Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Coming Full Circle in Beirut

The war is still visible in the rear view mirror in Beirut. It is of course heartbreaking to see buildings, people and cars nursing the wounds of a war that ended not too long ago. It was inspiring, in all sorts of disturbing ways and I am still processing my too brief time there. It will translate into words that are better articulated than the ones hurriedly scribbled here. Soon.

For here, I write briefly about A.R., the bookseller of Beirut who I met at his little bookshop called, The Little Bookshop. It is always such a joy to meet a fellow bibliophile. I shared with him this piece I wrote for the very first issue of The Forager, three years ago because it was informed and inspired by a book that was written on the invasion of the city in 1982. He loved the essay so much that he asked me if he could print it and distribute it to those that walked in through his shop's doors. He has this practice of printing passages from poems he loves and giving them away to people - what a lovely way to introduce and share beloved writings! I was of course extremely honoured that he wanted to print my work. 

Upon my asking, he sent me two lovely photos of the printed papers sitting upon his table at the shop. I was thrilled to see Boiling Coffee, Burning Beirut (the title thought up by The Forager co-founder Sunoj D) in Beirut. 

It was more poignant because the project in Beirut was the last one we at Forager Collective did. We aren't working on new issues of the magazine henceforth either. 

The work truly came full circle for me with this.

Here below is the essay again. 


A war. The war. A war never ends you know. Even when it does, it remains. On bodies. In hearts. In past economies and future histories. War. Mine. Yours. Theirs. Yet, all of ours, this war.

From a to be or not to be to this or that to choices and clichéd existentialism this conflict within and without is a wake-up call. It rings at 6 every morning, precise, on the dot, like the cheap plastic clock beside your bed – a discard from an old love affair. I – the ‘I’ being you, being all of others – wake up to a bugle that announces the day’s war. Toast vs cereal. Idli vs Uppittu. Red vs blue. Lover vs spouse. Living vs existing. Mundane vs mundane.

I don an armor, a different one every day, to suit what battle has been called for that day. You have to prioritize you know. A city can be unforgiving at times like this. The metal in these buildings, the skies, in these roars is what kills you on the frontline. Even when it keeps you alive, it takes you away. The metal, garnished with your dreams and individual minds, preparing a feast for metal the master. But before I am battle ready – they don’t leave me a choice – let me have five minutes please. That is all Mahmoud Darwish asks for. That is all I need too, just five minutes, to do that one thing that matters. After that, I don’t care – they don’t leave me a choice – I will battle the day, the world, you.

I need five minutes to place this dawn, or my share of it, on its feet and prepare to launch into this day born of howling. I was born in a coffee estate. I grew up on the way it smelled. And right now I want the aroma of coffee. For it is only the aroma of coffee that I have between this morning and the chaos that will soon take over on the streets and in the nerves of my mind. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. After that coffee, we can go, the day and I, looking down the streets for another place, a safe place. A safe place where someone else will fight my biggest wars for me, wear my armor and keep me safe.

For this, I need five minutes. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. I know coffee well, just in the way I know instant coffee is not coffee, it is just branded, stamped and sold as coffee. When you know coffee, you also know that you have to make it with your own hands. It is solitary, silent. The day’s first coffee, the virgin of the silent morning will absorb any words a bearer of your cup on a tray will utter. It could be a simple greeting, yet, words burn the coffee. When you know your coffee, you know you don’t want it to burn.

Coffee is the morning silence, early and unhurried. When a war is waging outside your window, waiting for the five minutes to be up, waiting for you to pick up your gun, your mind and open the front door and let it in, the silence is all you have. Don’t be greedy now. Five minutes is more than what most people can ever fantasize about. These five minutes devoid of the shelling, the screams, the roughing up of your naked body comes with a privilege that you have acquired. Let’s not examine by what means you came upon this luxury.

In the only silence in which you can be creative, be yourself, in these five minutes, you get to pour some water into a small copper pot with a mysterious shine – yellow turning brown – and you place that over a fire. It is not a wood fire. Even with your privileges you are not allowed that. Not here, not in the midst of your wars.

The street is outside. Some wars have begun long before you were up. Peep down and you see them. Fruits and vegetables are being sold from carts by vendors; they lavish praise on the pathetic wares they peddle, hoping you, or someone like you, will pay a few coins extra. The reality of the street can wait. By now, two elements, fire coloured green and blue and water roiling and breathing out tiny white granules that turn into a fine film and grow, have made contact. I do not take my coffee with sugar, but for the man still lying across my bed by the window, fast asleep and snoring, I would add two spoons of coarse sugar. The bubbles in the pan settle down when the granules fall through, but spring up again. Only one substance will settle them now, coffee – a flashy rooster of aroma and Eastern masculinity.

Remove the pot away. The way you orchestrate the dialogue between hand and liquid will tell you the flavor of the day. Maybe you will get to stay in and escape it all, maybe you’ll have to walk into the streets, ready for life, prepared for death. They say that the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul.

Is history not bribable? Asks Darwish. The history we know is full of bigger wars, of big kings and big armies and bombs that efficiently obliterate my personal history, your personal history. Who documents our wars? No one wants to forget. More accurately, no one wants to be forgotten. Some build forts to last longer than the name that will be forgotten. Some give birth, burdening children with the task of carrying a name forward. But what if one wants to forget? Forget an old identity, an old name, an old mistake?

Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

But enough of this talk of the coffee shops of Beirut where identities are measured with pieces of paper. I will make my coffee now. Conquerors of my soul and my body cannot deny me the aroma of coffee, at least not the memory of it.

Take a spoon of ground coffee from the blue jar you bought, on a whim – it cost you a day’s wage – and let it fall on the spluttering surface of the boiling water. Stir, clockwise, up, down. Add another spoonful. Stir, up, down, counterclockwise. Add another spoonful. Remove the pot from the low fire between these spoonfuls, bring it back. Dip the spoon, lift up the dissolving powder, let it fall back. Smoothly.

If only wars could be melted away in a spoon of hot water.

Repeat the above. Water will begin to boil again, your blond coffee buoys on the surface, threatening to sink. Turn off the heat, let the metal scream and be crushed outside, the vegetable vendors can wait too. Pour the coffee into a little white cup: dark-coloured cups spoil the freedom of the coffee.
Then a first cigarette, flavoured with existence itself, with this first coffee.

No coffee is like another, and my defense of coffee is a plea for difference itself. There is no flavor called coffee, just like textbooks in school describe how water has no taste. Coffee is not a concept. Every house has its coffee, and every hand too, because no soul is like another. Like water it meanders and bends and sighs and runs over many surfaces. It wraps itself around me and melts with longing to go up the mountain, the way I long for you. It does go up the mountain as it disperses in the gossamer of a shepherd’s pipe taking it back to its first home.

Like the sound of drums that a dying fire carries into the faraway hills, the aroma of coffee is the offspring of the primordial. Its journey began thousands of years ago, like yours and mine.

Coffee is a place. Coffee is a breast that nourishes men deeply. A morning born of a bitter taste. The milk of manhood. Coffee is geography.

I have made my coffee. I have no other excuse now.

The war slipped through the creak in the window panel and has come into my bedroom now.


In these times of war, in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere within each of us, this piece pins down to the making of coffee that small sense of normalcy we all seek to move on from one day to the next. The writing emerged from a reading of Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. The sentences in italics are direct quotes from the book.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

There Are No Words: Text work for a Forager Collective Event

I am at Nottingham, East Midlands, England on a short residency at Primary, an artist-led space. The summer residencies look at Work in Commons. The following text was developed last week and looks at the idea of language as Commons and the politics of there being both an absence and a presence of an adequate language. 

The text was performed by the lovely Sooree Pillay from New Art Exchange, and was followed by a conceptual meal that Forager Collective cooked. On the menu were dishes made with ingredients that were 'untranslatable' in many ways. While there are of course words in English for the ingredients used, the politics they carry, the cultural, geographical and social baggage they come with in the Indian context and in the context of the Commons in India could not be rightly conveyed here. The inadequacy of an appropriate language led to a menu that was quite lost in translation.


What is left there now, to say? Was there anything to say at all, in the first place? It is a conversation I have had with my head endless times, like a bad song on ugly loop. There could never have been any answers, not after everything. But there were all these possibilities, mainly the possibilities….what now of them? What happens to these stories when their storyteller dies?

Language is the signature of culture, it seems. Lan-gu-age. My tool of trade. My daily bread and prayer. This language occupies the head but not the soul. These words in the language that you are hearing is a language that is learned, not inherited from the sisterhood of grandmothers before me. What language are your dreams of the deep night in? Mine? In none. For I can no longer claim to have the desirable words. It is a language of prosaic head matters now.

