10 July 2021

Keeping in Touch by Anjali Joseph

A writer's life

Her father, Mathai Joseph, is one of India’s earliest computer scientists. Her maternal grandfather, Principal Bannerjee of Elphinstone College, was one of the most revered educationists of his time. Anjali Joseph studied English at Trinity College, and completed PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at University of East Anglia. In 2010 she was listed by The Telegraph as one of the twenty best novelists under forty. Her books detail ordinary life, delving inner lives and familiar realms.

A reader and a writer all her life, in her youth she may have experienced, as many of us do, the torturous periodic shedding and renewal of skin. The years passed – perhaps not (as she once wrote) as painlessly as that clause implies. She followed her whims and explored possibilities. Call them massive research projects, or immersion experiences, or the ashram life of renouncing this and that. And then out comes a novel, a space to lose yourself, experience new things, understand life in a different way – in the process, as she says, of becoming the person who wrote that novel. 

1.      What got you started with writing this book?

I was chatting to a friend in Norwich some time in around 2014 and she said she was terrible at keeping in touch. The phrase hovered in the air, illuminated for me, and I went home and wrote it down, convinced I’d write a book called Keeping in Touch. That was also the year I moved from Norwich to Guwahati in search of a new adventure, both at home and very much not at home, but fascinated by Assam. I had the character of Keteki in mind for a while as I was finishing The Living, and had even started writing about her, but Ved came along a little later, in 2015 when I wrote a short story that turned into the opening chapter of the book. The lightbulb called Everlasting Lucifer was a short story I’d begun writing when I was about eight years old, and not finished.

2.      And the symbolism of that lightbulb?

Maybe it’s some form of the light that’s in everybody. Maybe a sort of objective correlative of something that is much bigger. Besides, each of us wants to light up. But maybe the prospect is also a little threatening. What would really happen if that light were seen?

I don’t know where the name came from.  I was reading a lot of F Scott Fitzgerald at the time, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and several other of his stories. I must have at that time or sometime earlier learnt that Lucifer meant ‘light bearer’ or read about the story of how Lucifer was the fallen angel, but that it’s not necessarily a pejorative name. It was there as one of those ideas and half-ideas, some of which you write down and some that remain at the back of your mind.

3.      Did your characters change as you wrote?

Well, they meet at a time in their lives when they are ready for change. Their encounter is the catalyst that makes them step outside the comfortable shells they have created.

Both of them evolved as characters in the way I wanted to show them. My friend, the wonderful writer Tim Pears, was kind enough to read a draft and from his responses, I realised that the initial iteration of Ved was too off-putting, and Keteki a little too oblique.

At the opening of the book, Ved is a toxic bachelor, but he’s also in coming to the end of a time of getting over his earlier geekier self. He’s enjoying a period of his life when he feels he can be in control. But obviously he’s also still at least in a latent way open to the possibility of more. And then he falls for her. And Keteki – I had to say more about her in subsequent drafts; initially I wanted to show her mainly through the effect she had on other people.

4.      Your books have always run quite close to your own life adventures.

When a child growing up in a provincial English town I was waiting to start my life, the fiction that I read was about all sort of things and these novels almost seemed to be carrying messages, telling me, maybe your life will be like this! Or maybe it will be like that! I drank it all in. In a way, reading fiction is a way of thinking about how to live.

Now I get interested in one thing after another, and sometimes that’s what my next novel will be about. Maybe the other things that I’m learning around that time also become relevant. But I wouldn’t say most of my life goes into my novels. There are lots of things I do and read about that don’t directly feed into what I write.

I suppose for me, writing a novel is partly about finding out more about the characters and place I’ve decided are interesting. But it’s also a process of becoming the person who will have written the novel I’m writing. It’s something that gets revealed as I go along. Each individual step is in the dark, but there is a kind of feeling of what the next thing is.

5.      Why Assam?

When I went to live in Guwahati in 2014, Assam was a new place for me. I started learning Assamese, a beautiful and elliptical language. I think there might be a flavour of that in the book. After a while of studying, I realised that being able to say what you mean in Assamese hardly means you can speak it. That is not how Assamese is used. As I wrote in an essay for Unboundmost people  say something indirectly related to what they mean; the person they are talking to then responds by saying something indirectly related to the first thing.

I had two lovely teachers of Assamese, Dimpy Deka and my friend and neighbour Babu’s grandmother, Bimal Rajkhowa, herself a writer and lyricist. My Assamese remains halting but I can read and write, and some of my learning comprised reading aloud books in Assamese and asking about the phrases or words I didn’t know. It was a beautiful introduction to a sensibility as well as a language. The culture of Assam has so much depth, so many layers. There is a certain way of seeing life. It was just lovely to live there. And in Assam, everyone is a reader, it’s a place where people understand books and literature. In Bombay or Bangalore or Delhi if you say you’re a writer people will ask whether you know this writer or that writer, or if you’ve written for films, things like that. But in Assam people will want to tell you about what they’ve been reading. I’ve had conversations like that with a taxi driver, the man who works in the gas agency. Everybody is excited about reading, and for a writer that is truly special.

6.      And your book has such a strong yoga component too!

Well, I had a scientific, post-enlightenment sort of upbringing. In my family, there was not much ritual or religious observance. Still, as a child I was fascinated by religion, magic, and wonder. I’d read a storybook and hark back to the missing word in a spell, thinking, one day I’ll find out what that word is! And then I’ll be able to be invisible or do whatever the spell was for. That interest in spirituality found its expression much later, in my thirties, when I did a yoga teacher training. And there we studied Vedanta and some yoga philosophy: that was the first time I felt, here is a description of the world that makes intuitive sense to me.

Yoga training, then learning about tantra, were ways into these systems of thought. It was kind of liberating. And of course, if you are a fiction writer, you can use that fiction to offer people the idea that reality might not be quite as monolithic and quite mechanically materialist as we – certainly my generation – were told when we were young. The idea is important to me and the book is sort of soaked in that.

