Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Neighbours

February 15, 2017
V., Bangalore

The mad girl next door has started screaming again. It is precisely 10 o'clock at night, I swear it turned 10 pm when I directed my eyes to the right hand corner just now to see the time. How about that! I really wish she would stop screaming. She is not really mad, I suspect. Her parents did not probably tell her of neighbours and basic decorum that is becoming of human beings, when she was a child. Now she yells at the father and the father yells back. Her voice is very shrill, that makes it worse. When I saw her the first time, I found her to be snooty and with her nose up in the air, befitting of the just out of teens girl she is. 

She has friends over and then she is all sweet and coy. That grates my senses more. To the boy she is flirting with, I want to say, don't boy, she isn't the sweetheart you hope she is. I never hear the mother. I didn't think there was one, until the other day I saw a harried woman in a nightie that must have once been of some distinguishable colour staring out to the road. So a mother exists, I thought to myself. There is a grandmother, who is the older version of the mother, except that she wears a saree and a sweater over it, all days of the year. The grandmother is always cleaning something, I find, be it the trash or pushing away the fallen jacaranda flowers that the mid-morning has whittled. She spoke to me once, a few months ago after I got back from L. One sentence, asking me if I had gone to 'place'. I use an utterly literal translation, for the word ooru is really just out of town. I had nodded. After that, we went back to our lives.

I was probably taking out my anger on her, punishing her for not teaching the granddaughter manners by withholding from her the perfunctory smile I reserve for those that don't enter my live as much as hover around in the vicinity, forming the background.

The mad girl is still better than the man who would retch 45-50 times a day, into the night, who lived with a large family in the few rooms below the hole I used to live in earlier, I think to myself. I had counted. It is hard now to think that I ever lived there, once, not too long ago. The whole hole could fit into my studio now. Not really, but you know. It was a good hole though, the site of all the misadventures of that decade. All I have now to show for its hallowed walls is a hazy photo of the three of us, just before moving day. The boxes are all packed and we balanced three bottles of beer on a stool that would go into the truck as was, bagless. We would all still be friends for a few months after that too. But maybe the coffin began to be built that very day, one soundless February night, hotter than it is today, now.

Above the house with the mad girl are two houses, the inhabitants of one have not really interested me much. The other is a young, rather handsome couple with a darn cute son. I think the husband beats the wife, I can't be sure. I hear screams of the painful kind sometimes. It became an everyday affair until I began to wonder what I could do, and then stopped. I don't hear them much. Yesterday, I heard a little party, after many months. Maybe things are okay now. We had exchanged payasa once, when I first moved in. We now smile. But that is all. My hopes of being friends and inviting them over for parties just so that we could have other couple friends came to naught. 

I used to have more parties in that hole than here, in this badass house now. I needed others perhaps to wallow in those confined walls with me, here I am too jealous of the narrative I have built, to invite just about anyone in to trample and disrupt the eddies. Not yet.

On the other side of the street live two big houses. The husbands are some big people in the IT sector, it is very easy to tell. They have fancy cars and weekends off when they rarely come out of the house. They leave in the morning and come back late at night. The wives are friends with each other and do badminton and yoga class together, but they are jealous of each other too, you can tell. There is a beagle called S. in the bigger of the two big houses and I want to go cuddle the fellow. But the woman is the most unfriendly, and will be friends only with those that are from her land and speak her language. I can speak that language too, but the point is, she is snooty and rude and never ever smiles. She keeps very busy with a morning walk, three kids (a set of twins including), a husband, a dog that she is heard trying to make him obey, several classes for her and the kids, a car and bike of her own and occasional evenings out when it is the weekend. Maybe she has the problem with no name. 

(Cue - Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, now reading)

To the other woman I had once given two tiny plants from our erstwhile farm to grow. I never asked her if they took life in the pot I hope she put them in. 

