Sunday, December 16, 2007

Did you bandh the batti?

We did. For a whole hour. It was great fun because n loves power outs - since, thank god, they happen relatively rarely, and because the candles come out. So we put out the lights, burnt the candles, and turned off the tv, laptop, etc. We chatted like in the old days, mom and me, before comps and tvs happened.
I realized that I could bear the lights being out, and the fans being off, the phone being off, but what I couldn't take, finally, was the laptop being off. We've got used to such 24/7 connectivity, with a constant state of activity, that I really, truly felt like a drug addict on cold turkey. My fingers literally itched and I kept wanting to switch on, to just surf a bit, a teensy bit, I'm mean who'd know... But I'm proud to report, I didn't!
Anyway, the Batti bandh campaign - though well-meaning - seems a bit overoptimisitx, if you ask me. One hour of power-saving will save the planet, reduce global warming, save the beaches, etc. etc. I don't think so. It might have conscientized people - which it sadly didn't in any large, mass sort of way. It held the promise of becoming one of those post-Rang-de-Basanti campaigns (like the anti-reservation stir) where everyone hopped on largely because it seemed like such a cool thing to do. Everyone - and here I count myself in too - fwd'd madly and hopefully - but finally nothing much happened. I wonder why.
I was a bit sceptical - I mean what does one hour of switching off do? Actions towards saving the environment have to be more comprehensive, holistic and regular. So I loved what Sampath, the books editor at DNA wrote when I fwd'd him the mail (he's put it so well, that I simply have to quote him):

I am sorry but this one-hour thing- even if it is totally voluntary - seems to me only a smoke-screen that hides the real issues - our unfettered industrialisation, obsession with 9 per cent growth, investment in stock market (how can your stocks grow without the economy growing? and how can your economy grow without more of global warming caused by more industrialisation?), our refusal to respect or even tolerate subsistence economies wherever they are - our exporting of alternative ways of living and thinking (the tribals, for example) into the past as outdated.

then there is our patronising attitude towards all that is not 'cool' - and 'cool' is really a marketing invention that is tied up with global warming - ironic as it seems - right from tata safari dicor to rock concert in a flood-lit stadium, this sounds just like a silly rant here - but if i get some time off from not heating up the globe - i can elaborate on it. this is just a response - on the spur of the moment. nothing personal.

So there you are. Angrily, but succinctly put, I thought. I fully agreed with him, especially the bit about people only attaching themselves to 'cool' issues.
Only this: forget about global warming (towards which NOTHING can be done bec of all the problems mentioned), but if people can just conserve a little power, and hopefully it will be mapped by the BSES, then I think that it might be at least a few steps towards - well, power conservation - and nothing more!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Baby on beach with crabs

Finally took a chhutti - a small one - to Goa. And came back riddled with mixed emotions as usual. I know abject poverty is terrible, but I can't help wondering whether tourism is the answer. There is something about a subsistence economy that is so ecologically sound and fundamentally dignified, that almost everything else - and tourism for sure - pales in comparison. I know this is an extremely simplistic way of looking at the situation, but honestly, when you see the way resorts and gated townships are gobbling up land in Goa, you can't help but feel a bit reactionary.

We usually stay in North Goa, where pretty much everything has been converted into a resort already. So you get an after-the-fact sort of feeling - like you've reached the place after the deed was done, and the body was packed up and put away. Everything looks a bit jaded, with an air of forced, but fairly robust cheer. North Goa makes you forget that Goa has an ecology of its own - both cultural and geographic. You just feel like you're in a city with a magnificent view.

Which is why the first time we were in Goa, when we took a day trip to the South, we loved it. The sand was white, the air was fresh (none of that nasty smell of the dieselly power-boats), there weren't too many resorts, and there was a sense of Goa with complete, unbridled green, and squat, healthy little villages. The sole GTDC resort stood stolidly on the beach.

We went back this time, after three years, and things had changed. The power boaters were there, stinking up the air and oiling the water, and offering you 'dolphin rides'. There were tons of small, ugly resorts. Suddenly, it was Calangute again, without the milling crowds - for now.

And there was a new vulnerability around as well, a certain fragile air - because small fishing villages were clinging on to the fringes of the land not bought over by the resorts as yet. We saw this in many places: great Uglinesses of concrete nestled in clumps of green. There's nothing even remotely after-the-fact-ish here. It feels as if you're standing by and watching a murder; sighing even as they gut the body while it's still alive.

The village near our resort seemed sturdy, though. The houses were spacious and prettily painted, and pigs, roosters and kids frolicked around. (Early in the morning, the cock crowed - I'm sorry, but this thrilled me beyond belief!) The five or six large houses which made up the part of the village that we could see were literally squeezed between resorts, the Railways guest house and the Indian Oil one. It made you wonder how long the villagers would be able to hold out, and once they sold, where they'd go, what they'd do, and how compromised their lifestyle already was.

There were large smelly dumps on street corners and en route to the beach. When
we suggested that the nearby hotels could get together and clear them regularly, we were told "we do that, but the 'locals' keep dirtying it." Aside from being monumental cheek, it seemed untrue simply because most of the garbage was made up of mineral water bottles and plastic bags. Which seem more touristy in nature, and obviously tourists come to resorts, don't they?

When I hear people talk about Travel (yes, important enough in our mags and papers to merit a capital letter) with
out reference to the human and geographical ecology of a place, I feel a bit surreal, like I've been transported to a Victorian text. I wonder for instance how the people of beach-side villages in Goa - who once must have been able to see the sea from their houses - feel about the sea view being a premium commodity now, accessible only to the privileged few.

I suspect it's just a matter of time before the rest of the village left near our resort sells up. Their resilience in the face of many offers makes them seem more fragile somehow... Our driver, for instance, spoke about how foreigners and other outsiders were buying up so much land that prices were escalating beyond belief. 'Goans, we were happy with small house and paddy field...' He seemed to imply that Goans almost sat back and watched the land being lapped up by others...

This was one level of feeling of course. Confusing me at the other was the sheer joy of being in a place where each sunset is a work of art. When people say 'painterly sunsets' they must mean those lurid shows put up by the beach and the sun and the sand at Colva. Seriously, it has to be seen to be believed - I mean, imagine a blue-grey sky lined with streaks of fluorescent pink! N enjoyed the sand with an almost devout fanaticism. She loved standing in the water as it pulled her - 'it's making me travel!' she'd shout. We'd be with her on the beach and keep telling her to watch the sunset and the huge, dome-like, pink-flecked sky, and she'd look up for a bit and then start her elemental sand-worship again. She found transparent, large-eyed crabs scuttling around and watched them in awe. It was beautiful, sad and then, beautiful again...

It made me feel that by bringing n up in a city we were robbing her of so much. Like my mom keeps talking about her childhood in her 'native place', and I think n wants to match up too. The only place she can think of with similar 'natural' attributes is goa. So the other day she tells my mom, "Goa is my netti place, and we have kolla-korzhies (water birds) there too." Try correcting her that a. it's native and not netti and b. it's not her 'native place'; and you are met with stern rebuttal!

Sigh, the eternal confusions of the liberal mind. Just aware enough to not be able to lose oneself and yenjaay, and too cowardly to actually do something about anything.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Came the dawn

So my 36th came and went quietly. Normally I feel this small giggle in my stomach around a month before the actual date, and it swells and grows into a giant laugh of excitement by the time that the day actually dawns. There is such an air of self-generated, fairly hysterical joy, that a good time is had – No Matter What. (Like Gouri says, since birthdays seem to be the only things our generation celebrates, we might as well do so religiously.) Every year on the morning after my birthday I resolve to grow up next year, to not make such a song and dance about it, to not do so much natak, and have a quiet sedate time. An adult birthday in other words.

This time, I had my wish. Most of my friends were out of town and Amit dragged himself in every night for the month before – looking exhausted and bleary-eyed. Not really a good time to drop generous hints about what I’d like. Plus there was this air of dread about illness and sorrow in a friend’s family, which left me feeling a bit singed too.

So there was none of that air of birthday breathlessness. But Amit rallied around manfully by taking me out to lunch, and getting me not one but three books (plus a Tony Ross story as a return gift which N had asked for pointedly)! Unfortunately, he had to go for a shoot in the evening, which left n and me at a loose-end, so much so that she actually asked me ‘Why no friends have come for your birthday, amma?’. Thankfully, Geeta and Hemant dropped in after a terribly hectic day with a home-baked pizza – saving me from n’s disappointment and making the evening a little more celebratory.

The three lovely books Amit got were all favourites: Candy is Dandy by Ogden Nash (which I’ve always loved, but been too much of a kanjoos to buy); Extravagoria a collection of bilingual poetry by Pablo Neruda, who I love; and a brilliant, illustrated book by Paro Anand and Atanu Roy called Wingless. Amit says he’s bought that last for himself, but I don’t care – he might as well have bought it for me, because I am a die-hard Atanu Roy fan. He’s an old Target hand, and something about his work – like Mario Miranda’s – makes my toes curl with pleasure. I don’t know about the writing in Wingless, but the illustrations are just too too delishyus.

