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. 

A LONG, ENCHANTING WALK IN LANDOUR'S COMPANY 


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.

ADITI MITTAL: 'I AM NOT HERE TO BE QUIET'

“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.