April [2018: A Year of Reading Writing from India]

Works read:

Kingdom’s End
By Saadat Hasan Manto

Exam month, slow month. When I finally got home at the end of April I thought I’d read a few stories every day. Munro taught me that if you read too many short stories in one sitting, each becomes a little thinner. But it is difficult to put Manto down once he’s in your hands. I read the collection in two days and then looked around in a daze as though for the next one. I don’t think anything has made me laugh as much as ‘The New Constitution’ did – in which the very endearing Ustad Mangu, an otherwise well-informed tongawala, beats up a British soldier under the false impression that everything has changed because of the Government of India Act 1935. ‘Mozail’ is no woman. She’s a pair of collarbones, a bundle of sticks, a full can of paint rolling away from you. She’s so shiny she leaves a painful dullness in her wake. There’s a story about ex-comrades who find themselves on opposite sides of the border post Partition. There’s a story about a man who watches his wife sleep while he daydreams about another woman, one who smells of rain. There are many about prostitutes and they are always sad in the most sad way it is possible to be sad: simply. There are also a few that feature Manto himself as a character. These read like an instruction manual, a message from beyond the grave in which the writer seems to be saying: all you have to do is be present and keep your eyes open.

Before he died, Manto composed his own epitaph (it was later replaced with another):

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all secrets of the art of fiction writing. Under mounds of soil, he is still wondering who the greater short-story writer is: him or God?”


March [2018: A Year of Reading Writing from India]

Works read:

Lights Out
By Manjula Padmanabhan

When we discussed the play in class, a majority said that they were surprised at the revelation of the crime. I thought that there was enough evidence leading up to it for it to be predictably horrific, not surprisingly so. What was more surprising to me was the moment when you realise that – having gone through the exercise of hating Leela and co. – you are beginning to sympathise with their desire to cut off from the horrors outside.

Mother of 1084
By Mahashweta Devi

This novel made me want to read more history. More than any of the plays I’ve read this year, I wish that someone would adapt ‘Mother of 1084’ for the stage. It seems to inherently lend itself to performance.

Broken Images
By Girish Karnad

Read this because I was reviewing the Hindi production at Rangashankara and wasn’t sure how shudh-Hindi types it would be. It’s strange how much humour changes when you take it from the page and perform it. At Rangashankara, all the dialogue that I suspected would lend itself to the loudest laughter, slipped through the audience unnoticed. What was funny on the page was simply clever in the theatre. Other lines became funny, the weight of various moments completely changed.

February [2018: A Year of Reading Writing from India]

Works Read:

The Clothing of Books
By Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s words acquire a material quality; you begin to suspect that she isn’t writing words but moulding them the way a potter would clay. In turn, to read her is to be physically tormented by words – they have a way of settling under your fingernails, claiming the hollow of elbows, tucking themselves behind the curves of ears. One wants to scrub them away, yet one relishes in their presence.

In ‘Alias Grace’, Grace Marks, a convicted murderess, recounts her tale to a psychiatrist, Dr Simon. As she narrates her story, Grace works on the squares of a patchwork quilt. The acts of sowing and of narrating become one; a hesitation in the tale is a line of stitches removed. I suspect that when women write stories, their words are often tugged from their physical worlds; pulled from walls and rafters, teased out of the earth, then recast.

Full Disclosure
[A Guarded Space]
By Manohar Shetty

The poet has a way of curating an expectation, only to purposely under-represent it. You are lead to anticipate the explosion of a pressure cooker, but he delivers a gentle thunder in the distance. In ‘Moored’ he writes:

“Their bones twitch,
Thrash as the moon-chained
Tide deepens to darken
Eel-scaled waves.”

In Landeg White’s introduction of the collection, I was surprised to read this observation:
“Apart from its oblique presence, only one brief lyric specifically mentions Bombay.” Shetty has often said that Bombay produces the pressures within which it is possible to write. Yet the city itself is almost absent in his life’s work. I thought of how a professor once said that in order to be able to write about something, there must be enough distance between it, and you.

Son of the Thundercloud
By Easterine Kire

Kire’s characters are excessively polite, grammatically precise, and quick to call out those who aren’t. Pele is angered when Rhalie’s friend does not immediately greet him during a house call; Siedze becomes stern when her nephew makes a casual comment about her hands. This propriety lends itself equally to truth and mundanity. Wisdom is articulated with a disarming nonchalance, but often the tale isn’t given the opportunity to delight, prematurely interrupted by its moral.

