Conde Nast features us as in its Secret Homestays series.

https://www.cntraveller.in/story/whos-up-for-fresh-mountain-air-and-birdsong-at-this-uttarakhand-homestay/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=CNTIndia-SocialShareConversions&utm_content=42B0BBAE-2803-414E-C144-5435079B0BC0

 

Who’s up for fresh mountain air and birdsong at this Uttarakhand homestay?

Birdsong & Beyond is off the beaten track and ideal for a secluded holiday

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It is the view you notice first. The horizon awash with myriad hues of the afternoon sun interjected by steep snow-capped mountains. The crisp breeze, chirping birds, verdant greens, and wildflowers have you next, and before you know the fatigue of hours of travel has dissipated in the fresh mountain air. We’re at the very serene Birdsong & Beyond in Uttarakhand, run by the organic farmer and writer Kiran Chaturvedi.

About the homestay

Birdsong & Beyond stands inconspicuously in a small settlement of mountain homes in the rugged hills of the Himalayas. It is off the tourist trail, in a little village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, known mostly as the birth place of the Chipko movement.

Surrounded by hills and jungles, the house is a mix of traditional architecture and contemporary décor. Spread over two floors, five bedrooms, a hall, a balcony and a terrace, the space is personal, comfortable, modern, and yet retains the rustic charm of a hill cottage. Here, you’ll see owner Kiran Chaturvedi’s personal touch everywhere—think cozy rugs and cushions, classics and novels, board games and art supplies and comfy chairs you can sink into.

At Birdsong & Beyond in the Himalayas

The slanting rays of the morning sun illuminate every corner of this wood cabin; every room has huge windows that overlook the sun, the sky, and the hills. The ranges of Badrinath, Mansa Devi, Trishul, and Pindari, stand right across the meadow in the front yard. Endless birdsongs, crystal clear air, rustling forests, and glistening stars makes Birdsong & Beyond nothing short of a storybook escapade.

About the owner

Birdsong & Beyond is the culmination of a lifelong dream of sociologist, writer, and organic farmer, Kiran Chaturvedi. “Birdsong is your quintessential cabin in the hills that so many of us have grown up dreaming of.” Kiran tells us over a cup of coffee. “We are completely off the tourist trail and only a few like-minded wanderers looking for an offbeat location manage to find us,” she adds. Looking at her pine wood cabin with sun-kissed terrace, organic kitchen garden, and fully stocked pantry one cannot but agree with her.

Photo: Birdsong & Beyond

Food

The homestay offers fresh home-made meals prepared in-house using local ingredients. Most of the produce is sourced from the kitchen garden at Birdsong and adjoining farms. Mandua, or black millet, ferns and nettles, and local lentils like rajma, bhat ki daal are some ingredients used to create the simple yet satisfying spread. The specialty however is the mutton curry made by Jagat, the caretaker, with his secret sauce and spice mix, and the bhang-jeera, (cannabis seed) chutney with fern fritters. But of course if you prefer your eggs on toast, the kitchen is open to you to cook, only you may have to carry your own bread, for the supply comes only when the truck driver wants it to.

How to spend 48 hours around Birdsong & Beyond

“The best way to spend time at Birdsong is by doing nothing,” Kiran tells me. Watching the sky with the glistening snowcapped peaks, listening to the birds, exploring the tiny village is work enough, we think. But, given the strategic location of the home stay, there is much you can do and see from here.

The shorter, half-day trails include picnics to nearby places like the Valli village temple, and the Dukhtamba Devi trek. Sunsets are beautiful at Duthkhambha. The trek takes about an hour to leisurely walk up with stops and forty minutes or less to walk down. You can reach Valli with a 3kms drive from the homestay or alternatively a 1km walk on stone steps through terrace fields downhill.

The Nagnath Forest and a visit to Mohankhal Forest Department for an introduction to the rangers’ work is another fine option. You can chat with the ranger and his guards during a guided tour that includes explanations about the surrounding flora and fauna as well as a few animal sightings, if you’re lucky.

Go camping close by. Photo: Birdsong & Beyond

The choices for day long trips include a visit to the region’s highest peak Kartikswamy, home to the only Kartik temple in north India—uniquely situated on the peak of a cliff at over 10,000 feet—it is an experience of a lifetime. Driving down riverside to Mandakini for a picnic on its bank and the views of Kedarnath range, or into Chandnikhal village to check out old carved wooden homes and ancient stone temples are great options too. The place also serves as a base for camping at the meadows of Chopta and the peaks of Tunganath and Chandrashila, the Alpine lake at Devariyatal, Badrinath and Kedarnath. While you can eat at the many dhabas along the way that serve Maggi, buns, paranthas and tea, the homestay can pack a meal that includes parantha, sandwich, boiled eggs and fruits for your day trips.

Prices:

Doubles from Rs3,000 excluding meals; Rs250 per meal per person.

How to reach:

Birdsong and Beyond is located in village Guniyala Khal, 2kms from the tehsil town of Pokhri Nagnath, in district Chamoli, Uttarakhand. 430 kms from Delhi, 210 kms from Rishikesh, into the forested rural mountain tops uphill from Rudraprayag. The area is also known as the hunting ground of the legendary Jim Corbett. You can reach there by car, bus, or cabs.

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Lost Connections: Johann Hari. May 2018 Book Report.

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For all the familiarity with the term Depression, it is still shrouded in confusion. For all the exhortations for removing stigma and shame around those who suffer, there is still too little focus on context and systemic causes. Johann Harris is an award winning journalist and best selling writer who has suffered from depression since childhood. He has been taking medications since his teen years and believed that his condition was all about a chemical Imbalance that pills could put right. But his experience with drugs- while it provided some relief, specially early on, did not lead to lasting improvements. It led him to ask what wasn’t working and why. 


What he found in the course of his wide ranging investigation is the story of this book. 


The stories and data he investigates are surprising and shocking, as well as commonsensical and intuitive – sometimes all together. He looks at the nature of pharmaceutical research and trials and publishing of trial results. He looks at the nature of the experience of grief and other emotional and relational trauma. He looks at social context. He looks at man as part of the natural world. He talks to scientific and scholars and doctors and social workers. 


He comes to see that Depression is a lot more than a chemical imbalance that pills can put right for ever. Some of his suggestions for course correction are utopian and because they point to the need for systemic changes, they may sound impractical; and yet there is a core idea in all of it that is possible for us to follow in our lives and interactions.
Given pervasive thoughts of stress and anxiety in our lives, this is a book for all of us, a book that takes a wide angle sweep and a close up into what all of us are now touched by directly or indirectly. 

Book report – Home Fire By Kamila Shamsie

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I read A God in Every Stone four years ago, and found it stunning and unforgettable. It is a very complex and layered book, contains centuries of history and references and literally digs into archeology and archives to tell a story of people caught in geo-political shifts and between betrayals of a more personal kind. It is staggeringly well researched and well imagined tale.
 
So I expected a lot from Home Fire. And it has lived up to the expectations, but it has also surprised me with how different it is from A God In Every Stone. It is very current story – an adaptation of Antigone’s story to this period in time, and it takes the old concerns and conflicts of ties of family, love, religion, and nation states, and places them in today’s world of immigration, terrorism and Jihad, and Muslim identity in the West.
 
Home Fire was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and has everything that a smash hit must have, and it is presented in great style. There are strong, memorable characters- the three siblings Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz, the love interest Eamonn, and his politician father. Isma is the much older sister who had been almost mother to her younger twins in London for years since their mother died. Their father had been a Jihadi, long absconding from their lives. Free at last to go and pursue her own dreams independently, in America, Isma can never be free of the fallout of her family’s history.
 
Isma stands by the rules of the country that is their adopted home, above all. The younger twins are closer to each other than to their elder sister, and Aneeka is willing to go against sister and country and ‘use’ her lover to save her twin when he seeks to undo his ‘mistake’ of trying to be his father’s son. The story feels like a true life narration because of wonderful characterisation, and because of the contemporary nature of all that goes on.
 
We move through the story with trepidation through airport immigration security hold up, attempted and aborted romance in small town America, politics and fiery love and guilt in London, and Jihad in Istanbul and Syria and the climax across London and Pakistan played out to the world over television.
 
The story steps up in tension as it progresses. The choices keep getting starker and the characters more and more desperate as the plot unfolds. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly bleak ones I have read in a novel in recent times. It is so real and yet so fantastic that it could certainly be tonight’s news.
 
The book raises eternal questions about the nature of love, and the conflicting claims of family, lovers and the state, to our loyalty. In the life and deaths of its characters, we also see the longing for home, and the craving for a fixed identity. The author is masterful in braiding all of it together powerfully, and unforgettably, in a bravura piece of elegant and refined storytelling.
 
This is a memorable, classic novel you won’t forget in a hurry, and will go back to again and again to find new stories with each new reading. I really cannot add a negative point to artificially try to be more balanced in my view. I think Kamila should have got the Booker too.

About a Birthday

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I turned 50 last month, and it was a birthday that felt special and meaningful in ways birthdays had stopped feeling, in the years since my childhood and teen years. In my childhood every birthday felt special. Every number on the age scale was a significant step up. A new class at school, a growing body, an expanding knowledge of the world, and a build up of skills. All very tangible, visible and noted by self and others.
Then came the twenties, and slowly, but increasingly, birthdays were markers that felt like the scores of a crucial, tense cricket test match. After college, each year gone by meant another round of stocktaking, comparisons, deadlines and the body clock. More of the same in the 30s. Birthdays turned ritualistic, performative and repetitive. It didn’t help that my husband didn’t understand what the fuss was about in the first place, and heartbreakingly for me at that time, did nothing at all to mark the my first birthday after our wedding. I caught the affliction and began to forget the date as well, and lost the previous excitement for this celebration for mine or anyone’s birthday, except for those of my children. Largely, a birthday was now only another excuse to throw a party and pretend this was something more than just another day. 


After decades of this jadedness, my own excitement and sense of reaching a milestone on my 50th took me by surprise. For days before the event-which happens to be also International Women’s Day, I felt that old old thrill that used to build up days before a birthday in my childhood. I began to tell people (strangers included) that I was turning 50. I planned different, small, private celebrations to mark the half decade of living a rather fortunate, ordinary and trouble free life. I gifted myself special treats, specifically, for this specific reason. 


I know it’s not like I did anything special to be 50 – I cannot take credit for being born, or for the supply of breath and everything else that keeps me alive. I owe much of that to my family. My parents specially can pat themselves on the back for giving me the best life they could, and then some more. And yet there is a feeling of achievement at having come to an age I could only think of as being monumentally old and unimaginable, when I was a small child. 


You can tell yourself many things about middle age in your 40s. But to me, middle age, aka the 40s felt like a no good half-way house. 50 is surer, crisper, clearer. It is over the fence and over the hill in every best way possible, done and dusted.
Here’s to new beginnings for the freer happier me, who is closer today to what I thought I should be, and never imagined I’d find at the ripe round number of 50.

To Mr. Shiv Visvanathan: About MeToo & the Chilly Justice of The Gulag

 

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off ”said Gloria Steinem.

 

Mr. Shiv Visvanathan had a choice. To stay pissed, when faced with new truths, or to unlearn, relearn, and move into freedom. What he chose was to write something which scapegoats women as the reason for men being victimised, romance being threatened with extinction, and for his being unsettled by all this.

 

His article is a particular kind of farce, given that Mr. Shiv Visvanathan, elsewhere in his life and work is a scholar, social anthropologist, professor, and Public Intellectual who coined the idea of Cognitive Justice – a concept that talks about recognising different truths of different social groups.

 

It is a truth too well known to need mentioning, that in man-woman sexual/romantic, desire-led interactions, men have wielded worlds of power in rather unequal proportions since ages. This raaz is being stripped of covers faster than Vera’s seven veils, even for Public Intellectuals who have a theory for everything but cannot stand in someone else’s shoes.

 

I am trying meanwhile, to stand in Mr. V’s shoes and see why he wrote that whiny confused piece of obfuscation, comparing a public voicing of private pain, through MeToo and The List, to ‘chilly justice’ and the Gulag, and bemoan the death of romance that this has supposedly led to. And while at it, why did he lay the blame of all of this on women’s need for instant gratification?

 

Poor innocent men, what are they going to do now, worries Mr.V. The world runs on sex, desire and all that follows….And women have decided to turn cold as a dystopian version of hell, and we are heading for apocalypse! Here is the end of love and mating and sex and marriage and relationships and all things nice and warm that lit up our hearts and made the world such a singalong place.

 

The idea of Cognitive Justice that Mr.V floated is the idea that there is not one hegemonic way of knowing something; that there are divergent and equally valid systems of knowledge, experience and lifestyle among different groups, and that asking one such group to “abandon their felt experience and identity is a form of injustice”. He has written about how “trying to normalise a group’s felt trauma is an act of erasure”. That “indifference and erasure become two rituals of normalisation of violence”. Can Mr. V please then look at MeToo through this lens of Cognitive Justice? To quote his words, “what adds insult to injury is that often people protest in favor of the perpetrator, ignoring the pain of the victim.” Time to walk the talk a wee bit, Mr. Public Intellectual?

