Broken Bridge: Philip Pullman

This week I have been reading two books ResoluteReader led me to. One is a volume from George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman series (more about which in another post.) The other is an old Philip Pullman I found in that second-hand place near Plaza in Connaught Place. Two years ago RR actually sent me his lovely copy of The Golden Compass, first book of the gripping trilogy His Dark Materials , prior to which I was woefully ignorant of Pullman's existance. The trilogy has attained cult status appearing in every list of books from the Guardian's 100 Books You Can't Live Without club to the I-Am-So-Cool list trotted out by the slightly drunk geek who was hitting on you last week.

Pullman was writing for children and young adults a long while before His Dark Materials was raised to the canon. Broken Bridge is one of these older books (ten years older than HDM) and clearly meant for teens and young adults, while the HDM triology has the inexplicable crossover quality that brilliant children's books have. Broken Bridge is set squarely in Wales where 16 year old Ginny Howard lives with her father. Ginny's Haitian mother died when she was a child and she has grown up as one of the two black children in a shiny white small town. Even Ginny's father is white, something that troubles her occasionally, despite the excellent relationship she enjoys with him. Ginny's great sense of pride comes from having inherited her mother's artistic abilities. Ginny sees a future as an artist very clearly. When the story begins she is pursuing both art and French passionately and exploring the implications of being a black artist in a predominantly white country. Does she, as a black artist necessarily see things differently? While these questions are being mulled over there are still friends, her father, a familiar and beautiful landscape to paint and the summer to enjoy.

When things get shaken up, they get shaken up in a big way. She discovers that the two boys she has grown up flirting and hanging out with, have big secrets of their own. Her best friend has a sister she did not know about. Worse, she herself has a half-brother roughly her own age who she never knew existed. Why is Joe Chicago, the gangster involved in her life suddenly? Is it true that her father has been in jail? And who are the strange people she remembers living with as a child? Broken Bridge's fairly straight-forward coming-of-age narrative is beautifully written in Pullman's strong, clear prose. Visual details are particularly vivid in this book as they are seen through Ginny's eyes.

The paintings described in the book are extremely seductive. but there is very little of the fantastic or supernatural in this particular book unlike HDM. The two episodes of that ilk that do exist are extraordinary. One, the appearance of Baron Samedi, coolest of the loa (the spirits of the voodoo) a spirit dressed in a top hat, black tuxedo and dark glasses. If there must be the supernatural, let it be thusly wonderful. The second episode dried my mouth for its rapid and terrifying transformation of that most benign of objects: a grandmother. In this bit, Ginny is having tea with her grandparents and her tiny, white-haired grandmother turns into a raving, foam-flecked loony, in response to an unknown cue.

Pullman takes the inner lives of children very seriously, as seriously as children themselves do. Pullman's children and adults share parts of their lives with each other but are independent entities. Adults are not all evil or all kindly. Their motivations sometimes coincide with what the child would like or might be in the best interest of the child, but sometimes do not. Ginny like Pullman's better-known heroines Lyra Belacqua or Sally Lockhart is very sure of her place in the world and what she will do to retain that place. A fine mixture of ruthlessness and compassion makes them very fascinating protagonists. Pullman is one of the few authors I have read who has managed to combine the startling possibilties of childhood with its equally dramatic menaces. He is widely quoted for his criticism of books that deify childhood. 'I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away... I was looking at old copies of Punch , when it was infused by A. A. Milne's influence - all those beautifully drawn pictures of cutie little children that would never grow up, being sweetie little things to their mummies and daddies.' Even so, his vision of childhood is nowhere as frightening as the world Margaret Atwood creates in Cat's Eye in which she says 'Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.'

Pullman has earned a good deal of criticism for what is seen as violent atheism or even Satanic messages in his book. One very troubled critic who called him the most dangerous author in England, had this panicked query: If there is no God in Philip Pullman's world, then who makes the rules? Well, well, now, now, there, there. I think his characters will bumble along, tough little gits that they are.


An item for the lit-groupie newsletter, I met Jabberwock for the first time at the Zubaan reading and he is as nice as his blog. He said that when he read Broadband and the Bookslut  he was reminded of a Woody Allen story called The Whore of Mensa. Later he kindly sent me a link. Thankee, Jabberwock. It's so wicked, it makes me sigh.

Mmmm...alright I am taking the plunge and posting some of my poems online. I used to have minor paranoia about plagiarism which was justified (If you are paranoid long enough, you will be given reasons to be paranoid.) by an ertswhile friend posting one of my poems on his blog after having added two terrible lines to it! I stumbled on it months later and went through 'the nerve, the gall, the cheek' routine. When confronted he gave me the windiest, drew-himself-to-his-full-height-explanation for it. 
The defence also involved him saying he did not know me too well. In the words of Christine Keeler, "He would say that, wouldn't he?'. Recently, I revisited the scene of the crime and found that he has deleted my infuriated challenge from the comments and retained his own windy explanation and the soft-shoe routine involving his having got it from an unnamed someone who mailed to him. This after having coyly accepted dozens of compliments for the poem from the readers of his very popular blog. The compliments remain online as well, though the post can only be seen by friends. Anne Fadiman was right. Plagiarism most closely resembles kleptomania.

The poems below appeared in New Quest, a Pune-based lit journal last year, but were written a long, long while before that. I am on the verge of disowning them and  this seems as good a way as any. (Woah, watch out! Galloping angsty poet!)

Radha Kalyanam

Her mother bought her

sarees made of gold.

Her mother

never knew

that what she loved best

about women

were the undersides of their breasts.

