you need to do is pick your meat cut and how you want it cooked. For the rest, get here in style lay back and enjoy the scenic Delhi range. 


3. Dakshin, at Sheraton – This one’s for the lovers of authentic South Indian cuisine, and I mean way beyond dosas and idlis. The dishes served are uncommon and from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Some exclusive traditional dishes which usually don’t make restaurant appearances will make way to your table here!

4. Spice Route, The Imperial Hotel – It’s not just the exotic Thai and Asian cuisine here which will grab your attention. Imagine sitting in a restaurant designed to reflect the journey of spices from the Malabar Coast in Kerala through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam. Yes! This is an architectural marvel made over 7 years and now serving an exclusive menu crafted by the President’s Awardee Thai national, Chef Veena Arora.

Pic - imperianindia.com 
5. On the Waterfront (OTW), Lodhi – This place is great for lunches and lavish Sunday brunches. The menu is vast and includes kebabs, sushi, cold cuts, curries, grills, soups, stirs, biryani, pastas…yes, exclusively vast. There’s also a jetty here, by the way. 

You know how the finer things are always limited. So I’m wondering if I do manage to get two of them – free time and good food, I may also go a step further in my indulgence and need a car like the recently launched limited edition Dzire Allure, to take me places I desire to go. I hear that its stylish exteriors are equipped with a chrome bumper corner protector, lower lid garnish, stylish body graphics and side skirts. These features add an elegant touch to this beautiful car. Hm. Now that completes the picture of a lovelier world.

Payday, I’m waiting for you!  

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

'Oh! My Name' is fabulous



Children love to own things. (So do adults I know, but let’s not go there!) The little ones want to be proud possessors of things they enjoy, can boast about and later stack and add to their burgeoning numbers. There is always a wish-list on display under the fridge magnet and another one ready to be scribbled after the best friend’s birthday gifts are opened or inadvertently an advert for the latest in children’s goodies watched. (You should have caught the TV remote in time!)

They just want! They know what they want and how they want it. Only sometimes they may know why they want it. Nonetheless, they want and that’s explanation enough. And you, loving parents, need to give, or to put it in the blackmailer’s language, provide. But wanting and getting isn’t always so bad. As a parent nothing makes me happier than my child asking me for books to read, for instance. It is a “demand” I love to meet and never argue against because I always feel like I’m pandering to my childhood love too as I cater to my child’s. Plus, it’s a great first love to have. Books! So be it book fairs or book shops, jumble sales or Children’s Day coupons, this mother hunts for good books with a zeal which she doesn’t even show for good food. Ahem.

So, what is a good Children’s book according to me? One which excites them, frees their imaginations, makes them feel, makes them question and maybe makes them learn a thing or two about their world, about gentle manners, values like team work and Quantum Physics, why not? They grow up so fast! And these days, academic pressure... Sorry. But you get the idea. That’s a good book there for me, minus the Physics, that is.

What is an even better book? A uniquely personalized book. No, not one which simply copy-pastes your child’s name in place of Prince Charming but something like ‘Oh! My Name’ by Nikhil Mittal, which takes personalization to a level beyond mere labeling. It’s a concept which instantly caught my attention and later my appreciation for how it involves tiny readers. 

When I ordered the book online, I was asked to write a Dedication which would actually be printed in my copy of the book.  You could write anything under the sun and over the moon, addressed to your child and signed off with your role of ‘Papa and Mama’, or whatever your relationship is with the kid you are ordering the book for. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to give him my list of Life’s 10 Most Important Lessons but his father disagreed. So a sweet little wish for his dreams to come true it was to be. This idea of creating a dedication not just personalized the book but also added an emotion to the giving of the present itself. The printed words making owning this book even more special. 


But it doesn’t end there, the promotion of a lovely ‘this is my book!’ sentiment. 

Oh! My Name’ makes your child a part of the book. Literally. 

‘I didn’t forget my way, but my name.’

