Champagne & Caviar Woman

I’d say I am that woman. Not literally though. I don’t even like caviar. But it is the symbolism of the idea that I like. I think it gives an irrepressible bohemian tinge to my commitment to self-care. Today, when Gunjan Pant, a writer friend posed a question to her readers, I was reminded of the time I first thought of myself like this. Did we manage with mismatched leftovers for a meal if we didn’t have someone else to cook for, Gunjan wrote and wondered. Were we bread and sambar women, putting ourselves last, essentially, in catering to the needs and preferences of everyone else in our care? I was travelling on a much longed for, much planned for family holiday. We had already lost a week’s booking in Spain because of Visa delays. Those were high-pressure times for us. My son was almost nine years old, and my daughter almost two. I had a full-time job during the weekdays, and carried home lots of office work. I was chronically sleep deprived. I’d leave home before 8 am and reach back around 8 pm. After dinner, I’d clear the kitchen, prepare for next morning’s breakfast and tiffins, then get back to dealing with office work, before turning in for the night. I was struggling to keep everything in control, and was on edge all the time, because nothing would stay in control the way I wanted it to.
I was struggling to keep everything in control, and was on edge all the time, because nothing would stay in control the way I wanted it to.
I was a kind of superwoman wannabe, most concerned that my house be picture-perfect, my children be fed the most balanced meals, and their time be spent in the best-planned manner with the right kind of activities, interactions, stimulation, rest and recreation. My husband who had as busy an office schedule as mine, would somehow just slip into the relax-at-home mode once he entered the house. How he absolved himself of most ‘domestic’ chores by some automatic inherent programming, while managing to also gain a reputation for always ‘helping’ is one of the great mysteries to which I no doubt subconsciously contributed. We had only part-time house help and a part-time Nanny for the children. I wanted to relax, and yet felt guilty about the tiniest of self-indulgence.
How he absolved himself of most ‘domestic’ chores by some automatic inherent programming, while managing to also gain a reputation for always ‘helping’ is one of the great mysteries to which I no doubt subconsciously contributed.
Inside the airplane, the first in-flight meal service had started. Baby girl was in my lap, our meal aprons were in place, the tray table was open, and the pasta smelled delicious. My son sat separately from us, wanting very much to be a big boy travelling on his own. I lifted the spoon to baby girl’s mouth, and she simultaneously lifted the tray table up and slipped off my lap. As the pasta arrabbiata fell on her shoes, my lap, and on the plane floor, I tried to stop tears of helpless rage. Baby girl was howling and struggling to get away from the mess, but I was immobile. There go my grand holiday plans, and how the other passengers must hate us, I thought. That’s when the tall blonde senior air hostess saved me from myself. She picked baby girl up, and gently offered me a wet towel to clean my dress with. Then she told me to drop my soiled apron next to the seat, and she led me to the washroom, while she took baby girl off to the pantry area. Strangely, baby girl had stopped howling by now. When I returned to my seat, the air hostess was waiting next to my now spotless seat. “It is my job to make sure you enjoy your holiday, Madame. Stop worrying. Have a glass of Champagne. With caviar. Your daughter is enjoying her meal with the cabin crew. Then she will watch a film with her brother.” She held out a champagne flute for me, and pointed to a bottle of authentic French bubbly. The holiday had begun. This post was first published on my new monthly column OutLoud With Kiranjeet, in SheThePeople.Tv on 13th November 2018. https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/startedair-hostess-offered-champagne-caviar?fbclid=IwAR0VkRJOSxLrjYd701e8idKttFiIkuGniVANq-hW6w295eeNOLl-nxdzNHE