So signs of adulthood so far?

1. No profound sense of excitement about birthday – see above.

2. A general drop in my vanity levels – I think one of the nicer things about having a child is the way it takes you out of yourself. Being a parent whacks you out emotionally and physically so much, that you (or at least I) simply don’t care about the Inconsequentials any more. I’ve always bordered on being careless about the way I look, but for the past three years, the greatest thing on my agenda has been catching up on my sleep, and holding on to the shreds of my back-health.

Like I said, though I’ve never been beautiful or terribly vain, there are always a few things you treasure in yourself right? Relatively nice skin in my case, and the fact that I’d managed to sort of keep a check on my weight problem for the past 20 years. And now here I am – as fat as I was in school (the biggest I’ve ever been) once more, and getting by without slitting my wrists, thank you. Never thought I could survive without the occasional face ‘clean-up, toning and massage’, but I have a weird rash that has made my skin unusually sensitive, and guess what, I can live without the facials and the clear skin. Never thought that I’d end up looking like my paternal aunts who always reminded me of variations on the White Queen in Alice with their big bones and weight problems, their weird skin, their hair loss (though I don’t know if you can call it loss if the hair seems to travel south to your chin!). But I often see them in the mirror now, and it doesn't devastate me as I used to imagine it would.

Now I’m just so grateful for every day that n and all of us spend being healthy and well; and for every bit of work that comes our way. Because I know that ill-health is really the worst thing that can happen to you; and that a violence-free existence with three square meals a day is a lot to be grateful for.

Sheepish admission no. 1: How shallow do I feel really? This was a terribly bitter piece till I did the math and realised that I was 36 and not, as I had thought earlier, 37!

Sheepish admission no. 2: Everything fell into perspective with a resounding thud when I suddenly remembered that it was at 36 that my mother, who was three months pregnant with her second baby then, lost her husband in a fatal motorbike accident in Kerala. She was always a blithe soul, forever joking, singing, mimicking people and generally being youthful, childlike almost, chatty and friendly, till this huge horrible thing happened. She had the baby, picked up every piece of her life, consolidated dad’s chaotic business, held on to her job as an engineer and brought up a confused, angry ten-year-old. And she never lost her smile, her sense of humour or her good cheer.

My gift to myself this year has been the realization (unlike before when it was a mere awareness, I think) of how huge a challenge it must have been for mom. How brave she must have had to be then to plumb within all that sorrow and the morning sickness to find the determination to go on. She too must have felt like an adult finally, losing not just her husband, but also some of her innocence.
Suddenly the world must have been full of sharks – some of them very close home as I remember – and life must have been full of negativity and pain.
Suddenly, at 36, she must have felt shockingly grown up.
Suddenly, at 36, my life seems more than full of gifts and joy.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

After many a scream-fest....

...Comes the laptop. It crashed on the 5th, bunging a spanner in my blogging chakra. And here's a word of advise from the new, bitter me: when you buy an HP laptop, beware. We were one day away from expiry of the warranty when the thing conked, and the fuss they made! Claimed that ours was a fake invoice; that we had logged a complaint 15 days before we bought the laptop, and hence our warranty had expired (go figure!). Anyway, sheer perseverance, angry phone calls and endless emailing finally paid off.
Meanwhile, it's that time of my life again. When I make desperate, foolishly hopeful visits to the nutritionist. Before I had N, weight loss and weight gain were both easy-peasy. Now the gain part of it is miraculously easier. The loss part is tough - it's almost like what I'm trying to melt isn't fat really, but some sort of soft, pudgy-but-determined cement.
I hate the diet - as I guess I do all diets initially - and will grow to love it slowly, slowly, only if the scales start to shift a bit. If, in other words, my waistline goes back to the large it was - as opposed to the gianormous it is just now. (Then of course I'll turn into one of those diet bores who go on and on bending people's ears about their miraculous weight loss plans and this lovely dietician they know!)
I think dieticians are the Used Car Salespeople of the medical world. I mean look at how they dress - most I've met are women, and are almost always so poshly manicured, coiffed, and clothed. Always with that sheen of tastefully-used accessories and make up. Plus (now don't know if this is true or just the bile of a relatively-empty stomach talking), they always have this chirpy, twittishly happy and confident air about them. Sort of to say that you have to eat this crap, but by god, are you going to love it! They have these desperate oh just squeeze some lime over it and even death would be yummy, kind of suggestions. I think the super chirpiness comes from the fact that if you cheat a bit on your diet, you aren't going to turn over and die. Or lose a vital faculty. Unlike other medical people who you go to with this ask-me-to-swallow-glass-and-I-will air of obedience, dieticians know that they have to actually sell you a suffer now to gain three months later kind of plan. Poor things.
I am not a nice person to know just now. Expect some turbulence, everybody - those I meet every day, as well those I see here.
As if to prove my point, here's what I found on Wondermark!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Who’s afraid of Barbie Doll?

I was. Still am, to some degree. What with the horrendous price tag, that pincer waist, those plastic-perfect legs, the general airhead demeanour (not to mention the toxic paint and glitter), the doll seems more like some rich paedophile’s fantasy than a toy. Barbies are structured so that they can't stand - their feet are arched exaggeratedly to convey high-heeled shoes. Way to go, doll-designers at Mattel. Let every kid aspire to grow to be a woman with a pretty face, big hair, long legs and no way to stand on her own!

Amit and I are official members of the Hate Barbie Club. We’ve always been. We were cussed enough to refuse my American niece a ‘Baahwbee’ and got her a tea set instead. When Amit’s niece wheedled for a Barbie kitchen set (“But it’s for my doll!
"), we bought her a book instead. When I think of those moments of adult bull-headedness now, I cringe.
As with everything, it took a child to change us. When n was a little under two, we caught her staring up at a wall of bubblegum pink Barbie boxes in a toy store, an unusual gleam in her eyes. She said she wanted them. We took down one box and – cleverly, so cleverly – told her that she could play with the box here, but couldn’t take it home. She’d have to give it back to the Uncle in the store. It was his.
She fell for it twice. The third time she went ballistic. “No,” she screamed, “I want to take it home!” Slyly, we distracted her and brought her back Barbie-less. It slowly grew into a rant, this Barbie craving of hers. The craving grew into an obsession, and we almost gave in, till our friend Geeta stepped in and got it for her.
N grabbed the blonde vision and went straight for the chest. She looked up at me in wonder and said, “It has babu, amma”. Babu was the word that she’d invented for breasts. She played with the doll all evening, making us wince a bit. Our kid? The Barbie fan? Ah well. Soon her aunt Vanya got her a second Barbie, an Indian version – nicely brown-skinned, dark-haired and all – a tad more human than the blonde vision. But still unable to stand, of course.
After about a week or so of receiving both the dolls, n had nothing to do or say with them. She couldn’t cuddle them, play with them, nothing. Too young to care about their clothes still, I think she liked the pink packaging more. When we went out for dinner or to the park, she’d insist on taking one of her ‘babies’ along – a motley crew of seven or eight cuddly dolls, bears and a My Little Pony (gifted by Hemant) – to show them a good time. But never the poor Barbies. They seemed the lowest in the doll heap.
And they stayed there. She’d smile at them occasionally, and gawk at the glossy Barbie ads on TV. But nothing more. Till I noticed the other day that both the golden and the brown-haired ones were out of the toy drawer. When my mom came to play with n that day, I realized the secret of its sudden appearance.
Granny and baby had invented a new game. There was a child-gobbling yakshi (Malayalam for witch) on the prowl, and all the fat teddy bears and dolls were at risk. Mom lunged at them, brandishing each Barbie in turn, and screaming, “I am the yakshi! I want to eat the baby!” N grabbed her nearest doll and scooted, laughing and screaming for her life and the doll’s. She rushed to me, flushed and excited, and said, “I saved my doll from the yakshi!”
I was surprised to see that Barbie – uber beauty queen – was named the witch. Why, I asked mom. She said that when they were planning the game it was found that n was ‘too attached’ to the other dolls. They had been named by her, and she didn’t want any of them to be made into witches. So the only thing they could find was good ol’ Barbie! Also, said mom nodding gravely, a yakshi has to be conventionally beautiful in order to draw unsuspecting people to her.
I think perhaps we – Amit and me in particular – fear wily marketers (and their choice of gorgeous bubblegum pink for packaging) too much. I don’t think we trust the average child’s robustness enough (or granny’s for that matter). Give them their Barbies, I say, and they’ll realize how useless the dolls are soon enough. Not cuddly, not believable, and simply not worth much love apparently.
(Maybe Mattel should come up with a Barbie in Macbeth? All done up in basic black with a broom and all. Might make the poor things a little more interesting.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Magic in the pot

Walked into the loo bleary-eyed last morning feeling bitterly tired (am not a morning person) and saw a gorgeous dragonfly on the door frame. It had lovely diaphanous wings and a red, lipstick red, deep scarlet body. Like a bloodied, aerodynamic dart. I called n and she dashed in. It was exactly at her eye level and she was thrilled. I wondered aloud why it had come there (because though we have lots of pretty birds outside, even owls, coppersmiths and golden orioles, I've never spotted a dragonfly before). So question asked, and big silence followed. I sleepily formed the thought in my head, 'It's landed to die of course, poor thing...' when n pops up with a "It's come to do susu." Of course, why else would it be in the loo?