In my head right now, there runs a time-lapse video, complete with the whirring white noise from the speed in which the scenes change. Sporadically there are notes of a music track that, in an ideal world, I would always want to be the soundtrack of my days. Like a wordless undersong really. Wouldn’t an OST performed aloud when you went about things be absolutely impressive? Just like in the movies. I wouldn’t want a movie for myself though. Even I think that would be a bit too excessive.

In my head right now, there are no words really. And that I have come to realize is both the problem and the solution. Most so when I am thinking of that hill, as I do too often these days. That hill raises behind home. It raised me too, in a way. I like calling it a mountain though, the magnificence of northerliness is the sound that sounds well. The words to attribute to this hill-slash-mountain are those that I seek. I seek in vain. There is a language that I cannot bring myself to articulate in. A language exists too that is only in my worst imagination, enclosed, engulfed outside of actualities. How then in this inadequacy of both presence and absence, do I say what I want to say about this mountain? How indeed.

This hill would be my point X, if it came down to wanting to try to pin down such a point and understand its significance in a small non-descript life. Behind the hill is where I have been, time and again, bringing different people and places in my head, below my feet and around my arms. Behind the mountain – I shall now begin to use hill and mountain interchangeably – there is a thin bridleway that I have always meant to walk the entire length of. Some who attempted said that the path gives away in places, and sinks to the earth in shallow abandon. First the king is said to have ridden along the path, inspecting his small kingdom and perhaps the craggy mountain ranges that sunk suns beyond the edge out there. Then his commoners would have gone by, I suppose. He wasn’t a very good king, he wasn’t caring enough, you could say. The commoners have had a chequered history as well – the usual wars, killings, conversions, betrayals, losses of the things of our heart, etc. But mountain people are hardy people, and we have weathered it all well and for long.

Going to further specifics, there is a point on the bridleway that is behind this mountain of mine. I have been standing there, facing outward from that vantage point, all my life. I cannot remember the first time, it must have been a year or so after my stint in this geography began. Where the crazy crows always make a commotion, where the animals are always over-spoilt and two hundred birds come to feed, this land is home to me. From that point onward, I have looked out in some ancient-like search. What I see ahead and around is this: an expanse of green mountains in rows one behind the other that I can see further into if I stood on tiptoe. A few dotted houses, red roofed. Green fields in the foreground. If it was evening, as it almost always was, cranes circling in a spiral fashion to raise themselves up from the far fields below to my point X and then to the other side of the mountain towards the town and perhaps beyond. It is all so set up and dramatic and cliched. The mountains always behave themselves so well. Then there is the mist that cloaks the scenery and parts the veil if you had the patience to wait for it. All so unnecessarily theatrical. It means so much more than a picture postcard. Will you believe it if I said so employing only these words?

This language that you hear right now isn’t the language of my attic. It is not the language of my streets or my heath or my unspoken rituals. There has, for long, not been a language for that. Some would argue that there really wasn’t a language required for something that is not physical, that is not visible, that is not quantifiable. What is the use of its value if it cannot be measured in money and economy and all that other vulgar stuff? Some would argue thus. And they would be right, of course. Why need poetry when you can spend money that you don’t have? Why nurture the soul of a language when you can text in smileys? What the words don’t lack, they must lack in irrelevance.

Yet this language is all I have to mourn. I mourn the view. Nothing has happened to the view though, in all the years that I have gone there to reset myself into sanity, to re-wild myself. To be able to live my days with poetry in my head. In a cloud. But I still find myself in black for reasons I don’t have the language to explain in. They have a word for it, rather ironically. Solastalgia, a definitive disease of the 21st century that imparts an unspeakable sense of being torn from the earth, a homelessness without leaving home, a disconnect even with grass beneath your feet. There is a word for the unease, for the yearning, for that which there are no casual answers for. They call it solastalgia. I call it a good cry on a white cloud.

The estate has a stone that they call god. It is uneven and there is no right angle to see it from. From point x it becomes a god. It lends a name. And then you go closer and are enclosed in what it carries, on itself and for you, in its ancient rituals, in unnamed ideas, empty gestures and other signatures of things as they are. And then you are driven back to a place from where you assign names and categories for people, for the tongue they can use, for the land they can touch, for the words they can whisper. Vantage point. Point x. Distance to make it distant and clinical enough to justify all the injustices of identity, names and marked lives. “For who is ever quite without his landscape?”

Like a beloved prayer I go to this point behind the mountain from where I see other mountains whenever words fail me. Sometimes I go there physically too. In that post-pastoral terrain, these mountains are my experience and there can never probably be a particularizing language for everything I wish to tell you. I quote from elsewhere generously because there are no words in my own language for this. “There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Sometimes on top of a mountain I can only say wow, silently, in my borrowed syntax.

I am certain of this uncertainty, that I can only ever know this knowledge incompletely. This geography is my destiny. Tall words. I reconcile to not knowing them, for I am inadequate to create the articulation it requires. It is not the landscape that can ever fail. It is always I, in this tragedy of expectations. Again and again I go to that place, again and again failing. A tragedy of my common life.

This a prayer then: Spirit of the water/give us all the courage and the grace/to make genius of this tragedy unfolding/the genius to save this place.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Head Over Hills - Ooty, Blue Mountains and Summer Tales: In The Hindu Business Line

Published on August 11, 2017

Read here or see below for a tad unedited version.


Every textbook cliché about colonial ‘hill stations’, a term that even the British no longer understand, is alive and kicking in ageless Ooty
Someday, most certainly, I will learn the names of the red pink yellow white purple flowers that are gaily distributed all around me this summer afternoon. But today? Today it is too much work to google away and learn their genus and species and common names in three languages. Let me, for now, refer to them by the rainbow colours that have seeped into each petal, like tea from a teabag. There are no roses around; roses being the only kinds I can readily recognize, anywhere you take me. Someday though, I will know how to differentiate my sorrels from my hydrangeas from my buttercups from my nasturtiums. 

Today, I have my socked feet up on a wrought iron chair that is painted white. The table top is glass and speckled with the remains of a light drizzle from half an hour ago. There are three generations of sparrows under the pine tree, chattering away. A gossamer mist will set in in a while, but for now the whole of Udagamandalam (Ooty or Ootacamund, if you prefer the colonial name) is coloured rose gold by eventide and lies sprawled beneath me. A crescent of the Nilgiris mountains – they really are blue-blue – circles the part of town that makes my view. I have a book and my faithful weathered- leathered traveller’s notebook before me. I could be journaling lines overloaded with adjectives – there is enough to describe around me – or I could catch up on the reading. I contemplate the choices and choose what I really want to do, which is nothing. Doing absolutely nothing, staring in the direction of the Blue Mountains, sipping on the tea R and his wife, the housekeepers of the century old colonial bungalow I’m staying in bring me and just…nothing-ing feels pretty darn good. “Summering in the hills” is something I could do for a bit of every year, I tell myself. For us non-believers, we make up traditions and rituals as we go along.

“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then to rest afterward.”


Come summer, I complain about the heat, a lot. I am a pain that way. The heat is how I begin sentences and close all conversations with a sigh. “The winter you were born, it was a particularly cold year,” grandma used to tell me, in that tone she employed just before she morphed into the rajas and the princesses of her stories – I always thought, still do, that it was magic that turned her into a magnificent storyteller of the sorts they never make anymore. Maybe it was the particularly cold winter up in the hills the year I was born that made me detest every passing summer. At least that is what I tell myself.

This summer seemed particularly bad. We had skipped the feeble winter on this city and whooshed past a brief spring to plunge into a heat that seemed to justify murder. We were always on the edge, waking up and going to bed exhausted from the air that seemed to sap our will to live and laugh. We were constantly angry.

The heat was also driving brown ants out in their thousands. They were everywhere – on wheat, on soap, on glass bottles, on books, on all inedible things, on every ingredient in my kitchen. Summer seemed to have driven them mad too. We felt often like killing the other, or the ants – anything, something, to be able to take a long deep breath after. So for our sanity, we decided to go up to the hills when the search engine on the www promised weather in its twenties and teens, even a spot of rain. We packed a sweater, just in case, brandy for my half-there cold, and booked ourselves into an old bungalow that overlooked the lights of the city. I secretly hoped this might become that one place in those hills we would keep going back to each year, even when we were old and overused to each other’s company.