 

It is ironic that the creator of the concept of Cogntive Justice should be calling someone else’s story of their experience ‘essentialism’. And he doesn’t stop there. Giving in to the worst exaggerations, misappropriations and false equivalences, he goes on to compare The List to a kangaroo court, the online naming and shaming of perceived sexual misconduct and harassment and assault to a Stalinist/ Naxal tactic, and regrets that the the targets of such naming shaming are being ‘eliminated’ in a feminist version of the Gulag. To compare the methods of state control employed by a powerful dictatorial ruler of a world power to the methods of a guerilla innovation by what is at best a small movement within feminism, is strange strategy for a social scientist who presumably should know the difference.

 

One wonders why indeed Mr. V fears the death of romance and the end of fulfilment of desire, simply because some women have started saying they would like to have a say in what they do with their own bodies. It isn’t like all of womenkind is suddenly discarding estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from their bodies along with all the other essentials of carnal capabilty or romantic attachement. As a gender, women have been programmed into prioritising male desire. This programming is so steeped into culture that it does not get fully wiped out after decades of feminist sloganeering or substantive gender training. We have barely begun to reclaim ourselves. It is even harder wired into men, to take women’s bodies and existence as an entitlement for the male. After all, we still put adults into arranged marriages as the most normal of procedures, and balk at the idea of acknowledging marital rape as worthy of notice or intervention, in the name of preserving social order.

 

As ones who got to call the shots since all living memory, males feel the pinch, and resent having to watch their ps and qs after MeToo and TheList. It is an odd sort of unfamiliar place for them, to be mindful of their desire, their behaviour, and to take steps in keeping with how the object of their approach feels and accepts, or does not accept their moves. It was so much nicer, wasn’t it, being assured the right to instant gratification, and not having to bother with what a woman might want or feel? Why, all of a sudden must these women wake up to some sense of ‘what is it that I want’ instead of going along silently with what men want?

 

And worse still, to make it all open, and open source, by making use of technology and mass communication and social networks, to talk about things that need never be mentioned? Social media technology is a tool that patriarchy has not been able to pull away from some women. It is the kind of thing they are at ease with, and majorily the users of. As someone whose work helped develop the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) Mr. V could have tried another way of understanding this social shift, but to do so would need him to put aside his entrenched entitlement, and presumption of innocence of all men and the meanness of all women, and confront the reality of the power differential in gender relations.

 

The talk of innocent men facing the chilly justice of the Gulag is beyond ridiculous. For one, calling out on social media is in no way a legal conviction. There is therefore no legal punishment to serve. What then does a man have to fear? Women have been named and shamed in all sorts of ways as far back as we can remember in relationships, marriage, family and at work. A girl is brought up fearing for her ‘reputation’. Men smugly judge every women they set eyes on. Now here comes a little ‘judgement’ their own way, nothing more than a sharing of someone’s painful personal story, and oh lord, the prickliness! So much fear – it invites you to ask how many of the “innocent men” too feel guilty, how much and for what, and whether they fear the lid coming off their secrets?

 

Perhaps obfuscation is the only line of defense left to a Public Intellectual, when he cannot change his views and thus will know not and care not about what others go through. Sample this next – “I understand the poignancy of pain but I feel there is a one-sidedness to it. To make a man suffer just to open him up to women’s suffering does not add up. I admit mine might be a more innocent, stupid world where people learnt to confront each other’s mistakes”. Did I read that right? “Confront each other’s mistakes”? Does he really mean confront? Well, then TheList is just what he ordered, isn’t it?

 

He goes on with his fantasies of what men and women in relationships had and will no longer have post MeToo. “There was romanticism here but also a genuine attempt to work out a more humane relationship.” Seriosuly Dude! A woman asking for her consent to be respected IS asking for things to be more humane in a relationship. But there is more confounding bilge up ahead. “Yet this search for shaming eliminates the joys of a man-woman relationship.” Darling Mr. V, if there had been joy, reciprocity and humaneness in the man’s approach, believe you me, there would be no need for lists and telling stories on Facebook.

 

MeToo is a ritual of grieving, for loss – loss of trust, of hope, of faith in the mutuality of desire and the value of consent. Grant us the dignity to grieve without your judgement. Millions of women have been shutting their minds and abandoning their sense of inhabiting their bodies, to live with the violation they feel on their wedding nights and in their marital beds and with men they love and respect or fear and dare not say no to. This is the collective consciousness of the female gender, Mr. V, and it seeps into even the most seemingly ‘bold’ woman seeking to chart her sexual and romantic destiny independent of the shackles of conditioned constraint. With MeToo and TheList there is a safe space and community for women to speak up about the disquiet, to find release from shame and guilt of violation, and feel heard and understood. It is a first sigh of relief for many. It is a precious moment of owning and realigning fragmented bits of our selfhood. It is subjective experience being respected, and what I thought could be understood with the lens of Cognitive Justice.

 

First published here :

http://theladiesfinger.com/shiv-visvanathan-chilly-justice-gulag/amp/

Your Views are Extreme, I Am Told.

Choice
There is a lot of talk these days of what do you tell your children about the miserable atrocities of this world. I am thinking of what makes it so hard for us. Is it that we want to stay cushioned in some sort of safe-zone and pretend that these things like child abduction, rape, murder, sadistic rituals as cover for ghoulish actions, greed for land and power and money over-riding more humane considerations, do not happen much? Or that maybe they do happen, but as long as we don’t hear about them it does not have to disturb our conscience and consciousness?
It could also be something else. That we know it is a part of who we are, and what we do, in some form or the other. And so we cannot be coal calling the kettle black. We must say evil is always someone else, some others, people not like us. Of course, a lot of us do call it out among ourselves, and feel very self-righteous. But a lot of us hesitate to speak with our children about how evil is real and here and not just something in films and stories and mythology. We should get a lot more real, and out of a lot of unexamined cliches and prejudices, if we really wish to have an honest understanding of what happens when evil is fostered, and why and how it is fostered. We must talk of this openly with our children, and with each other, without the crutch of propaganda and inherited untruths. We must examine motives behind every story or explanation we are fed, and think for ourselves ab initio.
We must teach them about politics and power games, and talk about all the ways women and children have been pawns of war, and wars have been fought over control of resources. We must make this connection very obvious. With real life. Not as abstract things mugged up from books for exams with no real life context. We need to link it to the question of moral choices.
Why does a little nomad girl get abducted? Why is she a good choice for the land mafia to use as a tool of intimidation? What about her identity makes her the pick? Female, powerless child, minority…discuss all that. Discuss the history of the conflict in the region. first, actually, educate yourself beyond propaganda. Why hide her in a temple? Ask yourself about the role and symbolism of that space. What advantage it affords the abusers? Get over your own sentimental thoughts about the idea of temple and look at it anew. Look at the history of land rights and displacement and settler-nomad conflict in the Indian context. Educate yourself. Educate your children.
Do not give in to the temptation of convenient cliches, to talk of bad persons doing bad things and move on to a distraction.
Talk of moral corruption that allows a human to sell his soul for power. Educate yourself about literature on this, movies on this. Delve into art. Delve into philosophy. This is the human condition. And rising above it too is human. A matter of choice, also?
We can choose silence or we can keep trying to voice our values. And live by them. By aligning our thoughts, words and actions. I am sure all of us have at some time or the other wished someone dead because of where they came from. But we know even as we think that thought, we don’t mean it. But then comes a time when we stop knowing. Or turn a blind eye to that knowing. When from it being a passing thought we dismiss, it becomes something we call being practical.
We may say that forest rights need rationalisation for industry. That if human progress calls for tragic but inevitable extermination of endangered flora and fauna, so be it. If dams displace people, tough luck; they happened to be living in the way of development. There is a price to pay after all. There are no free lunches. We forget though that the one paying the price is not invited to the lunch. Nomads don’t matter. They need to be shifted. Spread fear so they leave. Weapon of choice – the weakest ever. A child. A female. Drugged. Unable to resist unable to even scream to cause you later nightmares. Passive and untouched. Till mammon and blind power landed on her like vultures.
We need a Truth & Reconciliation Commission of our own in this hurt and bleeding country where we have othered and hated and ridden rough shod over so many for so long. We need to talk about our pain and forgive what can’t be forgotten, instead of devouring our own. But first we must see them as having a stake to what we claim as our own.
If the Rajsamand killer’s supporters could lay siege to the DC’s office against his arrest, and it was not a matter of national outcry why would things not get more brazen the next time? If Godhra and 2002 go by with the perpetrators being deified as saviours, if 1984 killers are not convicted and removed from public life, if riots are part of political tactics, if 1947 stories are only black and white if ever aired but mostly remain unspoken….certainly there will be a next time. And a next. And so on.
There was talk of eggs have to be cracked to make omelette in 2002. I wonder if people ever imagine themselves and their loved ones as those eggs when they talk like this. I was in class XII when two Sikh bodyguards shot Mrs. Gandhi and thousands of Sikhs paid the blood money. There is chain of who did what to whom going way back from there. Communal distrust and hate are fostered and used as fodder to grow power. We allow ourselves to be cogs in the wheels of the juggernaut that rolls over us finally. In Calcutta in 1984 a top level political decision was taken and announced that there coud be no harm done to anyone following the killing of Mrs. Gandhi. Which means that those leaders clearly knew what is standard procedure in such times, for whichever desired outcome. The situation can be very much under control, no matter how tanaavpoorn. It was fortunate for the Sikhs that at that time the choice was made for peaceful co-existence. For whatever ideological or tactical reasons. Those reasons are the key choice. Can we influence that choice with our individual and collective voice?
When Mahatma Gandhi was killed too peace prevailed though the public grief and sorrow was large scale. He was a far bigger tree that had fallen, yet his persona itself eschewed some choices for those left to grapple with the shock. On the other hand, there was definitely enough intelligence available that he was a target on killers radar and after few failed attempts another one was going to be made. Somehow that attack wasn’t prevented. Maybe some eggs outlive their utility. That is also a choice.
But when you have a point to make by saving some eggs, then you get your act together accordingly, like Jyoti Basu in October 1984 in Calcutta. It isn’t like the public had any nobler thoughts than the average Indian anywhere else. I was at someone’s house and they didn’t know I was Sikh and the radio and TV were announcing that there had been some unruliness on roads. Police was called out. The ladies of the house spoke up to say that it was a shame such unruliness was being spread. “Just attack the Sardars. Leave others alone. Why bother them”. I kept quiet. Took me years to talk about this to anyone. I regret my silence then. It is such silences that power evil.
After three days at home I went to school and found that the girl I shared my bench with had moved to a different place. No one, really no one talked to me or even made eye contact or said hello. For days. No one shared my tiffin for days. There were two more Sikh girls in my class. Neither came to school for a whole week. Such fear and silence also feeds evil. The class teacher, Ms. Doita Dutta was the only person who spoke about what had happened, and appreciated my coming back to school. She spoke of the constitution and of rule of law and not scapegoating innocents. And of not playing the communal identity game in politics. I took solace from her words. The bad stuff didn’t seem random aberration or a sudden spontaneous rise of evil; it was a choice made in cold blood, with calculations, is what Ms. Dutta implied. Her words did thaw some small gap in the ice. Still, I didn’t quite understand the enormity of my classmates’ silence or the absence of the other Sikh students from school. People like Ms. Dutta are our bulwark against evil. She also made a choice that day and has made such choices all her life.
People like the classmates who shunned me and those who stayed away and those ladies who said let them attack only Sardars are kindling too weak in themselves but given the right hawa they help stoke the fires of hate. I lived in Calcutta and we didn’t hear much about the real horrors in Delhi and other places till a bit later. But while AIR and Doordarshan played stooge to the government, there were journalists and citizens recording the genocide and protesting it and at times preventing it and also organising help. They were the ones who did not look away. They kept truth alive, they show us how gangs were organised, how evil was given strength and how those who could have checked it made a choice to look away and also encourage the spread of evil.  The work they did then is helping us know the facts even today. It also told the victims that at least someone else saw their truth. In the absence of any other succour sometimes knowing you are heard and seen is the only straw keeping someone afloat.
A few months ago there were house guests visiting us. The Rajsamad murder had just happened. The defence of the accused had mounted an attack on the District administration office building to protest his arrest. I spoke about this and said a culture of lawlessness was being promoted in the guise of the resurgent pride of so called beleaguered identity of the majority. I was told I was exaggerating. I asked them, have you seen the videos? They hadn’t. I asked them if they l condoned such actions? They said no no, that was a bit extreme. Itna nahin hona chahiye. They couldn’t say kitna is acceptable. Point is, there is no naap tol and kamm zyaada when you decide that certain people are impediments and dispensable others. It is only a matter then of latak ke marega yaan kat ke.
The relatives asked me if I didn’t see the vikas all around me. I asked them for facts and figures. They had none. I found some and they did not stand scrutiny. They said this Sarkar really gets what needs to be done to make us developed and free of corruption. I asked them if they were ready to condone repression of minorities as the price of development and if they saw moral corruption of the soul as a fair trade off. They said I had become very extreme in my views.

Sold a Story.

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https://litmag.com/fiction/wasted/

December 26, 2017

Wasted

Kiran Chatuvedi

The flat maroon pebble skims three times across the jheelbefore sinking. I had managed up to four skips with these as a child, and Malti had managed five at one time.