This morning, she was shown a snail in the loo, a medium-sized, active little bugger with a tingling pair of antennas. Last night Amit spotted it on one wall (how had it reached the second floor, for god's sake?). It had circumnavigated the loo - if you can do that with a rectangle - and n spotted it this morning on the ceiling. Now she thinks of the loo as an extension of her park, Diamond Garden, with the gogalgaays and the dragonflys. (Gogalgaay is marathi for snail - I just love the word. So much more evocative than the English!)

Why the sudden influx of the insect world? Amit's theory is that maybe the white light of the new CFL is attracting them. Or maybe we've had them before but never paid them attention - this is the first time we're making a really big deal bec of n, our captive audience. You are welcome to add some of your own!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The penny drops...

For years I've wondered why librarians and figures of authority associated with books are so brusque with me. They LOOK at me, and in that instant, they seem to spot the inner space-cadet. I am rapidly filed away - I think - as the person most likely to read a book on the bus and dreamily leave it behind; the one who's going to shove a book behind the bed and leave it there two months after the due date; the one who appears to love books but seems to see them more as friends she can eat and drink and sleep with, rather than as teachers who you sit with primly at the table.

But I've never clearly understood why they hate careless people like me so. Stupid question of course. One with an answer that I am aware of intellectually, but am unable to accept at the emotional level. Put me in a large library with an ocean of books behind the counter, and I always bridle and cringe at the same time, feeling a mix of guilt and anger. Almost instinctively I start thinking, Shit, what have I lost
now; and

Finally I've sort of got a peep into the archetype of the librarian. I re-read Umberto Eco's
The Name of the Rose after many, many years, and had this eureka moment when I understood and - more importantly - accepted the Dirty Looks given to me by all librarians past.

Eco's book is a detective story set in a medieval abbey where monks spend their days illustrating manuscripts in a large scriptorium. The most fascinating parts of the novel (for me ) are the ones that dwell on the monks who illuminate the manuscripts carefully - with gold, silver, jewel-bright colors, strange figures and animals. The scriptorium and the library hold precious books. They are painstakingly hand-crafted, and are therefore irreplaceable and priceless.

The library at the Abbey is also a fulcrum of seething emotions. On the one hand, there is the fact that it is a cleverly-constructed lode of knowledge (it's built like a maze and only the librarian and his assistant are privy to the route through it). It is a store-house of learning, but there is a school of thought within the abbey which feels that while books are precious, what they contain is not suitable for everyone.
Knowledge and learning untempered by piety are considered dangerous. And intellectual joy and pride are both viewed with clear suspicion.

Plus of course, each hand-crafted, hand-written and hand-bound manuscript is a delicate treasure. Too much handling might destroy them. Effectively, the library is a place that hoards books for themselves and for the future. It is not storing up on them to help young monks broaden their minds (and perhaps their desires as well).

So the monks need permission from the librarian and sometimes the abbot as well before they can read a book. The young men seethe with intellectual curiosity and many resent the system of restricted access to the library. So much so that they are willing to trade sexual favours to be able to read certain books.
To frighten the curious young illustrator-writers and keep them from exploring the library at night, it is locked and hallucinogenic herbs are burnt. Rumours of ghosts-of-librarians-past are fed.

Central to all of this ferment is the librarian, a man who must be well-versed in Arabic, Greek and Latin to qualify for the job. He needs a prodigious memory and must guard his treasure passionately. The librarians are next-in-line to becoming the abbot and as the abbey is a rich, powerful one, the post is obviously covetted. Young monks and old lobby for the post. Eco's librarian, Malachi, is a clever creation - a complex man who is insecure, has power, is sexually promiscuous and not-very-learned.

I think centuries of not being able to be sure that what you write can and will be preserved in handy, sturdy hardback (or now, soft copy), has imprinted on us a fear of and adoration for the written word, and for the books where they are collected. Though often full of abstruse theological debate (which you can skim through shamelessly), The Name...
puts into perspective our general tendency to regard books as things that are to be prized, to be cherished, hoarded, and generally be considered irreplaceable. Printing has been with us for a couple of centuries, but it obviously hasn't penetrated our racial subconscious yet!

Coming back to my original point: The Name... made the librarian's anxiety clear to me. If books are fragile treasures, and if I were responsible for tens of thousands of them, I don't think I'd want the likes of me to hang around either!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Barn Owl's Dismal Capers

I was very excited when Suniti lent me her copy of The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. In fact it was around Hansa's birthday, and I wanted to rush out and get her a copy because she'd seen it somewhere and admired the drawings. Also because it seemed quite interesting to begin with. The bookstore didn't have it when I checked. And thank god for that. Because cross the first 20 pages, and the book loses its act completely.

The story is a retelling of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Here he lives in Calcutta of the 1700s as Abravanel Ben Obadiah Ben Aharon Kabariti. He records all the scandals of contemporary Cal - especially those of the British administrators - in a book called The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. Pablo, our hero, wants to find the copy that his grandfather had picked up once in Paris. At his grandfather's death, the book was given away, and Pablo sets about looking for it in Calcutta. He meets many people in the process and this story is a little about each of them. Interesting premise, interesting beginning, but somehow, it doesn't come together at all. And it goes on for a massive 280 pages.

The problem with The Barn Owl..., I think, is something that is common to many urban Indian writers (and here I count myself in too). We have, I feel, a multiplicity of stimuli, and we want to bring it all in. Unlike people who live in sanitized societies, living in India offers you so much everyday madness to play with, that you can't bear to leave anything out. And I suspect the temptation to do so is higher in a form like the graphic novel, since it's so visual and thrives on the kitschy, the slightly batty.

In The Barn Owl... it feels as if every thing that has ever struck Banerjee as odd or delightfully eccentric about Calcutta is brought in - irrespective of its role in the larger narrative. Yes, cities have their incredibly fascinating idiosyncrasies, but does it all have to come together, like, right now?

After a point, each vignette is treated in the same way. New characters are introduced and described and located every 5 or 6 pages, and then the story carries on to another character. You feel like there's going to be a crackling crescendo at the end, but there's just a whisper of drama there. In fact, hardly any at all.

It's all very wry and ironic, but finally, it simply doesn't pull together and become that convincing story.

About the visuals: opinion in this family is divided. Banerjee, though inventive and well-schooled in the storyboard-like delineation of a graphic novel, is not a skilled artist. His drawing is honestly a bit amateurish. Amit, as an artist and illustrator, can't tolerate bad drawing in a graphic novel, because well, you wouldn't put up with bad writing in a prose novel, would you? I see his point. But initially, I was like, ok, so it's not great drawing, but I'm all for democracy in these matters. Like, I loved the mixing of old photos of Cal with illustrations. And I admired the cinematic feel in general.

In a graphic novel, I can look at the drawings as being a part of the narrative and therefore not to be considered separately (unless of course the illustrator is so good that the work becomes art!). The bigger deal for me is the story. So long as the visual style merges with the story-telling, or at least, so long as the visuals tell the story well, it's ok with me.

At the end of The Barn Owl... though, I felt massively irritated because the story hadn't worked and neither had the art. It just seemed so self-indulgent and vapid. Amit has seen reviews of Kashmir Pending, a graphic novel published by Banerjee and he says it's a whole lot better than this one - at least in terms of skill. I certainly hope so.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Want to be put off buying books?

Here's how you do it in two easy steps:

1. Enter your local branch of Crossword.
2. Engage with any of the cretins on call - the sales staff. Their daftness, rudeness, lack of awareness, will make you want to turn and flee. Or it will make you want to do them such physical harm that the cops will have to lock you in.

At Crossword they've never ever given discounts (unless it's during an annual sale). Because, after all, you are paying for the experience, the aahm-bey-ahnce. What with the air con and the coffee-shop attached, suddenly, it seemed nice to be able to do frilly stuff while browsing for books. And what's a 10 to 20% discount as compared to that?

Where Crossword - like most chain stores - suffered a bit was in their choice of staff. They hired pretty kids - chirpy and bright as buttons, but they weren't you know, book lovers. Chalo, so not everyone lives to read, ok, and you put up with a degree of ignorance. In fact, till about 6 to 8 months back, the Crossword Ghatkopar staff was decent, vaguely knew where the books were, and were at least enthusiastic enough to try and find you stuff. And more importantly, they weren't rude creeps.