Ooty was ‘discovered’ hundred-and-ninety-eight years ago by the Brits, who promptly acquired it for a summer capital. This part of the country, it remains a much favoured weekend getaway, honeymoon destination, family holiday and next door picnic spot for people in mufflers and monkey caps far thicker than most times necessary. That Ooty is christened the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, that hill stations are itself a colonial construct which they now in their own country no longer know the meaning of, that there are sights to see and things to do in their dozens if you look up travel websites, that several houses are old and large and breathtakingly beautiful is not new news. Neither is the fact that a hangover from certain ways of life is still thick as the water in Ooty’s man-made lake – thanks to which you are spoilt for choice over fancy locally made cheeses, preserves, jams and jellies, cakes, breads, sausages and other Western food.

The churches and old buildings now turned into government offices and bookstores are still marvelous. Some are well maintained, some are not. Some take the baggage of history associated with their homes and offices in their stride and get on with the business of daily things nonchalantly, for routine is very tedious work. Others wear this history like a heavy crown, uncomfortable, but still overtly proud of the anachronisms they won’t let go off. There are old quarters of town with stone bungalows and immaculately maintained colourful gardens within expansive compounds, and then there are newer, busier, more congested neighbourhoods. The former will shop at Modern Stores or pronounce Ooty to be too pedestrian and drive to Coonoor instead, while the latter will bring in the malls and supermarket chains but still patronize the local grocer in the shop around the corner. Members of the former will have memberships at the Ootacamund Club and ‘lunch’ in chiffon and pearls, while the participants of the other will go to Adyar Anand Bhavans and eat paani-puris by the roadways.

If these stereotypes of hill town societies sound archaic, it is because they aren’t. These clichés are alive and thrive in places where time is unhurried by the mountains that dictate its days and weather. I know, for I come from one such.


We rode through the night, arriving at the bungalow just in time for morning tea. Cold under my windcheater. The scores of wild spotted deer, an elephant and her month old child, wild boars, blue and green necked peacocks within arm’s distance along the Bandipur and Mudumalai Forest Reserves made up for all discomfort. On the return, taking another route, we passed through a pine forest, then a eucalyptus forest and then a bamboo forest, in quick succession. The eucalyptus trees, standing to attention in straight lines for just a brief stretch along a road that seems to swirl around you was surreal. It has become one of those things you need only to half close your eyes to conjure up an instant image of. Downhill and through the reserve forests – more animal sightings – then into bigger villages and bigger towns till this gargantuan city. This city where you always need to be doing things. Nothing is just not relevant here.


After not seeing the sights and not doing things, we meet the lovely T and A, poet and artist, respectively, who live within a tea estate. Tea turns to whisky on a balcony from where they say they sometimes spot bison herds and hear other wild things. The house is full of books and art and antiques, and stories, so many, many wonderful stories. A courtesy call turns into, I hope, a burgeoning friendship, promises of returning to stay and of meeting elsewhere to buy books and talk shop. Just as we are leaving, T points out that it is a full moon’s night. I remember reading that it is a pink moon – April’s full moon is called so, signifying the blooming pink flowers of spring and heralding new beginnings of the year. So it is a pink moon in the Blue Mountains. T even quotes Auden later,

“But once in a while the odd thing happens,
Once in a while the dream comes true,
And the whole pattern of life is altered,
Once in a while the moon turns blue.”

It all sounds terribly staged. We had not made these exact plans. The first time I went, it rained all along the way, the man-made lake was dirty brown and swollen and there was litter everywhere, the homemade chocolates were made in large factories and I had vowed never to bother returning. I gladly change my opinion of Ooty. “The mountains are in my DNA, I think, for this is where I am most content, the happiest and the most inspired,” I announce, sitting pillion, on the way downhill, with as much a dramatic flourish I can channel. A feeble grunt in reply. I am still basking in the pleasure of having done all those nothings to begrudge that insolent lack of ready agreement though.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

On Ruskin Bond: In The Hindu Business Line

I have read Ruskin Bond all my life and have always loved him. His books, to me, are like coming home. His autobiography 'Lone Fox Dancing' was published recently, and though I am not a big fan of autobiographies generally, this was one I had eagerly waited for. I wrote an essay about his enduring appeal, about him and my grandfather and bits about the book for The Hindu Businessline's BLInk, one of my most favourite places to write for.

Read it here or see below. 


Dear Mr Ruskin Bond watches over my writing desk as I start with these words. In a black and white photograph that Mr Murthy, of Bengaluru’s very old and famous Select Book Shop gave me to keep years ago, Bond looks down – it is a low angle shot – with two books and a rolled file in his hands that rest over his stomach. The shop and half its signboard is behind him. The beloved author looks like he was about to smile but the photographer clicked the shutter a millisecond before he could do so. For years the aging photograph, undated, remained within my journals. Now it occupies a place on the wall alongside several other pieces of papers, Post-Its with reminders and whatnots that I haphazardly have sprinkled before me. I try my best to avoid the reminders, but Bond catches my eye now and again. 

I have recently finished Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing and am meant to write my words on him, and it. I falter, I gloriously procrastinate, read other books, look up things like how many characters there are in War and Peace and what the seedcake kiss in Ulysses means, things I really don’t need to know right this minute…because frankly, it is a bit intimidating, writing about Bond. How do you write about someone who everyone feels they have a familiar, familial claim to? There will undoubtedly be a lot I will have to leave out; here comes in my worry about all the things that I will not end up saying about him.

Bond and his writings have meant different things to different people, articulated variously every so often, as memoirs, in travelogues to Landour where he lives, as anecdotes and as chance meetings. He has inspired several generations of readers and writers over a career spanning six - something decades. I find something appropriate that I paraphrase here: At this point there is so much about (Bond) that it’s difficult to tell what of it matters, and how much. It all sort of cancels itself out. (…) even writing about your own feeling and reaction (…) feels extraneous and unnecessary. Didn’t someone already say exactly what you want to say in much better words?

But one gets over oneself and attempts anyway. Bond’s effect on how I read and what I write has been, like his writings, sometimes subtle, sometimes sublime, even subversive; I am still working it all out in my head.

My grandfather was a freedom fighter Communist card holder doctor, the three too entangled into the personality I’ve heard he had to be separated by commas when I describe what he was. He was a big reader. I never met him because he passed away six months, nearly to the day, before I was born. I got to know him through the large collection of books he left behind and owing to no one else claiming it, I got to inherit. His books are how I ‘met him’. Ruskin Bond’s books were not part of his collection but in the simplistic annals of childhood memories, it all meshes into the same thing. It was in the hills, where I grew up, that I first chanced upon a Bond book. The walks he went on were relatable to the walks around town and to the library and elsewhere that I had gotten used to taking. The birds and flowers he wrote about were relatable because though the ones we had in this part of the country, far-far from the Himalayas, were not same-same, they were still pretty and colourful and in plenty. We were also that generation that was blessed with the wild imagination of the pre-screentime days, so could imagine pines and sorrel, nettle and other unfamiliar things by giving them our own understood shapes and colours. Yearning for a grandfather and jealous of the time older cousins had had with him, if his books were my connection with him, Bond became the grandfatherly figure who instructed how to walk the hills and notice the flowers and birds and other dancing things. Perhaps that is why I find myself returning to their books – one who wrote, the other who read and collected – again and again. Bond’s books feel like coming back home.

As sweet luck would have it, I happen to be back in the hills when I begin reading Lone Fox Dancing. It feels right that I am in hill country. Throughout the autobiography I cannot shake off the feeling that it hints at a swansong, from his Dedication and Acknowledgements page onward to “the evening of a long and fairly fulfilling life. And it is late evening in Landour.” It closes on a late evening with a small boy bringing the author fresh apricots that are “still very sour, very tangy, but full of promise.” In the pages in the middle, Bond lays out a life “journey that has gone on for eighty-three years, sixty-seven of these spent writing.”

For a fan of Bond’s books, the autobiography is a bit like being shown how the magician manages to pull the hare out of his hat every single night. Bond lays out incidents, anecdotes, inspirations and memories of a lifetime, several of which he has turned into some of his best loved stories. That he was born in Kasauli, that the years he spent with his father in Delhi were the best years of his life, that he was a misfit when he had to live with his mother, step-father and their children, that he was in England for a brief four years before India was too hard a pull to resist, that he settled in the hills and never left them for too long is as familiar to his fans as are his penchant for nursing sick plants to health, his love of a good walk and the small room with a large window that is his workspace. There are lovely photographs in the book from all these periods of his life, for added pleasure. The humour is characteristically subtle, quiet and all too often, poignant, emotional. He is perhaps more willing to be vulnerable here than he has ever been, even though several passages have been published earlier either as is, or interpreted into short essays or added on as passages in his short stories. The book, like the man himself, feels familiar, and quiet – two qualities I keep repeating in my head. Quiet is the word I have always remembered the effect his work has had on me, a slow breeze filled with the fragrance of the flowers of the mountain, carrying a mix of bird calls, stray conversation, dog bark and undersong.

