Thursday, 25 February 2010

One fine day

What's this? No clues here. I’ll need to use all my monkey senses to get to the bottom of this.

Aaargh! Trust humans to take something perfectly edible and turn it into something utterly revolting. Sometimes I have serious doubts about evolution.

Hey! What’s this? Let me take a look. Seem like there's something inside.

Ah plastic! No mystery left to be solved here. This is something vile and absolutely no fun. Much like this damn place.

Now here's something I could use. If only I had a compass and a road map. I’d been outta here. Sigh!

(All photographs by Anvita Lakhera.)

Monday, 22 February 2010

Happily Ever After

The first time you hear them is when you are in the green vegetable isle stuffing handfuls of bhindi and broad beans into plastic bags. It is 8:30 PM on a Saturday night, so carbon footprint and food miles are not a priority; you simply want to get back home. That is the first time he says to her, “You don’t cook kathal these days.” She murmurs evasively. And since your mind automatically makes a mental note of the people you are eavesdropping upon (even if inadvertently), so as your hands pick and thrust through heaps of bhindi, you take a quick look. The man is your average urban Indian; overweight dressed in a striped t-shirt and jeans. A male version of the "Empress of Blandings". His wife by comparison is Piglet. Perhaps more accurately a grasshopper. Next to him, she looks thin, frail and nondescript. They are your age, probably younger, the mind notes and closes the file. The last observation seems mandatory these days.
It is the way he says kathal that makes your ears stand on edge. Visions of a cool and large kitchen, hands soaked in mustard oil, the sharpened knife just before it makes the first strike in what would be hours of extreme labour, float in from nowhere. And you move along towards the pile of tomatoes. The kathal almost forgotten.
Later when you are picking grapes, disgusted by the man next to you who squeezes each grape before putting the bunch in the bag, that you hear him again, “It has been ages since I had kathal.” This time you deliberately look up. They are standing in front of the pile of kathal. The wife seems to have shrunk further in the past ten minutes. The man continues, “Last time I had kathal was when mummy cooked it. It was absolutely delicious. You never cook kathal for me. Lets buy some kathal today,” he ends picking up one of the bigger specimens on display while the wife demurs, “yes, yes I will make kathal if that is what you want. Yes, yes lets buy some kathal. If that is what you like.”
Vision of a tiny kitchen in a one BHK flat, in a suburban housing society with the outer walls gray and green from years of neglect in the Mumbai monsoon; a tiny kitchen platform large enough to hold the gas stove and maybe, if the builder was a human, a few jars of spices, frail hands soaked in mustard oil, the knife hacking the kathal, the oil sizzling in the kadhai, the smoke reluctantly leaving the tiny kitchen window, the sounds from the TV in the hall blaring the SA vs. India one day match commentary, float in. As do other more profound visions of matrimony.
Kathal will definitely be served for lunch this Sunday. For theirs is a happy marriage.
(For M+C on ten blissful years of matrimony.)
*bhindi is the Hindi name for okra
**kathal is the Hindi name for jackfruit

Thursday, 18 February 2010


“The girls these days are so aggressive. You should see some of the girls in my office. Sometimes even I get scared of them.” Ends with a laugh.

His words have stayed with you. And whenever you recount that meeting it seems as if we all were present too. That flat in Vasant Kunj, you emphasize Vasant Kunj as if it adds a new layer to the entire incident, the Delhi summer, you fresh out of college, and the man, not nearly as old as your father but old enough to be our uncle. Each of us has a distinct image of the man. The man who spoke these words nearly 15 years ago. Though each image reflects our distinct perspective on what these words meant. Over the years, and in part due to your constant retelling of the incident, the words have taken on varied meanings. Even your response to them attains greater depth with each passing day. Your silence; that legendary silence imbued with something so solid and grave that the only appropriate reaction seems to be discomfort followed by a strange feeling of foolishness and even shame. The silence that has been the undoing of many a formidable soul.

It isn’t the man but his words that have stayed with you and with us. And we often wonder about that. Did we find the words ‘girls’ and ‘aggressive’ in the same sentence offensive? Was it even offensive? What did it mean to a girl fresh out of college to be told about aggressive girls scaring middle aged men? Were you afraid that you weren’t aggressive enough? The last question comes up almost involuntarily for we all know only too well how vicious your silence can be. And so the recounting and the deconstructing carry on well into the night. Till the point when we couldn’t care less for middle aged men, aggressive girls and even words, their meanings and intent.

