Monday, July 28, 2014

A Pretty Jar

It is a ceramic jar in the colours of blue flowers upon cream. 

The lid is wood with a small, smart round handle on top.

That is to hold and tug the lid free from the pretty ceramic jar. 

I washed it and let it dry. Jar and lid.

Then filled coffee powder in it, up to the brim. 

What this jar calls for is this: early mornings when I, lazily, the bed/blanket still inviting, a cool cloudy breeze hushing in, will lift a wooden spoon from where it hangs on a vintage wooden Kerala-style holder. I will tug at the wooden lid of this cream-blue jar and bend down a little to take a whiff of coffee and comfort. I will not count, or measure the coffee powder, just fill the stove top for a fresh batch every morning. The water in a hundred year old kettle will begin to boil as I look out the window - two clay birds perch on the grills. The light has begun to stream in, but it is cold yet. And I would rather have five more minutes under the covers. 

The coffee is nearing done too. My little home fills with the fragrance of fresh coffee, the day warms, it feels like unsliced bread fresh from the oven. 

The morning coffee ritual. This cream-blue jar filled to the brim with coffee powder is among the rituals we devise and accustom ourselves to in our adult lives. The first whiff of coffee, that indescribable smell of different lives, bodies gone by, that, now, is what these days remind me of 

our slow mornings

black coffee

comfortable silences 


in the sun-coloured yellow room.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Why I Practice Kalaripayattu: In The Hindu BusinessLine's BLink This Week

I have always done some form of exercise all my life.

I remember evenings playing Seven Stones with my mother on the hillock that is now flooded with ugly concrete houses, right next to a cemetery. Then it was badminton, for many years, dad being the aggressive opponent often. We used to work our way through a single shuttlecock within days, a racket in a few weeks. Then basketball, briefly, in school. 

We walked everywhere, I devised myself a long, torturous route to the town library, through all the steep roads, by vine-covered red brick houses. We walked to town and back. I walked sometimes from school to my house, taking all the longer routes, stopping to pool in coins with friends and buy two buns to share - that's all we would have coins for - eating a small piece each while watching mountains stay still and lovers walk by at Raja's Seat.

Then I discovered yoga, and on and off, I have stuck to it ever since. It saved my life a couple of times. Much like this blog and these writings, home and him, I know yoga is always there, when I need saving and safety.

My parents and I trekked a lot to, for a few years, until they began to grow old and I moved away. I continued to walk everywhere.

Given my reasonable level of fitness, I had assumed Kalaripayattu, that lethal martial arts form from Kerala, would be tough, but not something I couldn't handle. It's been six months now, and I am nearing the end of level three. Not a week has gone by since without some major pain in some part of my body, from swollen knees to unbending legs to pain just about everywhere. Yet, I cannot stop. It's those endorphins. But there are also more poetic answers.

Read on as to why I practice Kalaripayattu. An edited version appears in The Hindu BusinessLink's BLink this week, here


Every Tuesday and Thursday mornings, at around 9.30 AM, I begin to ask myself existential questions. It is about the time I get back home after an hour and a half of Kalaripayattu class. After I have braved myself up the flight of stairs to my first floor flat and winced into a soft seat, I wonder, often aloud, why I continue to put myself through the swollen knees, the aching muscles and the sometimes excruciating pain. “And pay for that pain,” my mother reminds me, every time, over the phone.

Kalaripayattu is not a form of Yoga. It isn’t karate either, or contemporary dance, or anything else anyone is tempted to draw parallels with. It is the oldest martial art form in the world and can be traced in mythology to Parashurama. After reclaiming the land that makes the state of Kerala from the Arabian Sea, the sage is supposed to have established 108 ‘kalaris’ the traditional 21x42 feet dug out mud pit where Kalaripayattu is practiced. In the pages of established history, the origins are shrouded in mythology and mystery, much like Yoga. 

“It is difficult to explain what Kalaripayattu is, you have to experience it instead,” says Ranjan Mullaratt, my gurukkal at the Kalari Academy of Performing Arts in Bangalore. At a recently organized event to mark 15 years of the institution, Mullaratt’s students defy gravity and normal laws of the body to jump and twist and bend and crawl and fight with swords, odd shaped wooden weapons and the lethal urumi, the flexible whip-like sword that, unless wielded with fierce concentration, is said to be capable of decapitating the warrior’s own head!

The event showcases, among other sequences, the Ashtavadivu, eight movements that emulate the way the rooster, snake, horse, elephant, lion, cat, wild boar and peacock move. Graceful as the movements are, they remind me of the weeks of difficulty I had in moving muscles previously unused when I was learning to tread the length of the classroom, bent like the lion. They make it look so easy.

Kalaripayattu is said to have given birth to the rest of the martial arts, karate, kung fu included. If the latter are outright fighting techniques, Kalaripayattu looks more like a dance, lethal during practice, but like a gorgeous movement art when seen on stage, with contemporary shades. 

The British banned it when they got to Kerala, well aware of how dangerous it could be, even without weapons. Verumkai, bare hands, are weapons too. Mullaratt tells me his guru learned Kalaripayattu in secrecy, like many others during the ban, using coconut fronds in lieu of swords to practice. Post-Independence, it hasn’t yet regained the popularity it enjoyed during the Cholas and Malabar dynasties, when Kalari warriors, most from the Nair community, were employed by kings and chieftains to fight, often till death, to settle the disputes of their employers.

