Monthly Archives: July 2008

One world

Many thousand kilometres from my home in the Deccan, I sit under a clouded English sky, ancient hymns playing the background, reading about elections in Israel, chatting with a colleague from Pakistan.

And fail completely to understand why we war.


An annual affair

Three hundred and twenty-three. She knew exactly how many books lined the sagging shelves. She looked forward to this annual task, this day when she would remove each lovingly bought or gratefully received book from the shelf, each neat bundle of clipped papers and unclothe them from the delicate raiments of dust. She liked using the soft brush bought many years ago at the Dussera fair, examined and put to work once a year. She liked removing the pheromone traps and sticking on new ones, although there were no more silverfish to catch. She liked running her finger over the fading ink of dedications and good wishes. She lingered annually over the same words…had he really meant that?

To her mind, this yearly ritual was as important as any of the festivals crowding the months after Aadi. What a silly name for a month, as if it were a female goat. She remembered a book about a boy and his flock, set in the high mountains of Albania, a sad story whose details had long been forgotten. Only the memory of sadness remained. Where was that book now? Had she given it to that chitti’s daughter? That child who had seemed so much like herself, content to bury her nose in a book anytime, but who had turned out so different, choosing the kind of career path that left no time or even inclination for the glamourless pleasures of reading.

So many books had resided all too briefly on these shelves, so many whose whereabouts she no longer knew. It would be an interesting project to investigate what happened to those that had left her possession, either given away or taken without consent. Most ended their lives in a recycling factory, she suspected. Some may have been torn out and swirled into those clever cones for serving steamed groundnuts. Did someone unroll the paper after the nuts were consumed and read those snack-moistened lines? Did they live their young lives longing to know what happened next, combing library after library trying to trace a book that had the characters Suprabha and Hru?

She missed some of those that were lost. One titled the Forbidden Sea, about an orphan boy diving for oysters, always looking, hoping, seeking to find the rare and precious black pearl. She recalled little about the book besides the long descriptions of techniques for holding one’s breath underwater. She had unsuccessfully tried them herself, at the age of eight, when a neighbourhood swimming pool had seemed as vast as the sea in the book’s title. She remembered another lovely Russian tale about a little boy who makes a letterbox from an old shoe. And oh yes, the one about the unwell little girl and her elephant. She had cried night after night for the girl in the book with her large, sad, brown eyes, who lay on her bed listless and barely able to speak, longing with the longing known only to children, for an elephant. The memory made her bitter. How could someone just take away the book? Had they no shame? Had they no sense of what it would mean to the book’s owner?

But some of those that had gone had come back, unexpectedly, in shiny new covers, revived thanks to the wisdom of some unnamed soul at some publishing house. A new print of Kamala Laxman’s Thama Stories had been discovered with great delight at a bookstore some years ago. Complete with illustrations by the inimitable RK Laxman, the book simply had to be bought by the dozen and distributed just as impulsively.

She stood on the swivel chair cautiously, risking limb rather than walk to the dining room to fetch one more stable. The top shelf was always the neglected one. Its contents changed over time, but by unspoken understanding, it was where books that were no longer used or read were retired to; too familiar or carrying too heavy a sentimental burden to dispose. The old Pears Cyclopedias sat here. 1977-78, 1982-83, 1992-3. Once treasured, now no match for their electronic successors. Three of the Childcraft series and one of volume of How Things Work. The latter had four names on the inside page, each written after striking out the previous owner’s claim. All boys. She smiled, thinking of how the book had been given to her cousin, but she had spent so many hours pouring over the book’s fascinating diagrams, that he had told her to keep it.

The shelves now rarely welcomed new additions. She was at that age where the immediate always edges out the important. But she would one day come back to them. In a few years the shelves would receive the attention they deserved. A new coat of paint, new glass for the doors. Perhaps if the additions began to trickle in again, a new shelf would be needed. She frowned, thinking of where it could possibly fit. But there was time enough to worry about that, she told herself. For now, the joy of revisiting old friendships, reliving old thrills would do.

Bangalore, Ahmedabad

Update: This was written soon after the Ahmedabad blasts, when the toll hadn’t risen beyond 12.


I haven’t been reading the reports. I can’t bear to. Yes, they were low intensity blasts, yes, fewer than twenty people died. In a country that regularly loses hundreds to floods, train and bus accidents, and spurious liquor, this seems like nothing. A friend in Bangalore called it a “lame attempt at terror”. Indeed. The dead barely ran into double-digits. When did we become so cynical?