When it does delight, it is particularly tender:

“I know it is a big name to carry. It means faithful to the end, and that is not easy. But we cannot continue to give our children safe and insignificant names. It is a way of stopping them from living powerful lives, and making sure they don’t wander too far from the village.”

“ – You mean the famine that took off the abandoned village?”
“ – No, I’m talking about the famine of stories and songs.”

Film Festivals:

The Bangalore International Film Festival 2018


‘Two Irenes’ (Brazil)
‘Symphony for Ana’ (Argentina)
‘Killing Jesus’ (Colombia)


Eating Mangoes with Papa in the Summer

Papa regurgitates the cubed Alphonse
Mango I have put in his ice-cream bowl.
It’s been a year since his hospital stint
That month when he left his body behind,
And embarked on that private adventure.

These days he reads Teilhard de Chardin
A prescription of pens and page markers
Lined up before him like soldiers before
Battle. When the boy from Blue Cross asks him,
“Baba, kya aapko bathroom jaana hain?”

Papa shuts his book, taps the walking stick,
And says, “Pehle mujhe time bataaiyeh.”
I ought to be worried by this response.
Instead, I think of how he has eaten
Five biscuits at tea for the last fifty years;

His fingers refolding the indifferent
Angles of his laundered, pleated shirts;
The way he insists on capitalising
The initials in his email address.
I’m tempted to ask about his childhood,

But only say –
The mangoes will be sweeter tomorrow.

Conversation with a Translator

When U. R. Ananthamurthy asked S. R. Ramakrishna if he would translate his autobiography, Suragi, from Kannada to English, the journalist, composer, and translator declined. ‘He told me that I was to translate four hundred pages in three months. I was still working as a journalist – I am a journalist – and it would not have been possible,’ Ramakrishna says. It was only after Ananthamurthy’s death in 2014, when Ramakrishna was approached by the writer’s son-in-law, Vivek Shanbhag – author of Ghachar Ghochar – that he agreed to translate the work.

The process took two years.

Suragi is not the first of Ananthamurthy’s works that Ramakrishna has translated. ‘I was familiar with his style because I’d previously translated his short story, Stallion of the Sun,’ he explains. Translating the autobiography was challenging for another reason – Ananthamurthy did not craft the work. The material to be translated arrived in the form of memories collected by the writer, Ja Na Tejashree, and the task of structuring the work fell to Ramakrishna. In a tribute published in the Times of India a day after Ananthamurthy’s passing, Tejashree writes, ‘He could hardly recollect things because of his age. But he made it a point to call me at any time of day or night whenever he could recollect little odd things. Once he called at 6AM to tell me about his meeting with Rajiv Gandhi.’

In the AV Room of the Humanities building we sit around Ramakrishna like a pack of cousins around a favourite grandparent, asking for story after story. Ramakrishna reads from Suragi but halfway through each tale he lowers the book, narrating from memory. By the end of the evening, I have forgotten that Ramakrishna was not present for the events; yet he speaks of them as though he were recalling the shenanigans and accomplishments of an old friend. Ananthamurthy’s adventures are not relayed in terms of ‘What happened’ but in terms of ‘What he did.’

In one story Ananthamurthy sits with George Fernandes in an old church, plotting how they will bring down a portion of the Vidhan Soudha in protest of the Emergency. In another, the writer encounters socialist wrestlers who ask him to feel how thick their ears are. In a third, he meets a pupil, Esther, who writes about him so candidly that he falls in love and marries her. Ramakrishna might not have been present at each event, but he is inextricably a part of every story; in the last pew of an old church, in a roomful of sweaty socialist wrestlers, at a table covered with grammar books. He has the same amused smile on his face. He is making mental notes.

In The Clothing of Books Jhumpa Lahiri writes, ‘In the past, when I would go on tour to promote a book, I would read from the bound galleys. When I was forced to use a copy of the actual book, I would remove the jacket. As I have said, the dressed book no longer belongs to me.’ Ramakrishna carries a manuscript. He does not read from it, but it is with him through the evening as he reads from the published work. Every so often he absentmindedly places his palm on the original, as though reassuring himself of its presence. One student asks whether he considers Suragi his own. ‘There are those who believe that a translated work no longer belongs to its original author but to the translator. Given that Suragi is an autobiography, do you agree with the sentiment?’ she asks. His response comes swiftly: ‘Yes.’