Then there are stories that can only be called sensual, sexual; of restlessness, of the discoveries of youth, of love affairs, “…there were loves; some unrequited, some mutual and intense - … and a few will not be spoken of, for some passions are private, and the world is no poorer not knowing them.” There are writings that aren’t exactly children’s literature that he is a lot famous for. The image of Ruskin Bond as the benevolent grandfather figure endures though, and takes precedent over the romantic that he continues to see himself as. This popular portrayal of him, padded on – sorry! – by panegyric essays such as this, is one that he finds odd enough to mention several times during the book. He wonders if honeymooners – “some of the most frequent visitors to my humble flat” – ask for his blessings because they are under the impression that he has been a celibate man, “and the blessings of sexually innocent adults are believed to be potent.”

It is an image he seems to have only half-heartedly tried to shake off though. It perhaps hasn’t helped that his writings have always captured the innocence and the uninhibited joy of reveling in nature. Also that he has retained that child-like curiosity, appreciation of and love for the beauty of birds and animals and trees and well-walked paths and flowers and friends and a good time. In a world that hurries along the act of growing up to be an adult, more and more so, and doing the things that adults are supposed to do, reading a Bond essay feels like a time out, a reminder that it is perfectly good to stop for a while and look around. Quite literally a cartoon by Kim Casali, Love Is…stopping to smell the roses. Perhaps this is why his writing appeals to the vast age spectrum that it does: for children, it is a revision of the natural world that they are familiar with, thus relatable, and for the adults, it is looking back into what they remember was a simpler time. That old romanticized Ideal. Nostalgia is a potent drink, after all.

Given how much of Bond’s life experiences have lent themselves to his stories and essays, directly or otherwise, Lone Fox Dancing oftentimes plays the role of filling in the gaps, joining the dots of how everything transpired and in what order. An extra touch of poignancy hops along for the ride. There is plenty of material still for him to mine, you get a sense. He writes of science and politics having let us down, but notices then that “the cricket still sings on the window-sill.” The hoarder of words hasn’t tired of the two windows in his room, the windows that have yielded him stories from the other side for decades, for different generations now.

“I am happiest just putting pen to paper – writing about a dandelion flowering on a patch of wasteland,…”

Stand-up Comedian Aditi Mittal: A Profile in OPEN Magazine

Ahead of her show on Netflix (premiered July 18, 2017), I interviewed Aditi Mittal and wrote a profile of her for OPEN magazine. 

Read here or see below for a slightly unedited version. Published July 07, 2017.


“Comedy is one of the strongest forms of dissent,” she had said, elsewhere. Appropriately, it was in some ways dissent itself, from a it’s-21st-century-but-still-intensely-patriarchal entertainment industry, when Aditi Mittal bagged a special show ‘Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say’ on Netflix. It feels necessary to acknowledge that edging in the gender angle in happy stories such as this is tedious at times. I am certain Mittal would rather be a comedian instead of a ‘female comedian’, as if the feminine is a comedy genre she is affected with. But we are not there yet, when it no longer matters what gender one identifies with, if at all. And that is why the Netflix show gains credence, especially when the online streaming channel’s main rival Amazon Prime had signed up more than a dozen comedians a while earlier – none of whom women.

In a culture where stereotypes reduce women to being made fun of, rather than internalizing that they can be side-splittingly funny too, but of course, Mittal is among the talented crop of women who are active, popular and thriving in the Indian, mostly English, comedy circuit. We chatted about all this over Skype, her in Mumbai, me in Bengaluru. Her, just back from her very first capoeira class that morning. Her, in her room in the family home. Her with her almost-rainbow coloured hair that looks divine in photographs.

The Netflix show is obviously big, and guaranteed to chalk a new roadway in her career. Predictably, she was over the moon, though she said she has imagined every scenario that could lead to the show getting cancelled. She refuses to believe it is actually happening, “till I put it on on my own laptop I don’t believe it,” she said. But before that: it was post-2008 recession when the production company she was working with in the US shut shop and she was back home in Mumbai. “I happened to wander into an open-mic night, saw a couple of people doing these things (stand -up comedy) and I was like, this looks fairly simple,” she said. Her first attempt was met with mostly silence, except for two laughs for some Punjabi joke she had in stock, thanks to being half-Punjabi herself. “I loved the sound of those two laughs. I got so addicted to that feeling,” she remembered. It helped immensely that she was a self-confessed “bit of a nautanki” from childhood. Her initial interest was in getting into television, and she did the rounds – facing six auditions a day for random bit roles, each of which she had to wait hours for, for her turn. She made her living writing about food for a food magazine. Open-mic nights continued for two+ more years before she got her first paying gig.

“I do believe I was at the right place at the right time to a large extent,” Mittal admits. The comedy scene in India was growing fast and she was there to catch the first wave. Opportunities to perform abroad, including a show with BBC, a documentary on stand-up comedy came, “very quickly, very easily, too easily sometimes.” Several corporate shows where her gender and the way she looked/dressed was deemed more important than her talent happened, in the interim. “Now there are things I can put my foot down about,” she said, quick to add that having a management was of immense help, “for a long time, it was up and down, trying to figure out what to do, who to trust, who to confide in.”

The sexism that is rampant in the entertainment industry, and the active resistance to women doing comedy was something she encountered later on, she said, after people began noticing her and writing about her work. “Stand-up is a very lonely profession. You have a thought, you write the thought, you express the thought, you perform the thought. It is you and your thoughts in these four processes. In that way it is one of the purest art forms. And that can seem a little lonely, especially in an environment where you are presented with active resistance to what you want to say. But with distance (from these things), you become free,” she said.

Predictably, there was an older man who told her off over her jokes, asking who would marry her if she stuck to saying the things she did. Berating comedians – always the women – about who would marry them or what the future in-laws might think springs from a sense of ownership over a woman’s body and life choices that society in this country has always felt it possessed. I asked Mittal if she had had these experiences, and she said she hadn’t, not from women in her audience. “I get very excited when people are like, my mom loves you. I am the biggest suck up when it comes to parents (of friends),” she said. An aunt, who she calls her mother, raised her. “I have realized that a part of me will always die for her approval and that is where my desperate desire to want to connect with older women comes from,” she added.

Speaking about working in a still male-dominated section of the entertainment industry, she said, “I realized any woman working in a male environment…we are going to be inconvenient. I am okay with that. I am not here to stir shit up, but I am (also) not here to be quiet. I am now in a position, more than ever, to keep my mouth shut…but it is time to speak up as well. So apparently, I am navigating that.” Mittal has talked elsewhere about desexualizing herself on stage, something she said she did because she “didn’t want her sexuality to be there” and that she “just wanted to be funny.” She told me she learned recently on a Steve Martin masterclass online to ‘always dress better than the audience’ and now dresses however she feels like, recognizing that people will anyway say muck no matter what she wears.

These various navigations she has found herself doing also birthed two characters that are immensely popular – Dr Mrs Lutchuke, modelled after her 6th standard Marathi teacher and a college best friend’s grandmother, and Dolly Khurana – modelled after an aunt who moved from a small town in Punjab to Mumbai and Mittal saw the way her aunt’s mind was processing life in the big city. Both allow her to say outrageous things, the former comments on sex – “sex is one of the funniest things on this planet,” Mittal said – and the latter on social issues like foeticide, as nonchalantly as can be. “Characters are basically foils. (You) nicely wrap up in a foil through which you can speak,” she pointed out.

Given the current post-truth political environment in the country, I asked Mittal what she thought the future of comedy in India was, whether we would ever see political commentary modelled after those like John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and others. She pointed out that in India channels catered to the lowest common denominator very quickly because it was the easiest way to get large numbers. She hoped for the level of industry and the amount of phenomenal money, logistics and talent that exists abroad for comedy shows to come to India. “In terms of political commentary, if an Indian reflects on India the way a John Oliver reflects (on the US), …a lot of our self -respect, confidence and ego as a collective nation will come into play. It will be interesting to see how we take someone talking to us, even talking down to us,” she said. Reflecting on the diverse variations of who we are as a nation, she added, “The future of comedy is empathy. When it includes everybody, thought processes from everyone, (that’s when) it will be truly potent, truly effective. Comedians of the future have to be very, very empathetic, very, very ears to the ground.”

