Random musings of a wandering soul

The Company Of Words

E4619C69-6229-4333-9431-24F00A0D99B1.jpegTwenty years ago. When Penguin started off in India. Can you even imagine those days when writers did not thump their chests and proclaim themselves to be the next happening wonder? Instead, someone would read a story somewhere and send their details to publishers? Phone calls over landlines and mails delivered by postmen. When quality of writing preceded and genres were rather unheard of.

V.K. Karthika, currently of Westland Amazon and formerly of Penguin India and Harper Collins took the audience through how it was to be an editor or a publisher in what seems like pre historic times now. She was my youth icon during college days. Undisputed winner in elocution competitions in the university youth festivals , her nimble wit winning her and her team prizes in JAM and dumb charade sessions, she hasn’t lost an iota of her charm.

Candid with her words, she went on to mention how publishers and editors were a similar lot those days, coming from similar backgrounds, reading the same kind of books, thinking alike more or less and routing for ‘literary’ fiction. She talked about why we seem to read books less often, as we wind up our nights with a social media update rather than closing a book after a few lines that leaves a smile on your face. How an Indian American author of those days wondered whether people in India actually read English books, in a rather nice way. How the industry grew slowly, from round the corner book shops where you were lucky if you could find a single copy of the book you wanted, to swanky retail outlets with coffee shops thrown in where you could chill with an espresso instead of cutting chai. Books and reading had become a lifestyle statement.

And then came an obscure publishing house and a story from the beautiful Aymenem, in Kerala. And a Booker Prize. Indian writing in English and publishing would never be the same again. Yes, there were Indian authors before as well, but most of them belonged to the diaspora. Here was an exotic story, and the author, totally Indian. Her life , experiences , story, everything was India. And Ms. Roy was beautiful as well. There was a frantic interest in Indian writers, deals were struck based on a single chapter, even mere proposals.

The next watershed event was a certain Mr. Chetan. Karthika did call out the ambivalence of supporting his writing. Till he happened, such writing was looked down upon. The elite publishers would never have touched. But facts are facts. He turned mere thousands of English readers in India to lakhs. And he had to be noticed, after all, publishing was business as well. And so the best seller lists came to be dominated by Chetan, Amish, Preeti et al, the new age Indian writers.

Today, there is as much, if not more interest in non fiction than fiction, thanks to erudite writers like Dalrymple, Guha etc. It’s a good time for writers, editors and publishers alike. Some take years , like Raghu Karnad, who then come up with beautiful and relevant writings on India. However, there was a word of caution from her. Whether an element of self censorship is creeping in today, given the wind of uncertainty. Of why we need to raise our voices when needed. We may not be able to change people, but if we can change at least few things, that would well be worth it.

We caught up after the function, she was such a delight to talk to. We chatted about those ancient years, our families, and how we will never grow old as long as people from our elder generation are still with us. And yes, we did talk about her husband as well. The suave Vivek Menon, the executive director and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India, himself an amazing writer. His ‘On the Brink : Travels in the Wildlife Of India’ is a testimony to that. It’s unfortunately out of print.


(p.s. was lucky enough to attend the Annual Lecture Of Anita’s Attic – a creative writing & mentorship program by author Anita Nair)


Mid flight Musings

IMG_8733.JPGThe eyes are Pavlovian. The mind might be lost in some wayward dream, the brain thinking of the next meeting and the hands trying to shove the cabin luggage into the narrow space above. The moment a book is in the vicinity, the eyes latch on, unabashedly. Usually, it is accompanied by a neck that contorts itself into some complex gymnast move, it was easy today, though. The gentleman in the next seat had t opened it yet, and there it lay bare, ‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy,’ Sheryl Sandberg.

Seat belt on, I delved into my bag and brought out my companion for this trip. And the man in the next seat started trying my circus moves. With a wide grin, I showed him the cover.

“Sethu,” he said. Ah, a fellow Malayali.

“What is the book about?” he continued.

“It’s the story of Muziris, the ancient port town that is supposed to have been somewhere near Kodungallur. There’s been these recent excavations in Pattanam that has brought out some interesting facts,” I replied.

“ I’ve read only one book of his, forgot the name, though.”


