Mushroom Soup for the Vegetarian Soul

So this appeared in Mint Lounge on May 31st, 2014. It was so much fun writing this. And I think I’ve received my first few zealot commentary, mails, and criticism for it. But more on that some other time.

It was my third day in class I at a new school. My first friend, Farah Naaz, opened her rectangular stainless-steel tiffin box, and then its smaller rectangular compartment. She clapped her hands in glee, poked at the immiscible mass in there, licked her finger, and squealed, “Goat brain!”

I was disappointed: The brain did not look anything like the brains I had seen in cartoons. It even managed to look harmless, somewhat like my mother’s tomato pachadi. It seemed incredible that something like this innocuous mass could faze, even terrify, my cockroach-bashing, mali-thrashing grandmother.

Vegetarianism was handed down to me like knock knees and unmanageable hair. It is so ingrained in our family that my ajji, like several other sweet, middle-class Kannadiga grandmothers, cannot get herself to say “non-vegetarian”, and refers to the whole class of meat as “NV”. She does not have patience with fish, poultry, red or white meat: It is all a tut-tut brand of “NV”, pronounced envy.

I grew up in a milieu that encouraged this NVing. Meat-eaters were talked about in hushed voices. Houses were leased on the basis of whether tenant families cooked meat or not. The nearest butcher shop was about 2km away, far from the main road. The neighbour’s roosters clucked about, gratefully untouched. “Non-veg jokes” exchanged between slightly older children were literally so.

Maybe it was the zeitgeist, unconscious censorship, or just coincidence, but looking back, even the imagery of food in the domestic comics I read seemed sterile. Unless the story demanded it, food illustrations in Tinkle comics (and by extension, Amar Chitra Katha) were mostly vegetarian. Suppandi visited the market and returned with legumes and gourds peeking from his basket. His employer ate from thalis where rice was a tiny white mountain and rotis were ellipses accompanied by circles of non-committal sabzis (vegetables). Raja Hooja preferred fruits. Raghu hated his spinach. And Uncle Anu’s club got by with chocolate, pav buns, and browning cut apples.

In a New York Times article, author Lara Vapnyar writes of dreaming about exotic things to eat in Cold War Russia. And like her, in a pre-Internet age, my trysts with meat were those of vicarious adventure and fantasy. Meat was a “foreign” idea that I discovered in glossy interior decoration magazines left behind by NRI (non-resident Indian) aunts. Here, I saw Thanksgiving turkeys with socks and skin like honey-glazed tote bags. I devoured Enid Blyton stories where “bacon” and “ham” mingled with my own breakfast of toast. I was fascinated with how Archies’ Jughead with his half-mast eyes polished off hot dogs topped with zigzagging mustard. I wondered: Was a hot dog really a dog? A Dachshund in a bun?

I would carefully examine what the characters in Asterix ate on each adventure: shiny double-humped camel meat in Persia, delicate quail on a galley to Egypt, cold cuts looted from pirates and loaded up on a magic carpet to India, chains of sausages in Belgium. My mind boggled at Obelix’s staple boar glistening on a spit. I was tickled by Tom, Disney’s AristoCats, Top Cat, and other cat-toons that dug up fish bones as the universal sign of destitution.

This curiosity with meat was not unique to me. My mother, aunt and I were keen followers of Khana Khazana, a TV cookery show that demonstrated an impressive range of NV recipes. I remember my mother would evade moral conundrum by watching the ingredient section on mute.

I’m certain, also, that we weren’t the only NV-curious family. A look at the menu in the glamorous A/C deluxe side of a darshini (stand-up eateries in Bangalore) reveals much about the middle-class vegetarian’s complex feelings for meat, and the preoccupation with wanting to recreate meat in the vegetarian world: Gobi 65, Paneer Tikka, Veg Biryani. In Mumbai, I found the Jain Omelette that substitutes eggs with besan (gram flour) and proves that besan is best in laddoos and face packs.

The classic vegetarian’s first brush with meat is usually “by accident”; by way of a “chicken something” construed as gobi manchurian. Some see this as serendipity. Some reach for mouthwash. I tasted my first bit of meat as a consenting adult, without much ado, and found chicken to be wildly overrated, but mutton wonderfully distinct. I decided I don’t quite like the texture of meat. I’m happily a staple vegetarian, but I’m curious about all the things people eat. And so, today, my bucket list includes unambitious items like pepperoni (why did I bother), eggs benedict, escargot, caviar (never again), bratwurst, Goan sausages, pho, soap, and chalk.

