10 April, 2014

At the Movies

Friendly Bear Via Sarajea 



She stuffed her bag under the seat, fidgeted till she found her spot in the seat and then without notice, slipped her hand into his. He was still undecided whether he liked holding her hand or not. But while he was deciding, he didn't mind doing it anyway. Her hands had a needy quality about them. Always wanting to be held, sweating into a clammy mess like awkward teenagers, the stubby fingers and chewed nails unsure in their ugliness.

04 January, 2014

On Writing and Identity

The first time I encountered Orwell I was 13 years old. I picked up Animal Farm thinking it was a story of a farm and finished it with that notion intact. All undertones, subtle and otherwise, were lost on my teen brain. Thankfully, over the years I revisited Orwell and unpeeled layers, igniting my fascination with his writing and person. 

Why I Write is an intimate book in which he elegantly elucidates his motivations to write. It is a collection of essays, but I will talk of two here: Why I Write, and England on England. In a manner so honest and personal, the reader is almost apologetic for being allowed into his mind, Orwell questions what it means to belong to a country - what does it mean to be English - he reasons that belonging to a country is so closely tied to one's identity that it naturally affects any artistic endeavour. I pause to wonder whether such an exercise is possible for me, or even prudent? But as Orwell says:
'Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle? 
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.'
He goes on to talk about 'emotional unity' in the face of moments of 'supreme crisis' and my thoughts turn to
Republic Day in 2001. I had, the night before, painted my keds with white paint. It had dried unevenly and in places, the paint had cracked mournfully. We had gotten up early and prepared for the parade. Left right left. Left right left. After marching in the sallow winter sun, we got the standard treat. One besan ka ladoo, one soggy samosa (I only ate the cover, Lee faithfully ate the aaloo for me in exchange for her samosa cover) and a handful of ber. We hurried back to our hostel, planning to while away the rest of the day. I was at my cupboard when I felt the tremor. 'Did the ground just shake?' I asked, excitement making my voice quiver. 'Eeeeeeee earthquake!' someone screamed and we ran out of our rooms, shocked and suitably awed at the possibility. Later, we sat subdued, as news of death tolls trickled in. Next days papers narrated tales of destruction and loss. We contributed money, clothes, and we made cards, unable to understand the import of losing one's home, loved ones and all possessions to an idiosyncrasy. We heard of people coming together from across the country, united in grief and comrades in compassion. Yes, Orwell's words do make sense in retrospect. 

He ends the essay in a subdued yet hopeful tone, 
'It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children's holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.'
My mind turns to the transitions and transformations shaping India. The plough giving way to the tractor and Ladakh becoming 'the' place to travel to, Nana recounting the lost glory of Allahabad University and mountains being mined of their serenity, never learning how to make Ammaji's famous हड़  का अचार  and clothing becoming homogenised - Delhi or London, boots becoming ubiquitous. But like Orwell, I am naive and optimistic enough to believe that India will still be India - an everlasting consciousness in my identity. And as I change my shape with it, I remain who I am, and yet so different.

The Next Big Step is coming to a close. I'm looking forward to a homecoming : )

31 December, 2013


Another year of growing up. Of letting go and learning trying to say no. Of nurturing old friendships. Of redrawing personal boundaries and delving deep. Of reading binges and Orwell. Of calm and confusion. Of completing a degree and promising to never stop learning. Of inspiring travel and blue days. Of silences and conversations. Here's to the Great Unknown. Happy New Year! 

06 November, 2013

All Pitter No Patter

Radha Pigtail followed Didi Pigtail:
a puppy dog shadow
pitter no patter she went.
Little Radha Pigtail - one legged she was.

Didi Pigtail sat reading
cross legged at the door
and Radha Pigtail would watch shyly  
hidden in an envelope of curtains.

Earlier, Didi Pigtail had tried:
sharing her raggedy dolls
pointing out pictures;
fairies and a Petite Prince.
But Radha Pigtail would run away
blushing in her shyness,
a hesitant smile
frozen in silent alarm.

Just how did she run? You exclaim!
Oh tiny Radha Pigtail could run
in a hobbled lopsided stride
Her frock – with its little toffee buttons – 
flapping against her good leg
and her bad crutch.
Unnerved, Didi Pigtail would hurry away
fast and strong
anything to get away from
that pitter with no patter.