But when everyone rails against men, attitudes and words, I only watch you. And every time, at every retelling, I wonder about the other man in the room. The one we never discuss. The man who sat on the cane chair right next to you. The man well past his middle age, the man who is your father. And sometimes I wonder is it because he bore witness that these words have stayed with you. But more often than that I smile thinking about fathers who take their willful daughters to meet middle aged men scared of aggressive young girls.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

In a Dark Time, the Eye Begins to See

(All photographs by Anvita Lakhera.)

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

- In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella L. Bird

“I dreamt up of bears so vividly that I woke up with a furry death-hug at my throat, but feeling quite refreshed.”

If ever you want a travel companion or simply someone to sit with and talk about strange far away places then there will be few as highly recommended as Miss Bird. Even the Spectator admitted in 1879, “There never was anybody who had adventures, as well as Miss Bird.” And what adventures they were!

In her solo journey from San Francisco to the Rocky Mountains, Miss Bird details, in her letters to her younger sister, her passage through isolated wilderness teeming with wildlife, pioneer settlers and newly fledging small towns. Her words bring alive a “truly grand” land with some of the most spectacular vistas; “velvety colouring in crimson and violet; such an orange, green, and vermilion sky; such scarlet and emerald clouds…For colour, the Rocky Mountains beat all I have seen!”

But the objective and astute observer that she is, Miss Bird notes the diminishing number of wild bison, land swindles, politicians buying votes, the fact that, ‘Agriculture restores and beautifies, mining destroys and devastates; turning the earth inside out, making it hideous, and blighting every green thing’ and that, ‘An American is nationally assumptive, an Englishman personally so.’

The benefit of hindsight makes some passages seem prophetic:

‘The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct.’

‘The "almighty dollar" is the true divinity, and its worship is universal. "Smartness" is the quality thought most of… Smartness is but the initial stage of swindling, and the clever swindler who evades or defies the weak and often corruptly administered laws of the States excites unmeasured admiration among the masses.¹’

“Americans specially love superlatives. The phrases "biggest in the world," "finest in the world," are on all lips.”

It is due to her boundless energy, courage and a dash of daring that she survives getting lost in the snow, learns the art of "being agreeable" to the Chalmers family, gets by even as her ink freezes in sub zero temperatures and even prevails over Mountain Jim, her “dear desperado”. In a journey of nearly a thousand miles in high altitude on horseback, often spending the night in less than comfortable quarters, her rare complaint is that she, in keeping with her station as a lady, has to ride sidesaddle when in town. Or that people may find her “Hawaiian riding dress*” non-feminine.

However Miss Bird’s writing wouldn’t be half as lively if she hadn’t had such an eventful and exciting life, especially when viewed from the distance that nearly two centuries bring. At the age of twenty-three years Miss Bird set off from the shores of Victorian England on a voyage to America and the first taste of freedom. She wasn’t one of the pilgrims. Her journey was a prescription for “nervous debility”, a condition marked by low spirits, depression, insomnia and back pain; common among women of intelligence and high spirits restrained by the iron clamp of docility and convention. Not surprisingly on her subsequent return the symptoms resurfaced.

It was only in 1872 at the age of forty when she sailed to the Antipodes that the sickly clergyman’s daughter got transformed into an intrepid traveler miraculously cured of all nagging ailments. She became the second known white women to scale the Muana Loa, the world’s largest volcano. And traveled to Australia, India, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey and Baghdad; traveling with the Berbers when she was nearly 70. And wrote some of the greatest travel books ever. And became the first women to enter the Royal Geographical Society. But most importantly she took the circumstances that life sent her way and, being the lady that she was, “found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one's life and sigh.”

*pictured on the cover of the book. In the second edition of the book she added a note and a rough sketch of the costume "in consequence of an erroneous statement in the Times" that had said, "She donned masculine habiliments for greater convenience."

All quoted text in italics is from the book.

(Afterthoughts on books: part 13)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A year in the life - 2009

(click on image to enlarge and read)
Sit quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself*. Another year in a life.

*zen saying

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Past is beautiful

I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.
-Virginia Woolf