Sunday, June 2, 2019

Rain IV, written in 2009

It rained today. The puddles formed
quickly, coalescing with the hungry mud.
The droplets were big as hail.

I went out to explore the shredded quarry
of my garden. A few roots gleamed here and there,
serpents uncoiling slowly out of their hibernating homes.

Dead leaves were coming to life among
the stripped stones. Moss grew green flesh
over the bones once again.

I knew well this ritual of reawakening, new life
sprouting from old vestiges sedimented for a season.
But the rain had reached farther this time, closing over

riches deep-interred by years of longing remembrance.
The whiff of red rose caught me unawares.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

To Strand Book Stall, and all that it has meant to me

At the age of 17, equipped with a Higher Secondary School Certificate, I decided to earn my own pocket money. My motivation: buying books, building my own little library. I scrupulously put away the small sums I made by giving tuitions. And at the coming of every new year, I would watch out for that large advertisement in red on the first page of the Times, announcing the Strand Book Fair at Sunderbai Hall in New Marine Lines. Spending a whole afternoon there and trudging back through the Azad Maiden loaded with my booty in those glossy beige-cloloured shopping bags from Strand was inexpressible happiness in those innocent days when I would wolf down one book a week. 

Mr. Shanbag and his team soon became angels of joy. Strand Book Stall was never just a store: it was a place where I often made delightful discoveries, always felt rewarded with unbelievable discounts and at times bumped into an equally nutsy friend with whom I could squeal at titles and share a snack on my way back to Victoria Terminus. In those days, Strand was my only hope if I wanted a title that was hard to come by. Soon, I simply stopped bothering to approach any other bookstore, for the amazing guys at Strand never disappointed. What’s more, however difficult to procure the title may have been, they always offered their 20% discount. You can imagine what discounts meant to someone who made around Rs. 3,000 a year.

When I started teaching at Ruia, I made sure my religion of madness was rapidly disseminated among my students. Then the annual book fair became a picnic on which I would be accompanied by a few excited students. I became one of them as we navigated through the crowds browsing the rows of books in the large hall, where my relationship with my young students transformed into friendship. My trips to the store also became more frequent in these later years, for I would regularly order multiple copies of books prescribed on the B.A. syllabus, and the staff would readily oblige. 

Sadly, I have forgotten when I last visitied Strand and the annual book fair. It was quite some time ago. On my last visit, the store still had its loyal visitors, but the old lustre and spirit in the air was gone. Like many other converts, I too have given in to the comfort and ease of online shopping. My home collection has branched into several cupboards and I don’t need to count every penny to invest in books anymore. But I have to admit that with this ease, that joy and sense of fulfilment that each new book brought seems to have dwindled, thanks also to the increased responsibilities of life and work.

What Strand will always mean to me is the motivation to strive for small joys, the carefree discovery of new knowledge and the desire to share that delight with those around me. And it stands for the wonderful tactile, smell-good world of books that are not just digital pages never quite real -- a world distinct from the lure of quick commerce and quicker paperless expenditure. And it means memories of the texture of a book, the colours of its covers, small bends in the mind’s infinite journeys and those pages that slowly turn yellow, shade by shade, when you are not looking.

(Strand, Mumbai's iconic bookstore at Fort, is all set to be closed down permanently. The news has led to an outpouring of sentiment among book lovers in the city.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Misogynist women: a candid post

The story is all too familiar. Years of hurt and seething resentment. Words sharpened like knives against each other. Bottled up frustrations unleashed without discretion. Uninvolved onlookers. Love dying a systematic and early death. And a lifetime of bitterness at choosing such a self-destructive path.

Welcome to the world of women against women.

It would be a cliche to say that we live in a hypocrtical society. Hypocrisy seeps deep into the personal relationships of the average Indian household. And marriages are its worst victims. Not many Indians can transcend the barrier of in-lawhood, because that would involve reviewing thoroughly how adult life changes relationships and assigning a new set of priorities to never lose sight of. It would also require that new values are accepted and old one reviewed and modified if they don't stand the test of honesty. For this we must be prepared to face the glaring contradictions between what we profess to believe  and what we preach to others on the one hand and what we practice on the other. Women typically are too judgemental, too involved in each other's lives and too full of resentments and unjust affections and preferences. While the men either want to keep away from the whole business or add to the hurt of the wife who has to put up with the feeling of being second-rate all life.