But Bangalore is almost home. Madivala is where the KPN office and pick-up point is. I’ve sat on the steps of that complex dozens of times, unwillingly waiting for the 10.30 pm bus back to Madras. Adugodi is where I took many a flirty walk with a suitor, winding our oblivious way through narrow, noisy, dusty streets where every other shack is a two-wheeler garage. Mysore Road is where, years before the maddening traffic arrived, newly bought two-wheelers were driven way above the speed limit, causing me to feign fear and tighten my grip on his shoulder.

And Ahmedabad. The city of my childhood. Raped and pillaged, not by barbarian hordes from central Asia, but its own people. An Ahmedabad I have been terrified to visit in recent times, for in my mind, rivers of blood still flow on the ‘city’ side of Ellis Bridge. But also an Ahmedabad I knew when it was gentle, laid-back, generous and most of all, safe. An Ahmedabad of summers that began right after the riotousness of Holi, where sand storms blew grit through the windows, into your teeth. An Ahmedabad of spectacular processions and never-ending dandiyas, where, yes, Muslims too danced the night away.

I cannot help but wonder – the Bhajpa is in power in both places. Is that why? Is this revenge? Is this the beginning of a counter strike? In which the targets are so random, so unspecific as to be almost democratic? Is this a message – vote killers into power and prepare to die yourself? The murmers have always existed, haven’t they? But one only begins to hear and fear them, when they are uttered so close to home.

Counting blessings

What a boon it is to have a spouse who loves their job. As a happy consequence of which, you can remain confused into the late twenties, take dramatic career decisions dangerously close to thirty, and finally announce, this is it. And then change your mind again.

What a relief it is that the spouse does not think for a minute that they are ‘supporting’ you and is completely dismissive of your guilt-driven suggestions that providing ‘support’ may be placing undue pressure on them. And what a vindication it is to hear them say that you are perfectly capable of supporting yourself if they didn’t exist.

What a pleasure it is that they wonder at and admire your explorations and wanderings, asking nothing more than to walk alongside, on equal footing, thinking nothing of their immeasurable help in steadying your step.

Tawang in pictures

My last post triggered a small bout of nostalgia and I went climbing over hillocks of unorganised photographs and scans on the storage disk, looking for old pictures from Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. Here are some that I found. (Bad scans, poor color correction, please excuse!)

Pangkang Teng Tso

Ei (grandmother) at Thrillum village, Tawang

Chorten at Gorsam

Man and child at Gorsam

Chestnut-headed sparrows, Zemithang

More as and when I find them.

You mean Imphal is not a state?

The closer my deadlines, the stronger the urge to ignore them and blog-surf away, especially when it is late at night. Usually a cloud of all-forgiving benignity settles over me at this time of day and I am willing to overlook the world’s faults rather than get all worked up as I normally do.

But not today. There has been a largish dose of what Krish Ashok calls the Paratha-Parotta war in the world of blogs, and I feel compelled to add momos to the menu.

Despite having lived in the north for more than a decade and having learnt to fight in Hindi before I learnt a single cussword in Tamil, I used to get rather pained by the broad-brush painting of half the country as ‘Madras’ and all the other displays of geographic and cultural ignorance so well-detailed in the blogs linked to above.

But that was until I began working in the north east of the country. Before I went there for the first time, innumerable people asked me if it was safe travelling in ‘tribal areas’. If I would get anything other than raw meat to eat. If there were roads to the places I needed to go. What language would I speak to the ‘tribals’ in? What would I do if I fell ill? And so on. Initially I delivered long lectures on how the north east is perfectly safe, in fact safer than many other parts of the ‘mainland’, told them that the people I was going to work with all spoke not only Hindi but also fluent English, that they have some excellent roads up there thanks to the Border Roads Organisation. After about a week and twenty such encounters, I stopped. I snapped if the mood demanded it or merely smiled and said nothing.

So what is my point? That most of the people asking these questions were supposedly ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘culturally aware’ south Indians. Why is our collective ignorance about the north east somehow less offensive than the Delhiite’s uninformed view of Madras?

We snigger at Americans who don’t know that you can’t drive a Hummer to Eye-rack, but how many of us know the capital of Tripura? Who among us can name all the north eastern states? Hell, do you even know how many there are?

But it doesn’t matter, does it, because all those places and people are really Chinese.


shrill fights over six marbles,
seven stones, three wickets.
until one day
the street empties in a flurry
of suitcases on vacation.