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September 2018 Book Report : Island of A Thousand Mirrors By Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera is the author of two books. The first, Island Of A Thousand Mirrors, won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region in 2013.
In this book, the story builds around the lives of a Sinhala and a Tamil girl in Sri Lanka, growing up in the shadow of simmering societal strife that soon turns to a bloody civil war. I was a school girl when news of the war in Sri Lanka used to be on newspaper front pages in India, but it was still always a far away matter, at least in our circles. Today, among most people I know Sri Lanka is a cool, more-affordable-than-other exotic location for a holiday. But apart from the holiday pictures of friends and family, and very cursory reading of some fiction and non-fiction about our neighbour, I was pretty much tuned out of any realistic contemporary story about the place and its people. After reading this book, I can never think of Sri Lanka just as a tourist paradise or a shopping destination. As I reader I relish Nayomi’s exquisite descriptions of Sri Lanka- the verdant beauty, the rich sights and smells of a Sri Lankan home, the delightful ocean. But now I can see it as much more than a stunning backdrop for holiday pictures. I can see it as a real place with people whose lives I can imagine – to the extent one can imagine reality from fiction.
Reading about the politics of war, even politics sans overt war tires me and enrages me, and I avoid books with such themes. But Nayomi’s book is not like that. There are no big heroes and no very specific villains in her telling of the story and no complex plot lines to tie up. She leaves the politicians and the war lords and their specific machinations mostly at the periphery of the telling of her tale. We meet the foot soldiers, the mobs, the ordinary man turned hero, the ordinary village girl turned suicide bomber, and we see them as humans in search of meaning, driven by love at times, and hate and revenge at others. Stark in-your-face brutal violence never leaves the reader for long in this book, and neither does a sense of beauty. We see the play of old prejudice, stereotypes and we see how they can be overcome or fed, even in the same people.
I am no longer the school girl who didn’t look beyond the headlines, and now I relate to the horrors of war anywhere as if it could be happening to us, to me and to my loved ones. I read about Yashodhara and Saraswathi and Shiva in the book, but I imagine many others… in Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, on all sides of the conflict, in every such conflict. I read about a family leaving their war-torn homeland, and settling into new lives abroad, and I think of the displaced everywhere, and their stories. In so many big and small ways, at so many levels, this book speaks of our times and our world, and about the universal nature of human pain and human redemption.
I would count this as one of the most necessary books on our times in my fiction collection.