7.      The uses of a novel, then?

I believe in the novel as a machine that can re-configure a reader’s way of being in some way, perhaps for more lightness, or just more joy. Imagination can bring us back to ourselves, and that’s something I’m always aiming to do. Here I wanted to take the reader, while reading about Ved and Keteki, through the idea that in some ways the past is imaginary, and its weight that we have been carrying can be exploded into lightness. I don’t necessarily see ‘enlightening’ as a one-off process after which one transcends and everything is bunnies and angels. I think it’s part of human experience that there is an intermittence to keeping in touch with that real self inside, as well as with others and the way we really feel for them. It doesn’t matter that this awareness drops; we can pick it up again, and that’s the process of keeping in touch which also enables compassion, for ourselves, and for others.

8.      Your life has centred around writing since a very young age but in your books you come through as someone who has led many lives through others. Knowing what you know now, would you have chosen another path?

I didn’t really choose writing; I just always knew that was what I would do. And as you say, in a way through writing I can do anything else I like.

First appeared in the Hindustan Times books page on 10 July 2021

03 July 2021

Colaba The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai by Shabnam Minwalla

Shabnam's vale of serendipity

It was an online talk in which the author presented some of its intriguing photos, experiences and learnings, that led me to this book. Her discoveries, couched in the easy wit and bubbling energy so compelling in the talk, were just as much of a pleasure to read. 

“What Colaba doesn’t have is easy to list. What Colaba does have, is not. Its qualities are concealed by voluminous skirts and peeling paint,” writes Shabnam Minwalla, and proceeds to treat the reader to a comprehensive expose, weaving personal experiences from a range of people interviewed, with widely diverse secondary sources.

The latter include facts and administrative data from Gazetteers; iffy maps and exaggerations from travellers’ accounts; colourful descriptions from novels; even gravestone epitaphs (“doleful postcards from the past”). The one I enjoyed most was an August 2002 Busybee column which lampoons the Arabs who for decades holidayed in Colaba to revel in rain, a novelty rendered anachronistic by global weirding. The exuberant snippets provide information, they create atmosphere, and their depth and diversity well represents contemporary Colaba, a place whose character transforms from corner to corner, sometimes quite dramatically.

As for the people interviewed, most are long-term residents and colourful neighbourhood characters. The best stories come from the author herself, memories of Colaba haunted houses, lingerie shops that date back to before the word lingerie arrived in Colaba, glimpses of a prim schoolgirl, one of a horde, who transformed into hoydens tumbling down the staircase the instant the evening bell rang, only to be harangued on the way home by the fierce battleaxes of Cusrow Baug. Biographical details are introduced not in a self-congratulatory or coy manner or even in bland lists, but in a festive jumping-about that interweaves energetic adjectives, provides vivid pictures, and sometimes has you laughing aloud. The creative happiness is impressively balanced with deep, fault-finding, nit-picking research into this unabashedly grimy district of India’s financial capital.

Colaba has no medieval fortresses, tales of tragic queens, or echoes of bloody battles. Just two hundred years ago it was a jackal-infested island – fine-grained diorite, composed of feldspar and hornblende! – separated from the emerging metropolis by a temperamental creek, ghastly shipwrecks, and a cemetery greedy for colonizers. When a causeway was built, the inconvenient outpost transformed into a place of buzzing industry, and the malodorous creek with mosquito-riddled mangroves and criminal-infested bays was eventually replaced by traffic-choked streets lined with art galleries, cakeshops, and more. Who doesn’t love Colaba for its street shopping – those cool, billowing cottons, coolly-replicated designerware? Amidst the thronging crowds, familiar faces pop up and cheery “Hieee!”s ring out in Shabnam’s vale of serendipity, the place of which one well-known resident (read the book to know who) is reported as having instructed, “When you go shopping down Colaba, Ma, don’t forget to give everybody my love.”

Besides the extraordinary energy of the haphazard streets of the southernmost tip of a city rapidly sprinting northwards, this book also documents nooks and structures: Colaba Lunatic Asylum, Royal Alfred Sailor’s Home, the garden of a Mrs Hough and its magical mango tree which fruited twice a year; the reincarnation of Buckley Court from a haunted Indo-Saracenic mansion to a guesthouse packed with fascinating residents to a ‘luxury skyscraper’; dragonflies fluttering by enroute to East Africa. And the fascinating stone which clarifies the boundaries between Colaba and Old Woman’s Island of yore – inside a residence encroaching into, of all places, the trendy and laidback Colaba Police Station.

When I called Shabnam Minwalla to tell her how much I had enjoyed her book, we naturally compared notes and, though we’ve never met, and even claim different territories of Colaba, found much to celebrate.

Colaba is still somewhat in the nature of ‘native place’ to me, the venue of childhood winter vacations escaped to from bone-chilling frost, sultry evenings strolling on the Cuffe Parade promenade, playing in the piles of rubble waiting to take their place in swanky buildings, snacking on peanuts and sometimes even illicit bhel (because typhoid). “Which building?” Shabnam asked and when I replied, she knew exactly which one, and together we moaned the decaying grandeur and eventual demise of the townhouse with its authentic stained-glass windows, Minton tiles, sagging wooden staircase and unpolished banisters, residence of former presidency magistrate KJ Bijlani for nearly fifty years.

Every chapter of this book ends with a pithy ‘Colaba lesson for life’, and the one I’ve picked to pass on here, one that sears me with regret, instructs: “Quick! Talk to your grandparents before it’s too late.” 

16 June 2021

Wall Paintings of Sindh by Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

Secret treasures

In India, Sindhis are most often seen as a mercantile community – hardworking and enterprising, but almost entirely focussed on material gain and pursuits, with limited interest in art and culture. Sindh itself, the ancestral homeland which the Hindus left after Partition took place in 1947 and to which they have almost no access today, is seen as a hot and dusty place of limited opportunity. So this book is a real eye-opener which showcases a very unexpected dimension for Indian Sindhis to understand something about their lost heritage.