But recently, I think there's been some policy-and-management change, which has been reflected immediately in the quality of the people they hire. At least this is the case at the Crossword in Shopper's Stop, Ghatkopar. Boy, I never thought I'd miss the button kids, but compared to the new bunch of yobos they've got, those kids were great! We had a shockingly unpleasant and painful experience there two days back. Don't want to go into the gory details here, but suffice it to say that the staff were nothing short of crass, ill-mannered louts.

The dip has happened ever since the Shopper's Stop guys bought up the place. At least in Ghatkopar, the staff are: 1. lazy, and they don't believe in looking for a book beyond checking their database - and as everyone knows, databases are not always a perfect reflection of what's on the shelves (I say this because I've had this experience in a Crossword); 2. ill-mannered louts who don't have basic skills like communication and - I'm so sorry to even say this - decent manners; 3. just not aware of or or interested in books.

I don't blame them for this. But what were their employers thinking when they hired them to man bookshops? Having hired them, how about training and / or orienting them a bit? Or say, giving them a crash-course in basic courtesy? And one in understanding books - not the literary criticism stuff, mind you, but where they are stacked and how they are to be referenced on the shelves?

You go to a small book store like Fort Book Distributor or Strand or even our Chembur-station Jayesh Book Store, and you suddenly re-realize that hey, you don't need coffee to buy a book. Because you get decent service, a discount and generally, a pleasant feeling of being attended to. Mind you, the salespeople here aren't MAs in Eng Litt either. They are aware of what they have in their shelves, and want to make sure - or at least try - that you get what you are looking for.

I called the Crossword shop-in-charge later that day and complained. She was pained and appalled at her staff - I think. And offered to come over and apologize. See, this is where people lose perspective. Can you imagine the busy, highly dignified manager at the Strand desk offering to do something so daft as come over and apologise to a customer? No, because they do their jobs all right, and don't behave like jerks in general. Cussed they might be, creeps they are not.

I wish chain store managers had an awareness of what a bookshop needs to be to its customers. It needs to be no-fuss, it needs to be a wee bit generous, it needs to have staff who at least know where the goods are. That's it. Nothing more.

(Ooh, on a prophetic note, I had a dream, just two nights before this incident, that for some reason, a Japanese guy was willing to open up a bookstore with us in Chembur! Cost no issue, he said. I woke up to change n's soaked PJs thinking busily to myself: ok, we'll buy the paper bags which they make from recycled newspaper at Sevadan, and not keep any plastic, and have an old-books bargain counter. And what shall we call it... etc. I switched on the light in the loo and told myself to calm down, it was a dream. Blah. My subconscious is getting too literal. )

Friday, August 24, 2007

The pleasure of being slightly good...

Guilt is my constant companion. I think it has to do with listening to nuns for all of your school life, but I'm willing to lay the blame at other quarters as well - like my mom, for instance (who, interestingly, was also with nuns thru her school years), female hormones, or finally, reluctantly, my own demented self. Whatever its source, guilt drives me nuts, and because I'm basically not a doer, it sits and froths inside me like 3-day-old dahi.

My biggest bugbear in recent years - among other things of course - has been the amount we throw and how it clogs the world. More so now, since my recently-acquired small stake in the future, who just turned 3! Also, I did a piece for the Mumbai Mirror on rag pickers and recycling where I learned more about the Deonar Dumping Ground and the crazy task of segregation that rag pickers undertake at great risk to their health, for ridiculously low earnings. Then Amit got a look into the huge recycling industry in Dharavi and told me about the amazing amount of plastic and polyallsorts that land up there. It's staggering to think of what would happen to this city if Dharavi's recyclers stopped, or for that matter, if the rag pickers weren't so assiduous.

All in all, I was prime for the kill, but being a creature of great inertia, I was reluctant to take that fatal step and get the two bins; to join the ranks of The Segregators.

And because finally, two questions remained in my mind:
1. How to educate the bai and cook?
2. How to deal with the fact that the dust lady at the doorstep politely takes your two bins and pours them into one?

Ans. 1.: It's not rocket science - domestic help are smart and can pick up the ola-sukha (wet-dry in Marathi) funda quickly, especially if you discuss it and look over their shoulders a bit for a couple of days. Same goes for kids once you tell them how cool it is to be a wee bit concerned about the world. Failing that, wallop some sense into them (catch them young enough, and you won't need to - it'll become a habit).

Ans 2. Continue giving the wet garbage to the dust collector in the building, and collect the dry waste for about 7 days and give it to your maid/dust collector/designated rag-picker from Stree Mukti Sanghatana. 

What to do if the SMS doesn't service your building / area? Ask your help - your maid, your dust-collector. Chances are they would be happy to take all the non-recyclable, plastic junk your family generates in a week. They can sell it/barter it (for a pittance, mostly; plastic waste like tubes, plastic bottles, lids, etc., can be exchanged for things like garlic). You would be surprised at the amount of plastic junk your family generates - even if you are, like us, fairly conscious in your use and disposal of plastic.

Just be careful to rinse things like tetra paks and milk packets before you put them in the recycling bin, and don't throw things like broken bottles in there.

The BMC keeps threatening to make it compulsory, but I think it's gone the way of the ban on plastic bags. Poof! A nice little mirage that turned out to be.

At the end of the day, we could do tremendous service to rag-pickers and the environment, if, as generators of garbage, we segregated it at source. It's not hard to learn or do, and here's the Stree Mukti site. It's a collective of a group of women rag pickers, one of who can be designated to come collect your plastic on a weekly basis. The SMS people can also answer your queries as to what precisely is dry and what is wet, etc. You can also check this site for a ready reckoner on what goes into which bin!

Why am I crowing about my good garbage behaviour? Because it's the morning after n's 3rd b'day and usually I am wracked with guilt staring at the mountains of plastic that comes from gift boxes, glasses, packing, etc, etc. I still feel rotten looking at the amount we throw, but just knowing that we're being a wee bit more careful this time round, I felt a bit less tortured...

Segregating garbage at home teaches your kids to think about the city and its people and issues. It gives them a real sense of ownership about ecological and environmental solutions. I sometimes think that we Indians lack a sense of reaching out, of doing something simply because it is good-for-the-world and not asking the eternal what's-in-it-for-me question befor we do it. We simply don't do acts of selfless civic good. So I'll give money to the building religious event and I'll do x, y or z, because it directly benefits me. No, dude, honestly, being a responsible citizen benefits you more in the longer run!

Please pardon the soap-box stuff - it took me two years of inertia and thinking about segregating my garbage before I got my act together and started doing it. And hence the excitement!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Amit, Amitji aur Supremo

(Guest piece by Amit, le thinner half!)

People in the West use the term ‘fixer’ to describe what we call film / tv production here. ‘Fixing’ for international crews has taken me to some strange and wondrous places. Starting with Dharavi, to a mass wedding for  famillies of cotton farmers in Vidarbha, all the way to the sets of Ram Gopal Verma’s Sholay (or Aag or Matchstick or whatever it is called now). Some time back, I worked with a BBC crew for a programme called Imagine, where Alan Yentob interviewed Amitabh Bachchan over a period of a year.

I was thrilled to be meeting the great man, and we were introduced briefly, just before he got busy grooving to a butchered version of ‘Mehbooba’. I stood back and watched the 65-year-old Jai - Gabbar shoot for the song.

Months later, this Saturday, the same crew was back for a long interview scheduled with him. I had carried our copy of the Supremo comic with me. After three-and-a-half hours of a great interview (and some fantastic snacks from the chef at AB’s office), I snuck up to Mr. B and gingerly took out the comic from behind me. He held it close to his eyes, peered, and exclaimed, “Ah, Supremo!”

Then he excitedly flipped through the pages and saw the letter written by him to his fans after his critical illness. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Bhai you have to give me this!”
Being a fanatic book collector is not an easy job. You have to say NO! to people who fall in love with a book you have ever so often - and in this case, it was harder still, because like most subcontinental men of a certain age, Mr B was my childhood idol! So I politely refused to part with the comic, and Mr. B very sportingly autographed it. I promised to give him a photocopy instead.
Our valuable comic has just turned priceless – bids are hereby closed!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Mouse, My Uncle!

See when you need to think up a new lullaby every 30 days, you sometimes hit a dry patch. Which is when I remembered Munna bada pyaara / Ammi ka dulaara / Koi kahe chaand, koi aankh ka tara. N loved it, especially the part about her being my star. But then Amit said, you know this is a Goan song na? And I was like, no, no way! I'd always imagined (is this a real memory, I don't know?) a Lukhnawi setting for this song, with a sweet mom and a Daisy-Irani type tyke. To think that it came from Goa was most baffling. So we called John, Amit's pal, and once he sang the whole song it sounded unmistakably Goan! The words, combined with the lovely, nasal sounds of Konkani, were soooooooo sweet! The original song goes like this:

Undra mojea mama,
aik aum sangtam tuka
mazorichea pillea laguim khell manddi naka.