This is the story of a boy/girl who has forgotten his/her name and is looking for it. The name is put together letter-after-letter and page-after-page in an adventurous tale. The wonderful twist is, your child is the protagonist of the story and it is he/she looking for the name. No surprise then that it is his name spelled bold and bright in white at the end of the tale! 

The boy in my book, with a unibrow and wearing a red cape, meets different creatures as he journeys ahead. His friend and ‘ally’ Dabi goes along; a favourite toy magically turned real. With expressions of bewilderment and wonder, he meets some animals that he knows and some fantastical creatures like Ila Pika who he is happy to now know. Everyone gives him a letter to take along, in return for what goes on. What goes on is a secret I’m keeping!       

The story is brought alive with big and beautiful illustrations in a book which is printed on a wide landscape format and is super easy to hold. The story is brought home in a child’s mind with its rhyming sentences and simple expressions. Invented sound words like ‘Ho Ho Hokeya’ make reading aloud fun and some conversations are bold and big to be read even louder, perhaps. 


There are lessons and messages gently tucked inside the story, without making it sound like school curriculum. Each tiny episode of meeting a different creature makes the boy in my book make the boy reading it learn something. Take help when you need it, but don’t forget to lend your helping hand when another needs it more. So if in the first part it’s the boy taking help, in the second he has learnt to help back. Both appreciation and gratitude abound, along with thank yous and awards. Dabi, the magical toy, stands for that magic which shows itself when you most need it. It tells children that friends help. Strangers become companions. The universe comes together to lead you on to happiness. Even a snake can give you something that ‘will help you make progress.’ The important bit is to move onwards. And even more, to know yourself. But for now, your name would be enough.

Oh! My Name’ is great for pre-schoolers who are just jumping into the sea of phonetics as well as early-readers. This book will certainly make them identify the letters of their name, in the correct sequence at that. Of course, adults will have to help them read the rest of the book. It can make for a good first introduction to many animals too! Words like ‘Organic’ and a picture of Shakespeare made my reading session with my five-year-old digress into unchartered territory. Even more fun! The mystery keeps them hooked, even if the older clever clogs realize the spelling of the name rings a bell. So if by the time NIS have been found and Nishad guesses it’s his name, how the rest of the letters will appear in the story keeps him reading on. For those who don’t make an effort to start putting the letters together as they read, well, the book holds a bigger surprise then! Who says being lazy is bad, huh? 


There was one thing though, in NISHAD’s story that caught my eye. The transition from I to S, only, seemed like a jump. If the book is created by stringing letter-episodes together, it should be seamless. ‘The boy was looking at a creature’ could begin ‘Just a few steps ahead…’ for example. That would help maintain a continuity to the journey. However, such nuances are for the adults to notice in their boring grown-up critical worlds. Children don’t have time to waste on such nitty-gritties. All mine had to say when I asked him about it was ‘I don’t know what you mean. I only wish my name were very loooooong’. Request denied, of course.

While ordering the book online I could read the complete thing with just a ‘tap to open’. Just a sample page as preview would have been enough, or it takes away the charm for adult readers who love tales written for children. (Pssk! It did make me create one in my name to read.) I also found out that the same letters in two different names have same episodes in both books. But repeat letters in the same name have different episodes. Which means multiple stories have been created for the many letter combinations. Which also means siblings with common letters in the name will share a little more than just their parents.

What if siblings could become characters in the same book, looking for letters of their names appearing all jumbled up? Fighting to own the first shared ‘A’ or ‘I’? Oops. Sorry. I digress there.   

Oh! My Name’ is a lovely book created with much thought.  It came along with a muppet of Dabi, who has now occupied pride of place in my child’s bed. He felt immense surprise followed by interest and joy on receiving and reading this story which brings together the real and the magical. A real him in a magical story! The tiny adventure in this good-looking book is very personal and at the same time very important too. Because what’s in a name? A lot, especially if it belongs to a child.