In 1998, early in anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro’s career, a field visit took him to the necropolis of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro, where he saw many beautiful paintings on the exterior and interior walls of its monuments. He could see that they were crumbling and in urgent need of restoration. Feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the art around him, feeling equally disturbed that it would all soon be lost, Zulfiqar resolved that he was going to travel all across Sindh to seek out every other similar site he could find, and record whatever he saw in them. This book is a result of many fulfilling journeys the author made over more than 20 years, to do so – and a great gift to people who are interested in the history of art, and in particular the history of the art of Sindh.

What I learnt from this book is that Sindh is strewn with monuments of many kinds and these include tombs, places of worship, and palaces. Most of these are filled with works of art, and besides architectural flourishes, ceramic embellishments and tiling, many of the walls are covered with paintings too.

In many places, Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro noticed that in the process of maintenance of the tombs by their followers, they were whitewashed on the inside, and the paintings were damaged. For example, in the tomb of Mian Yar Muhammad Kalhoro in Khudabad, Zulfiqar found it all whitewashed except for some paintings which may have required too much effort to reach. From these traces, he deduces that

“the whole interior of the tomb was adorned with stylized flower vases, fruit dishes and a variety of flowers covering every panel, soffit, niche, squinch and arch recess of the tomb.” 

His research indicates that the art was a tradition of long-standing, but very little of what was created before the seventeenth century remains and this book largely covers art of the Kalhora, Talpur and British periods of Sindh’s history. Many of the previous era, glimpses of which sometimes pop up in historical records, no longer exist.

Zulfiqar has covered tombs of rulers and tribal chiefs, as well as the tombs of Sufi saints, and the book has excellent illustrations of the structures as well as of the art inside them. 

Royal tombs, Zulfiqar points out, are not embellished with figural motifs, except for birds. They carry gilded Quranic verses in striking calligraphy; traditional geometric patterns; and floral, vegetal, plant and tree motifs. The lily flower, Zulfiqar points out, is a favourite motif of the Kalhora artists in both paintings and glazed tiles. Zulfiqar also explains the symbolism of other favoured motifs such as the cypress tree, and varieties of birds and flowers. Monuments of other rulers and saints, however, carry all kinds of figural depictions including scenes of a bird feeding its offspring, rooster fight, mourning scene in a tomb, action-packed animal fight scenes, hunting scenes and battle scenes, as well as representations of cultural activities, such as dance, music and sports, and many romantic folk scenes. In all, they provide a rich illustration of the social and political life of Sindh. There are even tombs which also show domestic activities such as dancing, cooking and churning, such as the tomb of Othwal Faqir, located south of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro’s shrine. In fact, locations of each monument have been meticulously provided – a poignant resource for the many who may want to visit but are unlikely to ever be able to do so.

Through Zulfiqar’s commentary, and through the rich colour schemes of the illustrations, we get a sense of the people of Sindh and their daily occupations through history. He has also linked these paintings with recognized schools of other neighbouring regions, and compares their features. All these give us a rich visualisation of various historical events as well as folk stories and together they bring alive folk romances, battle scenes, and a broad spectrum of social life in eighteenth-century Sindh.

Zulfiqar has detoured with extensive coverage of the folk tales he found illustrated, sometimes two or three adjacent inside a single monument. Along with the commentary and symbolism, he has also recounted some of the most loved folk tales to accompany the illustrations, and these add depth to his book.

We also learn from this book that Mihrab, the arched niche on the qibla wall that indicates the direction of prayer in every mosque, is also seen in the monuments of Sindh. It was a common feature in the tombs, and evolved into the depiction of actual mosques. Many tombs carry these and most tombs built during the Kalhora, Talpur and British periods also depict Makkah and Medina.

I was also intrigued to observe the presence of Khudabadi on some of the monuments, because this was a script thought to have been developed and used by the Hindu traders of the province.

Most of these art treasures, Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro reports, are in sad repair. In the twenty years of his quest, he has seen them decay before his eyes, under the ravages of extreme climate. It is sad to think that in the decades to come, most will vanish, unrestored, and live on only in the pages of this book. It’s not just the government which is responsible for the neglect – but who can blame needy peasants who till the protected land close the beautiful monuments to fulfil their simple needs?

What I learnt from this book moved me deeply. What I saw and read made me feel connected with a precious and distinctive heritage which has been frittered away and is only saved from complete obliteration by books like this one.