Undir mama ailo,
ani pette kuxik liplo
mazorichea pillean taka eka ghansan khailo!

Which is:
Mouse, my Uncle,
Listen, I’m telling you:
Don’t try playing with the cat’s little kittens!
Mouse Uncle came
And hid under the trunk
And the cat's kittens ate him up in one mouthful!

John summed it all up for me by saying, "Bohot kadva philosophy hai!" True, of course, especially when it's said in John's cool, Cheera Bazar style. I think that's true of most kiddie songs in Indian languages – punches are rarely pulled. Like this Gujju song Amit sings for n:

Ek bilaadi jaadi
Eine peri saadi
Saadi peri pharva gayi
Talav maa to tarva gayi
Talav ma hata magar
Billi ne aavya chakkar
Saadi chhedo chhuti gayo
Magar na mooh maa aayi gayo
Magar billi ne khaee gayo!

Which is:
There was once a fat kitty
Who wore a pretty sari
Wearing the sari she set off for a swim,
Seeing a pond, she jumped right in!
In the pond was a crocodile
Kitty felt faint seeing his smile!
The sari came off in a pile
It was snapped up by the crocodile,
Who quickly gobbled up poor kitty!

(The translation has been beefed up a bit to make it rhyme – and because I know Gujju more than I know Konkani!)

I think it’s so refreshingly different from the whole Anglo/mainstream Hindi film tradition which tends to OD on the sweet.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


To fulfill my craving for robust Gujju veg food, Amit and I decided to go to Rajdhani, the new branch of the Opera House place in Ghatkopar. The first time we were thrown by the size of the Gujju mob outside who braved the heat and the rain to eat authentic Gujju food that they could, yes, eat at home as well. This time there was no crowd, and so we were happily set to sample their Kathiawadi cuisine. Amit was knife-keen, given that he’s from Kathiawad. But sorry, no specials, only the thali.

I've nothing against thalis, except that they are too fast-paced for me at times. But this one seemed ok, beginning with Surti Patiss and Khandvi. The meal went along at its usual clip, and slowly, very slowly, the surreality began to creep in. For one, we noticed that the waiters were using some strictly-coded, Stock-Exchange-type hand signals to communicate with one another. So the manager’s fingers twiddling magically as he chatted with a patron meant ‘Finger-washing needed here!’ If the captain (a tall, nice-looking Kathiawadi with earrings and a spaced-out manner) snapped his fingers in the air and held up three fingers, it meant ‘table three, rotlis!’ It was all very complex and entertaining, especially because I think it was meant to be discrete, but fell short by a couple of kilometres!

Then, as we chomped through the rotlis, mug ni daal, chaas, kadhi and ringna nu shaak (fantastically robust brinjal bhaji), there was a weird banging noise and people yelled loudly and discordantly. Whatthehell!! Were they coming for us finally? We turned in a panic and were surprised to see normal, smiling faces.

After this happened twice, we finally figured out what was going on. See, there was this gong, positioned cleverly at the narrow doorway, and planted firmly next to it was the solid manager. As you tried to leave, he’d tell you, “Hit the gong!’ So you struck the gong, and as soon as you did that, all the waiters – each and every stressed-out, harried, thali-serving, partitioned steel vessel-bearing fellow – would let out a loud ‘AAVJO!’ Nice way to keep up employee morale and self-esteem; and to interrupt any stray thoughts or talk that lunchers might dare to have.

After that, we were merely chewing between gong-watching. To please us, a family of gujjus left, laughing merrily and cheerfully and sounding the gong many times as they left; yelling out ‘AAVJO!’ in reply to the waiters’ continuous, raucous bellows. A five-member mallu family was next to leave, and I swear I saw the first guy try to sidle out. He made it past the Gong Meister, but the next guy got caught. He gave the gong an insignificant little tap, and scooted away. (Next to the whole shebang was a large sticker that said, ‘Mazaa aaya? Thali bajao!’) It was all too bizarre.

I hate places that take a simple, nice, enjoyable thing like having a meal and make it into an exercise in showy dementedness. More hip places – like a coffee shop in Delhi, I think – have employees break into dance down the aisles. Why? Are we toddlers who should be kept amused as we feed? Do we need gimmicks to camouflage any part of the food experience? Or is this how consultants earn their fat bucks? Is Dilbert – as I have long suspected – the truest mirror to the mess our civilization is in? I can just see evil HR consultant Ratbert thinking, “Okay, so how do I make a waiter’s life a little more difficult today?”

Did we have to sound the gong? No, thankfully, our excited daughter did that for us. The manager hoisted her up and she struck one, and somebody yelled out a tepid 'Aavjo!'. She was truly taken by the madness of the whole thing, though, and was grinning ear-to-ear.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Blame it on the rain...

Such as it is, the monsoon has begun taking its toll on me. My fragile resolve to eat sensibly and shed some excess baggage has been shattered. Something about the rains makes me long for chaats (as in the dilli ones - aloo tikkis and papdi chaats, and the squishy, wintry sweet potato chaat you get outside Desmond's house in CP). Longing, lingering, lolloping thoughts of chat-pata sinful veggie food - the gujju kind, the marathi kind, and the debauched northie kind. And oh, the A-1 samosas at GK in Sion, with their madly tingly chhole. Strangely, for a confirmed carnivore like me, the thoughts are all about veggie stuff...

So I bought a packet of Kurkure, and ate it, hating myself. If things go on like this, I might be reduced to the Monaco-biscuits-and-tomato-ketch combo of yore...

What do the rains make you long for? (And it doesn't have to be just food!)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Oddballs, seedballs and Monet

Reading about BMC making people sign a petition for a toilet in the face of criticism from the Heritage Committee. So much bally cheek that is! This is the same corporation which doesn't maintain the gardens, loos, or municipal pools that it already has... The same article mentions a loo two minutes away which is in a dilapidated state. Why isn't that being renovated with some of the 50 lakh rupees being spent on this new one (by, not to miss, a 'kindly' builder)? Why must everything we do be so narrow in vision and focus, and so exclusivist somehow? Why is it either the loo or unspoilt heritage? Why, for once, can it not be both - so that one is not sacrificed for the other? Why are we perennially at war with ourselves? Shouldn't the city - with its precious monuments, mudflats, salt pans and its fragile green cover - come before interests like those of builders, babus and other fatcats?
Deep breath.
Ok, also found this blog thru a link that Hansa had sent. It's about Guerilla Gardening - the only way for us to go in this city, I think ! GG is where - if you're green and you care for the city - you use clever, fairly secret things like seed balls (aka seed bombs!) to convert vacant lots into gardens! Ha! Sucks to you, State!
And also on this site, a peek into Monet's beautiful garden - it's like so much ambrosia for the eyes!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Spinning, spinning!

n's realised that if she shakes her head back-n-forth and back-n-forth, almost like she's spinning, she sees multiple images of surrounding objects. on the day before, as i was wiping her hair, inevitably shaking her head, she looked up at me and said, "all aniammas are coming!" then she shook her head in front of the teddy and said, "all teddies are coming!"
now life is full of the wonders of multi-vision (is that what i should call it?)...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Girlz and the Good...

When I was young and giddy, I read Linda Goodman. No, I didn't so much read her books as I inhaled them, walking around in a psychedelic cloud of weird, astro-erotica, well-cushioned in mellow marketting... I usually read up Scorpio-Taurus and Scorpio-Aries and all those more exciting ones, and felt this delicious frisson (shows what a loser love-life I had, dunnit?). Finally, out of boredom one day I read Scorpio-Gemini and shuddered. It sounded scary. Well, why wouldn't it? My mom's Gemini. Avoid Gemini men, I sternly instructed myself; Linda Aunty says they are too different. Then I grew up, grew out of Linda, and much later, met Amit; full-blown Gemini, with his birthday a mere two days away from my mom's. Resolutions never work, and here we are.

Suddenly, after all these years and so many lessons in life later, I thought of the uber-trashy Love Signs yesterday. Why, you ask. Well, we're making a Big Buy, the first time we're getting into a loan situation, and I am all a-twitter. To say that I am risk-averse is to merely skim the tippiest tip of the iceberg. I am not cautious, mind you, I'm just superstitious and terrified of money matters. And Amit isn't just my diametric opposite; he's not just more confident in the process than me. He's positively blithe. He has faith in people, that they won't gyp him; that if we do enough ground-work, we can't be gypped. See, that's where we differ. I know the universe is out there, waiting with an anvil to drop on my head as I pass under a conveniently-located cliff. No matter what we do, I know we're going to be robbed blind, and - shudder - I know we don't have what it takes to stop Them.

So after nearly two months of obsessive, mind-numbing research, worrying and fretting (these last two on my part alone) and fighting (again, mine was the main voice), we finally did the deed yesterday. We came home, after the whole soul-sapping exercise, me feeling like a spent, limp dishrag, and Amit looking his cheery self.