'Oh! My Name'  by Nikhil Mittal is self-published (2017)

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

A Ball of Wool

Some say there are no random events in the universe. It follows then that there are no random thoughts either. All thoughts have an origin, a place where they come from and a reason they are born. Now, I may not know why I have this gnat-of-a-thought buzzing over me like I’m its gnu, but it’s there. This thought. By talking about it I want to share its buzz. 

Let’s consider our Self as a ball of wool. Soft, bright and snugly wool. Over the years this ball of wool uncoils itself in all eight directions, and then eight more, and more, and so on. By uncoils I mean this self ‘lives’ life. It um ... gives, takes, talks, keeps silent, does, doesn’t do, learns, unlearns, writes, erases, wants, rejects, makes, breaks, grows, plucks, cooks, burns, works, shirks, smiles, keeps smiling, runs, sits still, opens up, closes in, uses mascara, rubs the lipstick, falls, gets up, makes friends, manages friends, switches on, or off, carries on, and on. 

Your Self as you knew it long back when you learnt what self means constantly becomes and unbecomes. But ‘unbecomes’ is no word so let’s just say our Self constantly becomes. It sounds more positive anyway! So when we do all those things (separated above with tiny commas) over our lifetimes our Self becomes. Some would say evolves and grows. Okay. Good. But then what is left of that ball of wool – the soft, bright and snugly wool we began with, after all the slow uncoiling and fast uncoiling and mediocre uncoiling happens and happens and maybe on a very cold, contemplative morning it begs to be noticed? What does it become, really? 

Tiny.

Perhaps the size of the zygote where it all begins. Perhaps tinier. 

Over the years, while the thread of wool spreads around forming a messy maze which may have its own method and past motivations, the ball of wool constantly spins to finally become minuscule at the end of the day. Somehow, without you noticing, you’ve made your Self out of sight! Or to obsess over the metaphor (winters!) uncoiled so much that you’ve forgotten what the ball of wool was about in the first place. It’s barely there now. No magnifying glass, no microscope will make you see what’s left of what was once so … different!

It is a terrifying thought, of this sense of vanishing Self, despite the knowledge that you remember close to nothing of what you once were or wanted to be. This thought shakes the chair you sit on, makes its legs jelly and you sink, heavy with gravitas. All you see are the endless loops and hoops of the thread all around you. So much of it that it doesn’t even seem to be yours! Did it really come from you? Is it you? Was it? Who is you?

Oh boy! I did that? Why would I say that? Oh no that was loony of me. Sheesh! Magenta? No. No. That idea could never have been mine. Are you sure? Positive? Really? It’s okay to not know. Wow, I didn’t know? But I never supported such differences. Oh. I did? Of course I believe in my opinions! I said yes! I said no? Ho! Organic food sucks! I hate that woman. I really hated that woman? Why? Oops! I got drunk? But that’s so not me! Seriously? Why would I close my door on their face? I made a face at her? You’ve got to be mistaken! No? Oh!   

Ahem. Phew. So much.


So on a certain day, the age and stage of which may strike you by surprise, you decide to start coiling the thread back into a ball. Give it some pattern, some semblance of order. Like a ‘this is me!’ moment where the said 'me' may be as unchanging as the sea, but still. Order order. You don’t have to be old and wise. You can be young and wiser and just start pulling back your threads - slowly, sneakily, sassily or sagely. Knit it back. Or just yank it into a hank like our grandmothers used to do using their knees, perhaps never otherwise sitting with their legs so apart but their hands as ever dexterous. I wonder now if by some Jungian connection they had originally thought of this "Self= ball of wool", much before I claim copyright to it some generations down. Would this metaphorical connect explain the passion with which they knit and undid sweaters and mittens and shrugs and shawls with their bony, wrinkled fingers? What were they thinking when they did that? What were their thoughts?  

Winding up our Self into a whole. 

Sounds oxymoronic! Could it mean anything, though? 

