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Kanhaiya ki Bansuri

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The costumes befitted their personalities. The quintessential FabIndia kurta for the erudite professor from JNU, khadi jacket over a thick cotton kurta for the chief editor, plain pants and blue checks for the earnest journalist turned novelist, made to order, impeccable designer pants, linen shirt and polished to perfection brown shoes for the serious man, designer silk kurta and salwar for the TV personality and well fitting semi formals for the moderator. Along with them, in a crumpled off white shirt and an ordinary pants,worn chappals on his feet, his hair in total disarray, appeared the boy. The darling of the masses, or so it seemed from the thundering applause that accompanied him.

The discussion started off quite amicably, with each one making their points without much fan fare. The professor expressing his angst, the editor opining that one shouldn’t expect everything to come from within, certain things like nationalism has to be forced down our throats, irrespective of who or what we are. The author seemed to be the only one with no agenda, his words were pure angst. The serious man spoke in measured tones, about North Indian nationalism vs. South Indian. Then came the boy. He was obviously not used to sitting on a plush white sofa and discussing life in impeccable English. With the moderator’s permission, he stood up, apologized in English of his inability to speak the language and moved on to Hindi. That his words were hitting its mark was evident from the applause that followed many a statement of his. He spoke spontaneously, for these were sentiments that were repeated by him time and again. The moderator in his opening session had mentioned that the boy and his professor had started the arguments on nationalism. The boy refuted it, referring to the Constitution. He sounded like a seasoned politician. The TV lady just kept on screaming, I hardly remember anything she said.

It was in the second round that reality jumped out of the perfect attires. The professor’s was a lecture. How it is a question of integrity, rather than of left or right, nationalist or populist. The editor chose his words carefully, but his true feelings jumped out in the end. ‘Triumph of the deplorables,’ he was heard quoting. The author put it in beautiful words, “populism is a false story told very well.’ It was the serious man who took derision to another level altogether. Sitting ramrod straight, his head held high and his upper lips stiff, the words that came out of his mouth was as condescending as those that come from his pen. It was so evident that he hated the boy and his ilk, he did not even have the courtesy to look at the boy on his face. And the boy gave it back, word by word, to each of them. To the insinuations hurled at him for being left, he answered, “yes sir, I’m left because I was left behind.”

I am not from JNU, I have not even visited the place. But, here was proof of what an educational institution could do. The confidence to question his teacher in a public forum, to tell him on his face, “sir, I want to be better than you,” could have come only from there. I am not denying the fact that all the mutual respect that was shown between the two would have been forced. In a different place and time, the situation could very well have been different.

The boy spoke to the audience, while three of the panelists spoke of the boy and to him. The topic of the discussion was by the way. Their body language showed how rattled they were by his popularity. The professor couldn’t hide it, he lost his cool in between. The editor seemed to accept the reality. And the serious man tried to hide his fear behind a veneer of disdain. The attack even turned personal at times. The boy appeared nonchalant throughout. When the discussion turned to how the elite owns the discourse on liberalism these days, he retorted, “sir, why should the elite own this? They are already liberated.”

“Isn’t he creepy?” a friend of mine had asked. “Have we created a monster?” asked another. The second question was foremost in mind. His words were inspiring, he was asking the right questions, I thought while listened to him. I was reminded of the ideal days of youth, where we questioned every seeming inequality. Wisdom may not come with age, but with enough practice, one learns to distance one’s self now and then and listen to the voice of reason. Yes, I was excited to listen to a powerful voice, one who asks the same questions as us. But there was this nagging feeling of having heard similar diatribes, the same tone elsewhere. Of a litany of ills of the then government, of a tone rising up and down in tune with the response, of the sentiments of the audience. Of almost an entire nation, turning blind and dumb. And that very voice seem to have created a clone. Only the words are different. And he is young.