I like quoting a friend who says that once you’re an adult, congenital vegetarianism is a choice. When I eat out, I find that vegetarianism is harder. At most popular upscale restaurants in Bangalore, only about 30-35% of the items on the menu are vegetarian. And that includes the French fries offered as starters. This is not a case for vegetarianism, or against the secondary treatment of veggies by evil restaurateurs (I usually forgive them when I get to dessert). But it’s surprise: that living in a world which loves its non-vegetarians, I was so insulated from meat.

Maybe my vegetarianism runs deeper than my genes. I recall how in class VII, at the library, I came to question Chicken Soup For the Soul: I mean, what’s wrong with cream of mushroom?

Book List – February 2014

It has only been the first quarter of the year, and I haven’t followed a simple resolution through. Naturally, I am ashamed of myself. Not because I failed the resolution, but I sort of failed the purpose of it. I will come to this later.

Here I offer my excuses post-haste. February and March have been eventful months – with A LOT of travel involved. I’d say a good 20 days have been properly invested in the fine art of gallivanting. Despite a good deal of solo-traveling, I managed very distracted reading. And at other times, especially during train journeys, I was usually hogging the seat at the door, or wolfing strange train and off-train fare, or appreciating very mature Goan grapes, or I was in giggle fits. As you can tell, my soul has been replenished by a genre of spirituality I am inclined to call Hello Kitty.

Back to self-flagellating – I have obviously forgotten a lot of what I read (aforementioned purpose defeat), and now I will go on to simply document the ghosts of these books that remain within me.

FEBRUARY 2014

Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro

If I were to find likeness in Photography, I feel Alice Munro’s writing is like Landscape Photography. More accurately, a composite landscape. Munro just fits a lot of things together to plot a landscape – sometimes within a person, sometimes geography, sometimes a system of rules and logic – but it’s always a collective, it’s always a study in interior design where stuff is thrown around to make a picture with excellent balance, and the reader can choose what it is he/she wants to dwell on. I suppose another reason why I find it landscape-y, is also how exotic the locations of all these stories feel. The spaces these stories play out in – physical place (usually America, Canada), time, ethical and cultural systems.

The story that haunts me most is actually the first in the book, called Dimensions. Featuring an extremely fucked up woman getting over something terrible her husband – the only man she has ever loved – has done. The plot points of this are entirely inside this woman’s existence, and the story is told with almost no sentimentality, a numbness that is actually signature Munro, and here, serves the excellent purpose of mood.

I have a feeling I’ll be rereading this book soon. In the meantime, here are 18 of her short stories available for free online. Don’t miss the list of other freebies, and fold your hands and thank the wonder that is the Internet.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

Is funny as hell. This woman was once a stand-up, a playwright, a tomboy, a waitress, a ridiculously poor person, and a whole plethora of awesome avatars before she wrote this lovely, heartwarming book about the journey and the loneliness of writing. She makes such light and gaeity out of the whole thing, it’s almost morbid, but in a very Erma Bombeck way. You feel a passionate kinship – and you can’t wait to get started on what is essentially glorified doom.

I also understand the mild meta here, me noting what is good about a book on writing well. Lamott is such a classic storyteller in that she teaches you 40,000 things about writing and living, and you never really feel the lessons, because the most valuable lessons are in the asides she takes. Of course, there are also the technique things that are clever and sticky and stay in your head in a very *My Very Earthly Mother Just Said Unbelievable Nachos Potty* fashion.

For example, the story of how the title came about is pretty sweet. Apparently, when they were children, Lamott’s younger brother came rushing in, weeping the day before school reopened after summer holidays, with a project report on birds to finish. Their father had assuaged his fears, saying they would tackle the beast of the task by going at it, “Bird by bird”. And that is how Lamott teaches you a lesson – put the story in there. Put it in, word by word.

Lamott introduced me to the most reassuring thing I have heard about writing, which keeps coming to mind whenever I feel the distinct frustration of being lost in a muck of words. E. L. Doctorow said to nobody in particular, then to her, and now to me: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Brainpicker has obviously done a far better job at compiling Anne Lamott’s Timeless Advice, a read for anyone remotely interested in creating anything from an Origami fish, to a functioning jet.