Mittal is, like the rest in the comedy circuit, hilarious at times on social media as well. It is exhausting sometimes to be consistently funny across all platforms, she had said earlier. She understands though that she “probably wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for social media. I don’t have a conventional TV face, neither do I say TV friendly things.” Calling social media an odd thing, she said, “We are in that odd place in our lives where we are dying to see a curated version of intimacy. We want to think of the person as extremely human.” She has taken the pressure off of herself regarding what she puts on social media, she told me, thankful though she is for the fantastic tool that it is.

I asked her what she is reading at the moment. A little embarrassed, wondering how it will reflect on her, she holds up several titles from Pratham Books she picked up the other day. Also a MAD book, and one on the economics of poverty that she is “pretending to read,” she giggles. Capoeira will be her new thing now, she told me, when she is asked what she does apart from comedy.

Is her family excited about Netflix, I asked her. Her brother knows it is a big deal, she said. Her father isn’t clear what Netflix is, when she told him that it was like the Star Plus of the internet, he asked her if she would be on Star Plus. Her mother does not care. “I love how she doesn’t care. (She will probably be impressed) if I do something substantial like…clean my room or if I remember to switch off the fan every time I leave the room,” Mittal said.

So what can we expect on the show? “You can expect laughs. You can expect to improve your Vitamin D levels. I am not gonna lie, it might help you lose weight. It’ll smoothen your hair cuticles,” she told me. We both cracked up and agreed that she should probably put that in her description of the show.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Mosaranna/Curd Rice: In Roads and Kingdoms

Roads and Kingdoms, one of the websites we greatly loved when we were conceiving The Forager magazine, has a cute little series called Breakfast where they feature stories around breakfasts from all over the world. I wrote one on having curd rice - that soul food - for breakfast one late morning and got it published here.

Or see below. 

Photo by Sharmila Vaidyanathan of The Yellow Turmeric

This city feels sometimes like a wide and long river in spate, and I try to reach for the other end where all my friends and acquaintances are. We tell ourselves we are too busy and distances too long, or that the summer this year is particularly bad, to meet more often. We don’t always tell the truth.

It has been varying degrees of time since I have seen these friends. We are at Koshy’s. The most Bangalorean thing to do in Bangalore is to hang out at Koshy’s, an old restaurant in the middle of town that retains an unimpeachable disdain for the new business of hurriedness. People grow old around its tables, and we talk about how one day we will, very likely, be them.

Liver on toast is the best thing to eat at Koshy's, I am told. I am a vegetarian though, and for me it has always been a dish that I am not sure is even on the 300-something list of things on the menu card. Koshy's has been for years a place to meet for work and otherwise. I have conceived a food journal there, begun a relationship, made new friends, gossiped, grown older. It is our village square. And whenever it was close to any mealtime, sometimes even when it wasn't, at Koshy's I have always asked for curd rice, or mosaranna or thayir sadam.

No one I know believes me when I say how good Koshy's curd rice is, especially in relation to the gooey paste-like nonsense you get in every other restaurant in the city. Curd rice is something you eat at home, not something you order for a late breakfast as a standalone dish at, of all places, Koshy's. But here, the cold bowl of perfectly tempered rice is like the ones we make at home. They are an ode to mama's cooking, to the soul-food status that curd rice, very deservingly, has attained in the palates of us true-blue South Indians.

Curd rice at Koshy's is, I like to think, a well-kept secret. It comes when we are in the middle of discussing our current reading lists, in a shallow bowl, all jet-white and gleaming. It is tempered with mustard seeds, mildly spiced, and has a big red chili garnish, "like cherry on ice cream," says one of my friends. It is cold, the perfect temperature to soothe a belly fired up by the many cups of coffee we have had while going through small-town gossip from back home in the hills, where some of us are from. It is milky with a hint of the sour from the curd, and vanishes within minutes. Every mouthful feels good for the soul.

I am tempted to order another plate, but by then we have made plans to go to Pecos, another of those ancient establishments, for beer. We are, all of us migrants from elsewhere, as close to local Bangaloreans as we could get that bright May afternoon.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On Afternoon Tea: In The Hindu Business Line

Last year (it's already become last year!), I was in York in England on holiday and bought myself afternoon tea, that extremely English tradition. There was too much clotted cream and too many sweet things but it was among the most English things I did. 

An essay I wrote about it for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk is here. See a slightly unedited version below. 

Published May 26, 2017.


We seldom now live in times that grant us an hour which may, without a morsel of guilt, be spent in leisure and luxury sipping on tea. Delicately bending down to balance a slice of cake, thin and as light as air, between manicured fingers and nibbling at its edges while being scandalized by what Mrs X from the Club said to Mrs Y the other day. It smacks not least of anachronism but also of a feminine architype that though alive and well in several parts of the world in many mutated forms, still heckles the sensibilities of us modern feminists as stereotypes that should best be hurriedly tucked under the carpet before the liberals walk in. We live in various stages of denial, don’t we all?

And then to begin. There was tea for one and one for tea, late last year, one semi-cold autumn afternoon, in the very English town of York that was built by the Romans. How that came about was like this: The clipped accents of traditional England that arose, stern and almost disapprovingly, from the elderly participants of one of those package bus tours across countryside historic sites contrasted gaily with the new-to-college squads that still had school shopping to do at GAP and Boots and elsewhere. One could sit in a toasty café in The Shambles, the cobbled street flanked on both sides by overhanging timber-framed buildings, some surviving from the 14th C., and out of the way of hasty shopping tourists, to make informal notes on human behavior in that moment. And so one does, in a weathering leather traveler’s notebook. A well-chosen notebook is as important as the adventure itself, one has learnt to remember.

York is, as a friend called it, charming but twee, the American in him sounding as British as it gets. I have arrived from the Pennines that mid-morning, and in three hours or thereabouts, seen all there was to see and do in York. Just an afternoon and I have finished walking the town. I fret, for I have two and a half days more to spend here. I would rather be back in London, be this flaneuse there. Something about that city, like every damned cliché, worms itself into your heart and vamooses away with a pound of it, to hoard in its harem and never give back. But I am in someplace twee now, the only place I can practically be in. And so I walk, once this way and once the other way, backtracking, going in circles, passing by the same shops and open markets. I peep into objects of touristy desire and read titles off jackets of thick books I will never be able to carry back home. I stop to admire things and cakes on display, and pass by old people and people several generations young. I long for the easy warmth that the indoors would bring, for a glorious summer is reluctantly giving way to autumn just then; you can nearly see them passing the baton one to the other where the Micklegate Bar meets rush hour traffic. Yet I am happier, any day, in the outside, on foot, filing away sights, smells and sounds like a glutton. It is never enough.

Half of day two and some half dozen rounds around town later, it is just half past three and like they say on that island, everything stops for tea. I cannot recollect now what my lunch was, I haven’t included it in my notes. Maybe it was something commonplace like a salad, or a sandwich but it has filled me up, if I still remember this tale right. But it is the last day of my fortnight’s worth of holiday and what better way to tie the ends of this England experience with than in the indulgence of afternoon tea, I tell myself.

My loyalties lie unwaveringly with coffee. It feels necessary to say this, to reiterate this. My coffee country in the hills, much ironically carrying an epithet – Scotland of India - that links it to the land I am now walking, has my whole heart. No Darjeeling could ever match the indescribable fragrance of those white jewel-like flowers that erupt to birth mournfully red cherries. They will at some point then become the coffee that runs in my blood. On a postcard I buy for 50p, Verlaine’s words: “The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart a languorous monotone.”

Anything warm now though, tea will do just fine, thank you very much. Betty’s Café Tea Rooms is brimming with people, in all the four and quarter times I have passed before its full glass windows. I decide to be tardy tourist a little more in private instead and on a whim, walk past a larger than life teddy bear and a teddy bear shop – sickeningly sweet fluffy things on every inch – and climb the narrow flight of stairs to what in my mind has decided to remain a yellow tinged room. Lunch was a wee bit ago but I order the afternoon tea bravely at Stonegate Teddy Bear Tea Room. At 13.95 quid, that is how the locals name their money, it is among the more expensive snacks I’ve allowanced for myself. The pound is low and fear of the outsider is high, in those weeks just after Brexit.