20 December 2020


Many years ago, as a child in class three, I saw something amazing. A tall for his age boy, a classmate, proudly walked up to the Maths teacher and presented him a cake. “It’s my birthday”. The Master who was about to read the results of a quiz, stopped him; read out his marks. He had failed the boy. Then in a rage he threw the cake on the ground, kicked it out the door and roared “don’t try and bribe me you dirty Sindhi”. (Those were the days of course, where Teachers were forgiven for being impolitic!)
After class, the boy went out, quietly picked up the cake, and took the first bite himself and shared it with us saying his mother had baked it, why waste it? The memory of the incident has not left me because it was the first time I had heard a Teacher being abusive and the first time I had heard of someone being called a Sindhi. Before that I only knew that the boy’s name was Pooran. The ‘Sindhi’ caricature of a scroogish person who accumulates cash and real estate while constantly prattling ‘vari sai’ is widespread; egged on by actors playing bit stereotypes of Sindhis in yesterday’s Hindi films. And thereby hangs a tale.
Caricatures are an unfortunate sociological phenomenon, particularly in our country; we draw upon them and use them very matter of factly mostly disrespectfully. This in turn causes diminution of our strength as a society. Constant usage somehow cements these social and untruthful caricatures till they becomes part of our believed folklore – said by elders, repeated by the young who will ape anything. And so it will go till we mature as a Society.
Murli Melwani's collection of short stories ‘Beyond the Rainbow* goes a ways in breaking the caricature. It is a melange of colourful people, exotic locales and some adventure. All characters and events are supposedly fictional. But I suspect, very strongly, each story is true or at least has a broad element of truth. It is said that a people whose homeland is sparse – or who have no homeland at all - causes them to move to far and foreign lands. To make their living or ply their trade. True of Marwaris, Jews and Scots and certainly Sindhis. The sweep of the locations of the people and stories is ample evidence of the truly international spread of this group of people.
Stereotypically Sindhis have settled in Haang Kaang and have shops in Chunking Arcade! Melwani’s book serves us a different and exotic cocktail – Curacao, Toronto, Taipei, Bangkok, Bombay, New York, Honduras, Darjeeling and of course HK and Ulhasnagar. He paints a picture of their fads, foibles, beliefs, customs, strengths, weaknesses. These stories illustrate the ease with which they adapt to (or do not) to stressful, and strange situations.
In one of the longer short stories – the protagonist is called to the Holiday Inn in HK for an interview. This took me years back on my own first trip overseas and to HK; I stayed at the Holiday Inn in Kowloon and was amazed to see a small statue of Lord Shiva near the entrance with a ‘fountainette’ from his locks depicting the source of the Ganges. I was told that the property was owned by the Harilela’s. “Sindhi, you know, flom your contly” – the Receptionist informed me Though I believe they are Hongkongers stretching back a century. Coming back to the tale, ‘Head of a Chicken’ is a textbook narrative of poor boy, with remarkable insights “…but, a Sindhi would not ask a question without a motive…” he is economical with ethics, makes good and then faces the same situation he had left his earlier employer. An interesting take on ethics and business, a motif which runs through a some of the other stories.
Another facet about Melwani’s writing is the simplicity and honesty. In one of his stories he writes “there’s a writer in each one of us”. He does not use artifice; the story is what the story is – and that is where the writer’s true craft comes in. It is very complex to keep a narrative simple. This is exemplified when he writes a commentary on one of the most intricate machinations of our society, almost like a Rube Goldberg contraption – the fixing of a marriage, narrated by the Marriage Broker. It is mirth and thought provoking in equal proportions. Explaining it is like instructing a Martian the process of lacing-up shoes and knotting them. ‘The Bhorwani Marriage’ is a treat. Having made a fair amount of money in the transaction, which is what arranged marriages generally are, the Broker adds his punch line “One must be grateful for the crumbs that life throws one’s way”.
Sex is is not taboo. This is refreshing because our public posturing is prudish and fairly Victorian. So when a well off and retired businessman has a romp with a Bar girl; it does not seem shocking. The twist is later in the tale like in the thought process of a man in another story, watching a call girl undress. And more – a Father who can shoot to kill – to dictate a marriage in his family. As they say - you can take a man out of the home but you can take the home out of the man.
Like all those who have spread across the globe and settled; names soon change to suit or accommodate or better still to merge with the chosen country of abode. Meaning we are here to stay and be a part of you. An endearing quality which makes Jetharam convert to Jimmy and Metharam change to a more suitable Mike. A subtle change of status too? Which brings me to another story.
Years ago in the middle eighties, my Boss called me to substitute for him and make an unscheduled presentation to two gentleman sitting in the Conference room. The object was to present India, as a country full of promise yet not hide the pitfalls. The two were obviously ‘from overseas’. Post the presentation I introduced myself and the young guy stuck out his hand saying “Tommy, Tommy Hilfiger. I’ve just started a line back home with him and this guy brought me here because he’s very hot on India though he’s never lived here.” The other gentleman’s calling card was a folded affair. The top read Gloria Vanderbilt and the card opened to reveal his name ‘Mike’ Murjani.
Rajesh Pant
Pune, December 2020
*Beyond the Rainbow.
Murli Melwani.
Published by Black-and-white Fountain.

06 August 2020

Learning to read all over again

When the lockdown commenced, life turned grim overnight; stranger than fiction. I was reading the Memoirs of Seth Naomal Hotchand of Karachi (1804-1878), a well-told narrative of a wealthy merchant of Sindh. Being the elaborate personal account of someone who belonged to a community about which not much documentation exists, the book, with an interesting history of its own, is fascinating. However, my eye lazed mid-sentence while my mind wandered, and the pages stayed put.

In despair, unable to read, unable to write, I dug into my files seeking comfort, and came across Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai by Hari Govind Narayan Dubey. In 2015, I worked with the author to translate this charming book, based in rural India during the freedom struggle, into English. It has dramatic stories – pots of gold uncovered by a farmer ploughing his fields, a spectacular jailbreak, the impact of caste division and social boycott, and more. What makes it a classic is the ringside view of the lifestyles, thought processes, and other subtleties of an epoch of Indian history invariably dominated by political figures with vested interests. To make it easily accessible to all, I uploaded it for free download on this link .

Still unsure about being able to concentrate, I decided to attempt a slim volume with an uncomplicated cover: The Impossible Journey by James A Coghlan. This lovely story of a Scottish boy’s experience of serving in the Indian army is fiction, but, based on the diary of the author’s great uncle’s accounts of a road journey from Rawalpindi to London in 1936, is quite as alive with engaging detail as Naomul’s memoirs. Along with glimpses of world history and geography, the reader understands a little about the connection between India and Scotland, while revelling in the wry turn of phrase that permeates the book.

And then, a drowning woman who miraculously began to swim, I picked up The Strange Case of Billy Biswas by Arun Joshi. This book shows that IWE were quietly turning out classic prose decades before the term IWE was coined. Billy Biswas belongs to two peculiar and mutually exclusive communities: the privileged anglophiles who once governed India, and an ancient tribe, both groups reduced today to appendages verging on extinction. Though I found its traces of schoolboy fantasy a little annoying, the plot captivated me and I read in long happy bursts, freed at last from lockdown.