“Yes, that one.” Was there a tinge of sadness in his words?

“How’s your book, sir?” I had read some excerpts and had loved it.

“It’s good, and I need it for a session that I am going for. Our company is organizing a workshop for people like me who will be retiring soon. We need to learn to live alone, when it comes to that. Can’t expect the two of us to go together. I mooted this idea and the management agreed, luckily. Ten of us, away from the madness, in Karwar.”

“What do you do, sir?” that was a cliched question, I know.

“I am a scientist,” he was a little reluctant to say anything further.

“That Sethu book, I lost it,” I had not imagined that sadness, after all.

“Last year’s Chennai floods. We stay on the ground floor, water went up to the ceiling. Almost 2000 books, all of them gone. Except a few, maybe.”

For once, I was lost for words.

“Go on, read your book,” he said.

The Tamil professor Perumal was replying to the protagonist Aravindan’s question on the great flood of 1341 that may have destroyed Muziris without a trace.

‘എന്ന്നാലും പെട്ടെന്നിങ്ങനെ?’

‘പെട്ടെന്നൊന്നുമല്ല, നൂറ്റാണ്ടുകളുടെ സഹനത്തിനു ശേഷമേ പ്രകൃതി ഇത്തരം കടുംകൈകൾക്ക് മുതിരുകയുള്ളൂ. അന്ന് ഞാൻ പറഞ്ഞത് പോലെ കടലും കരയും തമ്മിലുള്ള നിലയ്ക്കാത്ത പോര്. കര കാക്കാൻ മനുഷ്യർ മറക്കുമ്പോൾ കടൽ അതിന്റെതായ വഴികൾ കണ്ടെത്തുന്നു.’

~ സേതു, ‘മറുപിറവി’

‘but why, all of a sudden?’

‘It’s never all of a sudden. Nature bears all, suffers for centuries before attempting such catastrophes. The eternal war between the sea and the land. When men forget to take care of his land, the sea finds its own ways.’

~ Sethu, ‘Marupiravi’

Yes, the sea, the nature, is finding its own ways, across the world. Will we ever pay heed to the desperate call, the lonely cry of our land?

Do you read my books?

Wanderlust at home


“Do you read my books?”

Possibly one of the most dreaded questions one could face from an author. I started following her almost ten years ago, maybe soon after she started blogging. Writing was her solace after she lost her father all of a sudden. Her posts were fun, insightful. She wrote about almost everything under the sun and interacting with her was a pleasure. Her first book came out a few years later, a compilation of her blog posts, which is being republished, she mentioned. The next one was about a girl with bipolar disorder, which I loved again. After that, there was a sense of change in tone, in her blog and the subsequent books, I felt. A few friends with similar taste in books echoed my thoughts. And slowly the interest in her writing waned.

She is now a celebrity author, a darling of the young. Most…

View original post 727 more words



“Do you read my books?”

Possibly one of the most dreaded questions one could face from an author. I started following her almost ten years ago, maybe soon after she started blogging. Writing was her solace after she lost her father all of a sudden. Her posts were fun, insightful. She wrote about almost everything under the sun and interacting with her was a pleasure. Her first book came out a few years later, a compilation of her blog posts, which is being republished, she mentioned. The next one was about a girl with bipolar disorder, which I loved again. After that, there was a sense of change in tone, in her blog and the subsequent books, I felt. A few friends with similar taste in books echoed my thoughts. And slowly the interest in her writing waned.

She is now a celebrity author, a darling of the young. Most read woman author in India, one of the 100 most influential ones in the country, titles galore sit on her head with ease. As for her question, after years in corporate world, I still find it difficult to hide my feelings easily.

“First 3-4, yes. After that, I kind of….”
“Why?” She asked.
“I love your non fiction more than your fiction,” I escaped, or so I think. But then, that is the truth.

Why do we love some and then stop? Is it when they start moving away from our expectations? As for authors and their writing, could it also be because of what we perceive them to be?