A particularly endearing moment arrives in the form of a hesitation. Ramakrishna begins narrating a story in which Ananthamurthy’s father asks the young writer what he is going to do with his life. Then the translator halts. He changes his mind. Without explanation, he abandons the tale, hurriedly introducing another. The expression on his face is a familiar one. It is a look conceived in the moment when one has already begun telling a story about a friend, to one’s parent, only to realise halfway through that the tale in isolation does not paint a fair picture. It does not matter that the story he has rescinded already exists within the pages of Suragi – Ramakrishna’s loyalties lie with Ananthamurthy, the man. Even in his disagreement with some of the writer’s ideological positions, the articulation comes with a postscript – ‘His positions were nuanced and shaped by his own experiences. They might not have applied to someone else in his position, but he had his reasons for them.’

At the end of the evening I am left wondering whether it would have been any different had it occurred at a bigger venue, with a larger audience. I think of how the AV Room’s lights were too dim for reading and how a student promptly stood behind Ramakrishna with her phone’s torch; how the mic crackled incessantly till it was switched off and abandoned; how a girl in the first row hugged her knees, brazenly demanding that the translator read stories from Ananthamurthy’s childhood. I think of my grandmother telling me boarding school stories and how I would toss and turn till I was perfectly comfortable before letting her begin the tale. The summoning of stories always involves some fidgeting, some adjusting, some peculiarity inherent to the space they are birthed into. I suspect that all these conditions were met on that evening. In a stuffy room five degrees warmer than the hall outside, the suragi bloomed again.

Trysts with Tea and Other Beings

This is the image in my head when I talk about my grandfather: he is sitting in the balcony of my grandparents’ house with the Heraldo in his arms, right leg crossed over left, bright pink bougainvillea framing his silhouette. He likes to sit here after his afternoon nap and listen to the koels and the bulbuls in the garden. Every so often he’ll look up and say, “We need to get a bigger bird bath,” but he doesn’t mean it, he’s rather fond of the clay one that hangs from the champa tree, chipped from that time the twine snapped in a June storm.

When I was growing up Pa would look over his newspaper and ask me which section I wanted. I always asked for the bit with the comic strips but he inquired each time, perhaps in the hope that a day would arrive when I’d ask for a more respectable section like City or International Affairs. There we’d sit in silence, a box of khara biscuits wordlessly traveling across the table. Pa always drank his tea faster than I did, much to my annoyance. I could cross my legs, hold the newspaper at an arm’s distance, look ponderously from a sentence to the cashew tree just the way he did – but when he reached for his cup and sipped the tea, I always found that mine was still too hot and was forced to return it to the table. Then Pa would look over his newspaper and ask, “What’s Dennis up to today?” and I’d show him.

Sometimes we’d spot a bird we didn’t recognise and he’d say, “We should look it up in the bird book.” I’d respond, “Yes, we should,” and we’d return to our reading as though the conversation hadn’t occurred.

I have yet to discover another person with whom I can sit in silence so comfortably.

It is 2013 and I have moved to Bangalore for college. The autowalas here have a sixth sense for telling when someone is new to the city, and in those first months I am constantly asked where I’m from. One day a scrawny sort of chap who looks like he could still be in school strikes up a conversation. When I answer that I’m from Goa, he says, “I went there with my friends once. Goa is not part of India, right? Do you need a visa to go there? I want to go again.”

After this indignity I begin to say that I’m from Bombay. What I don’t anticipate is that lying demands a certain consistency that I am not vigilant enough to pull off. I realise that the same autowalas park near my hostel every morning and that every autowala knows every other autowala. And now, because I have lied to one, I must lie to them all – including one particularly talkative man who tells me stories about his doctor-daughter and rascal-son with such warmth and openness that I mentally kick myself for lying. I want to tell stories in return but I cannot.

One day he asks about Bombay tea and I hear my voice tell a tale my mother once told me about her college days in Bombay. This voice describes the annual monsoon floods and the exact, pure joy that only a combination of rain and masala chai can produce. Autouncle is delighted. After this I tell many stories about Bombay. Some are blatantly plagiarised from my mother, others are peppered with my own memories of the city, still others are pulled entirely from my imagination. One morning I take great pains to accurately describe Regal Cinema’s butter popcorn. When we reach college, autouncle says he is hungry and is contemplating a second breakfast. “Shayad open dosa,” he says, as he drives off.

In the evenings I stand by my hostel window with a cup of chai and watch the people on the tree-lined road below. The autowalas are done for the day and are gathered around the smoke shop, their lit cigarettes a family of fireflies. On days that I tell Bombay stories, I come home with a renewed desire to write other stories. I sit at my desk and open my laptop.