One day Didi Pigtail,
hurried to the jamun tree
the promise of its dark inky fruit
stained her imagination a glorious purple.
Pitter patter her feet sang
against the ground
in urgent impatience.
Radha Pigtail caught her shadow flit by
and followed, as fast as she could
pitter, pitter, no patter.

She watched Didi Pigtail climb the tree nimbly
monkey-like and lithe,
toes curled around the trunk,
then hopping onto a branch up high
and clutching at the dark, swollen fruit.
She watched Didi Pigtail
sucking and chewing
her mouth puckering into purple astringency.

Didi Pigtail suddenly stopped
peered down and saw
Radha Pigtail looking very small indeed
far far below,
and Didi Pigtail flashed a triumphant grin
her teeth, a frightening indigo.
"You can't follow me up here", 
those teeth proclaimed.
And terrified, Radha Pigtail, bolted
All pitter, no patter.

07 September, 2013

Rejection

'They' say I have not read enough.
If I want to write poetry,
They say I should read
Cavafy and Armitage.
Ruth Padel’s “52 Ways to Read a Poem.”
Yes that will teach me how to write better.

-                              -                              -

Should I also retreat into a Writer’s Retreat?
Will the rolling hills and flurries of fog,
fawn over me,
in creative outbursts?
Bukowski, on the other hand instructs:
I shouldn’t write unless
it ‘bursts out of me’.

-                              -                              -

Words have burst forth in a panicked hurry
staining the sheets,
in monsoonal splendour.
I lie spent now,
mutilated by my latest offering.
Already a bystander.

In the after-throes of my affair,
I tentatively send them forth –
Exposing them to prying eyes – 
a gavel’s stroke punctuating my dreams.

I quiver, breath-held
parched-lipped
as your pronounce your judgement
with placid bored eyes of one who has read too much.
And in a voice jaded beyond redemption,
You bellow your answer 
(or do you breathe a yellowed whisper?).

Plucking the petals off my art,
you desecrate it to a doodle
And hand me condolences
For having lost myself.

April, 2013

28 June, 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London: George Orwell

Poverty is a tricky notion; a state that cannot be empathised with or understood unless lived and experienced. Like hunger, it is often irresponsibly categorised (above vs.below poverty line?) but its experiential quality is perhaps never quite captured by such sweeping definitions. I have studied poverty, observed and documented it. But from lofty theoretical ideas, to my wide-eyed reflections of it, I have not known what it is to be poor. Drawing on his experiences of scavenging a living from dishwashing in Paris and shuttling from lodge to lodge in London in the late 1920s, George Orwell, introduces to his readers, life, as defined by poverty.
'It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty... You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.'
In this semi-autobiographical novel, Orwell wades into the world of human depravity. He takes the reader on a journey through the painfully dreary life of a plonguer (dishwasher) in Paris. From the numbing routine of working in steamy cellars, washing dishes till the mind is subdued into blankness, he charts his journey through hunger, desperation and utmost depravity. London, where he moves to because of the promise of a job, is worse. Here he discovers the treacherous life of a tramp: bug-infested beds, bitter cold, counting pennies and twenty men bathing in a tub of water.

The best parts of his journey are his anecdotes about fellow workers, scraping a living through menial jobs, lies and often thieving. Through the story we encounter Boris, a handicapped Russian refugee who helps Orwell secure a job as a plongeur, the lowest rung in the unforgiving hierarchy of the Parisian hospitality sector. In London, we meet Bozo, a 'screever' or pavement artist, who inspires some of the most profound passages in the book. Orwell narrates how Bozo considered begging to be below him and made cartoons that were commentaries on current political and social events. However, like the life of the poor, the fate of these cartoons were in constant flux; erased either by rain or an errant police man.

Most critically, the story is not a mere chronicle of life and times in the poor of London and Paris. Orwell goes further and questions Society and its need for plongeurs and tramps. He breaks down the romanticisation of poverty and exposes hunger and boredom, hopelessness and a deadening of aspirations. He questions why money has become 'a grand test for virtue'. Almost a century later, we are still asking the same questions.
'You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing...You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs...The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.'

04 May, 2013

An Ode to Ai

Picture credit: Sunflower Seeds @ Tate Modern from The Gaurdian 

[Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist, often been prosecuted by his government for vocalising his dissent against some of the atrocities by the ruling party. He has, through his art and impassioned words, inspired thousands of people in China and across the world, showing that free speech and equality are not too audacious a dream. Disillusioned about the State of India, I find hope and heart in Ai Weiwei’s work. This is my tribute to him.]

Aye Ai Weiwei
We’re fighting the same battles you and I
You, warring hard against The Man of Ming
As my land oscillates between starving bellies and Ka-ching.

You’re hammering at the walls they’ve fenced you in Ai Weiwei
An artist bound by an imagination too free
I drown in the ideological barrenness of the perfect Democratic Dilemma
the nightmare of no choice: I sift through political debris.

You’re raging fire against the calm dragon Ai Weiwei,
That tramples free speech and ambition too high
We’re following stealthily; the crouching tiger
Rudderless, we taste death everyday with our morning chai.

They tell me that I (young and bright-eyed) am The Future Ai Weiwei,
oh yes, They give me rose-tinted glasses and then snatch away my view
What of this land they’ve tunnelled, the people they’ve pummelled
Don’t I deserve a hero to build castles on too?

It is a cruel desperate yuga we live in Ai Weiwei
And my soul is a-shudder, it truly is
Draw me a map now will you Ai Weiwei?
A less profane route out of this abyss.  

09 April, 2013

Where is the Exit Sign?


White. A plain white shirt was always the safest colour to go with. He squinted in the mirror, tucking in his shirt into his jeans, as he patted down his hair. He had a good feeling about this one. He had known Veena for a few months now. He liked the way she looked. Not like the girls who seemed splattered all over Delhi, the ones who couldn't stop pirouetting and pouting like plastic playthings. He liked that she spoke her mind, though sometimes she could become unbearably bossy. But then which woman wasn't?

He counted the cash in his wallet and swore. Being jobless in Delhi was to belong to a strange class of people. The capital reeked of money and consumerism, its wicked temptations pursuing his weaknesses unabashedly. Friends made plans to go to the latest club he could ill afford, most girls expected him to pay for their coffee and those horrendously overpriced muffins they’d nibble a minuscule bit of and discard. “Women’s lib was such hypocritical hogwash. They still want you holding the door open and paying the bills but not have an opinion, for that would be biased”, he thought to himself as he wore his watch. He was in a mood he couldn't place, but it wasn't pretty. He felt uncomfortable, as if he had been holding his breath for too long and needed to exhale. Slowly. But there was no time for such things. “Need to run and catch the metro. Thank god she’s picking me up in her car.”

Gone were the days of enjoying the cool comforts of Delhi’s modern metro, applauded as the best transport system in the country, the answer to Delhi’s clogged roads and saviour of all things jammed. Now as he squeezed into the compartment, he instantly regretted wearing his white ironed shirt. But then he hadn't been out with a girl for so long now, the utter tragedy of that realisation alone demanded he wear his favourite white. He looked down at his worn out shoes and grinned in satisfaction. He didn't want to look like he was trying too hard.

Painting from Marc Johns
Looking around he heard some men grunt over the recent introduction of a ladies compartment in the metro. They thought it was unfair. At the other end of the compartment, two young boys stood preening themselves by looking at their reflection in the window panes. They could pass off as twins with their gravity defying spiked hair and gravity kissing jeans. They were wearing those colourful shoes that were suddenly all the rage. He looked beyond them, through the window and saw the gigantic Hanuman statue rush past. Comforted by its familiarity, and disgusted by the utter redundancy of the useless conversations around him, he took out his iPod. Plugging in the earphones, he let Metallica take over. The restlessness around him for the past few months was reaching a crescendo. He had gone home to Kanpur a few weeks ago but that had done little to calm him. His father had disapproved of his giving up the well paying job to ‘do something meaningful’.

His father, usually aloof and taciturn, had suddenly found a voice. “God knows what has happened to you youngsters these days. In our time we would get a job and stick to it. We would work hard to raise our family, send you kids to school, and pay for Dadiji’s medicines. Yes, we often got bored but we had to take of our responsibilities. Not like you, just getting up and leaving when things get slightly uncomfortable.”