Well, you could be honest and straight more often than not. Forget politeness and remember to call a faded sweater a silly, raggedy, useless blot in the name of all sweaters of the world! Choices of yore which now seem compromises to the core can be picked and thrown away like lint on your old fleece. Give in that resignation! If your anxiety has been reduced to a ‘usual habit’ make sure you don’t invite the nitpickers when the next prickly party in the head-heart region strikes. If the tray of sweets was slipped away from right under your nose, don’t bother to serve that gajar ka halwa when your door bell rings next. If your heart says sleep you tell the imp to go fly a kite (but keep away from the boundary wall and wear your sneakers will you!) and you sleep. If they read you to shred you, you make sure you make mental noodles of their books! If they think you talk too much stop talking to them entirely. If they mock those you love then rip open the new set of knives. If someone else wants peace and not your dissent, give them a piece of your mind and then the peace. If another your pound of flesh, take it instead. If they think your hair...  

Lord! I sound mutinous… but I guess what I’m saying is, when you wind up the many loops you’ve surrounded yourself with, knowingly or otherwise, you start seeing yourself better. You recognize what you feel and you give priority to the sounds of your own silent sighs behind the smiles. Because you hear them now. Because maybe sometimes only you will hear them and understand them. 

Of course, you can’t really become a zygote in a fallow tube or some such, so you leave just enough thread out there to know and be known for who you choose to be at that point. Just enough thread to roll back. Just enough to be an extended hand. Never enough to be tugged away. Gradually, you find that lost Self shaping up. May not be a perfect round figure anymore. Nope. But a sphere’s not so bad either.  

And while you wind up your Self into a whole, if you feel like rambling publicly about it in one thousand words without a second look, well, you go ahead and do that too. Self-help, you know!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Nude Figure in Anurag Tripathi’s ‘Kalayug’




The golden spine of Anurag Tripathi’s ‘Kalayug’ catches the eye instantly. It glitters on the shelf, till you pick it up and notice the dark silhouette of a man against the headlights of cars. The contrast of gold and black is palpable. The juxtaposition even more significant when you read the book. For what lies within is a story that takes you deep into the labyrinth that the art industry is according to the author – glam and gloss on the outside but with a murky underbelly behind the sheen. 

Kalayug’ enjoys a great plot, with only a handful of characters and a deceptively simple story line. There is no visible effort to complicate things or confuse the readers, and yet there are wheels within wheels; or to put it differently, paintings within paintings. Intrigue is a constant, with the first chapter itself setting the pace, the tone and the characters for what is to follow. And what does follow?

‘The global art world was transforming…this transformation had replaced aesthetics...with economic considerations of value and marketability…

Jay Malhotra, a sharp and astute banker, enters the unregulated art market of the Navaratnas, hopeful of turning his fortunes around with the help of his personality and unflinching ambition. He knows that ‘the Navaratnas could be the next big trend in the art industry.’ But what he doesn’t is that ‘the purchase of the Navaratnas was so out of the ordinary, it had the potential to spoil the harmony in the art fraternity.’ So many unexpected colours mix on his palate; those events which surprise him, make him soar, make him struggle and finally shock him! As he makes his way from one art gallery to the next dealer, one warehouse to the next businessman and finally to the courtroom, Jay meets an array of characters who make or break his deals and add both style and suspense to this novel. There’s Patty, a savagely competitive art dealer and owner of two of the biggest art galleries. ‘There is no dearth of people, but there is only one Patty’, as she believes and the book later confirms. There’s Arun, a disillusioned artist. Deepak, the first-generation entrepreneur desperate for social acceptance. There are art collectors ‘hoping to ride the wave of increasing prices in the future’. And then there is Biswas, the academician who hopes for the ideal in the art world…

Every character in this book is manipulative. And so everything is manipulated. There are no free lunches and few relationships to trust. Which makes the book a page-turner, more so towards the end. Which makes the characters risk-takers. Which is also why every partnership – in bed or business – sets the reader wondering about ulterior motives and agendas. The guessing-ahead never really abates! 

Consider Jay and Patty, both representatives of the contemporary, urban, educated world of business and art. Their ‘passionate battle for dominance’ in a world where ‘a bank balance is more tangible than goodwill’ is a constant note that drives them to turn the art tide their way. To even buy peace by selling their souls! How an outsider tries to succeed on a project that 'the queen of the market' herself had failed at is the exhilarating journey the book takes us on. Does he? Can he? That remains to be found out.