This column was written for The Hindu and appeared on Monday 3 August 2020 

01 December 2019

Circus Folk and Village Freaks by Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal

There are organs and organs

 This attractive-looking hardcover book turned out to be a surprising treat. Each of its eighteen stories, all written in verse, are about people who are different. Not just different but significantly so, some quite peculiar, and the stories deal with different aspects of how the difference arose, how it was dealt with, and what happened in the end. Along the way, each story has earthy overtones. It starts quite naturally – I was surprised at first and then admiring, but as it went on and the bonking got more intense, I wondered whether it wasn’t just to say that people who are different are actually like everyone else – or that by virtue of their difference they are more highly sexed. Though the question occurred to me while reading, I forgot to ask it to the author when I had the chance. The former, I suppose, based on what she revealed of herself and her book through the discussion.
Aparna told us that she woke one day about a year and a half ago, with a strong vision of a character. “It was about 5 in the morning,” she said. “I tapped my husband on the shoulder and I said, ‘Subramanyam’. So he said, ‘No, darling, it’s Abhijeet,’ and he turned around and went back to sleep.” The Strange Case of Subramaniam the Crocodile Man was forming rapidly in her mind. Noyon, their son, was not yet four and though Subramaniam was clamouring to be let out, Aparna was a busy mommie and did everything she had to do until finally, at the end of the day, she could sit down at her computer and write down the story.
Over the next three weeks, she had written eighteen stories, waking every morning with new circus people and village freaks performing various antics through which they conveyed meaningful messages about human beings and the way we lead our lives. After a rapid, fully-charged run, Aparna stopped and only looked at her stories two months later: “The first thing I said to myself is, ‘You are sick!’ I could not believe I wrote these stories.” (And her mother would moan, “Where did I go wrong, was it I who filled such nonsense in your head?”) For Subramaniam had turned out to be a ‘Crocodile Man’, a source of income but unable to gratify his wife, who had to make her own arrangements. Pablo the Clown had a ‘foot-long schlong’ which women thronged to view and engage with. Vishu, the Village Exterminator, came between a husband and wife in an unusual way. Urvasi, the Devadasi, developed culinary skills that threatened to make the entire village and its surroundings obese. Miss Rita, born a bonny, baby girl, developed a ‘fertile chinny-chin-chin’ which sprouted a thick crop of hair. Murali, the Metal Eater, is a reverse-Midas who eats and coolly digests metal:
Sweet Murali, with a whistling throat and surreal digestion within –Never ate a bit of meat or gran, but gorged himself on mountains of tin
Miss Luxmi, The Daredevil Dart Thrower, highbred, born wealthy and fancy free, happened to be too dusky-toned to attract any good Brahmin boy.
Of Sita and Gita, the Siamese Twins,
Who separated themselves in a bid to winLove, and for half a heart each, a home –
Instead, lost it all and grew old alone.
Twisted passions, lustful charity, drunken brutality, servitude and fawning delight, accommodating girl, dumbstruck wife, furiously praying, gilded cage – these are a few themes; they are also phrases picked at random from these tales – or fable, allegory, parody, if you will.
People close to Aparna told her that the book reads like an autobiography: “I grew up feeling like an outsider. I dealt with mental health issues for a very long time. I have major recurrent depressive disorder, and it took me a very long time to find a kind and compassionate neuropsychiatrist. Growing up, I felt like a square cog in a round hole. So the book addresses a lot of issues to do with a person not fitting in – a freak, as it were. I grew up in a conservative town and people would look at me and say, ‘What is this?’ So I guess this reflects my experiences. Issues are important to me, whether the LGBTQ community, caste, physical appearance or others.”
Aparna’s stories veer towards South Indian motifs including names, features and other hints, and this Aparna explained by saying while she had tried to be geographically neutral, she had grown up with the work of RK Narayan and when constructing this world, the visuals that came to her said, “Malgudi”.
While each one had turned out pretty much whole in terms of its theme and content, the rhyme in which it manifested was lacking. Aparna said that her work had been published in international journals like Pen Review and others, but more abstruse and in free verse. She now began a rigorous study of metre with the help of a mentor, Shantanu Anand, and every syllable in the book was read and re-read at least eight times to put it into the exact metre. Still, these eighteen pieces do not follow a satisfactory structure. They are not in the same metre; some verses change metre in the course of the verse; in some, I was unable to stretch them to fit a metre at all. Aparna is not, she said, a master like Vikram Seth who wrote Beastly Tales from Here and There, and maybe one day would be skilled enough to write in a particular metre. Meanwhile, her next book is short-form prose and is on the theme of variations in ways people torture each other.
This book is hugely amusing but it’s also strewn with pathos. Its plots are inventive, and the illustrations by Rachna Ravi, aesthetically pleasing, are a great lead-in to each story. Most interesting, a stroke of genius I felt, was that while the male organ is bandied about quite lasciviously, when female organs are brought to the page, they turn out to be brain, lungs, liver and heart.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 30 November 2019 

08 August 2019

Why do some stories seem more important than others?