His mother, who believed that everything could be cured with a good meal, hovered around him, carrying with her, an air of silent tragedy. Whenever he tried to talk to her about his plans of trying to figure out his ‘direction’, her eyes would threaten to turn moist and he’d hastily retreat into reticence. The only time she would become animated and verbose was at the mention of matrimony, a topic he had begun to abhor. Seeing no way of finding any space for thought at home, he had returned to the dusty cacophony of Delhi.

*                                  *                                  *

What was he doing here? Looking at the high ceilings and indecipherable artwork, he wondered how Veena had managed to get convince him to attend the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. She had gushed about circles and lines on the phone, how he would appreciate it if he really saw what the artist was seeing. Looking at the psychedelic patterns, he felt slightly cross-eyed and nauseous. Next, Veena wanted to pick up some books from Jain Book Depot. She ignored the broad counter with its bevy of somnolent salesmen, turgid with the ebbing heat of a summer evening, and made her way up to the little loft they had on top. He watched her as she gleaned through the bookshelves.

It was a tiny space filled with the apologetic air of unloved books, the ones no student wanted, the ones that fell off the best-seller lists, those that were worn and battered. Veena’s face lit up as she sniffed appreciatively at the book in her hands. Some strands of hair fell over her eyes, he guessed an expensive day at the parlour had orchestrated that look of casual messiness. Her jeans hugged her hips beautifully and he smiled at her curled toes. After some languid browsing, she decided on a book and finally moved onto the last part of the ‘date’. Drinks at that new (and more importantly almost affordable) place he’d heard about. He liked the place. They had a decent band that played songs on request and the drinks, though expensive, were not exorbitant. At least in Delhi terms. They ordered. He needed a rum and Coke. The noise in his head was giving him a dull ache now. She chose a beer and insisted on her favourite: crispy honey chilli potatoes, which she informed him in a very serious tone, were the best thing ever. She had a way of overemphasising some words which grew more annoying as the evening wore on.


They chatted of common acquaintances and insignificant going ons. He looked at her and felt his brain implode. Sitting in front of her, he couldn't hear any words, her mouth moved rapidly and he was reminded of a disturbing short story he had read about a carnivorous Venus Flytrap. Shaking his head to get rid of these murmurs, he glugged down his rum and ordered another. He knew he could ill afford it but with a meltdown  seeming alarmingly close, he needed something to soothe his sensesThe music was too loud now and he was feeling hot around the collar. He decided to concentrate on the conversation and frowned in mock attentiveness.

“Oh I have been talking so much! Why don’t you tell me something about yourself? I heard you quit your job! Who does that yaar, especially in these times when jobs are so tough to get. That too in Ernst and Young! E and Y man, you've got to be kidding me!”

Slowly, her words registered on the shifting sands of his mind. He smiled at her and made no effort to answer. He picked up his glass and took a large gulp. Then he closed his tired eyes and let the music wash over him.         

[Dug out from The Drafts of 2010/11. Inspired by marigold boy.]

25 March, 2013

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes

Helter Skelter: Julian Barnes
Read it in one sitting.
As a person who claims to have trouble remembering things and yet suddenly manages to dig up minute details from her memories, I was looking forward to this book. The blurb said  it is "the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past." Mutable Past. Aha! Here was a concept I was intimately familiar with, and so I started off with high expectations. Not a very good place to start of course. This was my first encounter with Julian Barnes, but after I finished the book, I think he earned himself a follower. Yes, I was a bit disgruntled with the ending, and I could tell you why, but I prefer to leave you with a quote instead. Also, here is the review I wanted to write but didn't.
"Does character develop over time? In novels of course it does: otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. In life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? And also - if this isn't too grand a word - a tragedy."

05 March, 2013

You live some, you die some

My dear Dear, 


There is no dust here
(who knew the absence of dust
could be so alienating?)

There is no chaiwaala 
or doodhwaala
or newspaperwaala
to smile me a smile 
and provide me the comfort  
of a familiar face. 

There are sidewalks of course
straight and clean;
I teeter along them - briskly 
(the evenings get so chilly you know)
my watery tea, swishing woefully
in my gut.
my can of milk, I carry back
to a reproachful room. 
as I sit and wait 
for another day to dawn.

Love, M

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