Tuesday, 9 December 2014

It's a chicken and duck problem

says the person who doesn't smoke a pipe, unlike Sherlock Holmes.

There are days when you look around and realise that every major conversation taking place in the mainstream media– be it television, books, newspapers, magazines or the social media– is taking place from the point of view of a white person– mostly a straight, white man, occasionally a straight, white woman. Pick any topic from any part of the world. That is how f**ked things are.

So what to do? Pick up the color pencils and start drawing, that's what. First a duck, then a chicken, then a duck, then a chicken...mindlessly drifting at the rate of one pencil stroke at a time. My own self behind pushing forward the self in front.*

Water color pencils and charcoals on any paper on hand.

*I asked of Destiny, “Tell me who with relentless hand pushes me on?”
Destiny told me to look behind.
I turned and saw my own self behind pushing forward the self in front.
– Rabindranath Tagore

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


A few days back I revived my Instagram account. Do look it up if you are around: http://instagram.com/anvita_lakhera
Remember a post I did on reading and how publishing is "whitest white and male dominated". Well, if you've followed recent events then you'd have come across this (among many articles regarding the same on the 'watermelon joke'):
Why is American book publishing so white: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/dec/02/american-publishing-white

In other news, they are back in town. Migrant gulls in large numbers come flying over the city rivers in winter, be it the Hudson or the Thames. White darts swooshing past my windows, carrying sunlight on their wings. 
While the resident house sparrows seem much satisfied with the bounty offered by grasses going to seed. Thank you very much.
At some point in time autumn without a word to anyone, adhering to a well-clocked schedule, peaked. All before the rains came in.
Sleet on Thanksgiving brought to mind what it would be like in the coming months. Autumn is a far-away dream. Already.

“Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.”
– Mark Strand, “Lines for Winter”  (RIP elegant, beautiful poet.)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A City Autumn

The pumpkins are dozing in the sun.

Princess Jasmine is chasing Snow White and Cinderella (or is it Anna from Frozen, Princesses are so hard to tell apart). Iron Man and Captain America are hanging upside down from the monkey bars. The school playground seems to be holding a symposium of Princesses and Superheroes– the genders neatly set apart. The pediatric dentistry nearby is handing out free candy. It is good for business, I suppose. Little plastic pumpkin buckets overflow with high fructose corn syrup wrapped in crinkle.

The dogs are out on the walk of shame: the Terrier is wearing a pink tutu and the Bulldog is a pirate. The Chihuahua with the playboy bunny ears is hiding behind the trash bags. The non-costumed Retriever looks at me, I look at the costumed humans around me, and smile back in sympathy.

Oh Halloween! How you’ve become the least loved of all occasions for the glorification of the two dreadful S’s– sexism and sugar (the new cocaine, the opiate of the masses). 

One day I step out of the house as usual and come upon this. How unexpected is autumn’s advance. How soon it peaks. And sooner still it is gone.
Even that street reluctantly trudged through during summer now seems almost inviting. Almost. As Ghalib said,

Hum ko maaloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat, lekin
Dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghalib yeh khayaal achcha hai

(Roughly translated: We know the realities of paradise, but/ to keep the heart happy Ghalib this is a good thought)
The light bounces. It is a fact and the unintended consequence of skyscrapers with glass windows. It isn’t just the sun’s trajectory across the sky that determines where there will be light, and where the shadows will fall. The light now received is offered back. Places that once resided in shadows, host startling light projections.

A city park at any time of the year is paradise within reach, unequivocally. Especially, the less frequented parts. I think even Ghalib would have agreed.

“Next stop is 14th Street.” Booms the voice through the air vents on the sidewalk and the subway rumbles on under my feet. Yes, yes, I too could have been on that train and there in the next 4 minutes. But for Sumac’s blazing glory. A sight definitely worth hundreds of footsteps, if not air miles.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

October State of Mind

Last October while walking in Central Park we made three wishes. In time all three came true. How were we to know that that particular twilight was infused with pixie dust? For if we had known we’d not have been so casual with our wishes. And of course, been mindful of the caveat: be careful what you wish for.

Some years ago, we received a benediction; you are lucky to be able to do what you want and to do it at your own terms. The benediction was heartfelt, but how it weighs on our heads. Can you imagine what the benediction entails?

We say, ‘come to think of it all regrets, if there are any, are about not compromising on our principles’. But it is only the foolish that regret, and only the foolish that collect causes for regrets. So it goes.

October is always a state of mind.