I’m trying very hard to remember more, because at this juncture, I have procrastinated this post by way more than three more weeks.

Difficult Pleasures – Anjum Hasan

In the tortuous, land-mine-ridden landscape of Indian Literary Fiction (which I will bitch about in detail, in March), Difficult Pleasures, dear reader, is an oasis.

I’d read a couple of Hasan’s stories on the internet, both of which make an appearance in this anthology of short stories. The first story I had read, The Big Picture, hadn’t really hit it off with me when I read it at the time. But the reason why, was later articulated by Hasan herself, in the title of her collection of 13 brilliant, brilliant stories. Difficult Pleasures is a title that is just so significant in, and so accurate a description for, each story’s universe. When I think of the second story I’d read then, Wild Things, I am again reminded of how tender and careful the wording of Difficult Pleasures really is.

I want to gloat so much about this book. It meant so much to me that Hasan was brave enough to make her characters as flawed, as broken, as cruel, as required. Maybe this is the editrix in her. Maybe she has grown up well. But she doles reality to you in the most appropriate manner – and leaves you to grieve, or rejoice privately. Many of her stories had the inevitability of the kind dentist turning out to be the evil man to pull your tooth, like in Birds, or Saturday Night, or For Love or Water, which had my feet cold in dread, or the wincing slap in Immanuel Kant in Shillong. She straddles discomfort, sexual tension, whimsy, the spontaneity of wickedness with great ease. But that is not to say Hasan is not capable of levity – her humour is subtle, her irony is flawless. Her sense of poetry shines in the last story of the collection, my favourite, Fairytale on Twelfth Main, which explores an *idea* in itself, a short story that is borderline speculative fiction – what if a lover’s wish of freezing time with his loved one, comes true?

The lesson for me in all of this? Get off my ass and write more short stories. And then trash them, and write some more. Difficult Pleasures is a labour of love, and it is something that will shame every aspiring writer to do better, and to do it well. With this heaping of platitude dung here, I do next to no justice to the feat she has accomplished in each of her stories. Please consider this as an ad placement, and get your copy of Difficult Pleasures IMMEDIATELY.

I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie – Roger Ebert

So, I mostly learnt how to insult somebody without referring to their female-relatives from this delightful book. We will all agree that Ebert was a great critic, and he really, really earned these privileges of freely, but gracefully spitting at terrible cinema, simply by virtue of having sat through these abominations. Some of the titles the man has actually reviewed include, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and $1,000,000 Duck.

This was the first book I read in a non-linear format*. Meaning, I jumped to the Index, and worked my way through titles that interested me first, then titles that baited me, and finally, the titles that were left. A title that especially piqued my interest in category a) was In Praise of Older Women – a movie based on the book I had recently fallen in love with. In his review, Ebert makes no mention at all of the book, but precisely points at exactly where a film adaptation would have bombed: it becomes just a chronicle of a man’s sexual conquests, hardly ever stopping to note that these were not encounters, but actual relationships that fashion a person. Thank you Mr. Ebert, I will NEVER watch the movie.

Otherwise, the biggest takeout from this book for me was how important it is to participate in life fully – in more than just what you would call a passion. Ebert was interested in more than movies, and it is evident he consumed every form of culture with the same curiosity as he did film. To more clearly illustrate what I mean, read this artful decimation of everybody’s favourite growing pains drama, Dead Poets’ Society. A tl;dr of his biggest grouse with it, “None of the writers are studied in a spirit that would lend respect to their language; they’re simply plundered for slogans… At the end of a great teachers’ course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they love is the teacher.”

Ebert takes the badness of bad cinema really personally, and this disappointment yields some profound insights about Cinema and Where It’s Going. Here’s one that still stays with me. About Prom Night and its success lying entirely in its Marketing, he says, “It’s easy to make a great-looking thirty-second TV spot, so why bother making a good film?” Of the other insults that stick in my memory: he calls North the movie that inspired the title of this book, he calls precocious Patch Adams a pain in his wazoo, and he thinks adults ought to be really, really terrified of watching anything from the Home Alone franchise.