My dorm room in Germany is one of five rooms that shares a kitchen. The kitchen is large with a striped blue floor and green cabinets. During my first week there I am unnerved every time I step into it, but cannot articulate why. Then an Iranian girl comes to visit a friend and cooks an elaborate stew of meat and French fries. As she tells us about her dissertation, I imagine delicious cartoon spirals sprouting from the broth. This is the first time the kitchen smells of food. After the German students cook, eat, and clean up, it is as though none of it ever happened. There is no hint of karipatta, no murmur of onion, no cloud of flavour that lounges in a corner rubbing its belly contentedly.

Luca is a linguistics student. He lives on the floor below us. Sometimes their oven decides not to work so he comes up to use ours. He is always carrying a loaf of bread when he does. I notice that Luca’s sentences drop at the end, as though he is terribly sad about the subject at hand. It doesn’t matter what he is saying, at the end I am left wanting to console him about a good grade or that time he got lost in Barcelona and had the adventure of a lifetime. “Lift, lift your sentences!” I want to yell. Then I wonder what my own sound like.

One night I am poring over an archive of Victorian propaganda when I sense that the world has gone quieter, as though someone has dropped a stolen blanket over it. Through the balcony’s glass door I see that the snow is coming down in sheets of white – a car parked at the other end of the quadrangle has already lost its wheels to a steadily rising sea of sparkle. Suddenly there is frantic knocking at my door. It is Luca. “Have you seen it? The first snow. Have you seen it!” It is funny how in our excitement we are reduced to the most basic stereotypes about ourselves. I say ‘just’ a lot when my words are trying to catch up with the impatience of my thoughts. Luca’s hands are having a conversation of their own.

I take the Red Label tea from the box containing tea, Haldirams, Maggi, and Nando’s cafreal masala that my mother has sent. We open the balcony in the hallway and sit down. It is so cold that I cannot feel my nose, but Luca is insistent that the best thing about snow is its smell. I cannot describe it even if I tried. “I knew it was going to snow tonight,” Luca says – “I sniff it in the air early on.” For a moment he looks so displaced, so small. Like the snow is the only thing in this place familiar to him.

I wonder when it will rain and sip my tea.

The apartment is on the second floor of a building whose floors look like each was an isolated, careful contemplation. There is speckled tile on the first floor but ours is a clear, cold beige. On most days Janani is home before I am, but on days she’s late I wander from my bedroom to hers to the kitchen. I have always wanted my own apartment, time that is mine alone, a space in which I am accountable to no one. Now that I have it I am not sure what to do with it.

Around the corner of our place is a spice shop. Every evening on my walk home from the gym I slow down as I pass by it. I am itching to step in to take a closer look but I am unfamiliar with spice terminology. What if I am drawn to a particularly haunting bucket of cinnamon? What do I ask for? A handful? A cup? One evening I tell myself not to be silly and walk in. “Josephite?” the owner asks. “Ha,” I say, looking intently at a basket of Kashmiri chillies. “Many times you walk, never come,” he observes, “Here, take, best raisins.” I leave with an assortment of goodies, all samples. “Next time you pay,” the man says, “This time try. Best quality. Try and see.”

Later I head to our terrace with my cinnamon tea. I take a sweatshirt for a pillow. Somewhere in the distance a woman is telling her daughter to stop fidgeting. Janani is in Koramangala teaching children. Mama phones. “Call your grandfather,” she says, “He wants me to order some book for you but I wasn’t sure if you’d read it. Talk to him and let me know.”

Downstairs, the city scribbles itself into being. A man in the street bellows drunkenly at what is probably empty space. The boys from the third floor are roaring with laughter, but it is far, far away. A lone coconut tree sways in the distance. The sky is never a clear blue. It is a Bangalore blue. Little shadows swim across the surface of my cup.

At the Elephant House

The boy with the postcards
Writes furiously to people in far flung
Places, faces the window as though reaching
For the right word, slippery on the tip of his
Tippy tongue

Outside, the gulls play their gully games
Shadow puppets on the frosted window like
A many-armed Hindu god
Tired with her pose
Took to window-cleaning for fun

A bespectacled woman orders
One chicken corn soup – (Extra corn)
Ham in a potato – (Leave the skin on, dear)
Smears butter onto the steaming tuber
(And a flowered purple sleeve)

A bouquet of French schoolchildren
Affronted by a sign:
“Sorry, no Wi-Fi – Pretend it’s 1995 and talk to each other!”
Sprout telecommunication devices to document
The indignity

By the bathroom, a young couple from a magazine
She in a Zadie Smith turban, yellow pencil
Behind his trust fund ear
Hover over a Sunday crossword
And two cups of hot coffee gone cold