If you ask me who my favorite authors are, one of the names that pops up immediately is Anita Nair. It was her Sunday columns in Indian Express more than sixteen years ago that started the affair. Her books were a natural progression. There is not one of them that I haven’t liked, in fact I’ve loved most of them. Then came ‘Cut Like Wound,’ a totally different genre. I was skeptical, to be honest. A crime thriller, set in Bangalore? How exciting could that be? What a book it turned out to be. Even after 3-4 years, I can inhale the aroma and stench of Shivaji Nagar even as I think of Inspector Bore Gowda. The expectation of a reader, an ardent fan ofbhers, has changed. I’ll take anything from her now, blindly.

So what happened with the first author? Was it envy? Yes, at first. Very much so. Thinking pragmatically I realized I had no right. She worked hard, relentlessly, with killing focus to reach where she is today. Finally, I think it is what she changed into. It was as though she stopped writing for herself. It felt more like, a market research was done and the stories were churned out keeping a specific audience in mind.

That brings to mind another thread. How much of an author goes into her stories? Can you gauge the author as an individual from her writing? Does her values, what she believes in, how she would react in a real life situation influence her characters? I’ve been trying to analyze this for some time. Naturally, the authors that first come to mind are my favorites. Along with Anita Nair comes Atwood, Allende, Anne Lamott. Quite a few A-s there and all of them, the dominant gender. Hmmm, maybe matter for another post. Of late, Barbara Kinsolver and Rebecca Solnit have been added to the list. Yes, more women power. That is but incidental.

You form an opinion about a writer not just from their stories, it is also their persona out of their writing that influences you, unless they are the fiercely reclusive kind. These authors that I call my favorites exude a sense of genuineness, they are firm in their opinions and they stand by it come what may, without even a whiff of rancor. Some of them might come across as arrogant, I would give them the benefit of doubt as not suffering fools easily. They are individuals who has something significant to say, and they say it with conviction. There is no beating around the bush, they are sure of who they are and there is no pretense of being something they aren’t, the innate honesty comes through with no shield whatsoever. And they take criticism with such elan.

So, what about those that we walk away from? Who are they really? Am I being too influenced by perceived factors? Reading too much into their words? And then I remember a former boss’s words as we argued about a client’s comment that hit a little too hard.

“Bindu, the earlier you acknowledge it the better. In our world, perception is the reality.”

As I get back to my current read, this jumps out,

“One who would really like to know himself would have to be a restless, fanatical collector of disappointments, and seeking disappointing experiences must be like an addiction, the all determining addiction of his life, for it would stand so clearly before his eyes that disappointment is not a hot, destroying poison, but rather a cool, calming balm that opens our eyes to the real contours of ourselves.”

~ Pascal Mercier, ‘Night Train to Lisbon’

Coincidence? No chance!

(p.s. Picture from Pinterest)


It was called the gallery class, seats arranged like that in a theatre, one level above the other. The desk by the window was the most sought after. At the same height as the window sill, the seats offered an unparalleled view of the visitors to the college office. Not that we were expecting any exciting ones. Except during admission time, the only members of the male species that we were used to were the muscle man Joy chettan in Physics lab and the scrawny and  Kunjumon chettan, in the school bus. Even during admissions, it was the father figures, not even one good looking brother came our way.

The class was almost over, we were restless. And then, miracle of miracles, a young man walks down the stairs. Quite a handsome guy, at that. The buzz in the class was palpable. Who could that be? As he walked into the guest room down the corridor, we just couldn’t sit any longer. “Miss, can we go to the  library?” asked Asha and I together. Miss Agnes had a knowing smile on her face as she let us go. As we passed the guest room, both of us took a dive under the half door to catch another glimpse at the good looking chap. And we raised ourselves up right on to the laughing face of Sr.Margaret. “Taking a guess at who that is? He’s Sheena’s brother.” Even before we could erase our embarrassed smiles, the bell rang and out came Miss Agnes. “You should have asked me, that’s Sheena’s brother,” she said, followed by that hearty laughter of hers.

That was the spirit in which they raised us. What kind of nuns and teachers did you have, friends whom I made later in life used to ask. That too, in a long forgotten place like Alappuzha? Catholic nuns who laugh unabashedly and teachers who joke with you? “Not just that, they dance, they sing, they even stage plays as nursery kids for us,” I told them. They were no ordinary ones, those nuns and teachers of St. Joseph’s Girls School and Women’s College. Followers of St.Magadalene of Canossa, from Italy.