On Wednesday, I spoke to the Book Club at Gyaan Adab about “Some complexities of depicting Partition in literature”. I recorded what I said so you can see it here if you like!
Saaz Aggarwal speaking at
the Book Club, Gyaan Adab
on 7 August 2019
While preparing the talk, I remembered that my very first foray into this subject had been on facebook. It was 14 August 2011, and I posted that I intended to spend Independence Day thinking about my grandparents who lost their homeland when Independence took place in 1947. I was bemused when some of the responses were argumentative if not actually hostile. I also received a private message:
Saaz, with all due respect, time we forgot those memories. They don’t let us go forward. It’s time we buried hate which is redundant.
This message I found quite annoying (if well-meaning). I hadn’t said a word about hatred or indicated anything like that – all I was doing was speaking with affection and admiration of my grandparents and thinking about a difficult time in their lives which they had faced with courage. It seemed clear that referring to Partition could get you into trouble. I’m not sure if this was the spark that actually set me off on my journey, but it certainly did give me an important insight.
I also looked through my books to see what I could refer to for the talk at Gyaan Adab, and found that they all seemed to have been written by people who had witnessed the horrors of Partition themselves. Some of them were personal accounts of trauma and tragedy. Along with this were indications that the accounts were not welcome by others: someone had even filed a petition to prevent the screening of the TV serial based on Bhisham Sahni’s Sahitya Akademi Award winning Tamas. It was 1988, more than forty years after Partition. The Supreme Court rejected the petition, and the serial ran. The Bombay High Court judgement said:
Tamas  takes us to a historical past – unpleasant times, when a human tragedy of great dimension took place in this subcontinent … Naked truth in all times will not be beneficial but truth in its proper light indicating the evils and the consequences of those evils is constructive and that message is there in Tamas*.
Even Manto, so beloved by lovers of literature today, was badly reviled in his time, twice prosecuted for obscenity, and once accused by a critic that he had “desecrated the dead and robbed them of their personal possessions to build a collection**.”
The stories I have collected about Partition do have trauma and tragedies but, being based on extensive interviews of people so many decades after the event, they give a more balanced view of what life was like before Partition, what happened during Partition, and the story after that. The most remarkable thing about these stories is not the horror of the event but the heroic rebuilding of lives that were disrupted. We have not done justice to these marvellous stories or given the people who lived them the appreciation they deserve. I feel very privileged to have interviewed so many of these exceptional people and heard about their lives, and they will always be role models to me on how to deal with adversity.
Since a very large majority of the people I have interviewed are Sindhis, a little more than half my talk presented aspects of the Sindh Partition story, including:
  • how they put aside their grief and confusion and worked hard to adapt to new places and succeed,
  • how this approach caused them to blend into new communities so seamlessly that nobody noticed that they were a people who had lost their land, their language, their culture and their past,
  • that they themselves did not really think they had a story worth telling,
and so many more that, towards the end of the interesting discussion that had ensued after my talk, someone stood up and said, a little puzzled, “but this talk was not about the REAL Partition”.
An audience of the book club regulars that day
I found it interesting to experience at first hand how it can sometimes be difficult to convey subtle messages; to change perspectives. It reminded me of something I’d spoken about earlier, in the course of that evening's talk, one of the most terrible things that happened during Partition. A huge number of women suffered rape, abduction, separation from their children, being used as instruments of torture, being forced to jump into wells to supposedly save the family ‘honour’ and more. And then, many who were rescued and returned to their families were rejected by their families. These things had been known all along but not considered significant. The first major work on this extremely important human history was The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia – in 1998, a full FIFTY years after it took place.
It has taken even longer for the Sindhi story to gradually emerge but even now, seventy-two years later, there are some who don’t think it is about ‘real’ Partition.
Saaz Aggarwal

*India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p114 
**India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p88 

22 July 2019

Afghan Hindus and Sikhs by Inderjeet Singh

A plea for recognition

Can a Hindu or a Sikh be a real Afghan? Or could it be possible that people left their homes in India to settle in a country where they would always lead challenging lives because of their religion?
This book is a systematic and earnest compiling of a wide range of information about the origin of this once strong and mainstream, but over the last few decades blighted, community. It is clearly structured, written in simple language and, an earnest and poignant plea for recognition, aims to prove once and for all that Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are an indigenous people and not recent settlers.
A superficial and prejudiced understanding denies native origin to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus by claiming that they were brought to Afghanistan as slaves by Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 11th century, or later when they fled Babur’s territory in the 13th century – or even to the influx of Sikh and Hindu traders in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Inderjeet Singh disputes this with a large number of written records, starting from the rule of Kabul by the Hindu Shahi kings which ended in the 10th century, all the way to the present. From his citing of these, the reader learns that Hindus worked in responsible positions under the Ghaznavi rulers in the 11th and 12th centuries, serving as physicians, important court officials, and even army generals. He exposes a trite understanding of history by underlining that Genghis Khan’s 75-year rule was the rule of an infidel: his name was Khan but he was not a Muslim. In fact, his was a period that introduced unfamiliar religious traditions along with non-Sharia taxation, non-Muslim personnel in high office and a liberal approach to all religious practice which reduced the status of Islam in the area. The book also has descriptions of Hindus during Timur’s 35-year rule. Then, in the 16th century, the Sikh religion emerged and spread as Guru Nanak travelled and preached, and the community developed in the area. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the migrations continued, supplementing the indigenous population. Lifestyles are seen through the eyes of the many travellers across this region. Inderjeet Singh also documents the gurudwaras of Afghanistan, providing important historical information and their present depleted condition. Some have proof of antiquity with dates on handwritten copies of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, as the beautiful landlocked country developed into a battlefield of international intrigue, the Hindu-Sikh community became a victim of internal as well as external attacks – denied of the freedom to eat, drink and perform their religious rituals; facing violent processions when they tried to cremate their dead; their real estate in peril; their children mocked in school and told to go ‘home’.
This book is largely a clean read, with little slips that a sharper proofreading eye could have caught. To extend the whines, I could also point out that it did not give me a sense of the difference between Afghan Hindus and Afghan Sikhs. I asked Inderjeet, and he said that in a way Afghan Hindus are similar to Sindhi Hindus. (Most Sindhi Hindus observe the tenets of Sikhism, their prayers are largely from the Guru Granth Sahib and their ceremonies at the gurudwara. However, mainstream Sikhs generally disapprove of their easy affinity with Hindu ways; neither do they classify themselves as Sikh.) Inderjeet specified that Hindu places of worship in Afghanistan do not keep Guru Granth Sahib; that Hindu and Sikh attend each other functions; that their numbers are approximately 2:3.
On 22 June 2019, when India played against Afghanistan in the World Cup Cricket match at Southampton, the stadium was packed with fans cheering loudly for India (and against Pakistan, not Afghanistan). There were Afghan fans too, and I was intrigued to see one box of Sikhs with flags of both countries. I messaged Inderjeet Singh asking if he was in the stadium. Silly question. He replied confirming that they must be Afghan Sikhs, of whom there were 10,000 in London. And 20,000 in Delhi – in contrast to just 8000 in Peshawar today, depleted to half over five years by kidnapping, extortion, and the murder of prominent Sikhs, which caused many to flee their homeland.