In about the 1840s, Anne, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began to ask staff to schedule tea and snacks at about 4pm in her boudoir because she would feel hungry between breakfast and dinner. Those were the austere days of two square meals a day. Soon invitations for “tea and a walking the fields” began to be sent to her other well-heeled friends. Tea soon moved to the drawing rooms, and when weather permitted, to the lawns and gardens of country homes. Pausing for tea became a fashionable social event and by the 1880s, upper class women turned up to these in the season’s must have long gowns, gloves and hats. While men did partake in the leisurely tradition, it remained a feminine activity. The picture of domesticity, of delicate-ness and the fragile, of the fashionable and the flimsy, qualities that were inevitable in the Victorian woman of a certain stature, hallmarks the afternoon tea.

My tea room overlooks the Shambles street, and I make notes on how the tradition brings to my mind a very British lady, prim and proper in her chiffon and pearls, stringing along her perfectly clipped sentences to companions as she gossips about the neighbor ladies. Years of reading Victorian and English literature growing up pours into what I know will one day likely be my Proustian madeleine moment. The foreign land of the past. And there I am in my scruffy traveler clothes – a cheap pair of jeans, a tee, a sweater that is now loose at the sleeves, my trustee old jacket that has been with me from the Himalayas to the north east of my country and here and elsewhere. And old shoes from another lifetime ago that I will discard, shedding the last of old skin, outside a metro station in London. There isn’t anything ultra-feminine or quaint about me, though I almost wish there was.

The culture of tea rooms, by the next century, had become more commonplace. Lyons Tea Rooms optimized the English sentiment and identity of the time – gallantry, sophistication and wholly civilized or what some half of the world would see it as – imperialistic, snobbish and operating of slavery. Nippies, waitresses in iconic uniforms, so named for the way they nipped about serving at great speeds, became national icons. Empowered, independent, yet, compulsorily pretty women who had to be unmarried to don the uniform. By the 1920s, use of their imagery and other attractive females to sell products was established in the advertising world. Alongside was the stereotype of the tea lady, whose sole job was to sell beverages and snacks in offices, as the popular gossip who leaked important trade secrets. Narratives of the female go round and round in circles, no mystique there.

The tea I order has by now arrived in a pale white pot and three tiers of open sandwiches, dainty little cakes, slice of Victorian sponge, strawberries, pot of jam, macaroons and more clotted cream than I ever want to see again. The waitress is Italian, from a village tinier than York, and here for better wages, to practice English, I overhear her telling a couple at the next table. They turn to admire my tea, as do I, before I endeavor to finish it. So much cream! I couldn’t possibly. Clumps of it get leftover. The rest of it is too sweet for me, but finish it, I do.

I read later that afternoon teas are holiday or anniversary indulgences these days, another relic that is nudged now and then to fluff the air of tradition and nostalgia around. I read too that young women are baking cupcakes and donning pearls and chiffons more, in rebellion against ‘modern’ womanhood, taking back domesticity and embracing the gossip.

Me? I walk some more, to burn off tea, wondering what everyone is doing back home, as I step on to those old cobbled streets.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Curd Rice: A Short Primer

Something written for someplace that didn't quite work out.


This must have been a good five years before I started drinking and waking up the next morning searching, even mildly hoping for a hangover, if only to truly sympathize with the rest of the gang. They had all started drinking a decade before I, and their livers were less forgiving than mine.

I am most certain I would have woken up in that distant past in a small lightless house in a city in southern India and realized that I did not, at that point, care much for cooking. (It would change of course, everything would change.) I had just started living by myself and needed, however, to feed myself. The easiest thing to make, that morning, like countless other mornings in those early years of heady independence that adulthood brought, would have been curd rice.

There is a technical difference between curd and yoghurt, the latter a late discovery in the western world as a favoured semi-dessert of sorts. But the difference is not important. You may be forgiven if you use the words interchangeably.

At its simplest, curd rice is just curd mixed in with cooked rice. Add salt to taste. Eat with pickle or papad. This incredibly humble dish is deceptive in the cult fandom it inspires, especially in southern parts of India. In these constantly tropical climes, in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, if you should ask for more specifics, we treat curd as a final padlock to the digestive system. It is the last thing we eat at a meal, even after a dessert sometimes. We know that it cools down the tongue after the dance of spices from other dishes, and aids in digestion. Elsewhere in the country, curd is a drink, a dessert or a minor ingredient among an array of things to throw into the production of a recipe.

It is soul food.

Over the years, starting at lazy mornings when proper breakfasts were not an option to later, on mornings after nights of debauchery, I discovered that curd rice could work very well to soothe down hangovers and give that boost of brief life needed to get us back home in last night’s clothes, into our own beds. Over the years we learned to jazz it up a bit. Curd rice was now,

- with sesame seeds spluttered and chopped onions fried till translucent in coconut oil, with chopped tomatoes for the colour, and topped with fresh coriander leaves,

- with halved seedless green/black grapes and/or jewel-like pomegranate seeds and/or raisins and cashew nuts lightly toasted in ghee,

- with grated carrots and bits of this or that vegetables,

- combinations and permutations of the above.

Purists, like mother, would scoff at curd rice being breakfast. It ended a meal, she would say, it was not the meal itself. But then she didn’t drink, or have hangovers, or ever have the option in the joint family she married into to have lazy mornings when dinner could be passed off as breakfast.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Jar of Creme

That cheque is long overdue, and I haven't worked enough these past weeks to be able to afford a big jar of the organic, natural moisturizer I otherwise use. 

Sunscreen lotion had sufficed all harsh summer. 

It rained last night, a big, bad storm that made me want to go out and open my face to the blasting skies. But adults don't do that. 

The weather is turning and I will need moisturizer. So while out to buy milk this morning I bought the smallest jar of light moisturizer I could find. It is small and fits into my palm, like it was somehow right. 

I opened it this morning after my bath and peeled off the inner cover. I took a smidgen of it and worked it into my legs - I wore shorts today, I have never had a fondness for much clothes, you know. I added another blob onto my arms, darker now after the few weeks in the sun all day everyday in the mountains, the colour of caramel that is just underdone. 

"The unfreckled skin, tinted tea and clotted cream, honey gold, or a rich, brooding coffee." (Sarita Mandanna, Tiger Hills)

I brought my hand up to my nose after I had closed the jar and put it away on the shelf in the bedroom. It smelled like teenhood, when this creme was the luxuriest thing for the skin I could find in my little town. This made me smile. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Show Up

The only reason to be a writer is because you have to.
~ Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hampi, the New Hippie Haven: In The Hindu Business Line

I could go to Hampi every year and still never get enough of that place. There is something mesmerising about the rocks there. We went biking to Hampi a few weeks ago and camped and watched the sun set behind rocks from near a temple and lay down on our backs and talked and had a wonderful time.

I came back and wrote an essay on how Hampi is the new hippie haven and the next Goa, of sorts. It was published on March 17, 2017 in The Hindu Business Line's wonderful supplement BLInk.

Read it here or see below. 


Thanks to the wannabe hippie atmosphere that Hampi actively promotes, it is now the unofficial heir to rave capital Goa

Haalu Hampi (or ruined Hampi), as we call it in Kannada, has always made me feel like a voyeuristic member of an audience watching the high drama of the empire’s life and thereafter existence being performed in a loop. I feel like I am inspecting the ruins to judge, to take surreptitious notes in my notebook and make many half-hearted photos from the same angles as everyone before and after me. I feel as if I am there in the theatre vaguely wondering if I have got my money’s worth yet. I cannot explain why this land makes me feel like I am interrupting something. The surrealistic expanse of it and the possibilities the rocks are known to hold are its magic perhaps. Returning from the new Goa of the south, I have always felt slightly ashamed and utterly mesmerised. Love can sometimes be like that.

From the excesses that wash up on the shores of Goa, it is a straight line inland to reach Hampi. The parties, the backpacks, the dreads, the harem pants and the odd-sized doobies oscillate between the two hippie havens seamlessly. One has no beaches, the other has no ancient ruins or Russian mafia lords. Not yet. Not yet discernibly, rather.

This most recent time I am there with a bike, a tent, a partner in tow and with an intention to camp somewhere. The only safe place is within a guest-house surrounded by cottages, we discover. The tent opens to paddy fields and there is a dog that barks through most of the night. There is nothing more to the camping story here, except that it was lovely and that I will now want to camp only in places with a view.

Not so lovely are the causes and effects of Virupapara Gaddi (spelled variously across different websites), on the other side of the river from Hampi the village, where nirvana-seekers bay at the full moon from underneath boulders, clutching what they can of the sweet release that is promised to them by event managers and other mercenaries. Much later I will discover that nearly every single structure on the Gaddi is illegal, but well-greased machineries keep them going and thriving year after year.

Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the village that draws mostly two kinds of visitors — one the pilgrims, mostly from surrounding districts who revere Virupaksha, the god who presides, and two, tourists who come from big cities for a few days, find it too hot (it is always too hot in Hampi), hire mopeds to get around, buy psychedelic printed bohemian things, ‘chill’ and leave. The weekend hippies. The third kind will eventually cross the Tungabhadra river, smarting from the gross commercialisation of Hampi, to merge into the unpoliced boulders at night. A majority will be from overseas, travelling through gap years and finding that yoga-music-peace-salvation is pocket-friendly and readily packaged here by reluctant but enterprising locals.

The guest-house where we have pitched our tent is old and famous. Possibly listed in Lonely Planet too. There is a new bridge from Hampi that goes through a few villages and many fields. It had been for long a contentious project, given that the site of the former majestic Vijayanagara Empire is a protected area and most constructions are banned.

A few years ago, the shacks and shops that lined the road to the main temple were razed to the ground, famous restaurants on the banks of the river were instructed to shut shop, in the same way that they were known to shoo, albeit politely, Indian tourists after sundown. Foreigners were preferred. This was an old personal experience. Indians were unwelcome, a sentiment that continues to be vehemently denied, but is expressed in not so subtle ways.

The new road, which drastically shortens the distance between this side and that side of the river, runs along some deeply disturbing quarries, but expansive vistas that are green and happy still dominate, for now. An old man in saffron and dreadlocks calls out — ‘bhaiyya’ — and directs us to where we need to go, before we even ask. We find it highly amusing. All roads clearly lead to one place. The faster way is to take a boat or a coracle across the river from Hampi. In summer, it isn’t difficult to hop over stones and walk across either. While the boatman waits for more passengers to fill the boat, some climb onto a rock and light up a joint. It is so common a sight and scent that no one looks their way. That rave parties are a common feature at certain locations is not news. Everywhere, there are police-issued warnings against smoking what the locals call ‘masala’ cigarettes. The smell of this masala hangs in the air, everywhere.

The first rave-related story we hear is early one morning when we wait for the cooks to make us tea. A tall guy — from Delhi, he soon tells us — walks in with a bunch of bananas, a chocolate bar, a rolled-up mat and a big backpack. We recall he was at the café attached to the guest-house with a few friends until closing time last evening. An argument between him and the manager starts to heat up and we soon find ourselves in the middle of it, owing to language issues, trying to soothe things over. All before a dose of morning caffeine, sigh. A month or so ago, a large rave event, with some 300-400 people, opened somewhere among the rocks — the address for these things is always vague — and was raided by the police after a few days.

The manager tells us that no one knows where all the people went. They just merged into the rocks, he says. In the first few days, they would wake up to find that people had spent the night on hammocks that most guest-houses have outside their cottages for their guests. These people, the manager stereotypes them, spend the days hanging around in different cafés, hoping to catch the fancy of rich, single travellers who might take care of their expenses. At night they retreat under the rocks. The Delhi fella, who claims to be from an illustrious family, is trying to do the same, we are told. He does not exactly deny it.

The manager is from a neighbouring village, dresses hip and speaks English with an accent. A heavy accent, sometimes with a lilt, peppered with endearments and slang, is consistent among the staff at all cafés. It creates an English that is its own new language.

The local boys are all dudes, deriving a new language and a new image for themselves. A lot of them get close to foreigners — it is another ticket out of the village. Many of the travellers hang around for months, making bits and bobs of macramé dreamcatchers and jewellery or teaching yoga in exchange for a meal or a cheap room. One evening when we walk along the shops at Virupapara Gaddi, we spy a priest conducting what we assume is a service before Sabbath for the Jew travellers. The signboards are in Hebrew, the gathering doesn’t look like it would welcome us. Someone passes us by, talking into a phone in Hindi that he is tired of smoking up. We continue to be amused. The shopkeepers ignore us because we won’t pay in dollars, euros or pounds.

Mercenary is a hard tonic to swallow. The locals like the money that tourism of a certain kind brings, but it doesn’t go down easy that the social system has changed beyond recognition because of it. Techno and lounge music floats from cafés that serve ravioli and pasta, all spelled wrong.

Money is flowing fast and loose, as much from tourism as from the parties and the things that are supplied. Money comes with its own cause and effects.

It isn’t hard to understand why Hampi is the new Goa. It is extremely hard to police the region, for there are more than enough places to merge into. The rocks are of sizes that climbers come every year to practise on. The locals both detest the hippies and need the money they spend.

It happens to be a full moon night during our stay. The café is nearly empty, save for a family and an old couple engrossed in books. The father in the family orders one beer for himself and chicken things for the whole family. You can see that it is an occasional treat for him, the beer. At another party somewhere on top of a hill, the others must be howling at the moon, faces upturned.

Review of Kochi-Muziris Biennale: In Hyperallergic

We went to Kochi and saw the Biennale earlier this year. I love that little place, and the old warehouses are breathtaking. But the Biennale itself was very meh. I had had more expectations from the curator Sudarshan Shetty.

I wrote a review of it for the New York headquartered Hyperallergic. It is a joy working for them, with the attention to the edits they give and the kind words they always have.

Read it here (more photos), or see below. Published March 08, 2017.


The curator for the third edition of India’s first art biennial, Sudarshan Shetty, has brought together some strong works that don’t resonate with each other in any way.

Voldemārs Johansons, “Thirst” (2015), still from single-channel video, 5.1 sound, fog, dimensions variable

KOCHI, India — I could start with clichés, as many do when writing about Kerala, the southernmost state of India, which tourism officials have dubbed “God’s own country.” But I will note, instead, the dangerous road manners I encountered en route from a picturesque village in northeast Kerala to Ernakulam, the state’s modern metropolis, home to malls and metro lines, and host, on the island of Fort Kochi, to India’s first art biennial. Travelers and merchants have followed ancient routes to arrive on the island’s shores for millennia now. The latest reason to set sail is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale(KMB), currently in its third edition.

Founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu in 2010, and named partly after the lost port of Muziris — which is believed to have been the region’s hub of trade before its disappearance — KMB is always curated by artists. This distinctive tradition will likely come under closer scrutiny in light of the Biennale’s current outing, which is sorely unable to match the ambitions of its curator, the artist Sudarshan Shetty.

The curatorial theme of the current Biennale, Forming in the pupil of the eye, is derived from an old story about a young traveler who seeks a meeting with a wise sage to try to understand the complicated multiplicities of all that is. “[G]athering the world into the pupil of her eye,” Shetty writes in his curatorial note, “the sage creates multiple understandings of the world.” Accordingly, he writes, the Biennale is “an assembly and layering of multiple realities.” What that translates to, in the picturesque lanes of Fort Kochi and its many gorgeous venues, is a mishmash of works derived from multiple disciplines that somehow all stand in isolation, never coming together to form anything coherent.

The list of participating artists for the current KMB features an unusual and intriguing array of poets, musicians, dancers, and contemporary artists from 35 countries. When it was first released, I had eagerly anticipated discovering what such a gathering of artists might look like in rooms and hallways forever imbued (in my mind at least) with the aroma of the spice bags that must have passed through them. Now, several weeks after my visit to the current KMB, it is already hard to jog any individual work from memory and feel pleased to have seen it.

My first stop is Aspinwall House, the Bienniale’s main venue and the former headquarters of Aspinwall & Co Ltd. — a company established in 1867 that traded in in coconut oil, pepper, spices, coffee, rubber, and other goods. I soon find myself walking in and out of the rooms swiftly, with little to hold my attention.

Across the Bienniale’s lovely venues, there are several works that, when seen in isolation, are either thought-provoking, entertaining, engaging, or all of the above. Among the most memorable are the Russian collective AES+F’s sleek and silly three-channel video work “Inverso Mundus” (2015); Alicja Kwade’s intriguing concrete wall and mirror installation “Out of Ousia” (2016), which plays with perceptions of what is original and what is a replica; and Padmini Chettur’s video installation “Varnam” (2016), which explores the nostalgic remains of eroticism and romantic love — the term “varnam” referring to the central section in a classical Bharatanatyam dance performance.

My disappointment springs not so much from any individual work, but how they all feel when experienced together. The rooms frequently strewn with remnants of performances feel like I am arriving at a party after everyone has left for the night, while other installations feel like pages torn away from precious books to paste on the walls. The sentiment behind trying to preserve and document these ephemeral acts is appreciated, but it is really a case of trying too hard to please, and failing.