AUGUST 2018 BOOK REPORT

I have been writing and reading a lot of women focused work the past two months. My essay on a related theme has been published in the WE Anthology Equiverse Space this month. I have been explaining a lot of stuff to my daughter about hidden bias and the erasing that women face in reporting on news and in documentation of our lives and times. This is also the time I have started work with a small group of women on exploring our deepest selves as beings, sans, societal roles and frameworks.

Most apt then that I also read Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant’s Feminist Rani (Penguin 2018) at this point, just after I finished Interrogating Motherhood by Jasodhara Bagchi ( Sage Publications, 2017; Theorising Feminism series). Feminist Rani is a collection of fourteen essays based on interviews with fourteen remarkable and often time pioneering persons from many walks of life. Most are well known names, a few somewhat less known. While I do think it is arguable if they are, as the cover tag line says, ‘India’s most powerful voices of Gender Equality’, it is no argument at all that these are vital voices that need to be documented. These are stories that need to be household talk in our homes, in our friends; circles, if we want to see a better dawn for all genders and gender relations.
The fourteen life stories come from Kalki Koechlin, Gurmeher Kaur, Sapna Bhavnani, Aditi Mittal, Tanmay Bhatt, Deepa Malik, Malishka Mendonsa, Ankhi Das, Aarefa Johari, Rohini Shirke, Rana Ayyub, Sorabh Pant, Shree Guari Sawant. Some of the pieces are written by Shaili, some by Meghna. The essays in the Prologue and Introduction by the two authors are also very direct, personal and jargon free. Overall the book is immensely readable, relatable and relevant. It brings the often times vexed topic of Feminism into the day to day discourse of life, and takes a very necessary pluralistic editorial approach to the matter. Reminiscent of Roxanne Gay calling herself a ‘bad feminist’, Meghna Pant’s writes, “India’s inherent heterogeneity has led to multiple patriarchies, which has led to multiple feminisms. Feminism in India does not abide by a singular narrative, which leads to dissension within ranks and outside. This weakens the movement. Even if my feminism is not your feminism, it is still feminism. We are united by a singular cause’.
The subjects tell their stories, and there are a series of common themed questions they authors ask them, and weave into the narrative. There are some revelations, some epiphanies and a lot to make the reader pause and ponder. The stories – honest, varied and memorable, will stay with you long after the slim and fast reading book is back in the shelf. As you read about how the fourteen people in the book resurrected themselves, found and spoke their truth, I hope you too will find in yourself a Feminist Rani, whatever be your gender. As Shaili Chopra says in the Introduction, “This book is a rich and powerful source of experiences and stories by people not afraid to be different, to voice an opinion, question current beliefs, and posit a new, more inclusive future. Regardless of their gender, complexion and sexual preferences, these people believe in equality of all. For them, feminism isn’t a poster on the wall, it is an unseen, empowering belief and force.’
And then, if like me, you want something more grounded in academic rigor, theory and history, there is Interrogating Motherhood. This slim and richly packed volume unpacks the complex construction of the modern day Mother archetype in India in the context of our past, Hindu mythology, social structure, colonialism and the Nationalist struggle, and does all this with the lens of Feminism as a global movement refracted locally. As Series Editor Maithreyi Krishnaraj puts it, ‘Bagchi’s contribution is an admirable approach on the joys of motherhood as against the agony of motherhood embedded in social structures. …A puzzle in the social construction of motherhood is the contradictory delineation: veneration in the one hand, and on the other hand, deprivation of actual living mothers of enabling conditions that would reward their dedicated service in bringing forth the regeneration of the human being.’ This is a puzzle and a paradox at the heart of my examination of my gender and its place and enactment in society, family, home and my own psyche, and this is reason enough for me to recommend the book as a must read.

Solo. Slower. Inward.

I travel slower, I travel inward. When I travel solo.
 
 
Yesterday a journalist messaged me to ask if I would speak to her about my experience as a solo woman traveller, and also share contacts of other woman who travelled solo. She was interested in Gurgaon residents only for the piece. It was fun reliving some of my experiences in talking to her, though I am sure she would have liked some more sensational or sound byte friendly stories than what I could offer. I also realised that so few of the people I know actually go solo when they travel. Women or men.
 
My solo travel experiences have been the mellow and miraculous type, by and large; never very newsworthy in clickbait manner. Also, the whole issue of ‘woman’ and ‘safety’ has not connected in my mind in a big way in this context. Touchwood. Actually I haven’t felt any different or been faced with situations too different on my solo travels than what we go through as a family, when we travel. In fact, overall, solo travel is far easier and simpler, for the sort of person I am.
 
I know some of you are going to say I must be super protected and super privileged or super blind to be able to say something like this. Maybe, Maybe not. All I know is that I have been super lucky to be travelling solo and to have the kind of experiences I have had.
 
Not that I don’t notice how my existence as a solo woman traveler in places where clearly I have no ‘work’, evokes certain questions, concerns and behaviours from others. But they are not my business to be bothered with. At best, I am amused or touched by the concern shown; at worst I put it down to just how the world is, and carry on.
 
Though I travelled solo for work for years, the almost agenda-less personal voyages of my more recent past have been the real deal, by way of a vital rite of passage to being my own person. I believe that travelling solo, to a more or less unfamiliar place, with a very open-ended program, a very rough itinerary and some loose ends, without a work agenda, minus a visiting so and so plan as the central purpose, is a wonderful way to get to know yourself. It can be transformational in the most pleasant, memorable and lasting of ways. I say this for both men and women.
 
When I was young I travelled with an outward focus. It was so much about the place I went to, the people I met, the things I did. Now, while all that is still of course part of the picture, I travel slower, and inward. It helps that being older I am more at ease with the novelties I might encounter. I have less at stake in being a certain way, in presenting a certain front or holding on to an image of who I am.
 