That though she loved the rest

she loved that best.



I am sorry, ladies.

Can’t serve two goddesses

in one shift.

(And hold the puns

on shiftless lives.)

You! You stop frowning.

It hurts to think.

I’ve decided to live.

And you, you can stop too.

Don’t roll your fine black eyes.

I’ve given up on you as well.

It hurts to feel.

I’ve decided to float.

Next janam perhaps

You will oblige.

A fish, that’s it,

pretty and bright,

one eye to each side

and a life straight ahead.

Mediocrity and what we said


This time it is gone we fear

This time the shudder is real

Only clich├ęs are here

It is indeed the block

And they will chop our heads on it.


Mediocrity and what they said

Guillotine them

And their absurd pretensions.

Who dares stand up spaghetti strung ganja sprung

And announce, “I am a writer.”

Off with their heads.

To the dogs they be fed.

Regurgitate them when they have smart back cover photographs

But until then

let them stay dead.


 Want to write poetry for posterity, royalty and anthology

but there ain’t enough slips between the keys and the lips.

May have been born brown in Malabar

May speak four languages

and swear in three

but can write only in one

And that one still bears punctuation, grammar

standard phonetics

(the nuns in shorthand…

though nuns there were none.)


The convent departs unmourned

from my tongue

in times of stress, irony

raconteur’s joy, political empathy

caffeine overdose

and returns quietly, shamelessly

when money is at stake.


But the keyboard

(the parrot where the rakshas keeps the soul)

will type

no raucous Kannada, no sarcastic Malayalam

no filmi Hindi, no lyrical Tamil

Its cloister keeps me chaste

like no other,

bores me

like no other.




I have never believed that one needs soft lighting and Cycle Brand agarbattis in the background to write. Noise particularly doesn't bother me, neither does silence. I truly don't believe in Writer's Block (shortly after making this reckless statement she was seen dead, crushed by a gigantic butcher's block that fell from the sky) And I am in no position to quit my day job, as the saying goes. I have never wanted to quit the day job (whatever it is at the point). The day job was where all the action was; mysterious bosses, phenomenal-to-freaky colleagues, vague, wandering children who refused to believe that you actually were employed and oh, those juicy cheques that my mother laughs at but keep me in hats

Since the move to Dilli, I have been so little inclined to work, particularly at writing. I don't mind the editing jobs and horrifyingly have even begun to enjoy them, though I am *embarrassed cough* not even vaguely good at it. What I can't abide now is writing for a living. Let me clarify, I mean, all this while, I have got by writing brochures, websites, random reports and sometimes it seemed that I was employed to send tactful emails. And I got a kick out of it all not particularly wanting to preserve my throat to sing any arias. However in the last two years, my previously Protestant work ethic has slipped, alarming kindly employers who wondered how they could have hired such a lazy git. In the first year, I was alarmed too. I was convinced it was because I was working out of home. I still think that factor had a great deal to do with it, as anyone working on their own in a space meant to relax in, will attest to. I recently begged one client to let me work out of his office three days a week so that I could actually deliver his work.

More recently, I have this new disinclination to churn out the content that I have always had on tap. It was frightening me a great deal. What did all this mean, to be so lazy, and happy to live off whoever will subsidise you at the moment?

Well I am happy to report (and with no pretensions to being Virginia Woolf or having fragile nerves) that I am beginning to feel that I was being an irresponsible brat all this while because I needed to write my own stuff. Never mind that poetry has disappeared for the first time since I was 16 and that my golden god, fiction is now pretending to be extremely chummy. Never mind without Bent and the happy band, for the first time in six years, I don't have a lodestone.

Never mind all that. In fact, I think it is because of that, I am thrown back to what many of us were as kids. Socially off-key but not lonely because, excuse me, have you seen the forty stories that I made up in my head in the last five minutes?For once all those elusive, will o' the wisp elements of good writing feels like it could be in my grasp if I shimmy sideways and shoot out my arm and grab it. And suddenly, I am not sleepy, tired, bored, sad or inclined to browse the internet. And I am setting myself insane deadlines with complete sureness of meeting them.

If there was ever a time to quit doing everything else and work on my June 22 deadline, its now. However, we must have broadband and water. Being smelly and thirsty and offline is not an option so back to the content churning and smiling at uneasy employers who know they have lost you to something. "Is she on drugs? Is she in a bad relationship? Was she lying through her teeth when she said she wanted to do this work?"

All of the embattled but not yet embittered who pay me so I can eat, whom I have been letting down, I would like to refer you to Dorothy L. Sayers in Gaudy Night.

“You can usually tell," said Miss DeVine, "by seeing what kind of mistakes you make. I’m quite sure that one never makes fundamental mistakes about the thing one really wants to do. Fundamental mistakes arise out of lack of genuine interest. In my opinion, that is.”

“I made a very big mistake once,” said Harriet, “as I expect you know. I don’t think that arose out of lack of interest. It seemed at the time the most important thing in the world.”

“And yet you made the mistake. Were you really giving your mind to it, do you think? Your mind? Were you really as cautious and exacting about it as you would be about writing a passage of fine prose?”

“That’s rather a difficult sort of comparison. One can’t, surely, deal with emotional excitements in that detached spirit.”

“Isn’t the writing of good prose an emotional excitement?”

“Yes, of course it is. At least, when you get the thing dead right and know it’s dead right, there’s no excitement like it. It’s marvellous. It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day--for a bit, anyhow.”

“Well, that’s what I mean. You expend the trouble and you don’t make any mistake--and then you experience the ecstasy. But if there’s any subject in which you’re content with the second-rate, then it isn’t really your subject.”