26 June 2019

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Absurd comedy and grand horrors

I wanted something light and fulfilling to read on a journey, and picked The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee from a teetering pile (a very patient teetering pile) on my bedside. It turned out to be the perfect choice because I thoroughly enjoyed every one of its well-chosen words. At the end, the jacket blurb included this sentence in the author description: “He spent over thirty calm and undistinguished years in the Indian Administrative Service; during that time, he wrote six novels – when no one was looking.”
That was inspiring – I got online looking for the other five. I remembered reading English, August when it was new and enjoying it thoroughly as a work of literature but being revolted by quite a bit of the story.
The description of The Assassination of Indira Gandhi said that “In the twelve long stories that comprise this volume, he investigates, as only he can, the absurd comedy and the grand horrors of the human condition.”
‘Absurd comedy’ and ‘grand horrors’ are indeed the fabric of what I’ve read of Upamanyu Chatterjee. Perhaps not entirely of the human condition, but certainly of a westernized IAS officer reigning supreme in rural India.
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian is one of those books that evokes vivid images and transports the reader deep into its plot using tightly-packed and crisp prose. At one level it’s a grotesque story of vicious murder followed by a ludicrous implementation of justice. At another, it holds a mirror up to us as a people who exploit those weaker than ourselves, make the wretched even more wretched, and then accuse and incarcerate them of wretchedness. It is a brilliant parody of the truth that comprises India and its administration.

29 March 2019

Shillong Times by Nilanjan P Choudhury

Violence in paradise

I read this book because my daughter recommended it. It meant I was assured of a really good read; what I did not expect was that it would be so strewn with unhappiness. After all, the central character, Debu, is just 14.
Like most people who lead insular lives preoccupied with their own minutiae, I was unaware of the civil unrest in Shillong at around the same time that I was growing up in the peaceful Nilgiri Hills. When I read Murli Melwani’s book Ladders Against the Sky and interviewed him, he told me that his family had left Shillong at this time and on account of the strife. I did not ask for details, and barely sensed the pain of disruption his and so many other families experienced. Reading this book brought the situation starkly alive. I wasn't surprised to see Murli's name in the author's acknowledgements, and when I emailed this to Murli he replied saying that he had suggested people for Nilanjan P Choudhury to interview. Murli wrote a review too and you can read it on this link. He told me that the title of his review is a line from one of Bob Dylan's songs and that Dylan is very popular with the Khasis of Shillong. 
While this book skillfully presents social problems and human suffering caused by human greed and political vested interests through an interesting story, it is more than just a device to do so. One of the things I enjoyed most was the way it gripped me. It took me back to my younger self, bringing alive that old familiar feeling of resenting anything that came between me and what I was reading. Beyond the story, there are also passages of commentary which give context, sometimes in a thoroughly amusing way. And the excursion to Mawphlang had me admiring the poignant symbolism of violence erupting in paradise, as well as hoping that I would one day be able to visit the ancient sacred grove.

25 March 2019

The Women's Courtyard by Khadija Mastur

Zooming in on a microcosm

If a women’s courtyard is considered an enclosed inner space, this book is a canvas with streaks and splashes of unexpectedly vibrant colour and design. The women that inhabit the courtyard are strong and lifelike, and the qualities that each one epitomizes is perceived through her actions and speech. So while we never learn the given names of Amma (also known as ‘Mazhar’s Bride’) and Aunty, we experience them very clearly as real people.
This is a historical period and a segment of society where poets sing on the streets – but also where arrogance is native to wealth and privilege. Amma has been betrayed by her circumstances, and her constant taunts, bitter appraisals, never-ending self-pity and glorification are received with tolerance and even empathy simply because life has been cruel to someone who expected better. Her sister-in-law Najma, an MA in English and a working woman who in the 1940s arranges her own marriage (and later walks out of it), is vain and consistently demeaning of those she considers beneath her because they have not studied English. She flaunts elitist opinions such as, “Only people who are incapable of getting a job know Arabic and Farsi”. Najma’s sister-in-law, Aunty, on the other hand, is that loving and giving woman – one whose eyes can be seen ‘filled with centuries of grief’ – on whom every large household relies. Even when immersed in disappointment, loss and financial struggle, she  labours on, almost always emanating warmth and kindness. Young Chammi –  acknowledged as Shamima but once by the author – has the status of one whose mother died and whose father left to live elsewhere, his new life overrun by new wives and their offspring. Beautiful, unwanted Chammi, treated with love by Aunty, somehow became that wild, shrewish girl whose tantrums are feared to such an extent that when her marriage is arranged, no one dares to inform her. Kareeman Bua, who came with her mother in the mistress’s dowry, lives a life of domestic servitude, devoted to the family, oblivious to scars formed by disproportionate rage on her body.
This book is not just about women and their cloistered existence; it also shows how global events infiltrate the courtyard and shape their lives. It is set in a period of Indian history of which authentic details have been so obscured by political propaganda and regressive patriotism, that what remains in textbooks and the general mindset is a trite caricature of what once truly was. Khadija Mastur was known for her own underprivileged background and her political views, and the lives and conversations in this book open a window on the actual terrain of the era. Here is a Muslim household, steeped in tradition and piety, and the nationalist reality portrayed is complex. There is an overwhelming love for country, which leads to sacrifice of family life and personal comfort, imprisonment, suffering and death. There is also an irreparable rift between members of the family, some of whom follow the Muslim League while others consider them traitors, believing that party to be an instrument of further divisiveness and a fundamental cause of inciting violence and continuing strife.
The most enchanting voice in the book is of Aliya, the heroine, who shares her reality with the reader. Sensitive and thoughtful, Aliya feels the pain of the women – but just as much of the men and their inability to bring happiness to their families. The stories on which Aliya thrives mirror through romantic legend the lives of their characters, fueling their wellsprings of emotion and, more than once, resulting in ghastly tragedy. (Women would commit suicide for love and depart as examples of perfect fidelity, and then, some dark night, men would appear to momentarily light a lamp over the tomb, then leave, and that was that). Intertwined with the tradition of stories originating in Arabia runs a strong and persistent strain with the stories and symbols of Krishna and Rama making numerous appearances.
And the most beautiful scenes are as the book ends, in the newly-created Pakistan. The clamour and strife subside and wonderful fictional coincidences transpire, one bringing a tragic finality and another opening out onto a horizon of love and hope.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 23 March 2018. 