It struck me then that he's this smiling, blithe spirit who hops from cloud-to-cloud, positive that their silver linings are at least a foot wide. I'm this dark, sulking spirit who lurks under the earth's crust, thinking bitter thoughts with a furrowed brow, and examining stray silver linings for the grey clouds attached.

The image made me smile. Till I realized that it has a touch of La Goodman to it. Clearly, you can take the girl away from the Goodman, but you can't take the Goodman out of her. And this on the day I discover that Surabhi has tagged me as a Thinking Blogger. I could have timed it better, no?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Magic - Soviet Style!

One of our first posts was on Russian picture books for children. Amit and I both read lots of Russian books growing up; and their images and words are still vibrantly alive in our minds...
My favourite book as a child was called The Rainbow Flower and it's vivid images and story stayed with me for ever - though I'd forgotten its name. Recently, I found it in a raddi shop to my utter delight. And now we've discovered that it's online too! I cannot believe that someone's had the love, the time and the sense of dedication to actually scan and put in the entire story accompanied by the book's beautiful drawings.
The story is simple. Zhenya, a 'good', if absent-minded girl, goes out to buy bread rings. She loses them (notice the dog nibbling at them) but is given a magic rainbow flower by an old woman. The flower can fulfill wishes, but each time it does, you lose a petal. Zhenya's wishes range from the desperate (getting her mom's broken vase fixed) to the slightly foolhardy (getting all the toys of the world - the pic shows lovely, cascading toys being sent back by a horrified Zhenya on the rooftop). But her last wish is the most useful and it gets her that precious commodity, a friend. The illustrations range from the dream-like to the very real. More than anything else, I loved Zhenya's character because she's not the most robust of fiction's kids. She's dreamy, clumsy, a bit unpopular, and a bit greedy. Zhenya was refreshing because I didn't have to aspire to be her; in parts, I was her already! Read the story and see more pics here.
There's more here too.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Swinging Summer!

Detail from an illustration for Timeout, Mumbai.
Click on it for a bigger view.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


It was not just mad, over-arching ambition that drove me to try the Betty Crocker pre-mixed cake.

I really felt like the universe was winking at me in a suggestive, encouraging manner. First, in a Bloom County strip Milo developed a crush on Betty, the epitome of American womanhood, and all that she stood for – clean living, mom, home-bakes, family picnics, a forgotten, pre-lapsarian America. Following a lead in The National Enquirer, he set off to find her and was shocked to meet a crusty, cynical broad, who actually didn’t know what a sheesh kebob could be.

Then, we found this amazing Betty Crocker Outdoor Cookbook at the FBD sale. It was printed in the ’60s and was spiral bound with a hard cover. It had lively, small, two-colour illustrations, incredibly cheesy text and lurid pictures of family picnics. And this totally chatty, Reader’s-Digest tone of happy bonhomie. Plus lots of recipes for sheesh kabobs and the like. The illustration for the ‘Outdoor Indian Pilaf’ recipe (An excellent accompaniment for beef… adapted from a famous dish of exotic India) was hilarious. Two dancing girls, bindis and loopy smiles on their faces, stood with their hips stuck out at an angle, and arms laden with plates full of rice. Sort of like slim, happy, pilaf-serving Kalis. And the book began with a letter from BC herself (Starts Dear Friend, Who doesn’t love eating outdoors… and ends with a flourish of Cordially, Betty Crocker). There was something reassuring about that cheerfully upright signature, like this was someone you could trust to take you smiling thru every cooking Situation. More about that signature later. 

My cousin got me a Betty Crocker pre-mix from Canada, and I was thrilled. Not because I knew the first thing about baking, but because, well, if you can't trust foriegn pop culture icons, I mean, who can you trust? I felt like I'd been delivered an industrial strength nudge in the midriff. That's why I went mad and tried baking.

In the subliminal way that we know most American icons, I felt I ‘knew’ Betty. I took my doubts to google and discovered that Betty was a phoney. Like the red-clad, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus. Of course. Thank you, Corporate America!

I giggled dismissively to myself and marched onwards and upwards to my almost-first attempt at baking a hopefully fool-proof cake... Of course, what I ended up making was Cake, With a Frosting of Dark Thoughts

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cake, with a frosting of Dark Thoughts

When I say I’m terrible at baking, I’m not being cute or coy. The recent cookie experience (see below) had me in raptures of triumph and joy because – trust me – it’s the first time I baked something that didn’t induce nausea and / or depression in those who tasted it.
Take cakes. I’ve friends who bake marvelous, light, dreamy cakes – and have done so since we were all 15. I’d smile indulgently at them and think, secretly, that some day, when I really set my mind to it, of course I’d bake just as well. I’m 36 now and dead sure I can’t. My cousins who were in their cretinous teens when I was a kid, used – I’m not kidding – an ‘oven’ constructed out of charcoal, sand, a griddle or a tava and a ‘Hindalium’ vessel to bake wonderfully soft, yummy cakes. So why can’t I – armed with an electric oven and an adult brain – get it right?
The answer lies, I think, in my inability follow the rules and to focus properly; and of course in my laziness. I look at a recipe, and I’m thinking, ok, what can I avoid doing here? Must I do everything by the book? Is there no freedom left? Being creative is one thing. Not following the dictates of commonsense is another altogether. In life and in baking, I think, I tend to throw simple, sensible ideas to the winds. (I can talk about my baking blunders; the goof-ups with life are too many and too mortifying to go into here!)
Recently, I thought I’d finally met the cake recipe of my dreams. It was pre-mixed; it came in a box; it was developed by the Betty Crocker company, which made up a whole fake woman, for god's sake. Above all, it from America, land of the lazy. How could I go wrong? So, grinning in an oddly frozen way at Amit’s deadpan witticisms, I surged forward. Everything went in (yes, even pre-mixes need some outside help apparently). I stirred and stirred till I could stir no more. To add to the pressure, n was ‘helping,’ so really, there was no room for blunders. Bunged it into the oven – for 25 minutes the box said – and lay back dreaming of n and Amit fighting over my delectable pre-mixed cake.
When the ding! sounded I rushed to the oven eagerly. I opened it and my heart welled up. Perfect! I smiled in gentle triumph. Finally I would be the baker of my dreams. I would become Betty. I turned the mould over and tapped the cake out. And died. 
While the outside was beautiful, inside, in the middle, was a weird, uncooked mess.
Bravely gathering together the shattered pieces of my earth-motherliness, I shoved the cake back into the mould and gave it five more minutes in the oven. And five more. And five more. And five more.
Fifty minutes in the oven and the damned centre cooked. It looked like a vital organ – a thick, lumpy mass – stuck inside a cake, but by god, it had cooked. I shook my head in exasperation and then looked at the box again. What had I done wrong? That’s when I saw it.
Betty Crocker’s Moist Centre Cake Mix. The uncooked middle was the frickin’ Moist Centre.
GARRRH! I'm not a bad baker; I am a space cadet. Talk about life-defining moments, I tell you!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blogward bound

For those of you who have been wondering where I am (thanks for asking, Surabhi!), here's the answer: I’ve been busy resting my back. If you can call it that, since resting your back is the one thing that keeps you totally non-busy. You have to devise activities to keep the mind occupied, so that it doesn’t turn nasty and implode.

As a way to stay sane, n and I have been doing lots of crafty things. We’ve made salt-dough, shaped little things out of it, baked them, painted-and-varnished them (or as n says, ‘niced them’) and then stuck magnets on to them. Then we’ve baked cookies. Which n feels inordinately proud of. Especially as she is gobbling them up. You don’t know what an achievement this is for me – the cookie thing, I mean. Usually when Amit enters the house and smells vanilla essence in the air he winces. I’m a disaster at baking. But I unearthed a cookie recipe that was totally Anita-proof. And n and I are busy baking now. We’ve even tried a whole-wheat substitute and succeeded.

We’ve also made cornstarch colours (haldi, beetroot, palak) and I shamelessly let n splash them on her sheet of paper and splatter the wall. I decided to throw prudence to the winds wall-wise because there’s no other level at which the two of us can have fun together (the last time we went out together was two months back; and I haven’t lifted her since she was 6 months old).

The other fun thing Amit and I did was a series of workshops we took with some kids for The Pomegranate Workshop. I did writing with them and Amit did illustration – during separate sessions, of course. This was the second round of workshops for me and the third for Amit. The sessions were great fun – they helped us open up a lot more too! And the kids were adorable. Bright-as-buttons too.

Separately, we both noticed something odd and disturbing. Among kids between 11 and 14, the boys are a lot more out-of-the-box with their thinking. The girls on the other hand, tended to do well while still playing safe. We saw this across locations. Strangely, this is true only of the 12-and-above kids. Till that age, creativity levels are the same – except for individual variations of course.