“You’re dead right,” said Harriet, after a pause. “If one’s genuinely interested one knows how to be patient, and let time pass, as Queen Elizabeth said. Perhaps that’s the meaning of the phrase about genius being eternal patience, which I always thought rather absurd. If you truly want a thing, you don’t snatch; if you snatch, you don’t really want it. Do you suppose that, if you find yourself taking pains about a thing, it’s a proof of its importance to you?”

“I think it is, to a large extent. But the big proof is that the thing comes right, without those fundamental errors. One always makes surface errors, of course. But a fundamental error is a sure sign of not caring. I wish one could teach people nowadays that the doctrine of snatching what one thinks one wants is unsound.”

“I saw six plays in London this winter,” said Harriet, “all preaching the doctrine of snatch. I agree that they left me with the feeling that none of the characters knew what they wanted.”

“No,” said Miss DeVine. “If you are once sure what you do want, you find that everything else goes down before it like grass under a roller–-all other interests, your own and other people’s.”

Well and truly launched

The Zubaan anthology had its second little event yesterday at the Habitat Centre and is now floating out there in the real world. I enjoyed reading a chunk of Broadband and the Bookslut yesterday, particularly because I just finished writing a second story in the series the day before yesterday. Otherwise by now Broadband has been around long enough to begin looking very dull and alien to me. Right about now is when I would start getting a sheepish expression everytime I looked at it or someone mentioned it. Or worse, feel that I didn't write it at all and this is all a strange dream.

Being part of a writing group is really working for me. The group meets once every fortnight and has some of the most interesting and motivated writers I have ever met. I have attended three meetings so far and I continue to be startled at the quality of writing and the quality of critique. I read the new story The Singer and the Prince in the group on Monday and was deeply satisfied by the nature of the responses. I wonder whether I am jinxing it but I suspect not. Fear of public ridicule is always such good motivation. So *deep breath* I hope to finish the nine stories of the series by June 22. Two down. Seven to go.

Beasts in my bed

When I was nine, I read a chapter from My Family and Other Animals and I can still remember whole paragraphs of Gerry angling for a baby donkey as a birthday present. This is not a reflection of my acute memory (thanks, Ayurvedic Concepts). It's just that I've read the Durrell books over and over again and I still snigger when brother Larry reaches for a box of matches at dinner and gets a box of baby scorpions. Oh Larry, did you really encourage 'that bloody boy' to write those insane stories about your family? Did you know that after you wrote Spirit of Place, he would write a book called Fillets of Plaice ? Gerald Durrell, like Helene Hanff, is one of those writers whose literary success can clearly be traced to the charm of their personalities and their madcap lives. So powerful is this factor is that it almost obscures the clever writing.

Last weekend, I found a book written by Jacquie Durrell, Gerry's first wife. Beasts in my Bed is a book written in the same oeuvre as the Durrell books, full of lively animals, eccentric, colourful people and looniness. Jacquie, a much less accomplished writer than Gerald, trades more heavily on the charm of their lives much more heavily. Jacquie worked alongside Gerry from the first month of their marriage. She helped him write and edit his many, many books. She was part of the expeditions, working long, muddy, gruelling hours looking after animals. This book, written by her in her late 30s is full of love and respect for Gerald but is rendered ironic because of the reader's knowledge that a decade later she would divorce him. She does touch upon the demands Gerry's vocation placed on their marriage but does not (obviously) talk about his drinking, one of the major grounds for their divorce.

Even PG Wodehouse has more serious moments than Durrell does in his books. Jacquie's book, despite its efforts to stay within the endearing sunlight of Durrell antics, where there is no space for grief or tragedy, gives away too much without meaning to. First, Durrell's arch footnotes appear throughout the book. I kept wanting to say, 'Straighten those eyebrows! Now!' The footnotes are meant to be funny and bloody-minded but the humour fails completely. There are startling lapses into the brand of humour that a friend calls 'My wife is the Home Minister, heh, heh!'

Jacquie was a 19 year old with an extremely promising career in opera when she met Gerald. She married when she turned 21 and gave up her career. From the beginning, it was clear that there was no space for two careers in that marriage. Jacquie grew attached to the animals herself and became integral to the expeditions and the zoo. And after the first chapter where she talks of her decision to marry and assist Durrell in his life's mission, she never talks of opera again. She lightly talks of her family's opposition to the marriage. The truth was that after she eloped with Gerald, she never spoke to them again. There are some intriguing differences in Jacquie's narration of the lives that all of us followed adoringly in Durrell's books. One of the few things that makes one wince when reading the Durrell books is his embarrassing colonial-sahibness. Gerry grew up in India, the son of a dyed-in-the-wool empire builder. The paternalistic 'chop chop bad beef' attitude is visible in the Africa books more than in the Corfu books. Jacquie on the other hand, does spend some time reflecting on the extreme poverty of the indigenous people in South America (though she says categorically that she hates going to Africa.)

 In all of Gerry's books his mother is an amiable, bumbling woman who is obsessed with cooking and frequently scandalised by her children's antics. According to Douglas Botting, GD's official biographer, Louisa was actually something of a stud herself. She was born in Rourkee and though quiet, was highly independent and flouted the racial segregation of the times. As a young woman she trained as a nurse, scrubbed floors and travelled to remote locations with her railroad engineer husband.  In her own way, she was as eccentric as the rest of the family, with a taste for gin, a serious interest in the paranormal and a supreme ability to let her children be. It is through Jacquie that one gets a tiny glimpse of this wild Louisa Durrell, known only as Mother, in Gerald Durrell's books.