Leaving my overly inquisitive but generally good landlady who lives with a strange son and a daughter below my house aside, in the list of neighbours, the old tall lanky quiet uncle comes last. He is always pottering around in his tiny passage of a garden and always nods exaggeratedly when we pass each other by. His wife sits out on a plastic chair in the evenings, to catch the last of the evening sun. When it is particularly cold, she suns herself on the terrace. When Rudra spots her, he barks and barks and barks and then whines, for me to chase her away from where he can still see her. I appease him with a biscuit. 

He gets way too many biscuits a day. I miss him, desperately. A home without a dog and books is just walls and roof. 

And that sums up an account of the neighbours that make up my source of casual acquaintances in this near-village. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Things of Interest Today

"Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives." James Salter


Malayalam is a bloody hard language, if you will pardon my French here. But learn it I shall, even if my tongue swells up in shock with over work.


Kathleen Alcott is current most favourite writer. And Gloria Kiconco who is also a friend.


For a brief few seconds, we rode behind a jeep filled in the back with soldiers in camouflage holding really big long guns. In the mayhem that is this city's traffic, I was allowed a direct sight into the eye of the gun. They seemed like they would be trigger happy. It was a deeply disturbing sight. In a country that does not officially have a war underway, in a city that is peaceful save for road rage and pub noise, surely there is a law that says you can't shove a gun into the faces of the people riding behind you on a bike?


It feels freaking good to write these words. At. This. Moment.



I learnt how to make a single sheet 8-page booklet. Pretty darn proud because I have never been very crafty. Now I will go make more and/or write something in the one I made with a yellow coloured page.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reviewing Laksmi Pamuntjak's Amba: In TNIE Today

Read it here on the website of The New Indian Express' magazine section, or see below.


Novels that are based on the epics are a trend that, if you ask me, should have long seen a natural demise of readers, and importantly, writers’ interest. While stories that imagine newer possibilities for old-as-time characters are an effective tool to eke out lesser explored nuances and to assign ambitions and –isms to known versions of the parables, they have reached a point of overdone-ness. A brownie left in the oven five minutes too long. Still probably great with afternoon tea, but you know, you wish you had taken it out sooner.

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s debut novel Amba: The Question of Red is almost one such book. It retells the story of Amba, who, in the Mahabharata, loved Bhisma but could not marry him. The weight of that Amba’s destiny and the inevitable repercussions of her circumstances is a baggage Pamuntjak’s Amba struggles to comprehend, and mend. The devastation of her stories and her loves plays out in the backdrop of a little known (in this country at least) history of Indonesia’s incarceration of some 12,000 Communists, without due trial in the prison camps of Buru Island during the Suharto dictatorship in the 1960s-70s. Introduction to this side of the story of what they say is the world’s largest Muslim nation is what makes Amba an interesting read. Reading it in India, fed as we are all of our lives with stories of the epics, the epics that we share with Indonesia, is equally enjoyable, for it allows the reader to relate to the characters more easily, even while being able to pay attention to the subtle differences in the narratives of how the familiar stories are told here and there.

The story oscillates between the childhood, the affairs of her youth and the present widowhood of Amba, respectively placed in rural Java, then Europe and then the Buru Island. The beautiful Amba is set to marry Salwa, as ideal a match as her family could have hoped for. On a volunteering trip she meets and has a brief affair with Bhisma, a doctor who leans firmly left. The relationship is not meant to last. Amba is then seen marrying a scholar. Cut to the present in the novel when she is a widow journeying to Buru and thereabouts, accompanied by a young Samuel, trying to piece together as much of Bhisma’s life as she can, through meetings with his friends and acquaintances, through the unsent letters he wrote to her, through the unsavoury history of Buru and its people.