By the time we were in school and later college, the nuns from Europe were either in the cemetery of the Latin Church nearby or had gone back home. But stories, we had in plenty. Starting from my grandmother who used to ridicule our English, “learn from me, I was taught by the Europeans.” And my mother who used to tell us about the cherubic ‘Mother Unneesho’  and the sprightly Mother Josephine.

They were no ordinary nuns. The lamp of happiness was passed on from the Italian sisters to their Indian counterparts, the teachers, many of whom were students there earlier. If you asked me to describe them in a word, it would be ‘joy,’ undoubtedly. For us, college was fun. They knew just not us, but our whole family and its history too. That never deterred them from being the friends they were and still are. We could tell them just about anything. And vice versa.

The lovely Mrs. Valsa Mammen would hide her face in a mocking manner each time we met, “move away, you make me feel old.” “Her mother was my student,” she would tell the perplexed onlookers. The waif like Miss Ramani, who made Rima , the heroine of Green Mansions an immortal romantic icon for us, Miss Jacintha, our favourite Physics teacher who would scatter the six of us to six different seats and then laugh with us when she saw us all back together in the very next class, Miss Elizabeth in Chemistry who told me off at the end of a ‘very busy’ union year, ” koche, come to my class at least once a month, lest I forget your face,” the frail Miss Chandrika, our department head, the nightingale of our college, Miss Chitra, who was more like an elder sister, the millions of sine thetas and cos thetas from Miss Rita, the hearty laughter of Mrs. Andrews, the ever effervescent Mrs. Rosamma, Mrs. Mathews who was family, Miss Maniamma and a her long and luscious hair, the lovely Miss Saraswathy with her beautiful husky voice,  the painful memories of Miss Usha, Miss Leela who turned to be an aunt-in-law, the beautiful and vivacious young Miss Latha, the cherubic Miss Sandhya who fought the system and won what was her due, the elegant Miss Ragini who ‘blessed’ us, “may you have kids just like you,” the list never ends. I have long forgotten the Physics, Chemistry and Maths that Imlearned there, the profession that I got into had nothing to do with what I studied there.

My life is another matter altogether. What I learned there, in school and college, is the kindly light that leads me on even now. When I think of my alma mater, how can I forget my school teachers. Marie miss and then Zelma miss. When people listen to my almost non Mallu accented English (preening a little, bear with me;) ) and they wonder how, when I tell them I’d never been out of that little town until after my graduation, I have only two people to thank – my father who led me to the small library in the town and Zelma miss. When the new Mother Superior came to school and they were looking for someone who could give a welcome speech, she selected me. And I was awestruck. Me, who hadn’t got on to any stage till then? The confidence that she gave more than thirty years ago still holds me in good stead. Miss, I can never thank you enough.

There was nothing we couldn’t ask them, that they wouldn’t do for us. The love they had for us was unconditional and absolute. I can never forget an incident in my final year. Sr. Annette called me one evening, “koche, there I saw one boy who wants to meet you. I’ve told him to wait on the parlour.” I was dumbstruck, “sister, you?” With her quintessential mischievous smile, she said,”enthekilum paranju vittekku, paavam payyanaa.” The poor chap had no idea how I was laughing inside.

St.Joseph’s taught us never to take life too seriously, that there are plenty of fishes in the sea, that questions are meant to be asked whether we got an answer or not, that standing up for what is right is always right, that if nuns could dance, so could we, that we could always go back there and we would be welcomed back as only mothers could and that love was all that mattered, at the end of it all.

A thank you would be a mere cliche. But wanted to let you know, my deaest teachers, that you all are rembered, much fondly and with great love.


*nurturing mother – alma mater

p.s. wonder where Miss Sheena’s brother is 😉

update – apparently he was so scarred that he decided to be a life long bachelor 

p.p.s a confession to Miss Elizabeth and Miss Elamma – Chemistry always was and still is a nightmare 😛










Anointed, adjudged
From the time thoughts were born
Determined, Invincible
Protector, Nurturer

And so we did
Showed a face
With no tears
Nor a grimace
Oh, but we’re used to it
But that’s life
There’s so much more to do
Ssshhh…lest more followed
Not us, never.