Gerry was said to be shocked when Jacquie walked out on him and found it difficult to believe she was serious. He did marry again, and this time it was to a  young naturalist called Lee. I find that in at least one Gerald Durrell fan club online, the ethics of Gerry's two marriages are as passionately debated as the relationship between Jane and Thomas Carlyle. Jane Carlyle was a child prodigy and destined for literary greatness when she married Thomas Carlyle. Though he had every single social and emotional failing that an archetypal gloomy and intellectual husband could have and though she was famous for her wicked wit, she looked after his finicky interests right up to her death. She built him sound-proof rooms, played the piano to soothe his fevered brow (giggle) and entertained his brilliant, prickly friends.

A sample of what was going through her mind as she performed these dutiful tasks can be seen from a letter she wrote to her friend, "I begin to be seriously afraid that his Life of Cromwell is going to have the same strange fate as the child of a certain French marchioness that I once read of, which never could get itself born, tho' carried about in her for 20 years. . . A wit is said to have once asked this poor woman if 'Madame was not thinking of swallowing a tutor for her son?' So one might ask Carlyle if he is not thinking of swallowing a publisher for his book?" Millions of years later the marriage is still being debated by anxious academics. "Did she suffer? Did he suffer? If he was such a bastard, what about that self-flagellating book he wrote after she died, where he confessed to having neglected her? Why must we be interested in his wife when he was such a brilliant man? Other Victorian women wrote, why didn't she? Can't have been so clever then..." With a couple of sniggers I must note that I also found out that conferences have been held on the subject of the Carlyles. In the plural. Ah, David Lodge, things are not so different from Small World.

With as much conviction as the Victoriana specialists, if less erudition, the Gerald Durrell Fan Club is divided on the subject of Gerald Durrell's marital perfidies. To return to Jacquie's book, it is quite readable and her essential seriousness gives us Durrell-greedy a sense of gravitas about the Durrell adventures while protecting the ark.

Malayalam is full of sarcastic, side-of-mouth idioms and I have been chanting one of them for the last couple of days. Onnillangel aashande nenjathu allengil kalarikku purathu... It describes someone or some situation which has exasperating extremes. Literally,someone leaps so short that he is on his master's chest and irritating him. Or he leaps so far that he is outside the arena and can't be seen. There's a nice martial arts visual for you. I have been muttering it to console myself. The days of sloth shall return. They shall and in the meanwhile I shall gently stew.

Though I should think twice about quoting martial arts visuals or even quoting at all because I might be accused of plagiarism. Bent tells me that he went to a dance performance in Bangalore last week and was startled by an announcement that the movements were copyright protected. So in case you feel like twisting your thigh to the back of your head in public or curling up in a foetal position on the floor and wriggling, don't! Insane American paranoia is our friend.

And let us extend a warm welcome to

   who joins the free world today to take a breather before she begins her secret project. And in honour of her breaking her shackles, a song, a song, a song.


We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world's great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire's glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

Arthur O' Shaughnessy

Loin clothes and Logophilia

This morning Jannat who comes to study school stuff most days at my house was labelling the Indian states on an outline map (which I am happy to note costs 50 paise each). She has been out of school a couple of years so her handwriting is a little rusty. Today I found myself saying, "Half the effort in maps is learning to label neatly. No, Jannat, neatly. No, smaller letters. It must be legible..." I don't know who was more shocked at this unprecedented prissiness, Jannat or I. Jannat, who has seen the rat's nest the flat is on most mornings, was kind and did not snarl at me. I reeled when I realised I must have been channeling the spirit of Mrs Philomena who taught me geography in 5th standard. With gruesome clarity I can hear her laughing at my slightly kakka efforts at colouring maps. Her most incomprehensible insult was 'Your maps are like cinema posters!'

Thinking of Mrs Philomena immediately reminded me of Swaminathan, little Swami, the prototype Iyer nerd with his flagrant chandanam and firm opinions who suffered acutely in Mrs.Philomena's class. In 5th standard we had a section on Africa, which included several photographs of Masai and Pgymy families. On the fateful day that we were to read the much-looked-forward-to lesson on Pygmy culture and lifestyle, Swami was asked to read. The pages he had to read had a standard issue picture of a group of Pygmy adults and children in fig-leaves. So Swami began to read having reached what he thought was a compromise. Holding the book in his right hand, he stood. He began reading while deftly using his left hand to cover the offensive photograph. The teacher barked at him because obviously, her prissiness was restricted to cartographic aesthetics. (She also laughed at me in Art class because my ducks in the pond, she said, looked like they were pregnant with twins.)Swami protested wildly against having to look at the shame-shame-puppy-shame of adult women but Mrs Philomena was tougher than the Wolverine's cranium. Swami was forced to take his palm off the page, hold the book with both hands and read the Pages of Shame. I want to ask Swami, whereever he is now (and by this I mean whereever he is in Mountainview or San Jose or Redmond or Armonk) have you forgiven her yet? And do you writhe when you have to supervise your children's homework?

In other news, I am in love with a software called Rosetta Stone. Oh the joys of being able to say 'Boy under a ball' over and over again in Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic. Of course, I am also incredibly greedy and am counting the moments till I can install the Oxford English Dictionary, in its luscious fullness, in my computer. I have visions of a polyglot Lara Croft like future, in which I can swim, raid tombs, run around nude and order idlis in Swahili. And also speak to boys under balls.

Why I love NGOs

Because they give me, a known felon, things like this to edit.