Written in Indonesian and translated into English by the author herself, there are several parts that hint at what the novel could have been, if only…If the novel is riddled with anachronistic writing in some places, then elsewhere, there are metaphors so poorly thought of (“…gawked at each other’s nipples, marveling at how they could become so hard when poked, like cooked mung beans.”), that they ruin any measure of smooth sailing in the storytelling that has been achieved until then. Amba is a valuable novel for the tales of the incarceration that it researches into. Read alongside the life of Amba, it allows the reader stray peeks into what the jacket promises it is – a devastating novel of love and redemption, empathy and forgiveness – but stops quite a measure short of being all that.

On Karan Acharya's Saffron Hanuman Stickers

Angry is a word I am right now. The final edits to this piece when it was published in Scroll was very, very different from what the piece was intended to be. Much to my chagrin, it was trending on the website too for a few days. I shall refrain from saying more because I am certain I will only say too much. 

Posting only the original piece here below.

We have famous standstill traffic problems in Bengaluru here. Occasions when engines are killed and drivers look around to vaguely nod at neighbours in mutual irritation and exasperation has slipped from rush hour routine to all day mundanity now. There are, thus, plenty of minutes for me to mentally count the number of large saffron and black images of Hanuman that are pasted proudly on motorbikes and cars – both private and cabs – these days. The ‘angry Hanuman’ stickers are everywhere - viral, if you should want to use the new technical term – on watch dials, t-shirts, as laptop skins and other whatnots.

The image, vector style, is positively angry, or so I choose to read it. It feels appropriate to invoke John Berger here now, a paying homage too in a sense, after his recent passing. The art critic and thinker spoke of seeing that comes before words, of images that surround and engulf us in the same way that a language surrounds us. The new ‘language of images’ that he wrote about in the seminal text Ways of Seeing is as necessary in the age of viral images as it was in the quieter 1970s that he wrote his work in.

The way I see this new popular Hanuman image – angry, confrontational, on the offensive - is not in tandem with what its creator Karan Acharya says it should be read as. Acharya is a designer and graphic artist from Kumble village in Kasaragod, the northernmost district in Kerala. “In 2015 a group of boys called Aryan boys in my village asked me to design something different to put on the flag for Ganesh Chaturthi festival,” Acharya begins, speaking to me over the phone from Mangaluru, where he works. Every year the flag they hoisted in the village had the Om symbol. Acharya kept putting off creating something, busy that he was at work, until they insisted he give them something the very next day. “It was around 11.30-12 in the night when I designed this face,” he tells me. He could finish only the face, though he is working on designing the full body for Hanuman at the moment. Up went the image on the flag and very soon his friends began to put it up as their display and profile pictures on social media accounts and chatting apps.

Over the next year it snowballed into a fully democratized image and began to adorn the rear windows of vehicles in Bengaluru, its ubiquity coming as a great surprise to Acharya on his last visit to the capital. “Since I designed this image for friends, I hadn’t put any watermark on it,” Acharya said, explaining that he was deriving absolutely no royalty from its use in different merchandise. He was approached by a US-based company to sign away exclusive right of use, he says, but did not feel right to do that, more so because so many people were already using it.

Did you intend the Hanuman to be angry, I ask him. “It is not angry at all. My friends had told me to design something with an attitude, a Hanuman without a smile. My Hanuman is not angry, it is just attitude Hanuman,” Acharya insists.

Deities with such an attitude are more common than one would think; such visual language older. Philip Lutgendorf is Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature, and the author of Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Hanuman, the “default deity”, has for long taken the das and the veer forms. “Hanuman is an inclusive god, and is worshipped by both the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas. To the Shaivas, he is the 11th avatar of Rudra with the Raudra roopa (angry or aggressive face). This too is an old idea, and goes back at least a thousand years in as far as textual sources are concerned,” he explains, over a video call from somewhere in Maharashtra.

Acharya’s Hanuman has been embraced with open arms by those leaning right. He has told me earlier that some Hindutva groups have appreciated the image. Is the flaunting of it easier, more defiant and more representative of unexpressed sentiments in a political ecology that is as charged as it is, I have been curious. Prof Lutgendorf will tell me towards the end of our conversation that he tries very hard not to be reductive. “Not to reduce an image like that to a very simple message. We are living in the age, unfortunately, of simple messages when prime ministers and presidents communicate by tweets….Images can carry a lot of different messages to different people,” he says.