That is an unfair comment full of stereotypes, but the stereotype is too powerful because it is so close to the truth. Thankfully, there are many exceptions but there are also innumerable unfortunate instances of reality to support such a conclusion. Many women never experience emancipation from these tangles, except those who are lucky enough to be in families where a healthier atmosphere persists right from the beginning. And many men don't even think the problem is serious: to them, they are figments of a woman's imagination.

The problems are most often psychological, often with a significant aspect of the financial. The first depends mostly on caution with words and honesty with actions. The latter has to be accepted as a genuine criterion whose effective management is necessary for happiness. We are usually too quick to say that money is not everything. But the people who make this remark are most likely to use it only to paint the other person into a corner with a moral responsibility they themselves avoid easily. It doesn't help to neglect the M-factor. Keep it clear. Be practical and calculative while letting your warmth guide your desires but keeping sentiment at bay while making decisions to earn, acquire or spend.

So how do we deal with marriages in Indian society? What are the pain points women experience? The first step is to take them seriously, preempt them and stop them from building up. The second is to recognise where our duties towards a person -- be it spouse, parents or children -- begin and end. And to keep those demarcations clear all our life.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Sometimes a person's memory invades your mind at an unguarded moment. And it invades it so intensely that you are left overpowered by a sense of both loss and presence. Today I felt this inexplicable sensation for the dearest person I have lost to death: my maternal grandmother. She passed away 12 years ago, at a contented old age, and the rawness with which her memory came back to me was startling. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she slipped away when I could not be with her and I had to deal with an emptiness I groped physically for a long time. My last memory of her -- as vivid as ever -- is of a woman suddenly weak in body with a strange glow in her eyes hungry for one last sight of her loved ones.

This is not the first time I have felt this sudden emotion in the years after she passed away, but it caught me unawares today after the longest gap in time. I am both shaken and gladdened by the realization that time hasn't really obliterated a dear one. If pain persists, however transfigured, there must be some permanence in life and in love.

Here are two poems I wrote in the memory of my grandmother, with the dates on which I first posted them on my blog:



The day you decided to take off,
I failed to glimpse
the golden chariot
and angels’ wings.

No gesture replied,
though I turned round and round
the house trying to clasp
what had seeped neatly into the past

And then the monsoon came
with the winds and the watery clouds.

I have been sure
these five years
that you were
on the other side.

But last night I woke up
to the sound of a voice singing
as tuneless as ever: there was nothing
in it that spoke of distance.

SATURDAY, MAY 23, 2009


Listening to her gravelly voice rise in song,
I would wait for the sudden drop in pitch
or the change of tune midway.

It is a raga of her own making, we would laugh.

But surer than music-mongers meticulously nailing notes
to lyrics, she performed in magnificent style.
The very walls of the house had grown attuned to her ways.

In youth, her fury could shake and shatter.
Neighbours who thought her a hapless widow
with  children she could barely mind
found themselves confronting an army of bony hands
that set stones flying
towards their gilded window-panes.

The story still startles me. What is true of her,
I would wonder searching her gentle features
lost in the winding alleys of her song, oblivious
to the babble of a busy young world.

Or could this be truer, this feeble puffing
of lips that flap infant-like
as she sleeps wrapped in thin blue sheets?
Her limbs look tired and very old – older than the
snowflakes in her hair.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Flood of Fire: Impressions

This morning I finished reading the third of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire. Although it didn't tire me, my first response would be to say that the book disappointed. Of course, this response may not be echoed by all: being a regular and eager reader of Ghosh's works, I have come to expect a few things in his writing which in my opinion are characteristic of him at his best. It is perhaps in having missed these for the most part of the narrative that my first impulse was to say the book disappointed. As in a way the whole of the trilogy does, in spite of its many marvelous achievements.