The quality of Ebert’s writing that I hold a candle to, even before I’d ventured to read this book, is its inclusiveness. It is single-mindedly about film, it holds intelligent discussions about film, but it is so without being aloof. It isn’t merely critique, it is good writing. This is a pattern I have found replicated in *any* Art that deals with niche subjects that come from a place of expertise. I hate to use bullshit Marketing jingoism here, but I think it’s called “Democratization” and/or “Accessibility”. The nearest example I can think of is XKCD – if you don’t know the science in question, well, now you do; if you do follow, good, more starry eyes for you.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

I read this book on an AC train, and I had a seat facing the opposite direction of the train, and this meant only one thing: PUKEY FEELINGS. So, this was very distracted reading, because I had to keep putting it away. And I also had a severely entertaining newly married couple whose conversations were engaging to everyone except the party involved.

As the title and the author should tell you, this was Sci-Fi. These many weeks later, I don’t remember much about this book, except being awed by this one contraption that featured in it, and being blown away by how the people in this world had evolved to use it in emotional situations. There is a Mood Organ – a contraption that allows characters to manipulate their moods and states of being. In the future, Dick probably believed, feelings will be attributed to chemistry, and a science of Brain Acupuncture will evolve, where we will know what to hit where, and when.

The plot, and resolution, of the book are literally in its title. A human battle is on to weed out hyper-smart Androids whose intelligence has overriden the algorithm designing them. And the protagonist feels the only way to detect these hyper-intelligent Androids, is by testing their empathy. There is also the subplot of an extreme form of extinction, where normal barn animals are so few in number, that humans who own the last few goats, cows, horses, sheep all have a place of status in society. Did you put two and two together? Thought so.

So, yeah, this book is loaded with brain-tingles. Do Androids… deals largely with how, in the future, our identity crises will spill over into the domain of realness – of whether or not our artificial intelligence will interfere with the organic-ness of our experiences, and whether a machine of artificial intelligence can have an organic experience of its own. A theme, I feel, that’s been more deftly explored in Ghost in the Shell. Speaking of which, just for jollies, here’s my FAVORITE bit in the whole film.

* This is so far the only way a paperback defeats a Kindle – and it’s not even a compelling argument: you cannot flip pages and skip chunks together, or open a page randomly. You could key in page numbers, or skip chapters, but button pressing doesn’t match a satisfying FRRRRRRRPPP sound. Anyway, contrary to popular belief, you CAN play book cricket with a Kindle, especially on one that lags. And you can even make highlights and notes – something you will feel terrible about doing to your paperback (and really deserves punishment). Stop whining. Get a Kindle.

Girls at a Party

In the dining room, the waiter brings champagne to the girl sitting down — she has had enough of her heels.

There is the girl who looks cordially bored.

There is the girl who is laughing at everything with even a hint of warmth in it, relieved that there is no room for small talk in this company. There is the girl full of one-liners. There is the girl who learnt to masturbate before she learnt to apply lipstick and is today conscious of drinking from her wineglass from the same place where the lipstick has left a stain. There is the girl who has spent her whole life in her textbooks, that irony passes her by, but the world is on her side of guilelessness. There is the girl whose fringe hides an eye, which tempts another girl to push her fringe back and say, “There, the world must look clearer now.” There is the girl who excuses herself to take a work call. There is the girl who protests, “This late!?” There is the girl who has discovered that her round face can be cheated to look aquiline (a word that she learnt from Cosmopolitan when she was 12 and she loved the sound air made when it passed through her lips when she mouthed it to herself), and all it takes is a little rouge applied artfully under her non-existent cheekbones. There is the girl in a heated argument with another girl about the exact meaning of the word “aquiline”. There is the girl who thinks interns these days are ungrateful. There is the girl looking for a tissue. There is the girl looking for a lawyer. There is the girl looking for the other girl looking to step out for a smoke.

There is the girl whose cab is already here.