Could this be a gender-related thing? Maybe a phase girls go thru? Does co-education have anything to do with it? I read somewhere that girls in co-eds tend to under-perform and try to conform to gender stereotypes… I know this sounds regressive, but sometimes I feel being in a same-sex school gives you a little more freedom to be yourself rather than trying to be your gender… Who knows, yaar?

Anyway, I couldn’t take as many sessions as I’d promised the Pommies I would, thanks to the back, but it was such fun! Gave me a fantastic headrush of joy to: 1. be out, 2. be with kids, and 3. do stuff with them and jog their minds a bit and push them and get them to think and write! Did poetry with the biggies, which was more fun than I imagined it would be – and the kids were wonderfully charged – both girls and boys!

You know, I always wanted to be a teacher…

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Kurt Vonnegut died on April 12. A Man Without a Country was his last book and it ended with a poem called Requiem:

When the last living thing

has died on account of us,

how poetical it would be

if Earth could say,

in a voice floating up


from the floor

of the Grand Canyon,

“It is done.”

People did not like it here.

Thanks, Spacebar... Read more about Vonnegut here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Too much, too flawed

A review of The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf

(I don't usually put my book reviews here, but this once I think I really want to. A shorter version was published in the
DNA of Sunday, April 1, 2007. Copyright: DNA)

It’s one thing to possess writerly ambitions; to want to examine a complicated set of historical events and weave them into an interesting narrative. It’s quite another to actually have the ability to do so. Sujit Saraf’s The Peacock Throne has all the ingredients for an epic: a stretch in Indian history that is still fairly unexplored, and a multitude of characters. But the execution of the novel – its plot and characterization – is so uninspired that reading it becomes an exercise in endurance.
Starting in 1984 with the anti-Sikh riots, Saraf touches upon the reservation stir and the Babri Masjid riots, and ends in 1998. The usual suspects from Chandni Chowk people his book – small-time politicians, a social worker, a prostitute, a ‘fixer’ type, a chaivala and some street kids.
Everyone in the novel – rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim – is tarred with the same sternly cynical brush. Now if we must be told about the mercenary nature of human beings in excruciating detail over 750 pages, the writing had better be gripping. Saraf’s relentless cynicism, combined with his highly limited craft, makes for a crudely-executed, fairly disastrous read.
To begin with, his characterization and sense of structure are poor. His people are clichéd and sketchy – inexcusable in a novel of this size. Of the nine or so chief characters, only three seem fleshed out. They are Ramvilas the fixer, Kartar Singh and Sohan Lal. Saraf captures their idiosyncrasies in quick flashes. Which would be fine if they were the only people in the book.
But they are not. Gopal Pandey, the ineffectually-drawn chaivala, who the back-jacket indicates is the protagonist, is more non-negative than positive in a life-affirming way. Saraf’s description of social-worker-turned-journalist, Chitra, is again facile, clichéd and childishly cruel.
While Saraf is brutally honest about the Congress Party’s many sins, he is strangely coy about naming the BJP, preferring to call his party of right-wing Hindus the ‘Indian People’s Party’. If this doesn’t make you suspicious of his politics, his treatment of the Muslims in the book certainly will. They are uniformly venial, un-likeable and often, consciously dehumanized. In comparison, the IPP members – who incidentally set a man on fire during the anti-reservation stir – are almost flatteringly drawn.
Suleman Mian, the IPP’s Muslim rival in Chandni Chowk, is another alarming cliché. His world, when it is finally described, is portrayed so uni-dimensionally that Saraf’s total alienation from the character is obvious. Women and religious minorities tend to suffer in Saraf’s hands. Out of a lack of ability we sincerely hope.
Structurally, The Peacock… is divided into five parts. Between each, years pass and many life-changing events take place. These are almost always reported as having happened in the past. As a result, supposedly important moments lose their edge. And the narrative voice becomes an incessant, amateurish drone.
There are strands both bizarre and outrageous in the book. Inexplicably, Chitra asks older boys to show the younger boys how to masturbate, believing, for some reason, that these ‘demonstrations’ will protect them from being sexually exploited! Of course the exact opposite happens. There is an outrageous plot aside which has Suleman paying two Muslim boys to blow up Babri Masjid in case Kar Sevaks fail!
Predictably, the squalor of India is described with picture-postcard precision. It is so gratuitous that Saraf’s desire to visually titillate the West becomes painfully apparent There are, however, redeeming bits. Saraf seems to understand the many negotiations that the very poor have to undertake in order to survive. He also has an ear for the talk of politicians and a sharp understanding of the State’s gargantuan machinery. His knowledge of the Chandni Chowk area, and his asides on Sohan Lal’s attars, are interesting.
Some scenes stand out in the book, like that of Kartar Singh being chased by rioters at the same time as a young, hungry Gauhar. Saraf’s descriptions of mobs and their orchestrated fury, and of police collusion during the anti-Sikh riots, are chilling.
Perhaps if Saraf’s historical ambitions were smaller, his book might have been better. Long novels, when well-crafted, can be extraordinary. For instance, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, about the Emergency, was riveting, leaving you with a profound sense of loss and empathy. Saraf’s book leaves you with mixed feelings, chief among which is indignation that a tree in a sustainable forest somewhere died to bring you this tediously super-sized tome.

Copyright: DNA

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Suddenly, mommy!

Being two-and-a-half means that baby n is now aware that she has her own body, and is free to come and go as she likes. She’s been becoming more aware of that since she learnt how to walk; realizing, slowly, that she is mistress of her will and her legs. That awareness makes her happy, of course, but it also leads to some nervousness. You see, in her pre-walking state of mind, she and mommy were one – in true Hindi-filim style, carved out of one body, attached first at navel and then breast, never to be parted. So now along with the freedom of mobility that she celebrates comes the uncomfortable knowledge that mommy too has the same freedom, and can come and go as she likes.

When you’re three-feet-high and just learning to articulate your feelings (which means yell-storms every 45 minutes and contests of wills), this is a rather overwhelming thought. So n is worried about me in particular and all mommies in general. Does the goose in Jogger’s Park have an amma? Where is she? Does the pigeon have an amma? Where is she? Does Noddy have an amma? Does the child in the picture book? Anything that looks young and vulnerable, must be accompanied by its mother. Then the universe will be a safe place for babies everywhere, and n can relax.

And it’s not enough for the mom to be in the same frame – as in a picture or on tv. She has to be involved, doing whatever it takes to make n feel that the baby is safe. Like we have this xylophone-cum-book in which every page has the notes to a song, which is also illustrated. Sometimes she opens it and ‘plays’ each song, moving briskly and fairly tunelessly from one to the other. Last night I caught her staring worriedly at the picture of a song called Lullaby and good night, thy mother’s delight. It showed a mama bear who had apparently just finished tucking baby bear into his bed and was smiling down at him, affection oozing out of every anthropomorphic line.

So I asked, “What happened?” and she replied, “Where baby bear’s amma?” And I pointed to the ‘amma’ bear and said, “Right there.” So she stares at it some more and then asks, “Where she going to sleep?” Of course. Now I know what’s upsetting her. For someone who sleeps wedged prophylactically between her parents, the thought of a mommy ‘putting’ her baby to bed and then walking away is a crazy, nightmarish one. Especially as we all know that night is the time when 1. it’s dark. 2. bad dreams come, 3. there’s that scary thing called the moon lurking around!

Speaking of co-sleeping – or not – I spent a good year pondering over the Western concept of letting babies sleep alone. I swayed between ‘What a wonderful idea!’ and ‘How completely barbaric!’ It doesn’t work for me, but lucky are those who have the stomach for it!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

City of Fear

Robin, Amit's old friend (and now mine too), has just had a book published! It's called City of Fear and is one of the most sincere, readable and beautiful books I've encountered in a long time. What I like most about it is that though the subject is violence and after, there is no gratuitous show-casing of pain or trauma; no writerly celebration of cruelty. There is just a very clear, journalistic eye that records what it saw - and felt. Balancing all of that is the poetic quality of the writing. More than violence though, City... is about memory, displacement and the very real objects that one clings to in order to live and survive.

Unlike many writers these days, Robin's words don't tumble into one another; they don't become exercises in futile navel-gazing; and they are not there to make you drown in painful conceits. His writing is refreshingly pellucid. In many new Indian writers of English I find a fascination with wordy conceits, and little sincerity of purpose or subject (Sujit Saraf's embarrassing The Peacock Throne is a prime example). Perhaps what sets Robin's work apart is that unlike most of us he can't afford to poeticize violence, simply because he has been viscerally close to it. What a terrible thing to be grateful for.

Now that the book is out and has to be pushed, Robin has gone predictably coy. He's got a blog going at last (after 65,000 reminders). He promises to update regularly, to network and push his book a bit by having readings in other cities than his hometown Ahmedabad. So hopefully, City of Fear will come to a bookstore near you. Accompanied - hopefully again - by its writer. Do catch it if you can...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Time-Space Conundrum!