"When the session began, the first question was raised by a facilitator on the manner of greeting i.e. “Ram Ram”. It was suggested that since this is biased with respect to religion maybe one should consider using some other form of greeting amongst the group e.g. “bahut pyaar”.  It wasn’t promptly accepted and only one woman from the group repeated this greeting."


Nandigram Rally

Join the rally today to protest the killings in Nandigram 
at Jantar Mantar (Parliament Street/Sansad Marg,
New Delhi, Monday,
19th March at 3:00 PM in the afternoon.

If ever there was your turn to organise, it is now.

Do gaz zamin ku-e-yaar mein

After being lost in Dwarka for aeons Gaya and I managed to get to the Chandni Chowk heritage walk yesterday at 8.30 am. Gaya, her two friends and I were among the few natives taking the tour. The rest were mostly phirangs and NRIs, so the group was in turn a tourist attraction, stopping traffic across Chandni Chowk and earning many droll, eye-rolling comments from the publicks. Two seconds after we joined the group, an elderly white gent turned to me and said something about how he could not hear himself think. I said that it was enough to be semi-conscious and Gaya reprimanded me for being rude. But what's it about some people, that the moment they arrive at places like Chandni Chowk, which they have come, hundreds of miles to see, they run through a thesaurus full of words meaning 'not like home'? (There was once a nice young software engineer who went with me to Laad Bazaar near Char Minar, turned to me in dismay and said, " Oh! I thought it would be like Shoppers' Stop!")

Our guide was not too thrilled by our propensity to wander off to buy food every two minutes. But civilization was not built on an empty stomach and the food in that neighbourhood is irresistible. And if you like your food to have noble pedigree, ooh this is the right place. There was Ghantewala's mithai, oldest sweet shop in Delhi. 1790 is what the sign says. There is also some story that one of the Mughal emperor's elephants was a frequent customer at Ghantewala's and would come to the shop and ring the bell around its neck to be fed.. One of the Americans in the group, whose calorie counter was whirring in his eyes, when he saw the ghee, muttered something about customers turning into elephants. A little past Ghantewala's after we had taken in the sights on the main road we turned into Parathewala gali and did not emerge into sunlight for an hour or so. I want to go back to look at Kinari Bazaar (pretty with yards of tassles and trimmings and beads hanging from every shopfront) and Dariba which has been the place to buy jewellery since the Mughals.And also the lovely Naughara Gali which has a Jain temple, a couple of beautiful havelis draped in vines and flowers, a little performance space where tawaifs danced in better times,  all of which goes back several hundred years. The guide said that the houses are occupied by large Jain families.

Then we were taken to an old haveli where the guide says St.Stephen's college began. Everybody got some strange schadenfreude out of that because the rooms of the haveli are now tiny tailor shops with names like Maa Padmashree .

The guide was strange as I suppose most guides are strange. One rarely reads about the brilliance of guides. If Tony Perottet is to be believed then guides have always been strange, even among the ancient Romans who invented this whole tourism business. My major objection to the chap was his casual prejudices about Muslims, expressed in a banal manner while talking about anything from architecture to language. One of Gaya's friends asked me, do you want him to be as bland and colourless as American guides? I know political correctness is deadening but there really has to be a better alternative to a fairly bright young man, who has the good sense to weave quiet moments into his tour, sounding like an idiot.

The banality of his spiel was useful in one sense. At one moment he was blithely talking of the incredible trials of Guru Tegh Bhadur who was first forced to watched his companions tortured to death and was then beheaded by Aurangzeb. He was uninspiring and the group was standing precariously on two inches of footpath, thinking of lunch or perhaps already planning what to say to people who asked us what the trip was like. It occured to me that this is exactly how historical events happen surrounded by bored people thinking of lunch, too blind to see what is happening in front of their faces.

The guide showed us a library where he said the revolutionaries of 1857 used to meet. Next door was the Imperial Bank, which is now a SBI. When I suggested that they should have robbed the bank, Gaya responded that the presence of a Mallu would have helped the Mutiny quite a bit.

The tour ended in Jama Masjid, where I have been many times before. After the guide left and the group disbanded, four of us walked around in the courtyard. I was thinking of scenes from Black Friday and the sense of desperation and solace that Badshah feels at the Jama Masjid. I have always lacked the necessary equipment to yearn for God, like other people lack a sense of rhythm or colour, but for a couple of seconds I yearned to be young and Muslim and male, kneeling in spotless white with hundreds of others. Then one of the others said something wistfully about congregational prayer. I told her how similiar Jacobite church services are similiar to low-impact aerobics lessons, everyone laughed and the moment was gone.

I I wish Madhulika Liddle had been there. Her Muzaffar Jang, the Mughal detective would have been a blast to have along.

The book the book

No sign of poise anywhere in sight so apologies. People, the Zubaan book is out in bookshops now.

We had our first launch thingy yesterday at The Bookshop in Jor Bagh. A shop so small they had to take out two book racks to make space for the twenty odd people who turned up. But it had many juicy books that  I wanted to buy and the nicest owners.

I met some of the other contributers and was thrilled to bits. A little discussion followed, moderated by our lovely editor Anita Roy, who was her usual sharp and loony self. I said several unneccessary things and was allowed to.  Of the 25 copies on display 23 were bought. Six of us authors madly autographed everything in sight, ate brownies and looked smug.

(Except when I was gawking at Urvashi Butalia. Who thankfully does not remember that the first time I met her at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, I talked to her for 15 minutes and asked her what her name was when I was leaving. I was kicking myself all the way to Bangalore.) I also was super excited to meet Madhulika Liddle who contributed the lovely Mughal murder mystery to the anthology. She says that she does a lot of research herself and has a sister who is a historian too.

