Random musings of a wandering soul

Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

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)

Do you read my books?

 

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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 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)

Unmyth

Unmyth
———–

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

And so we did
Showed a face
With no tears
Nor a grimace
Pained?
Oh, but we’re used to it
Betrayed?
But that’s life
Tired?
There’s so much more to do
Attacked?
Ssshhh…lest more followed
Defeated?
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.

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Random scribbles from a beautiful morning

“Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty. Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”

That was John Larkin, quoted by Alain de Botton in his book, ‘The Art of Travel.’ I had just finished reading it before a solo trip to Himachal two years ago. Sitting beside the stream on the third day of the journey, these words came to mind as I struggled to bring my thoughts together in an attempt to write. The small note book was kept aside somewhere after my return and forgotten under corporate struggles and domestic travails. Until last week, the red cover splattered with doodles stared at me from under a few other dust laden ones and asked, “remember me?” As if it knew the time had come. My scribbles from  one of the seven mornings on an idyllic holiday…

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It is a single note at first. The gentle roar of the river. Separate notes emerge as you listen, slowly. The gentle lap of the small waves against the shore, as if a mother is carefully washing the soft skin of her first born. A stream that slides over a flat rock only to hit itself over another one and jump right back at the first. A playful gurgle, like kids splashing rain water from a puddle with an expert kick of their foot. There is a dip at the bottom of another rock, three streams seem to join as one. The first one comes straight over it, one part of it diverted in between and coming back in a gentle curve into the same meeting point and the third one going around it only to be guided back by another rock one the way. Three notes joined as one, gently flowing down into a small pool, just as a stream of holy water is poured on to the cupped palms of a pilgrim.

Rivers are a lot like us, humans. The first steps are tentative. As the meaningless gurgles turn into chatter, the steps turn sure. Wild laughter, playful banter with the shores, gushing joy, adolescence is pure madness. Youth matures, but the spirit is bright and beautiful. When does the light dim and the steps slow down? As it flows, what is around seem to have more impact than what comes from within. Have you noticed them in cities? The very essence of life seem to have been sucked out. The once vivacious young girl is now expected to take in all the filth and sins of everyone around her, without as much as a whimper. Just as the tears dry up even as the pain sharpens, the river starts drying up. Until the next rain. As the silt begins to shift, the season ends. And she is thrown back into her emptiness. Again.

Patience has its virtues. I finally catch sight of the owner of the mellifluous voice above my head. A tiny beauty that could fit into my daughter’s palm with enough space left for its parter. Yellow under and green on top, perfectly camouflaged among the green and yellow leaves of the trees around. The trees themselves remind me of Ruskin Bond. Of his island of trees. I give up trying to capture the little one on my camera. Either the camera or my eyes need a fresh pair of lens. ” I am like the elusive words in your mind,” she seemed to say. Some you capture on paper, some just float away.

Butterflies, in abundance. Black with yello dots, brown patches in black, pale yellow, milky white, a group of sky blue ones that looked like someone tore away some clouds and a few pieces of sky came along with that. They looked liked school kids who had bunked classes en masse. I decided to keep the camera away and just sit there, watching their joyous dance. “Why do you not stay still?” I ask. They answer in an instant, “We are like your thoughts, when did they ever stay still?”

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I continue to sit still. A sudden movement across the river catches my eye. There is an odd shape on the embankment. A grey gecko. The feel is ecstatic. A little more than half an hour, and I feel like Princess Jasmine on Aladdin’s magic carpet. A whole new world seem to open itself out for me.

p.s. even after two years, I can remember that day, almost minute by minute. Some days and places are like that, isn’t it? Your special place  to go back to, some days just to have that feeling of peace and pure joy, some other days to run off and hide.