And we marched on
Screaming silently
Crying without tears
Holding everything in
Smiling in a straight line
Hearts wrenching inside
For we are the strong ones
The indomitables

Eyes moulded into steel
Souls into iron
Calluses fed our hands
Lead seeped into our feet
Before we knew
It was all a myth
Wrought to keep us chained
The strong woman
Who takes in all
Without even a whimper

But you know what?
Wars are not for us,
We don’t want to win
We just need to breathe
Unanoint, let us be
Real, Unmyth.

The Last Letter

Our family was never ‘photographic.’ Search high and low, far and wide, it is next to impossible to find pictures of us from childhood. Now that I think about it, we have seen more pictures of our mother as a kid than  those of the five of us put together. Did my parents have an aversion to studios, I wonder. Or maybe they just didn’t have the time, in between bringing up the brood.

There were letters galore, though. Staying in the small town of Alleppey, a grandmother in the nearby village of Kavalam and a set of grandparents in neighbouring village of Pulincunnu, the letters were mostly triangular. I do remember my father’s strong, slanted handwriting, those were official writings in blue black Chelpark ink, though. The blue inland letters were always feminine. The neat and tidy, tiny words from Kavalam and the large, rounded words, as perfect as her fluffy palappams, from Pulincunnu. Telephones were rare and letters were the only form of communication, unless someone visited. Yes, I was reared in pre historic times 🙂

We were forced into this habit as we grew up. As the eldest in both sides of the family, the onus of keeping this tripartite communication alive slowly fell on me. And it would be a lie if I told you I didn’t enjoy it. We were masters of space management, the two grandmothers and me. We would first take up all the space in the three ‘pages’ of the inland, then write on the margins , sometimes even in the space provided for the return address. Born story tellers, we were. My paternal grandmother would even add some sentences in English and would remind us from time to time with a twinkle in her eyes, “I was taught by European nuns, unlike the less fortunate you.”

Count of coconuts, accounts of activities in the yard, the state of mangoes that year, the feasts in the church, maids come and gone, family news of old retainers, births, weddings and deaths, visits from relatives – letters from the paternal side was more in the nature of a statement of account – what came in and what went out. The maternal ones were, well, more maternal in nature. Rounds of how each member of the family was faring, each of us kids asked for by name, news of cows giving birth along the women in the family who followed suit, chickens and ducklings hatched and snatched by eagles and crows, the letters were more about what grew and did not. As holidays neared, we would wait eagerly to know who would be coming when to take us home. For, home was never the house we stayed in ten months round the year. Home was always where the heart was – split between two villages.

When did we as siblings start writing to each other? The first ones would definitely have been from me, the first one to leave the pack to far away Ernakulam. Who did what in the hostel, which audit I was on, which clients provided the best food for free, there was nothing that the family did not know of. And in return, I continued to get news of what was happening back in the two villages, the parents had shifted back to Kavalam by then. The triangle turned into a square as another corner was added. One of the sisters got married off to the till then uncharetered territory of northern Kerala.

It was three years after her marriage that we lost one of us. There were hardly any pictures to remember her by, not that any of us needed it. Bonds of heart are far stronger than the most beautiful of pictures, we have realised since then, as we lost our mother a few years later. There are moments though, when we long for a touch, a word or two in their voices, something, anything, that was tangible. Not to remember them,   just to feel their presence, even if it was for a few ephemeral moments.

There are some books that are my favourites. They have a strange habit of disappearing at frequent and infrequent intervals. And they reappear months , sometimes years later, right in time when I need them. Only when I need them. It was a prayer book this time, an unusual one. The one that was my solace in my years of questioning God, those years of searching for the meaning of everything. Had it gone missing, or was it that I’d forgotten about it? I don’t remember. But it was definitely one of those days, when the yearning was too strong, the longing too difficult to get over, that it resurfaced. Surprising me. With a letter, the last one she’d written to me. Maybe the last one she’d written to anyone.

It’s 21 years today, since the then 21 year old wrote it.

What would we remember each other by, I wonder. Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, long forgotten Tweets? And I shudder.