I had seen the book for the first time the previous evening. I actually took it out of my bag to look at 10 pm at the metro station. There were three people in the whole train when I looked up again. It was spooky to see two men staring at me because they had nothing else to do (People should read more!) and to realise that I wanted to say even to them. 'Hey, this is no ordinary book that I am reading. This book has my name in it. Several times. It has my name in it. And it's very cool.

There are other launches coming up. Please come and please buy the book if you can.

22nd March, Crossword Bookstore, Bangalore

Meena Kandasamy, Anjum Hasan, Ruchika Chanana, Adithi Rao, reading short exerpts from their work, followed by a discussion (moderator: Anita Roy)

 27th March, Habitat Centre, New Delhi. 7 pm

Shahnaz Habib, Nisha Susan, Anita Roy and Jeet Thayil discuss the topic "What's 'New', Pussycat?" (!!!) - The discussion will centre around the new forms, styles, genres of writing which young writers from the subcontinent are using. Whether there is, in fact, a ‘sea-change’ in literature by the younger generation or whether this ‘newness’ is merely driven by the media-hungry, publishing industry. How does gender affect one’s sensibility, either as a writer or as a reader? What does the future hold for literature in South Asia – and internationally?

I am looking forward to meeting Shahnaz (who lives in New York) and whose story about bride hunting in Kerala is hilarious.

And if you live elsewhere then I am not sure which bookstores are stocking it but you can buy it online from the Zubaan site here. And the cover is no longer so muttai pink! Its muttai green now.

Almost forgot. There is an old CNN IBN newsclip about the book here. The video link is on the left and features two very interesting women, Susan Koshy (who writes under the name of Mridula Koshy) and Annie Zaidie.

The Uncommon Reader

What happens if a reigning monarch, whose native tongue has one of the richest literatures in the world, decides in her old age to start reading? She has met every great writer of five decades and has so far only discussed the weather with them because, 'one did not read.' So what happens now?

Alan Bennet could have made this a straightforward satire. Certainly there is ripe material when one imagines the Queen of England suddenly going book-mad. The story in fact begins with her trying to chat up the President of France about Jean Genet. "Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he's painted? Or, more to the point, was he as good?"  she asks, the panicked President.

Nobody likes the Queen reading because it distracts her from opening parks, mines and sessions of Parliament. Her private secretary deplores his name (Kevin) and his country of origin (New Zealand) but he deplores the distraction of the monarch more and plots against her sole support, unattractive kitchen porter-turned-amanuensis, Norman Seakins. Norman prefers gay writers (hence the Genet!)

Bennet is one of those rare creatures, popular and funny and adored by critics. He could hardly make a wrong move. In this story, The Uncommon Reader, he uses the queen's unique position to gently meditate on the nature of reading and the nature of writing, without ever letting loose his grip on the story. The phenomenal ending also is an optimistic speculation on the nature of the influence of reading on the reader. Uncommon as she may be.

I love this story and could marry it. Let it not be said that I have unreasonable responses to short stories.

Ramu Ramanathan's Cotton 56, Polyster 84, won everything at the META Awards today. The play won awards for the best play, best script  and Cotton's lead Nagesh Bhosale took home the award for the best actor. Yeeeehaaaa!

RR on Kitab

I missed RR's play Cotton 56, Polyster 84 again and am miserable about it. It came to Dilli yesterday because it was nominated for the META awards.  I would root for his play out of loyalty but RR and K, his wife would never speak to me again. (However, if Dark Horse wins I shall just have to join a monastery.  I saw three-fourths of it and ran out. The only good lines were Arun Kolatkar's. The only thing more embarrassing than the direction is the sycophantic reviews. One reviewer only wonders why the musician on stage does not have a broader stool to sit on. )

I had mentioned one strange incident around Cotton in a recent post but Cotton has been the subject of controversy before. Last October, three shows of the play was cancelled in Nagpur by the police whose slitted eyes saw Naxalite wherever they looked. RR has old-fashioned clarity about ethics and art and Virginia Woolfish standards for himself. So if you mention Mahadevbhai, his brilliant, popularly, critically acclaimed play, he gets depressed because he is convinced it was a fluke! 

The following is Ramu in HT frowning violently at the Kitab fest.

"Whose KITAB is it anyway?

They came. They saw. And they concurred among themselves. A quick glance at the who's who of Kitab Fest; and one detected the absence of Maharashtra (Dilip Chitre and Kiran Nagarkar nothwithstanding). Now, this is a state with four Jnanpiths. It probably boasts of some of the best literary talent in the land. It has a legacy of Drishtantapaath by Chakradhar to Tukaraamachi Gaathaa. From Amrutaanubhav by Dnyaneshwar to Mahatma Phule Samagra Vangmay by Jyotibaa Phule. The plays by Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar and Satish Alekar and G P Deshpande. The poems of Vinda Karandikar and Arun Kolatkar and B S Mardhekar and Namdeo Dhasaal and Narayan Surve. The novels by Bhau Paadhye and Shyam Manohar and Ranganath Pathare and Balachandra Nemade.

All snubbed, all forgotten.

Like I said, it would have been nice to have found a validation for the above in the Kitab fest

Many years ago, there was a dramatic moment at the Vidrohi Literary Fest (hosted in Dharavi) that I still remember. It came during the lunch break. We were served roasted beef. This was a Vidrohi-styled statement against "the upma and sheera" being served at Shivaji Park during the upper-caste Marathi Sahitya Parishad. While I was gobbling my food, an important Dalit poet was quick to point out, “Don’t blame us. For years, you have demanded we get our act together, open up. And now that we have and the payback is at hand, you don’t like it.”