But let me leave that bit for a little later. The most appreciable and outstanding part of this mammoth project -- for that is what the Ibis trilogy is more than anything else, -- is its deep, detailed and palpable critique of the peculiar kind of hungry, zealous but utterly composed and self-assured tyranny that came to be embodied by British colonialism. Of course it is widely acknowledged now that this domination of a staggeringly large part of the world by one nation was a remarkable collusion of capitalist greed, racial superiority and military strength boosted by scientific advancement, and one which was often articulated in terms of a religious fervor. We have all read our Edward Saids and the numerous theorists after who have peeled off the many layers of this grand phenomenon. But Ghosh's story brings it all out in visceral human detail, and that of course has been the great strength of his fictional engagement with history, something I have followed with admiration over the last couple of decades. In fact, one could even say that there has been a steady progression and deepening of Ghosh’s historical insight as his canvas has broadened from The Shadow Lines of personally familiar places and occurrences to the Ibis trilogy, whose task is ambitious to say the least.

The parodic and slightly mythical facet of the narrative seems to me an interesting modification of the hyperbolic style that is recurrent in Ghosh. But I didn't quite take to those instances in the trilogy where this is most pronounced. I prefer the Nirmal version of it, infused with poetry, a raw lyrical quality and dreamy idealism. But here it is more cinematic, with visions and shrines, lores and sudden dramatic escapes. It has an important role to play in the narrative and the import (or rather the impact) of the novels, no doubt, but this wasn't among what I could enjoy in reading them. Of course, this is in part my own preference for an old fashioned realism from which I seem to permit only certain kinds of deviation.

Coming to Flood of Fire in particular, I thought that the first half of the book was a bit of a drag. Zachary's escapades with Mrs. Burnham and the page after page of discourse on 'onanism' researched a bit too painstakingly almost made me wonder if some of it was just meant to add pages of titillation to the tome. The descriptions of warfare in the second half are similarly long-drawn and although to someone interested in details of combat these may seem particularly striking, there seems to be a tendency to lapse into minute findings of research here. (My own inability to reconstruct a vivid mental picture of the terrain described added to my distress in reading these pages.) Of course the full horror of the war in all its mundane everyday ugliness had to be brought out and Ghosh does a good job of it, but fiction writing is stretched in the process into mind-boggling lengths of detail. 

As for the 'story', that disappointed me too. It was all a bit too simplistic. Zachary' story of steady fall from innocence, visualized in Baboo Nobo Kissan’s scheme of things as the Kaliyug, becomes sinister capitalist domination represented as tame allegory (in fact the joining of hands between Burnham, Reid and Chan reminded me of the ending of Animal Farm). Mrs. Burnham and Captain Mee are conveniently disposed of in a manner that certainly doesn’t evoke pathos as Bahram’s death does at the end of River of Smoke. By this point in the novel, I was just impatient to be done with the wrapping up that was happening with a rapidity that contrasts awkwardly with the dull pace of the first half. (The ships tips over, so to speak.) I was left with a sense of an epic that had suddenly shrunk.

It is the character of Neel that surprised me. Each of Ghosh’s novels has this intellectual observer-chronicler who becomes the author’s alter ego in the narrative. I am curious to see how this character develops in his future work.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Spotlight: Uma Shashikant

I have never written on this blog about people I admire. Admire long-distance, that is. Mostly through their work or their writing, often both. I have resolved to write such 'spotlight' features every once in a while. Today I will write on one such person and the organisation that she leads, which is distinguished by a rare combination of exceptional clarity of purpose and method, efficient working and a market awareness that does not extend to falling prey to the temptations of expansion to the unfortunate detriment of quality.

I have been reading The Economic Times' weekly supplement, 'Wealth', for almost a year. There is no doubt that it has both increased my confidence in dealing with money and sparked off a lot of interest in the complex, dynamic system that we call the financial market. The space I await most eagerly in the paper is Uma Shashikant's unfailingly sensible and astoundingly lucid column. This author is not just extremely reader-friendly and incredibly adept at phrasing in the simplest, most comprehensible terms every piece of financial knowledge she imparts, but is also sensitive to the investor as a human being. Which is why she seems to have this knack of putting her finger on what is financially crucial as well as personally significant for her readers in making the right decisions. Come to think of it, investments are all about our desires, our well-being and our emotions. In fact, a strain that runs through every article of Shashikant's is her tactful advice to be judicious with our emotions while making financial decisions -- something that will, eventually, only bring us health and happiness.