October when the harvest comes home. No matter where you live, you reap what you sow. Back home the beginning of celebrations, most prominently marked by the start of the great Indian wedding season. Out here in the global West with the sun low in the sky, the leaves turning color, seeds parachuting in the wind, the harvest ushers in another state of mind, and one that closely resonates with mine:

“Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.”

October, gorgeous October. 

Today it gently rains and outside my window there are yellowed leaves in the wind: hundreds of twirling dervishes, mesmerizing, hypnotic. Now the wind pauses and a lone yellow leaf launches from the rooftop garden far above. Unlike the wind orchestrated frantic twirling from a few moments before, it makes its way down slowly one floor at a time. It took an eternity, but there it is now one with the yellow pile by the curbside.

 It is only the foolish that regret, and only the foolish that collect causes for regrets.

(For another look at autumn in five pictures and poems begin here: http://on.fb.me/1wRoBpG)

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Day in September

“What you remember saves you.”

“Bye, bye, bye…bye, bye”

The kids go round and round while the adults say their long goodbyes at the subway entrance. Watermelon and papaya. That is the color of the T-shirts the kids are wearing. Both are in green shorts. Round and round they go with a palm raised in expectation of a high five. Sometimes their expectations are fulfilled.

Bye, bye, bye…bye, bye.

The words ring in my ears even after I have left the kids a couple of Avenues behind.

Bye, bye, bye…bye, bye.

Every parting leaves behind a memory. Every remembrance is a meeting, but also a parting– even if it is the millionth leave taking. We try not to forget.


“I have always liked zinnias the best.”

Her frail, wrinkled arms push a shopping cart. A bunch of multi-colored zinnias peek from the top. Her much younger companion is holding the cart with one hand while pushing her own cart with the other. Her cart too has a bunch of multi-colored zinnias peeking out from the top.

They slowly make their way across the street.

I am left with a remembrance of zinnias: that flowerbed, that garden, that guava tree– and then one day the bent fender, broken glass, blood, crushed knee caps– leading characters from my earliest childhood memory.
While one of them is sleeping on his deck chair, the other is standing and reading a book. Beautiful dappled light filters from the tree above. Their carts are overburdened with large plastic bags. The sleeping one hasn’t shaved in a while. He has a sharp nose and a sharp jaw line. He looks like Gandalf tired, broken after a long hard, quest. The standing one has neatly combed back his white hair. He looks like an aged musician– Jerry Garcia from his later years.

What is it like to live on a folding plastic deck chair?

I can’t catch the name of the book. I can’t take a photograph. I am not carrying my camera. My hand refuses to budge and take out the phone from the bag.

The moment is soon past. But I remember.

“They closed down all the tunnels. People had to walk all the way across the George Washington Bridge… sirens ringing.” The father holding the hand of his son is saying as they overtake me. “I was…”

The child isn’t a teen yet. He is carrying a bulky schoolbag. Eyes fixed on his father’s face he is listening and learning as his father recollects that day when the world as we knew it came to an end, no matter how far away from the George Washington Bridge we lived.

“I was completely devastated.”

The man is saying, while the young boy nods his head. Both are carrying sports kit bags. Other kids in the same uniform as the boy, navy blue shorts and t-shirts are waiting across the street.

“Yeah! It was painful. And then they lost to Holland too.”

Ah! The Football World Cup. “I’ll never forget when the first goal…” now the boy is talking about the match between Germany and Brazil. The words ‘stunned’, ‘devastated’ and ‘painful’ are repeated frequently. Then even before the light turns green, they are talking about their hopes for the next World Cup.

Members of FDNY are dressed in full ceremonials. They are holding hands of their kids, their wives in their formal dresses. It is a somber sight. People are taking their photos. Soon the photos will be instagrammed with an appropriate hashtag. The next day the photographers will move on. But the people being photographed perhaps will not– cannot –move on.

As I turn off the lamp, a blue glow shines through the blinds. Two blue bolts of light rising high above the skyscrapers and the nightly din, casting a blue glow on every darkened square of glass from here to the edge where all is water. Behind every square of glass countless memories are breathing. Behind every square of glass far away from the glow of the blue bolt countless memories are breathing. Some born today. Never forget.

What you come to remember becomes yourself. What you remember saves you.

*“There is nothing for you to say. You must
Learn first to listen. Because it is dead
It will not come to you of itself, nor would you
Of yourself master it. You must therefore
Learn to be still when it is imparted,
And, though you many not yet understand, to remember.