Malti sits next to me. The dark brown frizzy hair severely pulled back into a topknot instead of the two tight pigtails of our childhood. The companion of my younger days, my almost-sister with her baby pink fair complexion and immense dark black eyes looks only to be a slightly bigger and stronger version of her once little self. I am told I hardly bear any resemblance to the child I once was. What with my crew cut hair and naturally olive skin tanned many shades darker over the years, and my unusually lean and tall frame that make heads turn, I have gone against the ‘natural order’ as Malti puts it.

Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive.

Neither of us has ever managed to get a stone to skip all the way across to the other shore. She does not try to test her skills today. Her gaze is faraway. She does not analyze the smooth throw I have just made, nor admire the shimmering cascade of ripples, which now stir the water of the jheel.

This is the place we both used to come to on long lazy summer afternoons of our childhood, with a load of suckling mangoes in our bags, and myriad secret plans spinning in our heads. Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive. The Shahpur wetland lapped the northern edge of farmlands beyond the little eponymous hamlet we lived in. My parents were doctors who had chosen to live and work away from the city of Shahpur in the rural outskirts, and Malti was the daughter of our estate manager.

I was 12 when we moved to another state. I lost touch with Malti for a long time. And when I returned to Shahpur University to complete a part of my doctoral research, Malti still lived on the same farmhouse. I lived on campus and visited the jheel often for fieldwork. An exciting new movement was building up for reviving the water body and its ecosystem with the help of a local community leader, and my research was concerned with this aspect of ecosystem restoration. Malti had heard of these efforts of Baba Jeewan Singh Ji, but as a confirmed atheist she refused to have anything to do with any Baba of any sort. She spent a lot of her time following the lives of characters on the TV soaps, keeping up with trends on teleshopping broadcasts, and on her newly acquired smart phone. She had dropped out of college and was completing her degree by correspondence. Sometimes she went into town for errands and a few lectures. She didn’t have any friends that I could make out, and she looked a little bloated, and sometimes puffy. She found life at the farm boring, slow, and depressing. She said I was lucky I had left when I did. She wanted to know about the boys I had met and how far I had gone with any of them, and whether there was a marriage proposal in the wings. And whether I earned anything as a research scholar and how much would I earn once I got a job. She wondered what had made me come back to the hopeless hellhole of Shahpur.

Standing by the jheel one summer evening soon after my arrival, I had wondered too. Bulbous tentacles crisscrossed most of the jheel. Vapors of methane and carbon dioxide suffused and stilled everything—the air, water, and my thoughts. A psychedelic pink and green carpet of water hyacinth sprawled over the eutrophied waters, while below the surface life suffocated to death in a zone of depleting oxygen and fading sunlight.

I wondered about Baba Jeewan Ji, out to heal nature using his mass appeal as a Jogi—urging people to come haul out the invasive, over-competitive colonizing water hyacinth; sitting on a hunger strike to demand a heavier discharge of freshwater into the wetland from the feeder canal of the river upstream; going from farm to farm, asking owners to change the practice of monocultures of cotton and wheat and reduce the use of toxic pesticides and excessive fertilizing. Could he succeed? Would land, water, air, and all that lived off it, ever be healthy and fecund again?

Malti harbored no such hopes about the jheel. “This is a rotting place. No one comes here except the ganjdis and amlis. Druggies. No animals anymore, no deer, turtles, dolphins or otters. No fish. All dead or gone. It is not safe. Maybe it wasn’t that much of a great place when we were small. We were kids after all, and kids tolerate such a lot…but now I would not come here even for a secret meeting with someone.”

“So, is there a someone then?” I asked, seeking a thread to connect with her.

“Here, in this back of beyond? There is not a hope… there isn’t even enough for my daaj if we did find someone. You know how things have gone downhill here. It is hardly the sabz baag you somehow remember.”

“Malti, I know what has happened, but you were there with me. You must remember too… plucking ber, the thorns cutting our fingers, hiding in thejamun branches where no one could find us? The trees are gone, but not my memories. There are problems no doubt, but new problems only lead to new solutions. Baba Ji is making a huge difference too. People listen to him, and the government listens to him. That is rare.”

“That is all good for talk, for pictures in the papers and to show on TV. You will get your Ph.D. and find another place to work, get married to a nice educated man, and all that. But what will I do? I can’t wait to leave this dead wasteland. But it isn’t easy. Where will I go?”

From my earliest recollections, the jheel and its surroundings had been the highlight of the landscape of my childhood. We lived in a fertile and lush submontane region at the foot of the Dhauladhar ranges, cut across with three of the five rivers that gave the land its name. Mustard blossomed bright yellow in winter and wheat stalks turned the fields into swaying sheets of gold in summer. In the wilderness of the forests around us we sighted deer and wild boar and partridge and porcupines on many a dusky evening.

I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me.

Daddy used to drive off road into the jungles with Mummy, Malti and me on his photography expeditions. Sometimes he would take us fishing. I would sit mesmerized by the shapes and colors of the smooth riverside pebbles, imagining their journey from the glacial home of the brook down to these foothills. Malti would wade into the shallow snowmelt and scream as the chill cut into her ankles. But she would stay put in the freezing cold water, determined to catch the smaller fish with her bare hands. I was the lazy one, content to rest on the sand and stones, my thoughts riding the melody of the river.

I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me. Malti and I collected bags full of these snowy silk-cotton pods. Her mother said it was all going to go into the pillows that would be made for our wedding trousseaus. Malti always managed to hoard much more than I.

Geese and herons dotted the wetland between fields and forest. We made fun of the bagla bhagat, the heron pretending to be a pious yogi standing in austerity on one leg, while focusing its gaze intently under water to catch the unsuspecting fish.

There were no books in Malti’s house and her parents could barely be called literate. But they knew how to read the land, the signs of the seasons and the hum of the trees. We watched in awe as migratory flocks of birds landed each winter exactly as Malti’s Mataji predicted. When the gorgeous, massive Siberian cranes landed on a little sandbar island on the other side of thejheel, we took it for granted as the way it had to be. That had been their roosting spot all winters since the time of the first Guru, and even earlier, said Mataji. When I shared this with my mother, Mummy read out the lines written by Guru Nanak back in the sixteenth century alluding to their flight here from the frozen Arctic.

I had held onto these images. Malti would not reminisce with me about how we roamed the land, played in these waters and climbed the tress, and watched the birds and copied their calls. Times had changed, she said, and she had moved on. So had much else. The cranes had stopped coming a long time ago. I found out from the internet that the migration had stopped because the birds themselves were on the brink of extinction, faced with habitat loss and dire dangers on the migratory routes. And worse, that if they did somehow come now, Shahpur would not be the place that could host them anymore.

But once upon a time it had all been real, those evenings of chucking pebbles into the jheel, the baths in the tubewells, the weaving of ropes out of wild grasses, and playing imaginary royal battles as brave queens in thesarkanda beds. We had known and understood the land and its creatures well, even as children. We knew its dangers, its treasures and its pleasures and had worked at our daily negotiation with it. Fertile, lush, rich in diversity, dangerous, nurturing and threatening…it spoke to us in many hues, offered up many blessings, and filled our senses with wonder. Knowing it as we did, we were at home. We were watchful, and yet we surrendered. We were different strands woven together into a seamless tapestry. Perfectly embedded notes in a collective symphony. Jarring notes might have disrupted the flow in the recent past, but now there were corrective forces afoot.

The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence.

I saw reason for hope. Baba Jeewan Ji was onto a great initiative, and it was part of my research to monitor the wetland toxicity data before and after his interventions. He was working closely with the University, and for a man following the ancient path of the ascetics he was surprisingly attuned to modern science, and fascinated by the internet, data and laboratory work. I saw something new and better coming to Shahpur. The project for reviving the wetland had been going spectacularly well. People listened to Baba Ji because of his rustic speech and folk references, and he built his program of action on sound scientific facts and methodology. I started spending more time with Baba Ji, and Malti and my childhood memories soon receded from my everyday routine.

The one habit of my childhood that did not fade away was my daily recitation of Gurbani. The Japji Sahib every morning, and the Sukhmani Sahib each evening. And sometimes, I would read the Janm Sakhis, or the Barah Maha, and would be reminded that every season and every life form is part of the same circle of creation. Daddy had introduced me to the Barah Maha verses, which praise nature’s bounty as a celebration of the Supreme in all the seasons. The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence. With every turn of the sphere we live on, nature shifts gears, and the land sheds one ensemble of its bouquet of flowers and fruits, for another. The mango and the aak and the dhatura, the mosquitoes and gnats and the bumblebees and the birds, the water reeds and the soft spring grasses, and the dark dry bare twigs of winter, are all emanations of the same force, rising from and dissolving into the One creator.

The jheel has changed much over a few months. The cover of hyacinth reduced enough to let sunlight reach into the depths. Little tadpoles swarmed in the shallows next to where Malti and I sat on the sandbank. Frogs croaked in the sarkanda cluster behind us. Far ahead on the horizon the Shivalik hills rolled on towards the snows of the Dhauladhar. A couple of days more of monitoring and then I would be done with this part of the research. Follow-up data would be gathered for another year, and then we would have conclusive proof of a reversal. I could feel vitality and new life rising already around me.

In a few years there would again be found on the menu sweet and juicy mulberry, the tangy astringent palate teasing jamun, and the sharp and acidicber, and not just kiwi and cherry and Alphonso mango imported from miles away. Bahera and lasura would once again be part of the repertoire of pickles made locally. Organic farming of native fruit trees was being received well in the farms in the region. The network of Viraasat Kheti volunteers was growing in numbers and resources. The good work and good word of a few was now rippling across in wider and wider circles. It was better than a return to memories of childhood. It was a step into new beginnings. I had so wanted Malti to be apart of this work. But she would not agree.

The morning Malti met me here, just outside our site office, I had let my hopes rise. “So all is well with your project work? When do you wind up and leave for home?”

“Maybe in two three days. I have not decided.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know…depends on the thesis. But I am more or less done with this work. Next are my exams for the lecturship.“

“I have go away from here Raavi. I really have to. Could I come with you?”

“Oh of course, Malti. Mummy and Daddy Ji will also be so happy to see you. Oh, I should have asked you myself.” I hugged Malti and wondered why I had felt that I had not quite rekindled my childhood connection with her. She was still my almost-sister. She was going home with me. I had just not been able to see it sooner.

“Raavi, you need to know something before you take me home.” She hesitated, looking at me with a questioning, assessing gaze.

“Is it money you are worried about? The travel expense? I should be able to manage.”

“No. I have a new job. Or a project you could say. But I need your help.” Her chin shook as she gulped back more words. She sat down near me, on the sandbank and stared out at the wetland.

“Have you signed up with Baba Ji’s team then? Good! Better late than never. You can see the lake is already so much better. It is a great start.”

“No Raavi. The jheel is much better. I had not believed it could change. Baba Ji and you were right. But that’s not what I mean.” She kept staring out across the water.

“So what is this project then? Growing organic vegetables, like some of the farms around here have started?”

She did not turn to look at me. “There is this couple, very nice people, from LA. They are paying me well. But obviously it is a secret, and I need to go away. It is surrogacy, Raavi.”

Words died in my throat. My arms were so leaden I could not lift them to reach out and touch her.

She looked at me, chin up and eyes coldly boring into mine.

“Here everything was banjar. At least I will make good money with this. Just tell me if I can come with you.”

I nodded weakly. We were together in this. Just like in the days of our childhood.

Kiran Chaturvedi is a sociologist who has worked as a qualitative consumer research specialist for many years. She lives in Gurgaon, India with her family and pets. This is her first published fiction.

March 2018 Book Report .Ghachar Ghochar.

Ghachar Ghochar

 

By Vivek Shanbhag. Translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur

Meeting Mr. Shanbhag recently made me go back to his internationally acclaimed, translated into English novel. This is also the time I have been paying more attention to translations in general, and I must say that if you haven’t been reading outside the borders of English language originals, please start to do so.

Ghachar Ghochar is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling. The nonsense title phrase is easily understood as something terribly tangled, and needs no translation. But the rest of the book could not have reached non-Kannada speakers without the brilliant trans-creation. And that is something all discerning readers can be grateful for. Because this a novel that is not to be missed if you appreciate a finely crafted, solidly rooted story of large themes and concerns, that is as subtle as it is disconcerting.

Ghachar Ghochar is a scathing social and moral indictment, a detailed empirical study, and a precise self-reflection of the unnamed narrator on himself and his rather toxic, enmeshed family. Nothing is quite as it seems, in the claustrophobic life in the narrator’s home. The early privations of the family and its later wealth change something in the nature of power, loyalty and obedience between them. They remain a unit ready to defend and attack as one, through the change of fortunes, from attacking and crushing ants to breaking any intrusion or opposition in any form from anyone inside or outside the home. Into this tribalism comes the wife of the narrator, an outsider who refuses to assimilate and become a cog in the system of daily cruelties and blind obedience. Her independent stance and critical eye on what goes on around her are the undoing of much, in horrific ways.

The novel leads us to the edge and then does not tie up any lose ends. The reader can form their own conclusions with a mix of dread and hope against hope.
At 115 pages this is one of the slimmest books you can find so go get it if you haven’t yet. I am sure you will be left reeling.

Not A Missed Connection

whatsapp-love-dp

Amit curses the Delhi summer. He has been away for two weeks in misty Arunachal Pradesh, and his body seems to have forgotten how to transit back. Endless heat and dust and paseena, and the Metro carriage full to bursting are not conducive for a man to keep his cool. The thought of the new semester at college from tomorrow doesn’t hold its usual eager charm. Not after the setback to his doctoral plans. He doesn’t really even want to do the PhD; it isn’t the label he cares for. All he wants is to read, to discuss, and to teach. But he has to earn his keep in this world.