Yet, mostly through word of mouth, people continue to take interest and join classes, says Mullaratt. Popular culture gives the martial art form a boost, albeit a distorted one. If Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha in Malayalam tells of the legendary Chandu and Unniyarcha, a female warrior, Kamal Hassan’s Indian in Tamil glorifies killing a person with a well-placed pressure on a marma point. “People come asking if we can teach that in a week,” says Mullaratt. I can’t resist asking if it is actually possible to kill someone like that with Marma vidya, the study of the 108 sensitive points in the human body. “The knowledge of the marma points can be used to both heal a person and cause injury,” I am told. It is the last stage in Kalaripayattu training, after urumi.

Several people come to class to improve stamina, balance and get fighting fit. Even as it retains its traditional moves, the full body workout it enables ensures that Kalaripayattu remains relevant in modern settings. Dancers learn it for added grace. Movement artists have much to derive from it. Strands of it are incorporated in contemporary performance arts. Much like a language, Kalaripayattu derives from its changing environment to accommodate newer derivations, all the while retaining its ancient idiom. 

As for me, after some fifteen years of practicing Yoga, on and off, the possibility of pain is what draws me to push the limits, like the translucent wings of the dragonfly burning at the edges of a yellow flame. It is about the body burning in a battle where the mind wins. I prefer a more prosaic answer though, that of these new limits being manna for the soul. You take the pain because there is joy in looking down the mountain that you have just climbed. The view is fabulous, the air fresh and the soul, alive and smiling. And that is why I practice Kalaripayattu.

All photos courtesy: Kalari Gurukulam, Bangalore

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Anonymity and Assumptions, on Pak Literature: Filter Coffee Column in Kindle This Month

I love Pakistani literature. I have always believed that there must be something in the soil and air of a country in deep conflict that gives birth to the best of literature, the best of the arts. Maybe that is a lazy assumption. This month's Kindle magazine is a Pakistan special. I wrote on their literature, among other thoughts. See the column here or read the unedited version below.

Illustration: Abhishek Das/Kindle

(pr) That which is nameless.

Is being without a name freedom? Or is it unsavory for the freedom it allows others to make interpretations, derive names by themselves and thus assign identities? I haven’t made up my mind. A name is identity, and by extension a range of other assumptions, correct or otherwise, that builds up to an image predetermined by politics, culture or the news.

To go beyond the name, beyond the restriction of established images, that must be liberating. For a writer operating in a regime that barely pretends to tolerate criticism, let alone open dissent, this small measure must offer a window to breathe through. They thus take recourse in un-naming their characters, their cities. Dis-allow their own names on the covers and the story could well be conducted anywhere in a South Asian country.

Perhaps I make such assumptions myself, but indulge me.

The troika of Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin are, being personal favourites apart, seekers, in my mind, of these identities within (sometimes) anonymous people, cities, time lines. The lives of all three have followed similar trajectories. They have been born into privileged families – the ones that conduct their lives and businesses in ways we never hear about in the news – they move abroad as students, live and work in the metropolises of the world, and return to Pakistan to write best-selling books, columns perhaps for Dawn and commentaries for the world media on the mischief that Pakistani generals often get up to. If their characters are assigned names and places at all, they are allowed the restraint of details and the subtlety of words to let the reader place their own imagery, their own identities and often, their own assumptions upon the stories. 

In Hamid’s Moth Smoke, you get a voyeuristic view into Darashikoh’s world. An outsider to the rich world of lush parties, SUV cars and recreational drugs by virtue of being not-rich, Daru is also the insider, for having rich friends with whom to practice this lifestyle of privilege with. Changez, the reluctant fundamentalist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, loved America and an American woman, until, in the aftermath of 9/11, he grew a beard and eventually moved back to Lahore. K K Harouni, in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is, mostly, satisfied with his farm and the status within class hierarchy that it earns him. Privileged people, a rich, Punjabi-by-nature Lahore and Karachi.

The duality of the Pakistani society is never far away though. Here is our hero buying expensive drugs for tonight’s party, knowing that somewhere in the course of the night, his rich friends will bribe the khaki man on the roads. Alice’s charms are irresistible to Teddy Butt, in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, they get married later on. But this follows the harassment Alice bears through, for being a woman, for being a Christian in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

These writers, apart from others like Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Fathima Bhutto are never far in their narratives from the conflict that colours their lives, their country and what it does to their characters. The texts are urgent and rooted firmly in the contradictions and tensions that dominate Pakistani society today. This urgency, the narrative that derives from a tortured process is what makes this literature memorable.

To have un-sympathy this side of the gate.

Autocratic regimes all over the world, from Cuba to Iran, have led to the creation of some of the most interesting cultural pieces in history. There must be something in the air of restriction, censorship and the thought processes of a government not sympathetic to the arts that segues into music, film, literature that bares the soul of its time and the people it reflects. It is when you are denied ‘it’ that you begin to risk everything, from your personal freedom to your mind to touch ‘it’. Perhaps a government that habitually makes journalists, writers, its critics ‘disappear’ – physically or intellectually – is a government that ironically encourages these artists to push limits, their own and their arts’. Conflict literature, conflict cinema, conflict music, they seem somehow to have more soul than those created in more peaceful settings. Selfish though it feels to say so, sitting in this country, even if now there is a government with high potential for autocracy.

I might ask for a revolution now. Maybe we will all then write the next best story, sing the revolution song along the unpaved roads.

Would we? Would being nameless help? Like the American-returnees, could we, in this cesspool of both great tolerance and great intolerance, hope to be in more than personal conflicts? When do we get to wring our histories and make beautiful, tortured creations?

Questions. Might a potentially autocratic political force have answers?