His point resonates everytime there is a Kitab Fest, or a similar fest. His point challenges one of the great contradictions of the global-literary debate. It begs the question of the powers that be are pushing back so hard against the very process of literary integration it has so long espoused.

Of course, motives are always open to subjective interpretation. But I suspect that Vidrohi poet's point touches on one of the most important, but overlooked issues in the current literary debate - that the Anglicised and Brahminised are simply unprepared for the successes of the other world.

Let me explain: Even as the Kitab Fest was going through the motions at Prithvi Theatre on Sunday; a Literature Fest was hosting its concluding session at P L Deshpande auditorium. It boasted of Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Sadhu; and writers from more than 10 nations. Naturally, it was totally blanked out by the mass media, print and tv.

Anyway, on Sunday afternoon, Mumbai witnessed a huge power failure. The Kitab fest came to a grinding halt. But at P L Deshpande, the performance of JAMBHOL AKHYAAN merely shifted to the quadrangle. Then when the electricity was restored, this superb piece of theatre returned to the mini theatre - along with the audience. The show had to go on. No fuss, no hang ups. What it showed that for literature (and theatre is literature, too) to survive in the real world, one cannot be lacking in preparation.
As Dhasal stated in his concluding remarks, "we've lost huge amounts of money. But we'll be back, next year. Bigger and louder. The time is ripe for a political backlash. As long as our fight continues against the system, we will make sure our voice is heard." "

Young man from B'lore told me a year ago, " I am moving to Delhi because I like its elite culture."  I nearly rolled down the steps laughing. At the time I was superior South Indian content to become part of the weed and rot and mud of my wannabe but mostly civilised Bangalore. Here I am now mewling weakly in the Outer Mongolia of Delhi. How did this happen to me?

Many dheergashwasams later I am barely ready to admit that on Saturday I went to a museum and it was rather cool. The National Gallery of Modern Arts to be precise. And it was all rather socialist, subsidised, well-designed and inclined to make one mildly approve of the state. And Moolchandji at the reception is a sweetheart who does not laugh at you when you make contrived bilingual puns while buying prints.

I strongly recommend going off to the NGMA and gazing at the Benodbehari Mukherjee centenary retrospective. Earlier I had dawdled past the SH Raza exhibit, with an expression of subnormal intelligence as I saw painting after painting of The Bindu! I looked around at the four or five other visitors who were staring at the paintings with the too-familiar Insect Woman expression.

(The Insect Woman expression, if you have not heard this one from me before, is the expression people have at cultural events when they do not know whether to be appalled or deeply appreciative and don't want to let on that they are waiting for someone else to bell the critical cat. Origins of this phrase (circa 2000) lie in the incident of 25 bearded men and lionesses looking profoundly stoic after a screening of the Shohei Imamura film Insect Woman. The film had several rather puzzling scenes of incest including one where the female protagonist working in the field soon after childbirth casually asks her father to suck her breasts to make them less swollen with milk. I came out of the movie with my hair standing on end and was then outraged to find that no one, absolutely no one in the lobby would make eye contact, for fear of being asked what they thought of the movie. Hence the phrase.)

So. The Raza exhibit puzzled me as abstract art usually does. Mostly they were outsized canvases with outsized circles in virulent colours and I almost channelled the scornful spirit of my ancestors in Pathanamthitta. Except when a cool one called Bangladesh spoke clearly to me. Then I wished I knew a little more about art.

However, the vast Benodbehari Mukherjee (1904-1980) retrospective (after your run past the Raza with its hypnotic circles) is wonderful and accessible. He seemed like the artistic equivalent of Sai Paranjpe, witty, poignant, observant but very janta.  I thought of Snegum and my other ardent tree-worshipping friends when I saw many of his landscapes. He also has a heart-warming portrait called The Tree-Lover. His portraits are in general very satisfying and so are the paintings from his spell in Japan and Nepal. If you are a philistine like I am, I think he is the artist to start with because he makes you so happy.

The photo exhibit about his life deserves a lingering read as well. His eyesight was damaged when he was a child and he became completely  blind in his fifties. Nevertheless, he spent the last couple of decades of his life working and even inspiring cinematic tribute by Ray in a film called The Inner Eye.

At the exhibition spot this picture of the embryonic artist with his brothers. As they looked at the camera, he looked at them.

A E Housman

Stars, I have seen them fall,


    But when they drop and die


No star is lost at all


    From all the star-sown sky.


The toil of all that be


    Helps not the primal fault;


It rains into the sea,


    And still the sea is salt.



Please go watch Black Friday. If for nothing else for one of the coolest chase sequences ever.


Radio paradise is the greatest invention after boiled peanuts. If you have money please support their fundraising drive.

Snegum and I threw ourselves out of the house fairly early since this was going to be a packed day full of poetry and we also wanted to meet some friends in any window of time that opened up. Also, Snegum was clear that there was no way she was going home without having wet her feet in the sea.

Listen, do you have any clue what one should wear at a lit-fest? I have figured what to wear at a party thrown by gay men anywhere, to a wedding in Chennai in summer, to a play in Delhi in winter, at the World Social Forum and to lunch in Tiruvalla. What does one wear as a lit-groupie in Mumbai where one does not want to frighten people, look like a wallflower or look like one is trying too hard?