“Thand rakh yaar” is a lofty idea favored by his trek guide Dorje, back in the mountains, but that is so impractical here, velcroed to each other’s reluctant bodies as they all are. It may be better to get off and wait for another less crowded train, thinks Amit, and steps off at the next halt.

Peak hours in the sky too, he notes, looking at the airplanes that streak across the kaleidoscopic evening sky, up above the Qutub Minar and the Mehrauli forest. It is almost sunset, and the hydrogen fireball that powers all of life is slipping out of sight. It has been twenty years since Amit had his first look the Qutub Minar and the fascination has not faltered. He still gets his students out here for quite a few lectures, and spends winter weekends at one or the other monument lawns across the Capital.

Amit slips his backpack off, and sits down on a bench. The bag is beginning to weigh him down in the heat. It has been a long day since he left Itanagar early in the morning. The Pepsi he bought at Delhi airport is still somewhat cool, and he sips the leftover before chucking the bottle in the dustbin. The trains come and go, blasting him with a rush of hot air. The crowds of passengers are thinning, he can see.

“No extra baggage. Empty what’s no use.” Dorje’s words come back to Amit as he opens the cover of his bag and lifts out a thick spiral bound document. This is the useless baggage he has carried all through his holiday in defiance of Dorje’s instructions and checks. It is his PhD proposal. The one his HOD has rejected two weeks ago. Amit has not opened it these two weeks, and he has thought of little else, while in the midst of awe inspiring earthly wonders and novel experiences with different man-made systems in a new place. He knows he will not be doing anything with it now. What use is it to dwell over what cannot be? The deadline for submitting a proposal looms ahead in a few days. His HOD has left the university, handpicked for a place on the Council of Historical Research. Some committee to re-look Indian history or something such, Amit heard, after his proposal was rejected and the HOD’s leaving was announced, all on the same day.

Amit knows a new HOD joins tomorrow. Someone from Oxford, relocating to India. Some Dr. Amandeep Sandhu. Amit has not bothered to read the circular in any detail. How does it matter now? He wonders if it might be the time to move on, to apply for a place in a university abroad, what with the ghar wapsi of so many from there. But for now, he still has to find and submit a new topic for his PhD thesis. Brave New World may be his favorite book, but using it as part of historical scholarship seems too brave an idea, even in this new workplace. Amit is sure he cannot – or does not want to – think of something else soon enough to make the deadline. He is not a quick turn around person, in most things. Almost everything about Amit is slow, considered, and gentle. “Thehrav hai ladke mein”, as his Daadi used to say.

Amit leaves the document on the bench, closes the bag, and lifts it on his shoulders. Adjusting the weight, he scans the platform. A train is headed his way, its headlight dancing a racy number on the tracks. The pages of the document flutter in the powerful draught pushed ahead by the speeding train. Amit watches the pages straining against the hot air. For two weeks Dorje has urged him to drop all that is not needed. Dorje knows all about survival, about what to carry and what to leave behind. Amit lunges for the document, and flings it on the tracks. He boards the almost empty compartment.

Amit has always been happy to be outside the limelight. Doing his work quietly, doing it well, and finding the time to indulge his pet hobbies of trekking and sketching monuments. As a history lecturer in a government college till recently, he has been quite out of the race for publishing in professional journals, and is never found jostling for a seat on the conference circuit merry go round. He is popular with his students, as he is a kind and concerned teacher. He is liked well enough by his colleagues, and is a great cook and keeps a well stocked bar at his rented flat. But everyone senses there is an Amit they can never touch. No wonder he is still a bachelor, they say when he is not within earshot. Who spends their free time always in the library, always at bookshops, always reading at home? And then not even publish papers?

Amit keeps his fiction ambitions to himself. He cannot face the endless questions any mention of his one published historic fiction brings. You wrote a historic love story? Are you a romantic? Why aren’t you married? When are you getting married? What are you writing next, why don’t you write more? Why don’t you focus on academic writing more? Why don’t you do your PhD? Hardly anyone he knows outside his students’ circle has read the book, though.

Everyone has ruled out that he is gay, finding he makes no distinctions between the way he is equally courteous to both men and women. But they all agree he is too fussy, and a bit strange. He has opted out of all whatsapp groups even though he has a smartphone. He objects to jokes that laugh at men, women, married, single, queer, Punjabi, Madrasi, Gujarati, Bengali…. Irish, Jews. Well, some people are just born serious, they say. But he is a nice sort, they all agree, Means no harm. So they leave him alone, except when they invite themselves over, and he lets them come and feast on his food and drink his wine and then politely asks them to help him do the dishes. They don’t mind, not particularly. At the university he has now joined, in fact, he is a sort of trendsetter. At every party at all faculty homes he is invited to, the guests help clear up and do the dishes. He has so far avoided moving to campus housing. The Metro is a boon.

Amit stretches his tense and tired body. Legs outward, back against the seat back, arms upward. The coach is empty, practically. The contained spaciousness inside the carriage feels soothing and cool. There is one woman seated near the exit. She is reading a book. He cannot make out which one.  Amit finds it fascinating that she hasn’t looked up at all from her book since he has stepped in. He hasn’t been able to take his eyes off her, though he is trying to be very discreet about it. The train has slipped underground and the windows face a black emptiness. Amit makes himself turn his face in the opposite direction.

He must think of what he has to do from tomorrow. Now, this HOD, who is coming in. He must be savvier and sense the ideological leanings of this one before he does anything about the new proposal. The thought feels like a heavy burden. A stifling of everything Amit lives by. He does not wish to put anyone under a microscope, to feel them out like a hunter. He feels cornered himself, shrinking with the familiar sense of being held back. His father and his uncle pressing their hands on his shoulders, and shaking him. “Why can’t you help out in the summer holidays? When will you learn this work if all your time will be spend stuck to a useless book?” Surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and neighbors in their modest chawl room near Opera House, Amit has spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, walking the streets of South Bombay, and then indoors at the dark and cool public library a few blocks away, and in the Irani Café across the library after library hours. A studious boy, who preferred to discuss books about imagined scenarios that didn’t involve buying and selling fast moving commodities, he has been secretly pitied and publicly scolded for his lack of smarts all his childhood.

“History! Who studies history, for Narayan’s sake…what will you do, be a school master? And live in a village?” The family had been shaken by his choice of a college out of town. “Delhi? Junglee place it is! They eat non-veg all the time, and drink whiskey and beer. Why are you doing this to us, haven’t we let you do your silly book worship without making a fuss all these years? Keep reading, keep writing your little articles. Peanuts you get paid for them, but we don’t want money from you. Why ruin your life now? Correspondence B.A. is possible, why don’t you do that, if you really want the degree so much?” It is hard for Amit to feel his own breath. He stands up with a small jump. The woman’s head jerks towards him. “You alright?” She stares at him with questioning brown eyes. Her voice is like the flow of the rivers he has been boating across till just yesterday. Perky, and quick and sweet.

Amit glances around. He is embarrassed. He sits down again and shakes his head at the woman. “I am sorry”.

“No problem. But are you okay?” She pulls a bottle of water out of her bag and stretches her arm towards him. He gets up and walks towards her across the compartment. The water is chilled, the bottle is some sort of thermos. It feels lovely. Comforting.

“I am a bit stiff. Just back from a long trek.” It feels nice to stand, to stretch up a bit on his toes, to flex his hands and arms at the holding rail.

“My station is up next.” The woman is standing next to him now, putting her book into her bag. The red spirals are scribbled over, but there can be no mistake. It is the book he hasn’t been able to get of his mind, Brave New World.

“You are reading my favorite book in the whole world.” Amit hastens to tell her, as the train slows down. His own voice is quickening, his heartbeat racing.

The woman smiles and her eyes shine at him. “Wow, it is my favorite too. I go back to it all the time. I am Amu.” Her skin is soft, her hand small and her grip firm, and Amit catches a whiff of khus. The doors slide open and she takes her hand away from his, and steps out. The doors slide shut even as Amit takes a step forward and shouts out his name.

She is waving at him and laughing as the train moves away, and Amit hasn’t felt this light and happy in years. He will meet her again, he is sure. She will find him. He will look for her. She seemed to be an office goer, from her rather formal blue pantsuit. Back from a business trip from somewhere abroad, going by the airline tags on her bag. He pulls at his earlobes. His station is two stops away. He begins to hum a tune. It is the first time he has actually talked to someone on the Metro.

—-

Amit’s morning lectures are over. The new HOD had called a staff meeting over lunch. Amit is the first to arrive, a little before the said time. The office assistant is arranging chairs around the large worktable. In his Bengali accented Hinglish he tells Amit, “Woh bahar gaya, phone ka signal bery bad. I go tell you here. ” The office looks completely different from the last time Amit has visited. There are books piled on the wall mounted floater shelves. The walls are otherwise bare but have a new coat of bright yellow paint. Cartons still unopened are crowded into one corner. Amit moves towards the pile of books. He cannot stop his hand from reaching out. It is incredible, but there can be no doubt. It is the same book. The same scribbles on the red spirals. He opens it. In black ink, well-formed words proclaim “For Amu. With hope, love and blessings, Dad.” Amit is shaking, holding the book close to his chest. A faint whiff of lignin, and then khus. A voice he has not forgotten since last evening whispers softly in his ear. “You didn’t tell me your name in the train, so shall we start with that now?”

“Good afternoon Dr. Sandhu”, calls out Amit’s colleague Sameer’s loud voice. Amit turns from the bookshelf and watches the woman from the train move to a chair around the table. The HOD is about to start the meeting with her staff.

 

No Compassion Please; We are Death Eaters

https://www.huffingtonpost.in/kiran-chaturvedi/sridevis-death-bared-how-devoid-of-compassion-gossip-mongers-can-be_a_23370782/

Are we so devoid of human compassion that we need to blame the dead for deserving their death? Are we so miserable that only by saying ‘serves you right, you had it coming’ to a silenced departed soul can we feel smug, and validate our own life?

The family is probably still reeling in shock, busy with the logistics of the funeral arrangements while they process a tragedy so sudden and enormous.

Millions of fans are in mourning too, and even those, like me, who are not committed fans, are saddened and shocked. Death touches all of us.It makes us pause and ponder. But is blame and shaming a necessary reaction? Is it kind? Is it even true? Does it need venting, and if so then what drives us to do so?

While death is the only certainty of life (because taxes can still be evaded), a death before time (or before hoary old age) is the less common way to go, and hence upsets the narrative we tell ourselves about our mortality. But whenever and however death arrives at our door, there is a culture of civility around the aftermath. Especially when the dead had done you no harm while they lived. There is the idea of privacy for the grieving relatives and friends. There is the nod to our common humanity and our ability to stand with someone in their experience of loss. There is the outpouring of compassion, in our words and tears and prayers and wishes that the departed soul may rest in peace.

But apparently not, or at least not for Sridevi and her loved ones.

The horribly macabre death of a poor marginalized tribal Madhu who stole a bit of food by a lynch mob is pushed out of public discussion by this new tragedy of a star collapsing. The lynch mob is out again, this time to dissect and judge the lifestyle and choices of the departed Sridevi.

Why is it that we are so hungry for blood?

Where did basic courtesy disappear for some within hours of Sridevi’s death? What do I make of the smug censure-camouflaged-as-caution bilge that is doing the rounds on social media about what could have led to her heart attack? Are we seeing a cultural shift in how we treat the dead? Who are the ghouls who can’t even wait till the kriya karam is over before they spout their so-called concern and expert opinions?

I want to ask these judgy theorists and speculators to think about the comments of a politician about how cancer was caused by past karma. I want them to imagine being the shoes of those who such comments are directed at, as thy are handling their grief and much else at the death of a family member. I want to know their expert opinion on all the unexpected and sudden deaths of children, and the continued longevity of older Botoxed glam divas. Will they now call out for health reports on all the celebs who they admire for not looking their age? Will they celebrate those who have aged visibly and don’t give a damn?

Why this cowardly misplaced dispensing of so called sense and wisdom, riding on the back of the dead, and why just right now? Why assume you have all the supposed answers without the burden of proof and why cause hurt to those already hurting? To serve up sound bytes of speculative causality between her lifestyle and her death is just so much poor taste. Facts, anyone? Choice, anyone?

It also strikes me that some of these people would refuse to believe a woman if she spoke up about abuse in public. They would ask for proof, for due process to be followed. So many of them would discount another’s own claims about her own life, but here they are, passing judgements on cause of death which they have no proof of.

The issue of the beauty myth is real. But feasting on someone’s death is also a problem. There is a way and a time to call caution. And the problem is far more widespread than the world of celebs. It is in our daily life, in the way we talk, the way we think. Almost all of us have an internalised look-shamer in us. So why start pointing fingers so callously at someone, even if supposedly it is a warning? If we are saying that the craze to look a certain way made Sridevi take fatal risks, we need to say it without dragging speculation and assumptions and judgements about her into the picture. We need to separate the story and the sensation. And we need to recognise that if what is being suggested was ever proven to be true, then Sridevi was a victim, and what we are doing is shaming the victim.

Why don’t we pause instead, and not make it about her personal life and take cheap shots of psychoanalysis about what kind of person she was? Cut the crap on nonsensical pseudo-psychobabble about how little self love she had and how suspect was the love of her husband. Studying the life and death of celebrities is all very well and part of our collective narrative but can we wait till her family is at least done with getting their senses back? Why this rush for being oracles? Is the buzz all we care for in this age of virality?

Certainly, things must be questioned. But at the right time, and for the right reasons, and even by the people who have the right to do so. Privacy cannot be claimed for one thing without extending it to others. Death is inevitable. But kindness and restraint are conscious choices. Unless we are Death Eaters.

Book Report : The Librarian

 

February Book Report
The Librarian by Kavitha Rao
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A book about books is always going to draw me in, but that it does so while being a dark and disturbing one about a destructive obsession, now that is a new one. The fact is that I have been in love with a couple of libraries long after having been away from them for years, and the vivid descriptions of the library setting in this book had me hooked from the start. Just as much of a hook were the highly relatable main protagonists, a little bookworm of a girl and a librarian who cares only about keeping his library going against all odds. I could relate very personally to the story and its setting even though I must clarify that I bear no resemblance to any character or thought in the book. Just so you know.
I bought this novel at the TimesLitFest Bangalore a few weeks ago, where I met the author. I was intrigued by the backstory she shared about the inspiration for the book. What a spin the artist’s imagination can give to what they come cross.
The Librarian is set in these times, and has a very current ring to it. It is a fast paced character and plot driven story with quick twists and turns and keeps the reader engaged and curious. The author works wonderfully well with a rather unusual approach to the theme of relative ethics, crime and corruption in the setting of a staid and decrepit library. The book is also the story of the coming of age of a precocious book worm and her later day disenchantment from the hero of her childhood.
The writing is polished and smooth and the story weaves in realistic portrayal of a part of Mumbai and some true historical events. And being about a library and a couple of book mad people who run the library, it also often has references to many books and authors. I read the book at one stretch because I just had to know where it was headed. The end is sad though inevitable, and I wonder how difficult was it for the author to give a negative turn to the character who is such a devoted book lover.

A peep in time

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There has only been one time in my life that I lived in a house that let me look into the homes of others. It happened to be when I slipped into my teens. All it took to have a crush and to dream away the hours in building possible scenarios of a romance unlike all others was some time spent in the baranda cum dining space of our flat. A longish corridor ran in front of our bedrooms, and served as a uncertain dining room. Unlike a proper room, this space had no doors and no windows. On the side that faced away from the bedrooms, this baranda space had a waist high wall and then a metal wire net of diamond shapes. It was said to have been designed so to keep the flats cross ventilated and well lit in the hot and humid Calcutta climate. Just as well, because in those long long hours of power cuts that plagued Calcutta then, the open to air baranda dining rooms were where we huddled by the precious and rationed light of the inverter or flickering candlelight, and tried to focus on our school books. With mosquitoes resistant to the coils of kachua chhap smoke, one needed to frequently get up and move around. One mugged a few points from the notes and then looked away to recall and revise. One looked into the baranda dining rooms of others. The night outside was well lit by the moon, and the rectangles of other dining baranda rooms were patterned with lines and shadows. An arm across the wall in the flat across the backyard was so easy to fall in love with. You didn’t really know the boy who lived in that flat. But you had seen his silhouette pass through that baranda when he returned from school an hour after you did. You had heard he was a class ahead of you in another school. You had heard others too talk of how handsome he was and how he played tennis like a pro. No wonder those arms had such a magical pull across the yards.
Baranda prem wasn’t just corporeal. Not was it just romantic. There was that still and sweaty summer afternoon when it was impossible to lie on the bed and impossible to read another word of school work or story books. Mixing ice in your glass of Rasna at the dining table you spied a vision from a foreign fashion magazine in the baranda of the flat across yours. The flat had been vacant for months making you a part of its loneliness and you had begun to avoid looking that way to escape that hollowness left by old memories of when your shadow and his had touched. The new figure in a short and stringy white slip with its décolletage visible across all the space and foliage was not that same old teenage crush. It was a new kind of friendship and it was the first adult like love. It was the lifting of the veil on fashion and feminism and much more. It was the beginning of growing up. It was the end of the sort of innocence which rushed to pretend you hadn’t been looking out for just that moment to happen, when the neighboring boy teen stepped out and looked at you with equally made up surprise. It was the end actually, of baranda prem. It was the start of rendezvous at the neighbourhood petrol pump dosa stand, of movie hall action and rum and coke.

The October Book Report; Posted Late. Jim Corbett.

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The October 2017 Book Report.

Jim Corbett.

(Forgot to shift it here when I wrote this on Facebook!)

It isn’t really about these books. I had no plan to cover them in a review. More than books to read, they are a part of me, and echo some of what I experience in the wild mountain back of beyond-ness. They are about much more than hunting man-eating predators. They are rich nature and place writing. They are also excellent specimens of narrative and descriptive writing. And they offer a wonderfully detailed cultural history of the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal, of the government and social order prevalent then.
Heidi speaks to my love of mountains but its setting is alien and I am no longer a little girl. Innocent love of place and rootedness are common traits that attract me to Heidi and Ruskin Bond. Bond is a personal idol and a writer after my heart because he creates beautiful prose and eternal meaning out of nearly nothing, located mainly in the hills or other lost places and about lost people, evoking a nostalgia for gentler times and attitudes that are gone or fast fading away.
Bond’s is essentially an urbane sensibility-even when he writes about jungles or ghosts; gentle, mildly sardonic at times and always civilised and soothing. Whereas Jim Corbett is the essential loner of the wilderness, at home on the machan or marching on foot through the wilderness missing not a change in the wind or temperature, and noting his observations in meticulous methodical detail, courageous and unflinchingly honest with himself and others and with a rare capacity for seeing the bigger picture way ahead of his time. For all this, he too is a personal hero and an inspiration.
Today I realised I had reached the end of a month and had forgotten all about my monthly goal of a book report. I looked at my shelves for a book to report on, and saw these books. This is a personal account of my own and some others’ engagement with the matter of wilderness and Jim Corbett.
I first read Corbett as a school girl and was suitably impressed with the adventures and the romance of this invincible hunter. We lived in the fore sts of MP, in a pure Mowgli setting, and tales of wolves carrying off children were part of the legends we grew up with. My mother had lived this life before me in various raliway bunglows in places like Khurda Road, Umaria and Gondia. My father, an army officer had jungle survival as part of his professional training and had served in rather wild places in Assam, and around the Chambal ravines in central India, and had encountered nearly every kind of wildlife. So my childhood experiences in lonely army outposts on edges of jungles and always far removed from the urban sprawl were layered on the subsoil of my parents’ stories.
Encountering a cobra on way to school stopped sending shivers down the spine after one or two occasions. News arrived of tigers and bears being sighted during night patrols and we felt safe and snug inside our pucca homes with locks. Then a snake or a scorpio would be sighted slipping into the house and there’d be an hour or two of commotion to get it out. One day the Tandons found a cobra coiled over their breakfast. That day Tandon Aunty had trouble concentrating on her teaching. She taught us Geography in the tin shed and tents collection of make do structures that served as our school. On a hike through the forest we were told how a bear had attacked a forest guard at the same forest inspection hut we were having our lunch at. We heard of hunters too.
So you see, Jim Corbett, Heidi and Ruskin Bond were what fit into my experience and imagination more easily than the glamorous and out of reach stuff occasional visitors from America, Bangalore or Delhi talked of. I had never owned or even seen shops that sold clothes like what they wore so casually, never imagined talking on topics they approached like experts. Books were practically my only window to the outside world, besides the summer holiday trip to a place of historical or geographical importance.

Just once a movie came to town that made us feel our story was being told. The movie was Bahadur Bacche. Anyone recall the line ‘kitna maza Ballu? Maza hi maza”?
The ideas of conservation has not become common currency, so that aspect of Corbett remained beyond my ken. It came to me in high school via the Nature Club, when I moved to a metropolis. For the first time in my life I was far away from jungles or any kind of rusticity. At first I talked a lot about where I had come from, to my new city bred friends. They found me amusing, and were not impressed or interested at all in my rapturous recall of adventures from the middle of nowhere. Slowly I stopped talking of how much fun life was back in the wilderness. I got busy with all the preoccupations of an urban teen – clothes, fashion, crushes, gossip, music, movies, socialising, studying, clearing exams in school. Then came college, and getting a job.
There was an exciting detour back to the hills and jungles, after University. A hostel mate excitedly showed us an article in Inside Outside about the mountain home of an Uncle, Dr. Lal of Sitla, at the edge of the protected forest outside the IVRI at Mukteshwar. He ran an NGO Chirag in the mountain villages around, and Smitie Misra and I promptly wrote to him to let us intern at CHIRAG.
Killing two birds with one stone we were, mixing work with pleasure all the way. The long walks from our village rental abode to the Post Office in Mukteshwar to encash our travellers cheques are etched in memory. The hoofbeat of the herd of racing deer, the never seen but always felt presence of leopards and the singular sighting of a fox in a field of golden wheat are still fresh without the help of any day to day fb records.
For all my love for the life far from the chaos or the city, I was beset with doubts and the then unlabelled and unsaid FOMO when time came to take up a regular job offer from Chirag. I came back to the rather predictable urban middle class trajectory of a corporate career, marriage, kids, slowly sidelining own career and dreams to family needs and husband’s priorities and so on. But the Chirag experience marked and taught me much for life.
Ages later, I started getting reacquainted with the wild in a more intimate way. Small hikes and overnight camping led to bigger steps. I hiked in the buffer zone of Corbett along trails made or followed by Corbett. I learnt of his hunts and his transition to a conservation advocate. I visited his home in Nainital and at the villages he helped settle around Choti Halwani, near Kaladunghi, and the canal network he initiated for agriculture. He is still fondly recalled as Carpet Saheb by the locals there.
On the Corbett trail from Kaladhungi to Powalgarh, the writing in his books came alive with every step. As it does every time I cross through Haridwar into Rishikesh and start climbing towards my home ahead of Rudraprayag.
I have come here nearly a century after Corbett did, chasing dreams and goals very different from his, with abilities not a patch on his (to me) divine powers. Yet, reading his The ManEater of Rudraprayag is the best testimony to what I witness on my journey here.
I always assumed most people who come to these areas are somewhat familiar with Corbett and his work. Imagine my surprise when a recent group of travellers turned out to have no idea about who Jim Corbett was and why a National Park they visited before arriving here is named so. Another visitor claimed to be a wildlife fanatic, self proclaimed expert on all there was to know about wild animals and the wilderness. On a hike to a nearby temple he insisted on returning from almost near the summit because “leopards are crazy” and the sun would set soon and he knew all about the mad and cruel ways of wild animals from watching youtube. I wish Jim Corbett ‘s bhooth haunts that fellow till he learns the proper way to educate himself about wild things.

 

 

January Book Report.Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. By Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
By Gail Honeyman

I picked up this book the favourite way I like to explore and buy books. I regularly walk into bookstores and browse many volumes. Linger over blurbs and jackets and flip through the pages. And then buy some because they make me want to spend more time with them than just the moments or hours possible in bookstores.
Anyway, coming to the book. I picked it up because of the catchy curious title. And something about the way the blurb was framed. I could sense this was a story with an emotional load I was going to savour. And I was right.
This debut novel set in modern day Glasgow is so refined and polished and subtle that I wonder how long the author held the story in her mind before it actually got published. And what a story it is. A gut wrenching tale of loneliness, soul damage, social anomie and being saved, of being on the outside and wanting to fit in while being clueless; at the same time a story filled with gentleness and warmth and finally, hope. And keeps a genuinely light funny attitude to things without sounding clever or over sophisticated.
Eleanor is the narrator who is an odd one who leads a lonely life of fixed routine and simple habits. We realise soon enough that this is her safe holding phase after a traumatic childhood and an unsettled youth. She wants to be left alone and yet she longs for love and can get pretty delusional about it too.
The story starts with Eleanor attempting to make a change. And then relentlessly keeps bringing change and novelty to Eleanor, and with ever so natural nudges the house of cards that holds memories and emotions in check comes tumbling down.
Eleanor is by chance pulled in to help save a stranger’s life, and then into befriending his family. In all this, she also becomes friends with her office colleague Raymond. All the while, she also has an almost delusional crush on a no good musician. From a recluse and office robot Eleanor starts shifting into someone who meets people, goes out and starts to dress well and groom herself more stylishly. She cries without warning. She takes risks. She is ready to be different, she thinks. She wants her life to be different, to mean something, to be fine. She is desperate for something to change, for the ‘correct’ love to rescue her somehow. But of course life is not a simple wish list. Eleanor’s delusions come crashing to the ground as soon as she tries to make them real. But while she breaks down along with her dreams, she is finally able to come to grips with the truth about herself, and reach out for help offered by her new friend, and to overcome a lifetime of fear and fabrication.
The author shows immense control over a suspenseful narrative while threading a plot through past and present. I don’t want to say more about the story as that would be giving away too much, but I can talk about the intelligence with which the narrative unfolds. It is a lesson in crafting a gripping drama in the first person. The voice is intimate yet never lazily familiar, and helps each of the characters become real people we know and care for and cry for and hate and feel scared of. I love how the book remains light and nimble and conversational while it goes at difficult themes and macabre minds. In the end it feels like a simple good versus bad kind of story that leaves the reader full of hope for the characters, and with a paisa wasool feeling for themselves.
A recommended read if you want an old fashioned drama with innocents and villains and good samaritans and a few twists, and a redemptive closure, laced with wit, intelligence and lots of warmth and grace.

The lives and love of pets

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At six years of age I had my first intimations of a future me as an adult. I imagined myself walking along in a place of adult power and importance- maybe an office or a school, dressed in a sari in some moments and in pants in some others. I was no longer a child who was clueless and had to be cared for. I was the one in control, in the know. Things ran the way I wanted them to.

This was soon after my first ever hospitalisation due to a complicated brush with chicken pox. I had been quarantined in a sprawling military hospital in Devlali and had seen only professional adult people for some days. People who seemed to have the power to get me through a terrible illness. I felt confident because they were so confident. I wasn’t lonely even though it was the longest I had been away alone without my sibling or my parents.

A few years later at age ten loneliness was a lingering backdrop to all I did. I was a paradox of introversion and strong opinions. Soft spoken of voice but cutting in my critical views. Socialising felt fraught and yet was essential to an army brat who so often shifted school and homes. I wanted to go away to a boarding school to have some constancy. To feel more in control. No doubt I was unduly influenced by all the Enid Blyton I devoured those days. My parents wrote to a few schools. The prospectus arrived in post from Simla. My brother protested when he heard what I had asked for. Said he wouldn’t ever go. My parents said okay then she cannot go either. I was so mad at him, at them. I can go alone, I said. They said no, That Inhad no idea how tough that would be. That when one was young one always needed someone known and familiar to be with us in new places, in times of change. And that they could only ever consider sending us away together else not at all. I didn’t say much but now I wonder if that must have been the beginning of something. I started stepping out more as my own person. I made a friend who was all mine away from the common group we had played in so far. I started going out on my own at playtime. I started reading books separate from him. I started wanting a dog for a pet. I picked up a puppy from a neighbor’s pet’s litter and walked home naming and renaming him all the way. Mummy made me take it back without even letting me step into the house. I told Suman didi no matter, I would get a pup first thing when I had my own house as a grown up.

I got my wish a few months after my marriage. It was almost an after thought by my non dog/pet fancying husband. A sort of peace offering, from the new litter in our building ka parking lot that I was taking care of with some neighbouring teenagers. It was a surprise to see her brought home, and I was confused about keeping her. I felt her fragile life in my arms and was equal parts terrified and smitten. Baby Doll was the four year old boss of our home when we welcomed our first born. When she passed away at fourteen years, after progressive organ failure, I promised myself I would never bring a pet into my home again. But I had not been a good reader of my own heart, a second time over. The kids (now there was Keya too) were insistent in their demands. I read something about how pets help shy and introverted people. How they can make a special needs child more confident. I longed for the loving playfulness that thrived between Baby Doll and the kids and all of us. The fabric of home had a dog sized tear that only seemed to sunder more with time. I stayed firm and made sure we did lots of things together. Outdoor games. Indoor games. Picnics. Cooking. Movies. Books. Holidays. Studies. Painting. I told myself I needed to get out more. I volunteered at school. Acted in a play. Rejoined yoga class. Attended a Stock Trading class. And the trainer said she was also doing a Bach Flower course next, would I like to join? It was for emotional healing and didn’t include much psychobabble, and it would not do any harm. Why not try it? Why not, I said.

In the class a participant passed around the picture of a new Spaniel pup who seems to miss its mother and cried often. The course teacher suggested flower remedies for the pup. I asked where had the pup come from. The new master said there were still two left in the litter and I might want to go see them. So some days later we had Truffle and Siberioo with us. Siberioo was Keya’s pet, supposedly, and Ken claimed Truffle. In a couple of days we realised they were both not quite well. They had the dreaded Parvo virus and within a week of their coming home to us, golden furred Siberioo was no more. His tortured tiny form lay still in my palm as the sun’s first rays slanted through the glass window. Truffle survived, recovering from the brink but he has never been quite fully well since. The vet and other people suggested that getting him a companion quickly would be good idea. I looked at five year old Keya and how kind and brave she had been with the sick pups. With Baby Doll she had always been somewhat hesitant, intimidated both by the bigness of her size and the loudness of her bark. And being the smallest and latest arrival in the family Keya could not quite yet do much for Baby Doll. Taking her for a walk was beyond her, as was handling her feeding. She would watch her older and bigger sibling do all that and wonder at her own smallness and Baby Doll’s power. l asked the vet to look for a pup. A month later we welcomed Oreo to our home. He was the opposite of Truffle in every way. A carefree singing dog that could beg for food the whole day long, and was genial and kind to everyone except other building dogs he met in the lift. Averse to being picked up or brushed. But very fond of climbing on every sofa chair carpet and bed and cuddling up on cushions and pillows to sleep. Truffle is much more particular and aloof, but will happily snuggle onto your shoulder if you lift him, and likes to be the Raja. After the initial bossing around, Truffle accepted Oreo in the home but never let him forget he had come in here before him.

With these two tiny pups, Keya too came into her own in many ways. She could feed the pups, and handle them in other ways. They were tiny and manageable for her. She gained confidence as she started taking them for walks. She learnt about discipline as she trained them. My years of no-dogs-on beds rule was done away with by the children.Truffle and Oreo started sleeping on my son’s bed. When he went away to college they went back to their own little beds for a while till Keya allowed them to cuddle up with her. It is now almost ten years since we got these two home.

End of last year Oreo was detected with a malignant carcinoma. It was removed surgically. The day of the surgery as Oreo recovered from anaesthesia and the pain, Truffle was by his side, at times just snuggled up to Oreo’s flank and at times licking him in what I can only assume was a gesture of care. As is my habit when the pets or kids are not well, I let him rest on my bed. I let him treat my quilt like his own little cave and refuge and am getting used to his one sided don’t touch me please kind of wish to be near us. I remember how being helped to the bathroom by Dad had brought me incredible relief and strength after my own first caesarean. Being physically held makes love real. Being held is what we can always do first for another being who suffers, and it what we can still do when we can do little else. Even when it is the kind of holding Oreo seeks- our being near him but not really catch him tight or squeeze close.bMore like letting him plonk himself where he likes, while we squeeze and adjust around him.

Touchwood the rest of the tests done on Oreo have been clear so far and he seems to be fine in every way. The vet and others we have shown his reports to say he is so old and really there is not much to do medically that would change anything. We tell ourselves he has lived well and we can only love him all the more for however much longer he is with us. So there will be no stopping Oreo from continuing to make himself at home on my bed. Never mind that now Truffle too has followed him there. Things do feel a bit like a crowded railway platform late at night though. Guess this is the grown up life. And I am not in control.

 

December Reading Report.   Pathways of Possibility. By Saikat Majumdar

26142356_10154916335312364_847508788_oIt has been twelve months of my monthly book report project. Twelve months of doing something which I never imagined I was going to do, which nothing in my education and professional experience or training specifically covered.

 

It is fitting then that the last book I review this year is also about breaking education out of its confines of arts versus science, general versus specialised, and liberal humanist versus vocational. College – Pathways to Possibilty is a book that is a thoughtful, studied reflection on the past, present and future nature of education and careers.

 

This is a book that is calling out to be read, discussed and debated. Young people in school, parents, policy makers, college students and teachers, sociologists, college counselors, educational consultants, researchers, professionals and anyone with an interest in theories of knowledge and the future of work and education would enjoy the many nuances and tangents of thought in this slim yet substantive book. It is a book which could, and which should lead to much more work in this area. I hope it is the spark that lights many more.

 

It is a call for change, a manifesto of new pathways to doing things differently, and an idealist hope for the future of college education. For many in our country today, a college degree in the arts or sciences is a dead weight of no particular practical application or use in the evolving market place, or in terms of life skills. On the other hand, the narrow deep dive into specialisation of professional/vocational courses leaves out a world of general learning from its scope, and is not usually any better in imparting lifeskills like critical thinking, analytical ability or creative ideation. Too much fragmentation. Too little integration. Silos that do not talk to each other. And there is history and sociology and ways of engaging with the world behind all of this.

 

“The liberal arts are sometimes imagined to be in opposition to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine. But this opposition is a confused one, as the foundational S of STEM, science, occupies a pride of place in the liberal arts. The “liberal arts” are not synonymous with the arts and humanities; the archaic term is the surviving legacy of a time when the sciences were arts too.In fact, it is perhaps not generally remembered today that the word “scientist” was coined on the analogy of the word “artist”. This happened, as the cultural critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, in the 1830s, when the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science felt the acute absence of a term to describe the practitioner of science: “Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty…savans was rather assuming…; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist*=.”

Written by a novelist, critic and scholar who is currently a professor at India’s first liberal arts University, this book is many things – it is the author’s professional stock taking exercise, a thoughtful reflection on the state of post secondary education, and a manifesto for change of mindsets and systems .

 

Saikat Majumdar’s pitch is for a broad humanist college education that is not straightjacketed into narrow walls of cramming and regurgitation, consumption and reinforcement of the status quo. And he makes the pitch in a mix of serious scholarship, anecdotal vignettes and flights of literary fancy. This is a book that talks to the reader about the souls of different disciplines, when talking of their epistemology. It argues in favor of the souls over the bodies, i.e, the content of the syllabus. It is book that is inspired and takes off from a lot of educational and psychological theory I have been long familiar with but hadn’t found put together in context of college education in the Indian setting. It is a book that has made me think about my own educational and career journey, and my children’s education and career plans. It has made me more determined to follow through with certain ideas I have in the realm of preparing high school students for college and beyond, back in the rural communities I am involved with.

 

A strongly idealistic vision and deep philosophical and historical enquiry mark the writing across eight chapters and 111 pages. From how different models of modern college education arose across the Western world, and then travelled to India, and where we are now at. Saikat juxtaposes his own experience with his college education in a premiere college and leading University in India with his experience in the American university system as both a student and a teacher.

 

The familiar story (it is what most of us have gone through, after all) of contrast between a narrow, body of content led coverage model of the former with the broader, more general epistemic approach of the latter is explained in novel frames.

 

Most interesting is how the author then moves into the exploration of the nature of intelligence itself, with a strong focus on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Linking types of intelligences to different professions and the skills suited best to them, he makes an emphatic case for an education that acknowledges and nurtures the broad, humanistic learning potential of human minds without the restrictions of vocational exclusiveness too early in the college years.

 

“…it is intriguing how often disciplines are curricularised and taught in ways that are incompatible with a liberal artscience education. It is especially ironic with subjects that are considered to be at the heart of the liberal arts. If the economics major in the US university system begins to feel the suffocation of relentless research training, a very different story has been scripted for humanistic fields under the colonial university system in India. Let me pause here at my own discipline, English literature.

The whir in my head started when I received an email last year from my then six year old daughter. With a sunburst of smileys and emoticons impossible to replicate, it asked:

 

“Papa, have you written any future-fiction stories? Stories, which are now fiction but can become true later? Take lizards, which are teenage dinosaurs. If you live too long you will be in the future where they will be dinosaurs again. Please die on time!”

…..that the idea of literature as fiction, as made up, untrue stories emerged at a certain historical moment was something that I never received during my college education in English literature. These are questions that embody what Gardner calls disciplinary ways of thinking: the fundamental spirit and methodology of disciplines that lie deep inside the maze of facts and information that make up their bodies.”

 

All through the book, with progressively linked argument and examples and references, a case is made for a generally accessible, liberal artscience education – education that is both deeply immersed in one specific discipline while also covering a broad range of general education topic, along with a focus on skills of critical thinking, analysis and creative originality, as the base of all post school education.

 

While I enjoyed the book, and am definitely going to go back to its pages and my notes on it many times in the future, I found it a little rushed or curtailed overall, like a project that stopped short of becoming all that it could have been. And I wish the title did not quite highlight the College part so strongly, since it is much more than a college admissions guide book. The heavy duty theories could have been illuminated with more examples, more real life stories, more personal anecdote. Nevertheless, in every way this is an important and timely work.

 

November Book Reading Report

The Whole Shebang – Sticky Bits Of Being A Woman

By Lalit Iyer

Despite the somewhat misleading title, the book is really not about women in general, or even some women. It is a series of personal opinion pieces sorted into seventeen chapters on varied aspects of being Lalita Iyer, the woman. The author herself is at pains to point this out in the Prologue, which I would recommend as necessary first reading on picking up the book. Above all, it is a book for anyone interested in how a particular woman thinks of her life and herself.

This slim 142-page compendium based on earlier columns and writings, connects, soothes, provokes and preaches, and manages to feel mostly likeable and a just a little unsettling. There are the usual suspects- bitchy schoolgirls, teenage angst, breast longings, and infatuations based on nothing but a look…and then there are unconventional storylines playing tug of war with the standard issue memo on being a woman. There is frankness, wit, courage, confusion, confession and hope. And listicles in some chapters, with authorly gyaan and tips.

Claiming to be still figuring out “How to be a woman’, Lalita lays down her belief that “being a woman is a serious amount of admin.” And talks of the sense of things “left undone” and “checklists crawling beneath our epidermis, reminding us” of this. The rest of the book then unravels the author’s sense of being a work in progress through puberty to middle age, to be an independent person, in delightfully devilish detail.

Being pre-millennial, her recollections of childhood and youth bring to life times and images we have almost archived into non-existence, like the compulsory chemise worn under the white school uniform, wax-coated paper packed Parle-G, mixed tapes as courtship, and Ovaltine. A serial job changer, a science-y working as a journalist and writer, a woman who married later than most, and became a mother at almost forty, and is now at forty nine a single mother to her son, Lalita’s stories bring an unusual lens to the common and uncommon issues of her and every woman’s life.

I for one could not see the merit of so many pages devoted to getting one’s period, the travails with ill-fitting bras and the cruelty of thongs. But some of these, along with body size and image are topics I see many women of all ages obsess about almost forever. In Lalita’s blunt and vivid telling of these issues lies a comment on the tyranny of conflicting forces acting on women, and the cinch women are in, ironically, all at once, of seductive fashion, modesty dictats and a deeply conditioned desire for approval.

“Every once in a while, I muster the courage to walk into a Mango or a Zara or a Promod and try on clothes which fit one part of my body but don’t fit another and I tell myself – I am totally out of proportion. What I don’t tell myself is that these clothes were made to squash me into someone else’s shape.”

In the personal stories and stern guidelines of sorts, many readers will recognize how they don’t take themselves seriously as a person; beyond the relationship they have to significant others in their life. And how ambivalent they are about owning their careers and especially about money matters. And how they lose themselves even in the role that is supposedly their identity- that of a mother, or a wife.

“Mother love was not enough for me to feel me. I needed more, and I went after it. That was the only way I could retain my selfhood. That’s the only way I want Re to remember me when I am gone. Not someone who lost herself in him.”

The Whole Shebang has a bold, specific and contemporary tonality to its slice of life writing. There is vulnerability and openness of voice and individuality of details that draws the reader in. With confessions and intelligent wit it also exudes hope and sisterhood, and give wings to the reader’s imagination. The reader is likely to be comforted with a realization that she is not alone in all that confuses and confounds her. Someone else has been there too, and lived to tell the tale.

The most enjoyable bits of reading this book for me were the chapters on love, marriage, money, friends, the in-laws and the future. It is here I felt the writing acquired the most natural, most nuanced richness and depth. With engrossing self-deprecation and eyes open wide practicality Lalita reflects on the changes in her own thinking and the changing ways of the dating game. The affliction of imagining love stories is examined threadbare. The Idea of self-love is embraced.

“We are constantly examining our imaginary love stories in our heads – constructing and deconstructing scenarios – decoding what he said to reveal what he really meant, looking for signs, seeing signs while none exist: in text messages, whatsapps, Facebook, Instagram, and in all avatars in which it is humanly possible for one person to exist.”

I also specially liked the fact that topics like money, work, and motherhood are covered in a matter of fact way, without getting heavy handed or frivolous. Like in these lines from “Planning for retirement’.

“You need to have a nest egg both as assets and savings for retirement irrespective of a spouse or lack thereof or whether your parents are going to leave you a nice inheritance. … You will be surprised how few women factor this in. I have already budgeted for a halfway house with my friends when I am sixty. I don’t believe children should be treated as old-age insurance.”

Given the book’s chapters covers a wide span of time in a woman’s life it can grow along with the reader’s experience, and be a sounding board for the long haul, as well a companion for a brief fling. Rather like a combination shampoo-conditioner, unlike the dichotomous category of men someone put across to the author – that of being either a shampoo or a conditioner. (The shampoo is meant to leave, the conditioner meant to stay….read the book to know moreJ)

“When relationships are depleting, it’s friendships we turn to for replenishment, connection, a shared sensibility and laughs. Our women friends help us raise the bar; we look up to our friends more often and in more ways than we think. … How many times have you told a female friend, “You know, I should have so married you!”

The Whole Shebang is just one such friend every woman could commune with at least once.

 

The October Book Report

It isn’t really about the books this time.   IMG_7372.JPGI had no plans to cover them in a review. More than books to read, they are a part of me, and echo some of what I experience in the wild mountain back of beyond-ness. They are about much more than hunting man-eating predators. They are rich nature and place writing. They are also excellent specimens of narrative and descriptive writing. And they offer a wonderfully detailed cultural history of the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal, of the government and social order prevalent then.
Heidi speaks to my love of mountains but its setting is alien and I am no longer a little girl. Innocent love of place and rootedness are common traits that attract me to Heidi and Ruskin Bond. Bond is a personal idol and a writer after my heart because he creates beautiful prose and eternal meaning out of nearly nothing, located mainly in the hills or other lost places and about lost people, evoking a nostalgia for gentler times and attitudes that are gone or fast fading away.
Bond’s is essentially an urbane sensibility-even when he writes about jungles or ghosts; gentle, mildly sardonic at times and always civilised and soothing. Whereas Jim Corbett is the essential loner of the wilderness, at home on the machan or marching on foot through the wilderness missing not a change in the wind or temperature, and noting his observations in meticulous methodical detail, courageous and unflinchingly honest with himself and others and with a rare capacity for seeing the bigger picture way ahead of his time. For all this, he too is a personal hero and an inspiration.
Today I realised I had reached the end of a month and had forgotten all about my monthly goal of a book report. I looked at my shelves for a book to report on, and saw these books. This is a personal account of my own and some others’ engagement with the matter of wilderness and Jim Corbett.
I first read Corbett as a school girl and was suitably impressed with the adventures and the romance of this invincible hunter. We lived in the forests of MP, in a pure Mowgli setting, and tales of wolves carrying off children were part of the legends we grew up with. My mother had lived this life before me in various raliway bunglows in places like Khurda Road, Umaria and Gondia. My father, an army officer had jungle survival as part of his professional training and had served in rathervwild places in Assam, and around the Chambal ravines in central India and had encountered nearly every kind of wildlife. So my childhood experiences in lonely army outposts on edges of jungles and always far removed from the urban sprawl were layered on the subsoil of my parents’ stories.
Encountering a cobra on way to school stopped sending shivers down the spine after one or two occasions. News arrived of tigers and bears being sighted during night patrols and we felt safe and snug inside our pucca homes with locks. Then a snake or a scorpio would be sighted slipping into the house and there’d be an hour or two of commotion to get it out. One day the Tandons found a cobra coiled over their breakfast and had a time chasing it out. That day Tandon Aunty had trouble concentrating on her teaching. She taught us Geography in the tin shed and tents collection of make do structures that served as our school. On a hike through the forest we were told how a bear had attacked a forest guard at the same forest inspection hut we were having our lunch at. We heard of hunters too.
So you see, Jim Corbett, Heidi and Ruskin Bond were what fit into my experience and imagination more easily than the glamorous and out of reach stuff occasional visitors from America, Bangalore or Delhi talked of. I had never owned or even seen shops that sold clothes like what they wore so casually, never imagined talking on topics they approached like experts. Books were practically my only window to the outside world, besides the summer holiday trip to a place of historical or geographical importance. Just once a movie came to town that made us feel our story was being told. The movie was Bahadur Bacche. Anyone recall the line ‘kitna maza Ballu? Maza hi maza”?
The ideas of conservation has not become common currency, so that aspect of Corbett remained beyond my ken. It came to me in high school via the Nature Club, when I moved to a metropolis. For the first time in my life I was far away from jungles or any kind of rusticity. At first I talked a lot about where I had come from, to my new city bred friends. They found me amusing, and were not impressed or interested at all in my rapturous recall of adventures from the middle of nowhere. Slowly I stopped talking of how much fun life was back in the wilderness. I got busy with all the preoccupations of an urban teen – clothes, fashion, crushes, gossip, music, movies, socialising, studying, clearing exams in school.
Then came college and getting a job.
There was an exciting detour back to the hills and jungles, after University. A hostel mate excitedly showed us an article in Inside Outside about the mountain home of an Uncle, Dr. Lal of Sitla, at the edge of the protected forest outside the IVRI at Mukteshwar. He ran an NGO Chirag in the mountain villages around, and Smitie Misra and I promptly wrote to him to let us intern at CHIRAG. Killing two birds with one stone we were. The long walks from our village rental
abode to the Post Office in Mukteshwar to encash our travellers cheques are etched in memory. The hoofbeat of the herd of racing deer, the never seen but always felt presence of leopards and the singular sighting of a fox in a field of golden wheat are still fresh without the help of any day to day fb records. For all my love for the life far from the chaos or the city, I was beset with doubts and the then unlabelled and unsaid FOMO when ime came to take up a regular job offer from Chirag. I came back to the rather predictable urban middle class trajectory of job, marriage, kids, slowly sidelining own career and dreams to family needs and husband’s priorities and so on. But the Chirag experience marked and taught me much for life.
Ages later, I started getting reacquainted with the wild in a more intimate way. Small hikes and overnight camping led to bigger steps. I hiked in the buffer zone of Corbett along trails made or followed by Corbett. I learnt of his hunts and his transition to a conservation advocate. I visited his home in Nainital and at the villages he helped settle around Choti Halwani, near Kaladunghi, and the canal network he initiated for agriculture. He is still fondly recalled as Carpet Saheb by the locals there.
On the Corbett trail from Kaladhungi to Powalgarh, the writing in his books came alive with every step. As it does every time I cross through Haridwar into Rishikesh and start climbing towards my home ahead of Rudraprayag.
I have come here nearly a century after Corbett did, chasing dreams snd goals very different from his, with abilities not a patch on his (to me) divine powers. Yet, reading his The ManEater of Rudraprayag is the best testimony to what I witness on my journey here.
I always assumed most people who come to these areas are somewhat familiar with Corbett and his work. Imagine my surprise when a recent group of travellers turned out to have no idea about who Jim Corbett was and why a national Park they visited before arriving here is named so. Another visitor claimed to be a wildlife fanatic. On a hike to a nearby temple he insisted on returning from almost near the summit because “leopards are crazy” and the sun would set soon and he knew all about the mad and cruel ways of wild animals from watching youtube. I wish Jim Corbett ‘s bhooth haunts that fellow till he learns the proper way to educate himself about wild things.

My Daughters’ Mum : By Natasha Badhwar. My Book Report for September

https://www.amazon.in/My-Daughters-Mum-Natasha-Badhwar/dp/9386797003/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506913196&sr=8-1&keywords=my+daughters+mum

“I write for you and me and for a gentler, more just world.”

Catharsis is a word I avoid using in any context. Even when friends, well-wishers and experts offer it as an explanation for what they see happening with me. Or suggest it as a necessary step to deal with an issue. It is not because I don’t like the word or don’t believe in the process. Just the opposite, in fact. I treat catharsis as a sacred precious gift; the word carries so much value for me that I don’t want it made trite in the world of easy sound bytes and trending catch phrases.

So it is with a lot of thought that I call Natasha Badhwar’s debut book a cathartic read. My Daughters’ Mum is an extraordinary book in its candour. The author writes with such self-reflexive vulnerability that you forget you are reading another person’s writing. You feel your heart spill out on the page. Through tears and smiles, and heaving and sinking heart the book embraces the reader, cleansing many heartaches and allowing one to celebrate unspoken joys. You recognise memories you had dumped away, you reclaim parts you had been too ashamed to include in your narrative of self. You examine what you have known; you let yourself be drawn into speculating on the unknown.

The theme of coming home to a place in this world, and a place inside yourself is the big story of this marvellously loving collection of deeply personal essays. The theme holds together carefully curated sections from Natasha’s long running Mint Lounge column. As a regular reader, it makes me happy that the stories of the column, with their message of love, hope, inclusion and the vision of a different, kinder world now have another home with an even wider accessibility. The editor and writer have skilfully structured the collection in a way that feels like a seamless narration of an ongoing conversation.

Part memoir, part essay, part record of our times, there is nothing the book does not touch. Birth family, mothers and daughters, parents, nation, others, love, work, interfaith marriage, friends, grief, death, births, self-love, identity, nationality, changing times, family, in-laws, maids, working from home, road trips, childhood, college, siblings – it is all there, in Natasha’s warm and smart prose. No motherhoods preached, no rules that are claimed as fail proof. Just brave and honest sharing of personal experiences, insights and revelations.

Sample this, on parenting:

“I had never really felt so lonely. Clearly, I had spread myself too thin; the urban myth of the supermom had trapped me. I looked good, but I felt terrible.
All at once, parenting proved to be a test of loyalty. Was I willing to be loyal to myself? I didn’t have much practice in this area. It had always been much easier to be loyal to friends, trends and gadgets.
I had to come to terms with a few grand truths. For one, I would be able to raise our kids well only if I first raised myself well…I had also to learn to pamper the child in me – love her, appreciate her, make her happy.”

In the chapter titled A Technology Chowkidar At Home, Natasha takes head on the issue many young and not so young parents mention all too often as an obstacle to stay away from negative media.

“Despite my intense love for gadgets…I am the self-appointed watchman who moderates access to technology in family spaces. …We barely listen to each other. We are often way behind in keeping track of each other’s creative milestones…we all need some time to share our experiences with each other So we do things that may seem odd to other families. …I do not want us to be a family of Western-consumerist-culture-addicted-Anglophones. We do not want to find ourselves scavenging for comfort amid the clutter of shallow, raucous media content with limited shelf life. I want variety in our lives. Slowness. Pauses. Daydreaming and imaginary friends. I don’t want to prepare our children for the ‘real world’. I want us and them to have the confidence that we can create the world we want to live in. We don’t have to fit into pre-fabricated moulds. We are free to discover and relate to our inner and outer worlds at our own pace. We can pick and chose. This is real life.”

Natasha’s writing is always crisp, the chapters short and sentences light. Such nimble handling of weighty and gut wrenchingly loaded topics is a feat this slim book achieves with élan. I have a feeling that the author’s experience as a TV newsperson and filmmaker, and then coach has definitely helped her create the light as air feel for this warm as pashmina coziness of a book.

If like me, you are a dreamer who wants to persist on this path despite an often broken heart and habitually weary feet, go get yourself this dose of solidarity and encouragement. Keep the tissues on hand, and start reading. You will go on a journey of your life, I promise you. In Natasha’s words reflecting on the wreckage of a riot she watched as a young girl, “Our heart breaks and somehow we keep working. Lives are wrecked and people get back to building homes again. We lose hope and then we find a way to believe once more. We often despair that we are too cynical but we are all constantly creating, restoring, healing, trying to reassemble broken pieces. ” I like to believe she speaks for a lot of us

Nothing Social About It.

My piece about the chawl themed new branch of the cafe and bar and co-working hub, Social, atCyber hub , Gurgaon. About design and its inspiration. About imitation and appropriation. About a mockery of others.

http://www.dailyo.in/voices/chawl-gurgaon-cyber-hub-social-mumbai-history-bombay/story/1/19563.html

Cyber Hub is a multi-outlet development in Gurgaon, with offices, bakeries, pubs, fine dining and shops spread surrounding a central avenue, along some very spacious spokes that lead like tentacles from the main hub. On the rare breezy day of monsoon and the more pleasant days of winter, it is a pleasure to be among the crowds in this postmodern version of a Milanese piazza. The cross-pollination of art, music, food, politics, thought, architecture and more has always been a sign of cosmopolitan urbanism, but the corporate globalisation of Gurgaon has little time for such organic development. It is a market of flash and newness, with establishments and ideas emerging every day, powering the “happening” factor and keeping the transplanted citizens proud and smug, and fairly insular.

Walking down the cemented promenade at Cyber Hub, my friends and I recently came across the bright façade of the newest outlet of the popular cafe and bar, Social. I had seen it on an earlier visit, and been bemused by its kitschy attempt to appropriate the film-poster-and-truck-painting idiom.

This time, upon closer inspection, it became clear that the design team had decided to be inspired by the idea of a Mumbai chawl as the icon for “Social” bonhomie. I suppose the intention was to be droll and edgy. To many of my friends and I, however, it looked like a poor case of misappropriation. The symbolic misplacement of bits of a city’s built history without any understanding of the context. Chawls are an icon of Mumbai’s past and present, and not for salutary reasons alone. None of that nuance or meaning is even remotely acknowledged or explained in the sanitised re-rendering at Social. Instead, we have a rootless hothouse romanticisation of the chawl as a symbol of socialising and community. A chawl is about so much more than being social.

We stared at the façade for a bit, and then brought ourselves to go inside. We were uncomfortably curious to see more. The design had achieved one of its key objectives – footfall. Once inside, the theme continued to make us feel conflicted. A board listed tenant resident names in Hindi. A cement-plastered wall was covered with a collection of old-style electric meters nailed haphazardly with trailing wires.

The wall paint peeled delicately on the exterior, but there were no riverine cracks on the interior walls. The lighting was dim but tastefully planned, and the flooring patchwork didn’t make us trip. The air-conditioning was perfect, unlike anything I have ever experienced inside a chawl. As was the silence, and the air-freshener suffused a scent of affluence. Of course, there was no damp.

Nation in a chawl?

In a nation that grapples with overcrowded poor quality housing in its cities, is this the best creative manifestation of the “social” that trained design professionals could come up with? How ironic that chawls – the built form that arose as a reluctant solution to the despair of homeless mill workers – a design that the renowned urban planner Patrick Geddes called “not housing but warehousing of humans” is the theme for a place dedicated to leisure, to the recreation of moneyed urban professionals?

Is the design meant to be an urban satire? Is the joke on us? Or were the designers and their client just plain ignorant, if not intentionally disdainful?

Besides being an eatery and a bar, Social serves that latest trend in the gig economy – co-working spaces. Small rooms with chawl-style barred windows and flaky doors lined the passage – like the gala of a chawl, leading out from the lobby.

These co-working spaces can be rented by the hour, by office-less workers. So this is what the chawl idea was all about, we concluded. Except, again the symbolism is false. There was a modish, edgy charm to those little cocoons of private solitude and focus. The type of privacy and solitude, and facilities with worktables and food and drink on call that no chawl in history could ever offer. Not even the fairy tale version of the chawl in the Sai Paranjape film Katha, where there is no messy laundry hanging in corridors and the paint and varnish is all perfect.

And certainly never in the more realistic ones, as seen in other movies and books. If only Jaya Bhaduri’s character in the ’70s Barjatya superhit Piya Ka Ghar had found these cute cubicles of Social – with their shut doors and silencer walls – she could have saved her marriage some serious turmoil. But I guess all this referencing of history, books and movies is not the brief designers who work on projects in Gurgaon get. Nor do their clients presumably care.

Sitting inside the Chawl-themed Social

We moved to the area beyond the co-working space and the chawl theme suddenly dropped out in favour of the blast-from-the-past English-Parsi hybrid home décor. In the actual social arena of the dining and bar area, we were out of chawl territory and into the genteel sensibilities of another sort. The dance floor did have a festive bunting spangled courtyard look to it, which I found perfectly fitting for a common celebratory space. And there is nothing typically chawl about that. It is something the chawls too borrowed from the wider repertoire of celebratory symbols.

We came out and sat across from the establishment, on the lush grass-covered open amphitheatre of sorts – the sort of place a chawl resident would crave and not find across a real chawl courtyard.

While we waited for the clouds to make up their mind about raining, my friends and I examined our response to what we had just walked out of.

One of my friends was visiting from Canada, and has never been to Mumbai or anywhere near a real chawl. The other friend is from Maharashtra and familiar with the original model, which supposedly inspired the design team at Social.

I have lived long years in Mumbai, visited chawls and studied them too. We all agreed that we felt disturbed at the sort of disconnected insensitivity this design theme signalled to us. Kitsch does not offend my friends or me, though we may not be fans.

One of them is a clothes designer and sources handloom and crafts from all over the country to mix and match them in her creations. Borrowing idioms is, like I said, what makes for cultural cosmopolitanism. But Social’s channelling of the chawl theme is another level of blindness. Chawls seem to be treated by Social as something alien, and out of the realm of understanding and connection. And thus, an easy fit for misappropriation. They are another world, inhabited by others – in much the same way Hindi cinema depicted tribal women in ’70s Eastman colour films, like we joke about the “others” who we deign to be so different from us, who are hardly granted courtesy or dignity of respect. These others are so different that we cannot imagine any relation except of a voyeur and a taker with them.

My friend wondered how a real chawl resident would feel when faced with this Social. She felt offended. We know people who live in chawls or have family there, or those who once lived in chawls. Would they agree that Social had appropriately conveyed a sense of community and connectedness?

Or would they feel uncomfortable? In exoticising the chawl, we felt, the designers had robbed real life and real people of the dignity their homes deserve despite the despair, disrepair and dilapidation they cave under.

We asked ourselves, would we bring the chawl’s (as shown above) appearance or its way of managing limited space, its majboori ka jugaad, into our far more spacious homes?

Given a choice even a chawl resident would want to upgrade to a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen set-up at least. Even when he is not keen on shifting from the convenient location, he is all for the repair and betterment or redevelopment of the chawl into a block of modern flats with more privacy and status, while being attached to the community features and social benefits.

Nostalgia or living space?

Is the chawl a piece of nostalgia for a majority of those who left it or for anyone else? What comprises that nostalgia, if at all it exists? Memories of the people who lived there, of the interactions and the bonds formed? Certainly so, as is also true for all neighbourhoods, and all social networks that help us belong – those that support us.

Is there also an element of charm and beauty in its built form itself? Going by personal experience, scholarly research and documentation and films on the chawls of Mumbai, I think not. The chawl was by necessity a crowded housing solution for teeming middle and lower middle class workers and traders who needed to be housed near the markets or mills they powered with their hard work.

It was a functional response to a logistics problem, and while there are definite social benefits for residents, they are not symbolised by the clothes hanging outside or the lack of maintenance of the buildings themselves. Nor would there be any nostalgia for the rats, the roaches, the community toilets and the lines at the community water tap.

Remember the 1984 art house film Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho about hapless chawl tenants, their internal politics, the games of rapacious promoters, landlords and lawyers? In chawls then and now, community living and conviviality happened as much because of the form as a function of other factors, like a shared place of origin, caste, workplaces, shared commercial interests and links forged as neighbours bound by similar circumstances.

And much like the rest of community life, social conviviality and “we are one big family” ideas are under stress everywhere, including in chawls, due to wider social, cultural, technological, political and economic forces coming from beyond the chawl. When one built form is being used as a theme to “inspire” another built form, one cannot stop at transplanting just the idea of social solidarity (forced, at that) as the only or the primary association with a chawl.

When dhabas and Warhol can be chic, why not chawls?

I emphasise on nostalgia and the quality of material culture because one might wonder if I doth protest too much. What about adorning our homes with mirror work from Kutch?

What about truck art inspired décor and navaar ka manji-s at Punjabi dhaba-themed restaurants? What about hanging phulkari duppatta as curtains in my plush duplex apartment?

What about Andy Warhol and the Campbell Soup posters?

And there lies the pointer to our ignorance, insularity and insensitiveness and false equivalence. There is a difference between cultural diffusion that happens naturally, and deliberately designed misappropriation, even when it is only an attempt at inspired imitation.

A phulkari duppatta is a textile craft artifact that has always been that, and using it as a curtain rather than as a duppatta is hardly an act of disruptive or disingenuous appropriation.

A dhaba is a robust part of the road transport network economy in the countryside, and most of us English magazine readers do not have any qualms about stopping and eating at a dhaba. Most of us also have rural homes of grandparents or of uncles and extended family where manji-s are a way of life.

It is a way of life that may have been left behind or was only occasionally encountered, but it is not something that was a mark of our majboori. Havelis and peasant homes all had manji-s, though the haveli would also have additional hardwood takhats. A dhaba is associated with a certain earthy purity because of the way it began and operates even today.

Just like Andy Warhol’s posters of Campbell Soup tap into the feelings of home and nurturance, and also call out consumerism and mass marketing, dhaba food spells the taste of the countryside, and also signals the travel-light quality of truckers’ lives.

Similarly, the manji-s we sprawl on are relics of a more leisurely time, of afternoons spent chucking mangoes under the courtyard tree and of things made by hand, by local artisans. The staple of all dhaba food, the ubiquitous ma ki daal – also found in all gurudwara-s, Punjabi homes and the five-stars and every north Indian eatery across the world – is something that has travelled well outside its home because it offers much to meet many real needs and serves practical functions.

What similar features can we say we aspire to or are happy to adopt from chawls – those chawl residents themselves would like to hawk to the world outside? Nothing that is distinctly chawl, I am afraid.

The equivalence of chawl living with the ultimate in social interaction is also lost on me. The chawl style of living was an adaptation to adversity. Are visitors to Social celebrating that? Or, to take a long flight of fancy, is it perhaps about je suis chawlwala? I just don’t know!

When a girl from a chawl topped the CA exam in recent years, it was big enough news for India Today to carry a photo feature. Nowhere was it anybody’s contention that she achieved this because she lived in a chawl. Rather it was noted that she achieved this in spite of being a chawl dweller. Do we hear of chawls being recommended as the ultimate aspirational residential product on the market because of her achievement? Is it anybody’s claim that Social is celebrating and acknowledging in its new theme the lives of its patrons who actually come from chawl kind of homes? That would indeed be about inclusive design and being an inclusive community that acknowledged all forms of social solidarity, as created by different built forms. But of course that is not how things are.

A chawl as home is loved, as every home is, by its residents. All homes deserve respect in real time, not a caricature like Social, Gurgaon. How many of us can honestly admit that anything remotely connected to a chawl is an aspiration or a tradition for most of us who visit places like Social?

If you had a colleague who lived in a chawl and he called you home for a drink, would you go? What then is the imagery and nostalgia and material culture of a chawl that the Social design team has tried to imitate? Is it anybody’s contention that clothes hanging out to dry overhead as you sip expensive imported wine on a cast iron chair in the balcony at Social is a new aesthetic turn?

What is the point of the names board? Is it not a mockery then to use the chawl theme to denote community and the spirit of convivial socialising?

Andy Warhol wanted to make the public go with that “Mmm Mmm Good” feeling on seeing his Campbell Soup posters. What feeling is Social wanting to evoke? If it really was inspiration and admiration or even nostalgia – why only the façade and entrance area are done in that way? Why is the main eating and socialising area all done up with crystal decanters in teak-and-glass cupboard and off-white lampshades diffusing pools of yellow light, and plush sofas and soft curtains?

Never seen those in a chawl, have you? Oh, but then I forget, you have in all likelihood never been inside one. Borrowing existing elements and reappropriating them in new forms is a part of art, and human existence.

This how we retell old truths as new stories. But not all borrowings are beautiful or meaningful. Some are horrendous abominations, and to me the new Social design theme is one such miscegenation.