In the previous day’s discussion on her book ‘Indira’ the moderator had asked Sagarika Ghose, “how would you compare Modi to Indira?” Her answer was classic, “I think Modi is the true heir to Indira.” That the boy reminded me of this response was not coincidental. He could very well turn out to be the next pied piper.

It was only the author that seemed genuinely concerned about what is happening in our country. The rest just played their part. Ironical that it was one of them that clearly called out the real problem we have today.

“It is not a matter of ideology, it is a matter of integrity.”

Jai Hind!

(My thoughts on the closing session of BLF 2017 – ‘Nationalism, Populism and the threat to the Global Liberal Order’.
The panelists (in the order they were seated) – Makarand Paranjape, R. Jagannathan, Suketu Mehta, Manu Jospeh, Harish Bijoor (moderator), Kanhaiya Kumar and Sagarika Ghose)

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The Lone Cry

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Stories from BLF 2017 – 1 

The sessions sounded more political than literary this year. The topics had been discussed threadbare on TV, in print, on social media and of course, gatherings in the friends circles as well. But hearing it straight from the stallion’s mouths would be something else, I thought. The final session as usual, was the most sought after. R. Jagannathan, Makarand Paranjpe, Suketu Mehta, Manu Joseph, Sagarika Ghose and the Kanhaiah Kumar. Moderator Harish Bijoor set the tone and Prof. Paranjpe started in his erudite style.

There was only one tone to the whole festival until then, that of right bashing. The alternate voice had been missing, and I was eagerly waiting for the next person’s views, not because I endorsed his beliefs. I was sure an entirely different vie would definitely come from the Chief Editor of a right wing publication. He started in an even voice and took up the current hot topic, of whether to stand up or not. What he said was what many of us thought as well, isn’t this the same judge that endorsed this imposition last year? How can they change their opinion so fast and to an entirely opposite view?

Then came the punchline,
“Considering that it’s an all men bench, they don’t even have the excuse of the mood swings of PMS.”

The whole audience, well almost the whole audience, laughed. Including women. No one thought this was out of place. A so called thought leader, openly making fun of something so personally feminine.

Don’t you have mood swings on those days, one might ask. Don’t you get cranky, another might. Oh yes sir, I do. I feel tired, so much so that I don’t even have the energy to get up from my bed, cranky, ready to fight, snarling at everyone in sight, and maybe even pick up a fight or two. And I know it is getting worse as years go by.

But sir, it is never an excuse. No sir, never. It is a reality. For millions of women, some of whom you would know and many you would not. It is a stark reality, over which we have no control, none whatsoever. We can only wish we had. But. It is never an excuse, at least for the sensible ones I know. We drag ourselves up, maybe pop a pill or two and go about as if nothing is wrong, even when everything is. Literally. We might make some mistakes, make an error of judgement or two. But sir, we own it. It is never an excuse. No, sir.

I was immediately reminded of the previous day’s discussion on trolling. From personal experience, both Nidhi Razdan and Sindhu S (from Asianet who was mercilessly trolled for her so called remarks against Durga) had mentioned something in common – the blatant sexism and misogyny of the right wing trolls. Of the viciousness of it all, of the sheer crassness of their thoughts. Well, the apples do not fall far from the tree, I guess. I’ve always believed the culture of an individual is decided mostly by her parents and of an organization by its leaders. And I realized my belief hasn’t let me down.

What worries me most is the total acceptance of something so sexist. It is so ingrained in men and women in equal measure that no one sees anything amiss, not even those among us who go through it month after month, year after year.

The laughter died down. And something escaped my lips. Some might call it booing. It was spontaneous, a war cry that came right from depths. Of my heart and soul.

And I was alone. Frighteningly so.

(image courtesy – images.fineartamerica.com)

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.

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(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.”

“Paandavapuram?”

“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

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“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…

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Do you read my books?

 

IMG_8485

“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)

My ‘Nurturing Mother’

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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.

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*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 😛