Kalayug’ not just makes for an entertaining story imagined well. It is created well too, the primary reason for which is Anurag Tripathi’s scholarship. Anurag knows the world of art - totally unregulated, fragmented and growing - like an insider would. His book is based in a context which is actual. Like Dan Browns’ books, ‘Kalayug’ is full of facts and analyses of artworks, artists and eras. From the calculated seating arrangement at complex auctions to the psychology of bidders. From the development of Tagore as a painter to the lack of documentation plaguing his paintings. From scientific methods of authentication to the underground forgery market often run by the painters’ families themselves. And from motives behind buying art as an alternate asset class to master painters languishing in penury on the roads. There’s much that is told to the readers, often in slightly repetitive chapters dedicated to information. Some may feel it slows the pace of the novel, but may change their minds when they realize how everything that is told is significant to the story unfolding with every turn of the page. 

The author’s voice comes through the narrator’s - acutely observant, subtly satirical and with a tinge of regret that ‘all was fair in the unregulated art industry.’ Anurag’s social commentary is unmistakable. People who received fancy invitations made sure everyone knew about it. Perhaps, the applause wasn’t for the paintings but for the amount they sold for? ‘People without experience, expertise, reading or aesthetic exposure became art dealers.’ And the one question - ‘Were people buying art for its aesthetic beauty or merely paying for the signature of the Grand Master’? So many times you hear the narrator but you listen to the voice of the lesser sold artist that Anurag Tripathi is standing up for. Almost creating this story for. Even a forger is but ‘an artist…used his knowledge, talent and imagination to interpret’ because these days ‘being talented was not good enough’. It was Kalayug, after all. The world of art. The age of downfall. Or… both. 

The only let-down in ‘Kalayug’ was, perhaps, the character of Patty. The blurb introduces her as a ‘fiercely competitive art dealer who will defend her turf at all costs’ and raises expectations for a great female character. However, the more you get to know her successes the more you realize – Patty is a stereotype speaking a typical script. She is smart and ambitious but ‘she did what was required to survive in an unforgiving world, exploiting her beauty and sexuality to her advantage…a go-getter, known to play dirty.’ Why? Does a female survivor of misfortune have no other way to success, except using and abusing those around her, much in the language of the abuse she may have faced? Plus, her dialogues lack charm, her retorts spunk. Even in her final gesture towards Jay, Patty befuddles rather than attracts. 

One cannot consider ‘Kalayug’ as solely a thriller. It is a convincing exposé of the fickle and impulsive art industry, where money speaks and relationships go from symbiotic to parasitic in one stroke of the brush. This in turn makes the book a reflection of human nature itself, with adult ego, ambition and opportunity driving the characters to possess ‘institutionalised and objectified cultural capital’. The portrait of the art world in this gripping thriller is a nude figure of ‘the commercialization and degeneration' of this very world. 

No one knows for certain the extent of these (forged) works currently afloat in the art market.
Biswas smiled as he read the last sentence and wondered if it should have read ‘no one wanted to know’ rather than ‘no one knew’.

The final twist to the tale ends it on a hopeful note. Utopic. Idyllic. (Naïve?) But hopeful, nonetheless, of ‘a new beginning.’ This is a book with a spine, which says it as it actually is. 

Must read!  


'Kalayug' by Anurag Tripathi is a Rupa Publication, 2017.

[Review was commissioned by the PR agency. Views are my own.]

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Bringing the Rainbow; The Hindware Story by RK Somany




Once, while driving along a rutted mud road to Bahadurgarh in a bouncing old Morris Minor, RK Somany saw a rainbow suddenly appear. The heat, the dust and the fretful uncertainty of getting land for his plant was forgotten, and ‘a chore became exciting. Ever since, the rainbow became my guiding mantra. In whatever I do, as a businessperson, a father, a husband, a friend and a family man, I ask myself: ‘Am I bringing the rainbow to this? The passion, the excitement, the colour?’