Images are text. And they can a history narrate. Prof Lutgendorf tells me, “The rise in devotion for Hanuman has been going on for quite a few centuries and has gotten intensified in the 20th century probably in the same way that just about all religious activity in India has gotten intensified. But none of this (is) specifically tied to a kind of Hindutva or anti-minority message. But it can easily be. I don’t argue with the possibility that it gets interpreted that way.”

Acharya’s image seems aimed at the youth and has a graphic novel look to it, he adds. Girish Kumar, whose cab I got into the other day on the way to somewhere, seemed to be in about his mid-20s. He sported the Hanuman on the back of his car and I asked him why he was attracted to it. “It is now in fashion, medam,” he told me, adding, “It is a strong, powerful look too.” The popularity of this image is what Srinath, who owns a shop that sells stickers in my neighbourhood, is cashing in on; politics are not really on his mind. “A lot of youth started asking for this sticker, and I have it in different sizes now. Maybe it is a fashion now, maybe something else will be in fashion in a few months, I don’t know. I have to keep things that are in demand, it is good for business,” he says. The vinyl stickers sell for anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 300, depending on size, while tees can go for up to Rs 900 a pop online.

Images of deities, what can be classified as calendar art, have had a long history, starting with the works of Raja Ravi Varma in the late 19th century, and moving along with images from S S Brijbasi & Sons which continue to be copied. Some early muscular images of Hanuman were influenced by the pehelwans, like Gama the Great in pre-independent India, who won several international competitions and “was an expression of Indian strength and masculinity,” Prof Lutgendorf says. The ‘H H Hanuman’ or ‘Hairless Humanised Hanuman,’ as he calls these images, begin to appear in the 1930s and 40s, the only signs of his kapitva, or monkeyhood being his lower simian face and the tail. Post-liberalisation, with body-building and gyms replacing the akhadas, “you begin to see Hanuman that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, (with) really exaggerated muscle. Is it connected with Hindutva macho? It can be, if you want to read it that way,” he says.

Referring to bhoodevis and village guardian deities that require alcohol, blood sacrifice, Prof Lutgendorf talked of folk gods, adding, “There is a huge tradition of violent and angry deities.”

“Images of deities change, conceptions of deities change with changing popular culture, changing popular political developments…Deities have lives, they have biographies. Images are hard to read. What you see as angry, someone else may not see that way. It is in the eye of the beholder. Darshan is in the eye of the beholder,” he explains to me.

The designer Karan Acharya is working on a comic book, the story set 10,000 years from now, with his now famous Hanuman and other characters, old and new. There just might be an animation movie as well. Maybe, no, most likely this is another passing fad. There will, undoubtedly, be others.

In this post-truth environment, it is tempting to be reductive of such fads, by choosing to read them alongside the politics of the day. Some would argue that post-truth is another fad that is also passing us by. But that is another story for another day, like they say. And then I turn to John Berger again - “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” In a politically charged society, it is tempting to try to find easy answers to complexities, you know?

Thursday, February 09, 2017

When I had to repeat my order thrice to the waiter at the local, and after he had turned his back to our table, my friend said to me that I was not really very audible. "Your voice was very soft," she said. She did not mean it as a compliment of any measure, I could see. 

I had heard this said of me before. Something I might be reading aloud for the partner, because he 'reads' better that way, was not loud enough, he had complained. Yet, I argued, with him and her now, that my voice sounded rather loud in my head. In the quietness of my studio when I articulated some sentences before I was to type or after the words had already been birthed on screen, my voice would pierce the air, sharp, intrusive like a rude shock. I had always thought my intonation was loud enough to cut through the thick of a roomful of speech, and had always until now remembered to speak softer, mindful.

Maybe I didn't have to remember these things, after all, I wondered.