What you remember is saved. To understand
The least thing fully you would have to perceive
The whole grammar in all its accidence
And all its system, in the perfect singleness
Of intention it has because it is dead.
You can learn only a part at a time.

What you are given to remember
Has been saved before you from death's dullness by
Remembering. The unique intention
Of a language whose speech has died is order,
Incomplete only where someone has forgotten.
You will find that that order helps you to remember.

What you come to remember becomes yourself.
Learning will be to cultivate the awareness
Of that governing order, now pure of the passions
It composed; till, seeking it in itself,
You may find at last the passion that composed it,
Hear it both in its speech and in yourself.

What you remember saves you. To remember
Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never
Has fallen silent. So your learning is,
From the dead, order, and what sense of yourself
Is memorable, what passion may be heard
When there is nothing for you to say.

–W.S. Merwin, Learning a Dead Language

Friday, 26 September 2014

New Learning: Round 5

(Earlier rounds here.)
Is reading a book (by which I mean literary fiction) mandatory for leading a wise life?
Last year in a post on the Facebook page, I mentioned how there has never been a better time for books and people who like to read than the present time. Yet people keep complaining that nobody reads. Even though the evidence points to the contrary. A recent survey showed that millennials are out reading older Americans, and are buying more books rather than borrowing them. (Much to the publishers delight, you’d suppose.) Of course, if you walked around with your eyes open you'd not need a survey to see that. 

Fact is that since reading became something that humans do, there have always been some people who “liked to read a lot” and many who didn’t. But is reading books necessary to lead a purposeful life? In my life I have come across many people who don’t read books (some don’t know how to read) and yet are living meaningful lives, even happy lives if that is what you prefer. After all, reading– especially reading for pleasure– is a privilege. (And obviously related to social class, but that is better left for some other forum.)

I am happy to note that Tim Parks recently shared similar sentiments in ‘Reading Upwards’.  

He also makes another point that I have made many times before that people who enjoy reading Chetan Bhagat/ Dan Brown aren’t going to move onto Manto/Shakespeare. That is a ruse of publishers who only seek a growing bottom line, yet control what people get to read.

That brings me to the second point: Now that the traditional publishing industry is, shall we still whisper it, moving towards an (inevitable?) end, what does it mean for the “world of books”?

I know people who bemoan the end of books as they know it, mostly those who claim to “read a lot”– those who have books lying around on the floor everywhere and so on. Some get to write about it– mostly white people, especially white men of a certain age who have benefited (not just monetarily) the most from the existing structure of the publishing industry. (I don't need to post hyperlinks to prove how whitest white and male dominated the world of publishing and published books really is, do I?). And then I see that people I know are in the process of writing or have written books– especially women of color– many, even a few years back, would have deemed the idea of getting published impossible. In part this is due to the rise of self-publishing and online literary magazines. (In traditional publishing/media the bias is still towards stories told from the point of view of a white person/or what they’d want to read.) Never in the history of human society have so many people written or are in the process of writing books. They may not be writing War and Peace but that may be simply because that’s not what they want to write– at least not in that form.

Which brings me to the most perplexing issue: what exactly is a book? Is it a place where stories live? Growing up in India, I learnt fairly early in life that stories weren’t imprisoned in books– they were free flowing long rhymes, and layered episodes which a person could narrate from memory for days, without a single piece of inked paper in sight. After all, stories have existed since before the invention of paper and the advent of the printing press. And these were truly democratic stories; every narrator would freely add to the existing framework and create something new, while staying close to the original text and its other versions. Consider the epic Ramayana and its several versions: each narrator would borrow from, critique, build on earlier versions and thus carry forward the story. A reason why the story has stayed alive for so long– a version exists to appeal to the sensibilities of every listener down the years.

As A.K. Ramanujan pointed out sometimes the real value of the story lies not in the fact that it resides in a book, but that someone is “really listening to the story” (see page 15 of his essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas").

And let’s not even get started on the gibberish regarding e-readers. All opposition simply confusing the medium for the message: books and e-readers are the medium, not the message. I am fortunate to have some members in my family who have never known a world without the internet. It helps keep my arrogance in check (“things as they were in my time are the way things should always be” that sort of things). For everyone else, here are some of the sanest words ever written on how we perceive any new technology:
“I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Highlands

"Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
The birth place of Valour, the country of Worth; 
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, 
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love."
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer –
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
The birth place of Valour, the country of Worth; 
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, 
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

Farewell to the mountains high cover'd with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer
Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart's in the Highlands, where ever I go.

– Robert Burns, 'My Heart's in the Highlands'