No wonder then that RK Somany titled his autobiography ‘Bringing the Rainbow; The Hindware Story’. And no doubt he tried to bring the rainbow into this book too. The story is about how Hindware went from a newbie to a market leader, surpassing the country’s economic handicaps, everyday business challenges and even personal impediments from within the Somany family. 

Autobiographies create a glorious canvas of context – historical, political and cultural. The story of a person comes riddled with important events from which he, and thus the reader, draws valuable lessons. They provide us with a deeper understanding of the subject they are written around. And they make for interesting literary reading in that the reader looks for omissions in the narration and hesitant gaps in the narratorial voice; those moments which make you wonder – is this his recollection as an adult or an uncoloured version from his childhood? 

The telling of the tale. The home and the world.

RK Somany tells the story as if it is being meticulously recalled for a live audience. So while sometimes the narration is linear at others he shifts between the past and the present. While he does that, a panoramic picture of not just his life’s events but those happenings which beset the times also gets painted. What comes through is a visual of both how the businesses were run and how families were too. 

RK Somany was the ninth among eleven children, brought up by his eldest brother, Hiralall, after his father’s death when he was seven. Those were times of ‘centrality of morals’ and when older brothers were near-bosses, who set standards and conditions! But who also patrolled the house with a rifle during crises like the Great Calcutta Killings. Good words carried worth, good families even more. School admissions and membership of Exchanges and Clubs happened based on reputation. And yet, under the same strong family umbrella came a scheming sibling, two mysterious deaths and some more “bad blood”. 

Business was never usual in times of historical flux and ‘life wasn’t all glamour and fun.’ Red tape, black markets, ‘blinkered government policies’ and socialism made private industry seem suspicious. There was very little market intelligence and data to base decisions on. Add to that infrastructural woes like power cuts and ‘inspector raj’ in a place like UP, and later the Emergency with the ‘draconian MISA used to intimidate businessmen’ and the financial crisis of 1991. Hindware had many tides to overcome, and ‘Bringing the Rainbow’ shows how RK Somany did just that.  

As one reads what comes across as a ‘business saga’, one notices significant events, professional and personal, which made Hindware a household name. And which made RK Somany the man who is speaking to us through this book. 

Important events for him. Lessons for all.

In retrospect, I am really grateful to my family for its decision to move me out of Calcutta more than half a century ago. I wouldn’t have become who I am had I remained there.’

In ‘Bringing the Rainbow’, as with all autobiographies, we sense a bildungsroman. From boyhood to his businessmen years, the book clearly chronicles RK Somany’s growth. But if you pay attention to the teller, the tale makes you privy to pivotal points of time in his life which stand out as peaks. His early days reveal how the psychology of this second youngest sibling evolved, as a ‘fierce determination’ was born over fighting for a mere chance to play. Private tutors would teach his siblings and he would sit around, listening.  Learning. A ‘template for my behavioral responses to adversity’ was created as violent and economically stressed historical eras unfolded. In him also developed a streak of individuality away from his brothers’ footsteps - to become a graduate even as he helped his family in business! 

It was the physically taxing days spent in England which helped him learn the ropes of the ceramic industry. The discomfort and ‘enforced thrift’ of those times led to a success which comes when one is ‘in the thick of action’.  The aim always remained to provide world class products at Indian consumer prices, and not compromise on customer goodwill because of the more profitable black-marketing. Trysts with Jaycees and the Rotary Club brought out the public leader in him. Exposure to the differences between workers in England and India made him understand and deal with labour strikes too. 

An eye-opening event was that of buying back his own brand at a high price from a Chinese company, which was using it. Hindware’s wings had spread and problems were fast increasing. ‘The big boys of the global sanitaryware industry soon entered the Indian market.’ Often, the obstacles were political, like he found out when the sales tax department of Govt of Haryana raided his plant. Countless such important events in his life left him learning and unlearning, and leave us doing the same too.

