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.