After treading in and out of several KMB venues, I arrive in a sparsely lit room where the Latvian artist Voldemārs Johansons’s “Thirst” (2015) is showing. A video of a stormy North Atlantic Ocean filmed in the Faroe Islands, the work is a single-shot visual capturing the sea in all its fury. Coupled with the waves’ frightening roars, the video truly envelops the visitor; it is threatening and immersive, drawing you in, spitting you out, relentlessly pulling and pushing. It is a powerful experience and I know my memory of it will endure. The anger in the piece and its strange beauty mingle with the sentiments I have developed for the Biennale as a whole and the haunting allure of its venues, most of which are only accessible to the public during KMB’s three-month run. Being alone in these gorgeous buildings, standing in their upper rooms and watching the ships go by in the near distance, hearing the waters churning, and smelling the spaces’ evocative aromas, makes me glad that I am here. In these moments, the Biennale recedes.

Between a dozen main exhibition spaces, several smaller venues, collateral events, and the Student Biennale, there is much to see at KMB. As I make my way around Fort Kochi, I find myself looking up at the tall roofs and watching out from the expansive docks at the rear of the buildings instead of into the rooms and at the works. Nothing seems to fit anywhere.

Later — much later — my companions and I are sitting around a table over cold beer and a passable dinner, dissecting the day. It is a very pleasant evening in late January. There is a tiny pool near our table, and a Christmas tree made with sticks and lights that is much prettier than my description makes it sound. The conversation goes round and round, and the question that arises is: can language be visual art? There is no reason why it cannot be, but it certainly isn’t at KMB. The distance from one work to the next, from one venue to another, is the time the viewer has to process and ruminate on each experience. In this interim space between viewing each work, it’s the responsibility of the curatorial theme to facilitate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence between otherwise disparate works.

Shetty took a gamble when he sought to bring other creative disciplines into the Biennale’s visual context. Did it pay off? Unfortunately, no. The latest edition of KMB is a brave experiment that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. But going to Fort Kochi — with its streets as old as time, its fabulous buildings and warehouses, and the river that runs through it — remains a grand aesthetic experience.

The 2016 edition of the Kochi–Muziris Biennale continues at locations throughout Kochi through March 29.

Bangalore's Burning Lakes: In The Guardian

Water bodies are not supposed to catch fire. But in Bangalore they do. I wrote a report on the Bellandur lake for The Guardian. The article went viral, with over 25,000 shares on social media and was trending number 1 on the Guardian Cities section of the website for some six days!

Here is hoping someone somewhere will do something about the lake.

Read here (with several links and more photos), or see below. Published on March 1, 2017.


(Photo credit: Aaditya Sood)

On the evening of Thursday 16 February, residents in the south-east part of Bangalore noticed huge plumes of smoke rising into the sky. The smoke was coming from the middle of Bellandur Lake – the biggest lake in the city at a little over 890 acres. They realised the seemingly impossible had happened: the lake had caught fire. Even fire fighters wondered how a blaze in water could be put out.

The fire in the lake burned for 12 hours and left behind a sinister black patch in the centre, according to some eye-witness accounts.

This is the new story of Bangalore – state capital, India’s Silicon Valley, and once upon a time, the “city of lakes”. The reasons why these lakes are able to catch fire begin to explain why scientists at the influential Indian Institute of Science believe Bangalore will be “unliveable” in a few years’ time.

A lethal mix of factors create an environment that merely requires the slightest of triggers for lakes to go up in flames. Untreated effluents pour into the waters from the many industries and homes on its banks, illegal waste disposal takes place on a large scale – often including rubbish which is set on fire – and invasive weeds cover large swathes of the lake in a thick green canopy.

The latest incident is not the first time the lake has caught fire; it happened in May 2015. A few days later, it was in the news again for being covered in snow-like froth, which began to swirl up in the summer wind, engulfing passers-by. The froth was the result of chemical waste dumped in the lake, and was toxic enough to crack windshields, wear the paint off car hoods and exacerbate the severe respiratory issues that have plagued citizens in recent years.

Dr TV Ramachandra, coordinator of the Energy and Wetlands Research Group at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has been studying the lakes in Bangalore, especially Bellandur and Varthur, for over two decades. He explains that an estimated 400-600 million litres of untreated sewage is let into the lake catchment every day, creating a toxic environment fertile for disasters like the fires and foam.

“The city overall generates between 1,400 and 1,600m litres per day of untreated sewage,” he says. “20-30m litres per day is generated from the apartments in the vicinity of Bellandur Lake. There are several invasive species like water hyacinths growing in the lake, thick enough to walk on. People dump solid waste on top of it. Because of the thickness, it creates an anaerobic environment in the water below, where methane is formed. It creates an ideal environment for catching fire.”

He believes there are too many agencies governing the lake, so they all blame each other for such incidents. “The Bangalore water supply and sewerage board should be held responsible for letting the untreated sewage into the water,” he says, adding that the onus should also be placed on the Karnataka state pollution control board for not regulating industries that have been draining their untreated sewage into the lake.

Although the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act require action to be taken over such matters, the government has mostly remained silent, while its departments have been passing the buck around. The National Green Tribunal has issued notices to all the agencies involved.

Long before it began its slow and painful death, Bellandur Lake was part of a clever water and irrigation system devised by the founders of Bangalore in the 1600s, giving it the “city of lakes” moniker. The streams formed at the top of surrounding valleys were dammed into man-made lakes by constructing bunds. Each of these lakes would harvest rainwater from its catchments and the surplus would flow downstream, spilling into the next lake in the cascade via storm water drains or raja kaluves. The bodies of water would in turn serve the needs of the population.

In the 1970s, there were still 285 lakes in the city, making it self-sufficient in its water needs. Today, however, there are just 194 lakes, and the large majority of them are sewage-fed. The rest have been lost to encroachments – by the Bangalore Development Authority, private real estate developers and illegal builders – to cater to the booming housing needs of a city of 10 million.

Bangalore has been subject to unchecked urbanisation in the wake of the IT sector-fuelled economic boom of the late 1990s. The many software companies that sprung up during the dotcom boom attracted hundreds of thousands of skilled IT professionals from across the country, with thousands more people moving from villages and small towns to the city in search of work.

According to studies by the IISc, rapid urbanisation and expansion between 1973 and 2016 caused a 1005% increase in paved surfaces and decline of 88% in the city’s vegetation, while water bodies declined by 85% between 2000 and 2014.

The rise of the IT sector has also created the problem of e-waste in the city: a 2013 report estimated that Bangalore produces 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. Although a formal recycling system for e-waste was set up, 90% of it is dealt with through the informal sector, which is harder to monitor. Unaware of the necessary safety measures, some incinerate the e-waste, releasing lead, mercury and other toxins into the air – and dump the rest, allowing pollutants to infiltrate the groundwater.

If one lake habitually catches fire, then another throws up thousands of dead fish every other summer. Ulsoor Lake, which doubles up as a picnic spot with boat rides and snack vendors on its banks, saw dead fish floating on its waters last yearowing to the pollution caused by untreated sewage and consequent depletion of dissolved oxygen.

The water pollution in Bangalore poses a serious threat to residents’ health and creates a chronic shortage of clean water for people to use. All in all, experts predict a severe water crisis which will make Bangalore uninhabitable by 2025, with residents potentially having to be evacuated.

In the aftermath of the latest fire, I spoke to Aaditya Sood, an IT professional who watched the flames from his 10th floor balcony. He said he had seen the lake being “choked” in the seven or eight years he has lived there. “I have two kids and respiratory issues are a problem,” he says. The toxins from the lake get into the air, according to Ramachandra, noting that the cases of lung-related medical conditions have increased drastically in the city recently.

Another resident, Vandana Sinha, who works for a consultancy firm, says the smoke from the fire almost immediately caused itchiness at the base of her throat. She had heard that seven to eight trucks worth of garbage was being dumped into the lake every night, adding to the lethal combination of pollutants in the waters.

Report after report by expert committees have recommended several short and long term measures for rescuing the city’s lakes. Stopping the dumping of garbage, treating sewage water before it is allowed into the lakes, checking encroachments and slowing the development agenda are top of the list.

In the next three years, if the same rate of development continues, the built up area in Bangalore is expected to increase from 77% to 93%, with a vegetation cover of a mere 3%. Ramachandra is determined to get the bureaucracy to act before it is too late. While the city may not fully cease to exist, without drastic improvement the other possibilities still sound impossibly grim.