I am humble enough to know that I do not have all the answers. The HSIL board comprises men of rare distinctions. It would be foolish not to leverage and take advantage of their combined wisdom. This is simple common sense…’    

The voice.  The person.  

I wasn’t certain that the familial ties and the strict Marwari culture that had kept us brothers closely bonded would endure into the third generation…maybe the time had come to divide…

The straightforwardness with which the story is told makes RK Somany seem a friend by the time we finish reading. And we his confidants! No, there are no sensational revelations eager to please the reader. But there are many moments where the already-thin guard of autobiographies is down, and where the narrator truly shows himself in flesh and blood. 

You sense relief when he says his family was ‘without any choking orthodoxy’, and gratitude and admiration for his brother when he says ‘it takes a rare human being to put his own education and possible future on the line to bring up his siblings.’ There is honest admittance of being well-off from the time he was conscious to the time he first signed a cheque for one crore of rupees. No mincing that, because ‘in the tradition of all the great Marwari businessmen I admire, I believe cash is king.’ No mincing either the candid revelations of ‘strains (that) had begun to surface in this united and happy family image we portrayed to the outside world.’ Forgiveness shows when he speaks about his estranged brother Chandra Kumar. ‘I’m sure he has his reasons’ is what Somany leaves it at. 

To find smuggled products in a government-owned facility in the Pakistan capital was both a cause for shock and delight’, he admits. Regret is visible when he notices that ‘the quality of trade and the people involved in it has deteriorated’ and anger when he says ‘what really gets my goat is the unrestricted import of cheap Chinese sanitaryware.’ 

There are gaps in the narration too. Hesitance. A mechanical telling not suiting the events. Spaces where there’s less revealed and much concealed and absence of it is conspicuous. For instance, while we know meticulous details of how the business progressed, we barely know anything about the wives, how they felt about his ‘huge personal sacrifices’ of mostly working through the days, or their mysterious deaths. Did he try finding out what happened? Why aren’t we told? Is it because it has no direct bearing on the Hindware story? Is that the reason why his children also occupy a marginal place in this account? What I also missed reading about were the trusted hands like managers  and workers and clerks and guards who probably were an important part of this journey but who have not found space in the book.     

Interesting business talk.

Being the youngest of the four surviving brothers, my claims were often overridden by the others in favour of their own plans for the companies they ran. It may surprise many readers but this is the way Indian business families operate.

There’s much that readers will learn about businesses in general and sanitaryware manufacturing, designing and trade in particular from ‘Bringing the Rainbow’. How, first, the idea of sanitaryware needed to be introduced to Indian consumers. How vitreous china which ‘didn’t absorb water even if the product was chipped’ could be marketed. How when competition heated up superior technologies and designs had to be introduced. Why HSIL wasn’t comfortable in giving dealers sole selling agencies, while also visiting dealers of rivals to understand ‘market trends’.  Why a close watch had to be kept on allied sectors. And ‘the one clause that has remained unchanged for 52 years is the one on not allowing dealers to charge more than the MRP – a clause we introduced decades before it became mandatory.’

The book also contains nuggets of information on hunter and sportsmen rifles, the structure of ammunition strong rooms, motors of submersible pumps and goes into angry details of some ‘bizarre laws’! 

The book ends in the present, where RK Somany sits talking to us, confessing that ‘I try to teach myself something new every few days.’

His rise, in many ways, signifies India’s post-Independence industrialization drive. ‘Goodwill takes decades to build’ and this book is a glimpse into how it can be. HSIL’s rise, made possible with ‘close supervision, constant innovation, investment in the best technology and strong systems’ is also the journey of a man whose goal ‘was, and remains, to stay ahead of the curve’. This man intends to retire when ‘God retires me.’ But for now ‘I intend to lead HSIL into some new areas.’ 

A good book for those interested in the Indian business history as well as those who love a good story well told! 


'Bringing the Rainbow' by RK Somany is a Maven Rupa Publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the PR Agency. Views are my own.]

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