17 March 2019

The Sunlight Plane by Damini Kane

Coming of age, in Bombay

I started reading this book primarily from curiosity to learn what a 22-year-old who grew up in a home full of books, and with parents who are both writers, would produce. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a mature, well-written, entertaining story with strong characters. The extras that I enjoyed were its solid moral base and quite a few giggles along the way.
The Sunlight Plane is a book about a group of children and written in simple, engaging language. I emailed Damini to ask if she’d had a reader in mind while writing it, and she replied, “I imagined the reader to be anywhere above the age of 18.” Actually, while reading it I’d felt I’d recommend it to ‘young adults’, expecting them to enjoy and gain from it the way they would with books like Catcher in the Rye or The God of Small Things – or even Portnoy’s Complaint. This book does not have graphic and potentially controversial scenes as the last named, it does have a central issue which is quite horrific and it clearly outlines the trauma and the dilemmas of the children who encounter it from different angles.
Damini told me that she started writing this book when she was 19, when she was in college. She started with a clear idea of who the characters were, and how their interpersonal conflicts would further the plot. The first draft took six months, and after that it was just rewrites and editing. While this book will not have a sequel, Damini is working on monthly fantasy and science fiction short stories, just for practice. These she uploads on her blog www.everythingkane.wordpress.com.
In answer to my question about her advise to aspiring young writers, she replied:
Practice and read, read and practice! There's no short-cut around this. It's especially important to practice the things you're not as good at. Personally, I'm doing these monthly short stories because I'm not half as confident at writing short fiction. Working on what you're weaker at will only make you better.
Good advice for anyone doing anything, is what I thought, and it felt good to know that young people today aren’t all low-attention-span, low-hanging-fruit gimme-gimme type people as it quite often fearfully appears to be.

22 February 2019

Even Against all Odds by Sunder Advani

Looking back

On Tuesday, I attended a book launch at the US Consulate, an event held to honour an extraordinary person and his commitment to Indo-US relations.
When I first met Sunder Advani a few months ago through my research into pre-Partition Sindh, I had no idea who he was. His family’s story was fascinating, and I felt gratified when he liked the way I had presented it, and commissioned me to work with him on his memoirs. As we proceeded through the story of his life, I felt surprised and impressed to learn the extent of his contribution to the Indian hotel and hospitality industry. I have lived in India all my life, enjoyed the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay when I was young, and later hotels of the many international chains that entered in the 1990s. However, I had absolutely no idea that there was an individual, one sole person, and that too someone without family money or political connections or even a home of his own when he first came to live in Bombay – who had significantly shaped India’s hotel industry through his personal vision and efforts.
Edgard D Cagan, Consul General and Sunder Advani
Sunder had been just too busy working, and struggling to get things done, and his story had never been told until now. For a full fifty years, Sunder had also been committed to developing stronger ties between India and the US – starting long before the time when the two countries were considered natural allies, as they are today. It was a fitting tribute that the US Consulate launched his memoirs a few weeks after they were published on his eightieth birthday.
Sunder (seated, left) with his boss, economist Frank Piovia,
at EBS Consultants, Washington DC, 1968
In the 1960s, as a young man living in the USA, Sunder worked in a prestigious and well-paying job where he used his education and analytical abilities to provide information on the basis of which decisions important to that country would be taken. At his father’s urging, he left it behind and came to live in India – then still a developing nation, newly independent, overpopulated, rife with poverty, illiteracy and corruption. Every step of the next fifty years was fraught with peril – and bravely defended. He was badly let down by his partners and suffered a series of business betrayals, hostile takeovers and concept pirates. Through it all, he worked his way through the hardened maze of government bureaucracy with steadfast courtesy and tenacity, endlessly seeking and acquiring one permission after the other to conduct his business and grow it.
With Kemmons Wilson, Founder and Chairman of Holiday Inns Inc.
in his office in Memphis, Tennessee, 1970.
Sunder Advani was the first person to bring international standards to the hospitality industry in India, through the mature systems and processes of Holiday Inns Inc., USA. His visionary public issue in 1972 – preceding those of both Taj (Oriental Hotels) and Oberoi (EIH Limited) – was fully subscribed.
In the 1970s, when Bombay was serviced by just one domestic airline and just one airport for domestic and a few international flights, Sunder set up a flight kitchen, and India's first sound-proof airport hotel, Airport Plaza (later Orchid Hotel, after it was bought by Vithal Kamat). In 1978, a time before mobile phones, the hotel had the only discotheque in the Bombay suburbs and a pool with a jacuzzi.
Sunder Advani was among the first to see the potential in Goa and work single-mindedly to develop it for tourism and foreign-exchange earnings. In 1988, when Goa only had the infrastructure to attract backpackers, his was one of the earliest luxury hotels. It was viciously maligned and put under litigation, despite his having kept strictly within the limits of the law.
To extend tourist spend in Goa over the lean monsoon months, Sunder envisioned indoor entertainment in the form of casinos. His offshore Casino Caravela provided an elegant evening and attracted well-heeled spenders. When competition made the playing field murky, Sunder gracefully withdrew.
The Five-Star Caravela Resort, luxury living surrounded by
smiling faces and a beach of soft, powder-white sand.
One of the most interesting things I observed about Sunder is his commitment to a good life. He works hard, but his family is always at the centre of things. All through the years, he has travelled on work and taken them along with him on enjoyable holidays.
Today, at eighty just as much as when he was a young man, he continues to work hard, committed not just to his own Caravela Resort in Goa but also to his continuous campaigns to increase tourism in India. You can get a sense of his achievements in the glowing Foreword Amitabh Kant wrote to his book: