I am two weeks late, by my own rules, for the monthly book report for May. The first and only time I am allowed to do this. (Promise to self).
Knot for Keeps – Writing the Modern Marriage. Edited by Sathya Saran
Any attempt to dissect and discuss marriage is bound to be mired in complications, contrasting viewpoints, and dollops of hope and despair. Pretty much like the thing itself, it can follow no simple trajectory or denouement except a clear beginning and an uncertain end. So this book is an ambitious project in every way.
It gets sixteen writers together within its well designed, prettily packaged and bound pages, offering readers different perspective and stories on marriage. In that diversity of approaches, content and concerns, readers can find plenty of information and insights, and possibly a connection to their own unique situation vis a vis the idea and practice of marriage.
The stories, essays and a lone poem together offer a general overview of the modern state of marriage, and at times the telling is refreshingly at variance from the more popular presentation of coupledom in entertainment and art.
Sharanya Manivannan leads us into the book with a stellar essay that both questions marriage and posits the singledom as a state of arrival. Most poignant, incisive and deeply personal, this piece asks us to reconsider the idea of pairing as the default adult mode of existence. As she says, ‘…the first thing I must tell anyone about finding a meaningful paradigm for an unpartnered life : It is possible’ …..’Consider the absurdity of the term ‘pre- marital sex’. What is that except the presumption that sex before marriage is out of the norm because marriage is an eventuality?’
The book ends with an assessment by Vijay Nagaswami, of the nature of the recently emergent New Indian Marriage and its participants, the New Indians. Based oh his work with couples he holds out hope of a uniquely Indian response to the changing contours of individual expectations in the evolution of marriage.
In between the challenge posed to inevitable partnering in the first chapter and the hope held out in the last for an evolution to a better form of marital bliss, there are varying shades of marriage stories shared.
Milan Vohra‘s recounting of a husband and wife’s breathless, racing complaints against each other entrances us into their love story, only to leave us achingly heartbroken in the end. This story captures beautifully the ‘gusse mein bhi pyaar’ notion in its most positive expression, in my view.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and Chitra Viraraghavan offer us fictional glimpses of marriages navigating infidelity and incompatibility, but the absurd games of one-upmanship the stories move through are not too far fetched for many a real real life marriage as well.
Neha Dixit’s piece on the rigmarole and harassment that goes with a ‘court marriage’, specially in the case of ‘love’ marriages of interfaith and intercaste couples, is something Hindi films never show.
Abha Iyengar writes with searing pain about the lot of a girl of a certain age in our culture, where her marriage is deemed more important than her selfhood.
Further heartbreak, as also warmth awaits us in the real life story of a married couple living with the foreknowledge of death of one partner, cherishing each other and their time together. (Rita Mukherjee wrote this piece and did not live to see the book in print).
On the other hand, Noor Zaheer’s piece lays bare the inherent biases and blocks to the dissolution of the most prioritised and protected of social and religious institution – that of marriage – across cultures and political systems even today, with her focus in particular on the struggles of Muslim women.
Wendell Rodrick’s touching personal essay on same sex couples being forced to the margins of love and legitimacy is another pointer to the long march ahead in the transformation of marriage towards something more just, equitable and in keeping with the progressive individualistic values of the modern world.
Not all is serious gloom and doom though, in a collection as varied as this. There are essays on the imperfect pairing of a chhottoo and lamboo as the Hindi term goes, the winning over of relatives and their prejudices in a Bengal-Punjab pairing, and the choice of marrying late and finding it surprising suitable and enjoyable, after being opposed to the idea of marriage for years. There is the heartening story of Aparna Sen’s marriage to Kalyan Ray as told by the husband – a long distance second marriage for both, of over two decades, across continents.
On balance, this is a book for keeps, for reading in small doses and large, as mood dictates, and thinking over, as your married or not married life throws curve balls at you. I wonder if the absence of a divorced or widowed contributor was a choice or an oversight. After all, what the once married and now single have to say about the modern marriage is also an important reflection on the subject.
It was at a casual lunch on a Sunday five years ago that Rajat Batra surprised and honoured me, by inviting me to the governing board of his fledgling Not For Profit, STENUM Asia. I have always been keen on Renewable energy and a cleaner world but I am not a professional Environmental scientist. To be asked to serve on the board of a pure science consulting group along with hard core scientists and engineers was something entirely novel.
Over the years I have watched as Rajat, Sanjiv Bhatia and the rest of the board, and our small but immensely talented and dedicated staff built that dream from a couple of small projects to a world class consultancy that is respected and looked up to as an expert its specialised field. Along the way I have learnt and grown as a person just being in their company. My grey cells have new ideas to chew on, with every meeting I attend. the beginnings were small, and pretty much like any start up, we didn’t have resources for the extras like a proper office at all, and then we graduated to a basic kind of a place. We hoped one day to be able to make it to a workplace which felt better in material terms too.
It has finally happened, I am delighted to record. Last month we shifted into a new office, but I was out of town, and missed the inaugural party. Today was the first time I attended a meeting in our newly settled, cleverly designed office. As a resource and energy efficiency consultant committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we have tried to be the change we help bring in the world. Be it in our sensitivity towards use of electricity, use of natural light or keeping ambient greenery in view, and minimising use of embodied energy in materials used, or mindfulness towards reuse, recycle and reduce principles.
The rope hung, adjustable height foldable worktops are designed by another friend and well wisher of the founders who is also a leading product designer. The exposed brick partitions are low cost and extremely pleasing to the eye, and bring an ageless charm to the space. And most of this beauty, ergonomic efficiency and comfort in a rental space can easily move with us, if and when things come to that. And it didn’t cost a bomb at all.
This new office is also where we officially launched the business entity we have been planning to branch out into. With SUSTENT consulting Private Ltd. we now offer all the expertise of STENUM to the B2B commercial segment as well, in areas of energy audits, clean production and resource efficiency.
As always, we help keep your enterprise and our world healthy, wealthy and green.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 :
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.
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.
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.
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.
The October 2017 Book Report.
(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.
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.
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.
It 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.