Uma Shashikant is the Managing Director of the Centre for Investor Education and Learning (CIEL), an organisation which, as I learnt only today, is based in Mumbai but functions largely on cloud technology with the team working from home. Again, most admirable because it is so sensible! The internet is full of praise for Shashikant as an exemplary teacher and trainer. Indeed, I have a good mind to preserve her articles for use in my language classroom as fine examples of lucid articulation.

There are two more points that have enhanced my admiration for CIEL. First, the organisation is almost an all-woman venture, with a team of exceptionally well-qualified and experienced women from the fields of finance, law, information technology and design. (Here is their page.) That makes me very proud as a woman and very hopeful about women building better lives for themselves and the society at large. And the second point is the organisation's clarity about its own goals. As Shashikant puts it unambiguously in this interview, they do not deal with end customers and are essentially a small organisation modelled on providing intensive service rather than taking on too many projects. It is obvious that they have identified a strong market need and have placed themselves neatly as service-providers, but are not out to capture more and more space. And that is a very rare choice indeed in a world where quality is quickly compromised in favour of unrestrained expansion.

Hats off to Uma Shashikant and her team. I am sure I shall keep enjoying and benefiting from her column for a long time! For a sample of her writing, do look here.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Will to Die

I just googled "suicide". At the top of the page was a helpline number that simply said "Need help? In India, call XXXXXX". A desperate hand from cyberspace attempting to stop the desperate reader somewhere, somehow. Of course, the democratic search engine also lends an equally helping hand even before you finish typing the word, offering "suicide methods" as one of your search possibilities.

Wikipedia affirms that opinions on suicides are numerous and that these are influenced by "broad existential themes such as religion, honor, and the meaning of life." A blog attempting to stop the faceless googler from that one irreversible, horrifying step tells them with assurance that the decision is an impulse formed at a moment when the experience of pain exceeds the means available to cope with it. A view that most rational individuals and most mental health professionals would probably concur with.

"I can't go on, I can't bear it anymore" seems to be the most obvious reason for anyone to direct fatal violence against themselves. Almost everyone of us has felt such despair at some point or the other in life. But we pull on -- either because the actual act of violence thankfully takes much more effort and courage than the thought itself, however strong, or because we think of the numerous responsibilities and the bonds that keep us stringed to life even if it is killing in there. Or, like Viktor Frankl suggests, some of us still hold a strong conviction that our life has meaning, for there is a "will to meaning" in certain individuals, more powerful than pain and despair.

Inherent in the whole idea of "will" is the human capacity for, well, obstinacy. An obstinacy to the point of obsession. So we may be obsessed with power or with wealth and that at times is sufficient to drive us through life, even if it may blind us to everything else. Like possessed creatures we go about in pursuit of that which grips our minds. There is obsessive love too, of course. It seems that the obsession to live for some such thing we have convinced ourselves about is one of the only two reasons why most of us don't actually pick up that blade. (Of course, as I said above, after the picking up of the blade, there is a further deterrent in the fear factor.)

The other reason, I would say, is the ability to be securely thick-skinned and thus to carefully stay just within that dangerous line that separates commonplace existence from a tiny but cataclysmic step into disturbance and possible unhinging. We manage to stay put on the needle point, getting inured to its prick over time, knowing that a slip would mean a plunge into that unknown abyss which we are sure is unspeakably worse than this pinned existence. Here are the closing lines of an A.K. Ramanujan poem that captures this common feat in a dry tone that is particularly hard on religious nerves: At the bottom, of all this bottomless/ Enterprise to keep simple the heart’s given beat,/ The only risk is heartlessness. ('The Hindoo: The Only Risk')

But returning to my first point about obstinacy -- and here is my clinching couplet --, eminently capable as we are of being obstinate in creating meaning with our lives, not all of us might exactly be "giving up" in choosing to die. To those who will have either all or none, to those who will fight to their last breath to keep a relationship alive or to see their goals met, suicide might not be the result of mere despair that pushes them overboard. I have a slight objection to the general perception of suicide as an act of crumbling under pressure, a surrender to the might of pain. Obstinate creatures that we are, we also harbour within us an indomitable will to die. Our very stubbornness may prefer dying to a giving in that implies a giving up of what we lived for or believed in. Is such suicide mental illness? If so, this illness is the very quality we admire in the extraordinary -- the quality of grit and never-say-die -- that also manifests itself as a will to die.