SB, writer and publisher, was wearing a black summer shift, making her look relaxed and leggy. The very lovely Tishani Doshi wore a saree immediately reminding us that she is a dancer who trained under Chandralekha. The elder statesmen of the poetry world, AK Mehrotra, Dilip Chitre and Adil Jussawala all wore neat, unremarkable pants-shirt-waistcoat combinations. Eunice D' Souza was wearing her trademark saree and smirk, making me think me of the dozens of brilliant Eunice-in-the-classroom stories I have heard. The flotsam and jetsam like me wore blindingly bright and ridiculously cheerful Tshirts and dresses. Today's venue was Prithvi theatre and its cafe. I saw KK Menon going by, looking tall and calm. What did Prithvi regulars make of the writerly lot, all of whom looked vague and few of whom looked like they got out much?

FInally the readings began. Adil Jussawala was the first one to stand in the spotlight, stooped over his notebook. Jussawala read Colour Problems in the family and a few other poems in a clear, unpretentious manner letting the words float up to the listeners in the dark theatre. Suniti came next, and read a sequence Twelve Ways of Looking at a Giant from her new book Sycorax.  Wonderful poems in themselves,  the excellent timbre of Suniti's face and her permanently puckish expression  made everyone  laugh and relax.  I looked around and saw that the theatre was nearly full, always a happy sight. (I will post the Giant poems soon.)

A lot of ink has been spent in writing about Mumbai, some great, some indifferent.  Dilip Chitre has been one of the Bombay greats, one of our few bilngual poets, writing both in Marathi and English. The first few poems he read in his ringing voice, such as Gruesome Weather only made me wrinkle my groupie brow. However , when he got to Ruins, a poem he dedicated to Adil Jussawala, my hair stood on end. It is a poem that asks his fellow poet, what they have achieved from writing poetry and was it a task worth their lifetimes. (What reader did we bear our cross for?/ Even vultures have stopped visiting the towers). He goes on to ask if there were other people to take on the task (Is something about to happen? Is your baton about to freeze?)

I was still shivering when Deepankar Khiwani came on stage. Deepankar read in a fading, dolorous manner that instantly irritated me, partly because I was still stuck in the earlier poem, partly because I hate seeing arty agonies when people are reading poetry. Through a mist I heard him saying words like "concordant,' 'felicitous', 'disconnectedness' and at some point, 'equipoise.' I resigned myself to my fate by thinking of brownies at the cafe.

When Snegum and I came out we were suddenly aware that there was going to be an Open Mic event in the afternoon. Did I dare read at the Prithvi Cafe? Aargh. I put it out of my mind with the comforting thought that I was carrying no poems with me. We ate, stared at the pretty people, eyed the bandage-wristed writer and bought great masses of boiled peanuts. Snegum said that when she is famous and has public readings she would allow people to eat peanuts while listening to her. I argued that she would not.

In this manner time passed until the next session. In this session was Vivek Narayanan who began his reading off-stage alarming half the audience. Then he appeared on stage and read for a rather long time. While some of his poems had charm, I wondered again what they would be like without the topical references. He also sang some phrases tonelessly. While Vivek's views on performing poetry are public and interesting, his performance itself would be more interesting if it was more relaxed and less studiedly self-conscious.

Jane Bhandari came next. I have never read Jane Bhandari and found that her poems were young and fun. She was followed by Jackie Kay. Once more I was astonished by Jackie's aura.  She was luminous, warm and supremely funny, mimicking people, telling anecdotes and giggling at everything. I could see that most people in the audience were visibly restraining herself from jumping on stage and hugging her. Even AK Mehrotra was laughing openly. I adored her poem about Bessie Smith's men, which would have been slightly less fun if she had not reading it in her amazing Glasgow accent. And then came Mr.Mehrotra who read from The Absent Traveller and a couple from Middle Earth.  He also read a few new poems.

Outside in the sunlight I was once again torn. To take part in the Open Mic event or not? Looking around at the cafe I was terrified. Also where was I going to find my poems? I rummaged through my bag and found a notebook with three poems I had copied out for Queer Cafe. Then I wrote down three more from memory. Then I ran about asking people about the Open Mic event. First, I was told that I was too late. then I was told that there was not going to be such an event.

Then the Open Mic event was announced. I found a girl who signed me on. I went looking for SB who was drinking something tall and cool. She said,  'Of course, you must read.' I calmed somewhat and went to where all the people who signed up were. I found myself sitting next to a dubious self-published poet and panicked again. I looked about saw Suniti, AK Mehrotra and all the Big Noises walking about and panicked. What on earth was I thinking? I might as well commit professional suicide. Snegum was tranquil and shelled boiled peanuts for me, in an assembly line production that lasted right up to the moment I stood up to read. First, Vivek Narayanan read some helpful, sardonic guidelines about performing poetry. The only thing that I heard in the chaos of that noisy lunch crowd was 'Stand with your feet apart.' I had discovered that for myself and was reassured. It cant be that bad. Kavita Jindal began to read from her collection Raincheck Renewed. Midway through her reading the power went off across Mumbai. In the surprising silence after that, other people stood up to read. Kavita's voice was too soft to carry across the cafe. A wonderful old man stood up and recited Auden's Funeral Blues. Toby Litt read a few poems in his self-deprecating manner. And then it was me. A two foot high, wobbly stool was thrust at me. I can trip over my own feet (and have done so) so  my brain went into deep freeze. Here I was being asked to climb this thing bhari sadas mein. I climbed on, it held steady and I began. In the middle of my reading I looked up into the face of a Hindi movie villain in a blue shirt. I recognised his slightly scary face from 80's movie but that fit well into the surreal feeling of reading that day.

Five minutes later I was done, off the stool and ready to run off to the beach.

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