How complex the world must be for a baby! That's something anyone with any baby experience can sense, of course. But if you live with a toddler, you sense this allatime! Like when baby n loves a new place - jogger's park, goa, imax, anyplace nice - she often lies in repose back at home and remembers it. Then she turns to me and says, 'Where jogger's park gone?' I've never tried telling her that she has moved away and that jogger's park is where it always has been. So I tell her it's in Bandra, leading to the next inevitable question: 'Where Bandra gone?' And so on. It must be so tough to understand that the universe does not centre around you; that life is not an ever-changing parade of places and images arranged with you as the pivot!
The same goes for language. If walk is walked in the past tense, then send must be sended, draw must be drawed, and go must be wented. When people - and babies - learn a language (or acquire it in the case of babies) they tend to observe a rule, learn it and then overuse it. It is not a mistake, it is just them sussing out the language's rules and trying to see what works. In a while, they figure out things like 'exceptions to rules' and then get the required discretion to become perfect speakers! When n makes these mistakes, I just love it! I mean, how long before she throws a complicated new coinage at me and sneers when I say, "Huh? What's it mean?"
Speaking of nice places, why is it a nightmare to be able to access a nice public space in this city? Whole families are congregating in malls these days for lack of anywhere else to go. The parks that remain - like Diamond Garden in Chembur - are bizarrely anti-poor and anti-people. Recently renovated with corporate help, Diamond Garden actually doesn't allow people to sit on its lawns! Of course, there is no proportionate increase in the number of benches, and so you have people trying to sit on the park's play equipment (which is no great shakes, but let's not go there).
Try asking the people in charge why this is so and the biases start becoming clear. 'Arre, if you let them sit on the lawns, then they will get food here!' I don't see how that can happen because the guards don't let you bring in food anyway. Probe further, and you hear the words them and they used so vehemently and so often that you soon figure out who they are referring to - poor Muslim families from nearby Shivaji Park and Govandi, of course! They 'dirty' the space and 'annoy' the 'rest of us' so that around big holidays, the garden conveniently shuts itself down! We are also told that they have their own garden given them by the BMC; can they not stick there? Talk about wanting to ghettoize people!
Suggest that there are other alternatives than this sort of apartheid, that hygiene can be taught to the poor - Hindu and Muslim alike - that the middle class is equally messy and irresponsible, and that the city owes its people public spaces, and all you get is a big fat fight. In which prejudice takes top spot, I'm afraid.
In a city that is slowly cutting off itself from this responsibility, I wonder what options we have left. Where do the poor go for an evening out? To a mall? To an incredibly-expensive multiplex? As a parent I know how restless n gets with the same spaces. But where's the variety of open spaces in this city; what can you access without having to travel in killing traffic? If you don't live in a gated township with an enclosed park and pool, are you not entitled to these simple, inexpensive joys?
Between prejudice and the monstrous greed of the powers that be, the future looks bleak. Very bleak.

(Sorry, the post started with baby's sense of space and ended in public spaces - bit of wandering happened! But it's something I feel strongly about, so am not going to cut away and put in elsewhere!)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The laughter in her lines

Revathy Gopal - poet, friend, bearer of smiles and cheer and wonderful words - passed away earlier this month. I'd lost touch of late, though we'd been friends - good friends - years back when we both worked for a magazine. Rev was amazingly youthful. That, and her writing, and her laugh and her fondness for everyone in sight, drew me to her. It seems awfully trite when I put it that way. But truly, Rev was a sheer delight to be around. She could always make you laugh, always say something that quite took your breath away with its generosity.

It's hard to think of her as having suffered physically, of having died. But if anyone had a capacity for life, an understanding of it and a love for all the sensations it could offer, it was her. I wish I'd picked up the phone and called when I first heard about the cancer from Sampurna. I wish I hadn't given in to awkwardness; had called and said, 'Rev, I heard; I'm so sorry.' She wouldn't have gone all awkward on me. She'd have smiled that generous smile of hers and said something wonderfully affectionate.

Among poets, she was one of the best. And among the most underrated. Though she was such a genuinely cheerful person, her poems were sometimes astoundingly sad. But they also had a quiet sort of laughter in them, so that while reading them, you could almost see her smile growing slowly till it filled her face and made her eyes shine.

Here is one that I found online. Not my favourite or anything, but just such a lovely piece of writing.

Picnic at the zoo

Most of the cages are empty, now;
once there were civet cats, panther and jaguar,
even a family of white tigers from the Sunderbans
that made a splash of light in the infernal dark;
a black bear and a binturong
I remember particularly,
because of its droll name.
They died or were moved
to kinder climes, perhaps.
But when the kangaroos (strange import!)
died, one by one,
the local paper said they
probably pined away.

Somewhere between the orang-otan
and the peanut vendor,
she lies stricken in the dust,
Victoria, Queen Empress,
head averted in clotted rage
as pigeons strut
and cheeky boys clamber
on that capacious lap
from which once flowed,
the long tedium of empire,
the unending reproach
of widowhood, somewhere
a haemophilic grandson;
and the men who walked away,
father, husband,
a recalcitrant son.

Rev used to write for Chowk, a column called Free for All.

I wish I had met her before she died. Wish I had called. Wish I had made a trip to meet her - back and baby notwithstanding...

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Rev was how much other people loved her. I hope she knew that, knew how many people would miss her and treasure her memory.

More tributes - by Todd Swift the poetry editor of nthposition and by another friend.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Serendipity is a nice thing

Honestly, it is! Sampurna got us two really lovely treasures in the last fortnight. One was Down by the bay… which is adorable and delightful, and has given baby n a new love for nonsense… the book has lyrics which are easy to remember and especially, are easy to add on to! It goes Down by the bay where the watermelons grow, back to my home I dare not go / For if I do, my mother will say: have you ever seen llamas eating their pajamas, down by the bay? The last bit gets goofier and goofier till you’re tempted to think up your own most nonsensical collocation. It was found, Sampurna says, at a book sale in Hyderabad, and was one of those things you buy and think you’ll gift some kid, and then feel a bit possessive about as time passes and you feel that it’s starting to look good in your house! Well, I’m thrilled n got it, because we just love it!!

But the best find has been, I think, the other book that Sampurna got us when she visited one morning. A thin, not very colourful, rather moody looking picture book called Tuesday. Leafing through it quickly, I said something daft like, better not show it to n, she’s kind of prone to getting scared of dark stuff. Well, more fool me. Because as Sampurna and I started looking through the book more, not only did we get excited about it, but baby walked in and got all thrilled about the flying frogs too!*

Yes, Tuesday is a rather dark, bizarre-but-fun book about a night, one Tuesday, around 8 pm, when frogs, seated on lily pads took off and flew over small-town America. The whole treatment is one of sinister calm. Frame by frame the frogs lift off, startle some fish and a rather grim turtle, fly into a suburb, scare a dog, watch some tv, startle a late-night snacker, and then, with dawn, plop back into their bog and continue being quiet and grumpy. The next morning there’s this amazingly TV-like freeze-frame of a ‘crime’ scene. There’s an All-American ’tec rubbing his chin and examining some lily pads on the road, while the late-night snacker hysterically tells his tale to gawking reporters. And next Tuesday, at around 8 pm, the next lot of animals take off. They are flying pigs. End of book.

Thank god, whatever his reasons, Wiesner chose to draw frogs thru the books and not pigs. The pigs are funny, but the frogs are goofy, dreamy, mischievous, surreal, and a whole lot more!
What I loved about the book are two things: 1. every time you look at the book – and I mean this literally – you discover something new. Every time you show it to someone new, s/he discovers something else! Even the sense of the book takes its time unfolding itself. And the more you discover, the more your spine tingles with the geniosity of it all! Siiiigh. I think I’m in love. 2. With a subject like flying frogs, it's easy to go all twee. But Wiesner is realistic; grim, almost. And wonderfully moody. You'll read more about his reasons in an excerpt from his speech at the Caldecott awards. It’s delightfully insightful though a bit long. But your patience will be rewarded – especially if you’re in the book trade and interested in this sorta thing!

If you want to find out about Tuesday, click here, and to see the actual creative process here.
Moral of the story: Long live book fairs which sell slightly ratty books that seem - and only seem - not so exciting. Because that's where all the treasures are!

*In her book of poetry that came out in 2009, Sampurna had a surprise for us: a poem by her on n, and her love for this book. Here, after too long, it is!

For Nayana

Every Tuesday, the frogs fly off the pages of the book I meant for your parents.
And yet, you are the one who loves it the most, the epiphany of frogs as they fly.
Do you dream of them, larger than clouds or lily-pads, lighter than feathers?
With their eyes on the back of their heads, do they say hello, goodbye?

From Sampurna Chattarji's `The Fried Frog and Other Funny, Freaky, Foodie, Feisty Poems'

Once again, thank you, Shampoo!