Not surprisingly, the journalist who messaged me was someone I met on a recent solo sojourn in the hills. She had been sent on assignment to the local bureau of her paper. I was breaking a long journey with a stop-over. We met and talked over lunch with the BnB host family, and she took down my name, saying she was interested in a few things that I was doing. Two months later she gets in touch again – she has this story to write and she remembers me, the solo woman traveller she met. She tells me that on that same assignment soon after we met, she too went on her first solo trek. A certain story lead had not worked out, so she had time on her hand, and the trail beckoned. She says a local tea-stall owner told her she was so bahadur to do this. I tell her how a sister-in-law called me Jhansi ki Rani for taking off alone into parts unknown, on my own. We agree there is nothing brave or warlike in this. And yet, we realise, as we talk, that this – you are so bahadur, you are such a Jhansi Ki Rani- is just the sort of thing so many will think is needed, when they think of venturing out as they are.

July 2018 Book Report

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Love And Marriage In Mumbai- Elizabeth Flock
 
This book had me intrigued. Its coverage in the press had me waiting to lay my hands on it. But having started reading it, I almost didn’t want to finish it, and almost gave up on writing this report. But then, a disappointing, baffling book too needs talking about. Maybe someone else has a different point of view, and will share that in response.
 
This book a hard one to classify. It is reportage, it is creative non-fiction, it is sociology, anthropology and ethnography, and all round confusion. Probably inevitable, given that the topic it covers is in the throes of some of its greatest upheavals and confusions. On top of that, it is written by an American, for whom Mumbai and India are new territory.
 
Elizabeth Flock comes to Mumbai, just out of college, and is fascinated by the filmy, ritualistic, larger than life notions of love and marriage she encounters. She wonders if there is something new and deep that Indian marriages and Indian couples in love can teach her. She is looking for such perspective in the shadow of her parents’ multiple marriages and divorces. And she has a book idea. About the kind of book she feels no one has written about India, about Mumbai. She decides to write that book.
 
Mumbai and its middle class are caught in economic and socio-political transformations. Middle class marriages seem to be going through tectonic shifts. It takes her almost ten years of repeated visits, months of being immersed in the lives and homes of her three case studies, and hundreds of hours of interviews and observation, to create this book. In the process she realizes that the impressions she first formed about love and marriage did not stay the same over time. This book is her deep deep dive into what happened to three couples through that period, and even before they became couples. There is plenty of show, and some tell, about their lives. But there is little else.
 
In the story of Maya and Veer’s surreal love affair and runaway marriage one sees a desperate grabbing for the fantasies of Bollywood. In their arriving at some sort of peace after experimenting with an ‘open’ marriage does one see pragmatism, or fatalistic resignation? Is Shahzad and Sabeena’s arranged marriage (and later issues with infertility, and a crisis of the man’s sense of self) the more typical case, closer to the reality of millions, and not just in their particular sect of Muslims, but almost all Indians? Ashok and Parvati are well-educated, professional, urban upper middle class Tamil Brahmins who get married through a matrimonial portal. Parvati is haunted by the memories of her Christian boyfriend. Ashok has never quite been able to hold on to a girl friend, and has a broken engagement behind him. Both understand that marriage is something that takes work, and that love is not always the best beginning for it.
 
The book opens with great promise, and feels unique and refreshing. But as the couple’s marriages grow and change, the narrative seems to drag, and get repetitive. The excruciating details and stretched out sequence of things tends to get boring, rather than interesting. I felt much irritation at typical ‘firangi’ mistakes in writing about India. Sharp and careful editing should have taken care to remove those bloopers. Also, Suketa Mehta’s claim on the cover that it is “Easily the most intimate account of India that I’ve read…” makes me wonder about how little he really reads about India, if at all.
 
All in all, the inside picture of love and marriage in the life of three Mumbai couples, as written up by Flock, is likely to fascinate Westerners. As an Indian having had my share of the laddo of marriage, and heard hundreds of inside stories of friends, relatives and strangers on the matter, I was left wondering as to the point of the book.

Book Report: May 2018

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.

New Office and Some News

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.

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.

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

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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.