There is the girl who uses the word “bitch” as a term of endearment. There is the girl who keeps saying, “You haven’t changed one bit.” There is the girl who shows her left ring finger and says, “No man’s land.” There is the girl who does not know how to fish the wine-soaked fruits from the bottom of her sangria, who feels the eyes of a boy on her, and the eyes of the girl who likes the boy, so she fetches a fork and yet gets her fingers stained, so she licks them with relish, but gets away with it because she is thin, so thin, her waist looking so comfortable in its place. There is the girl wearing a mismatched blouse. There is the girl whose sentence keeps getting cut off at, “This one time…” There is the girl who can’t get enough of The Game of Thrones. There is the girl who makes bold jokes about religion. There is the girl terrified of the next Prime Minister. There is the girl whose shoulders look rounder in everybody’s memory, a detail everybody forgets, but replaces with the roses she had pinned in her hair. There is the girl who is teaching another girl to whistle with two fingers in her mouth. There is the girl who covers her mouth while laughing. There is the girl who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone the other girl knows.

There is the girl who wants to take a photograph. There is the girl who is explaining the algorithm on Jesse Eisenberg’s window in The Social Network. There is the girl who wears her saree pallu like it doesn’t matter, who opens her eyes and her mouth wide, furiously hugging the girl who has used three pins to keep her pallu in place. There is the girl that points out to the others that another girl has a navel piercing that shows through her gossamer saree. There is the girl that asks, “Did that hurt?”

There are men too. The men stand at the fringes of intimidation, watching this bouquet of women, each with a distinct maddening smell at the nooks of their necks, right under the question marks of their ears, smells that their thumbs are hungry for, but know of the fire they must first cross.

And so they stand, and they watch the fireworks.

Bangles & Betelnut in Basavanagudi

A version of this appeared in Mint Lounge on March 22nd, 2014.

I don’t think even I have understood my mother as well as the proprietor of Payal Fancy Store has.

Everyone – or at least, every Bangalorean woman, her friends and relatives – has encountered the Fancy Store owner. He’s usually wheat-skinned and looks perpetually in his late twenties, with a wisp of a barely-there moustache, a twinkling stud in his ear, and fingernails colored deep orange from continued applications of henna. His negotiating tactics are a study in the fine art of persuasion, delivered in a lilting Kannada whose unfamiliar intonations betray his Marwari roots.

His strangely accented Kannada cannot conceal his pride in the fact that his Fancy Store is a well-stocked trove of unexpected surprises and delights for us Bangalorean women. The Fancy Store – with names like Lakshmi, Kajal, Karishma, or Modern, names nobody actually pays attention to or remembers – has been designed to cater to every middle-class female need and vanity, and to pander to every Bangalorean woman’s aspirations of being an active yet sensible participant in the vicissitudes of fashion.

In these Stores, it’s not uncommon to be welcomed by cello-taped cutouts of A-list actresses from glossy magazines. Here, sticker bindis inspired by every K-soap vamp rub shoulders with a wide range of Love-in-Tokyos: rubberbands with bauble ends named after the 1966 Bollywood hit that Asha Parekh used to tie her hair into a ponytail.

Technicolor nail laquers from chic fashion journals find imitations in the Fancy Store’s humble glass display. Gun metal jewels inspired by famous designers or reigning sensibilities sit pinned to folded pieces of plastic, accompanied by paper bits announcing single or low double-digit price points. Elastic, safety pins, buttons, electronic razors, sanitary napkins, bangles, cones of mehendi – everything that belongs in a woman’s closet or dressing table – is available here.

Saw an absurdly expensive innovation (say, that rainbow-coloured static duster) on teleshopping? Well, guess where you’d find its replica for one-tenth the price?

Chronologically, the Fancy Store pre-dates the supermarket, and is distinctly different from the latter in one very important aspect. The supermarket is where the Bangalorean woman plays her role as wife or mother, but at the Fancy Store, she is woman first. To not let anything get in the way of her shopping sprees here, the Fancy Store also stocks plastic cricket bats, coloured balls of all sizes, action figures, and carrom boards, all to appease young boys who might get in the way of their mothers’ and sisters’ indulgences.

The Fancy Store is among the few places in today’s Bangalore (old vegetable markets and some stalls at the many BDA complexes are others) where the martial art of bargaining for goods still thrives. It’s where a good middle-class woman earns her fleeting indiscretion with a hearty haggle. She flexes her harmless-flirtation muscles in a verbal thrust-and-parry with the Fancy Store management: “Bhaiyya, it’s my birthday, how about a discount? I come here all the time, please give na?” In my entirely non-Hindi-speaking youth, I’d practice in these shops what little Hindi vocabulary I’d gleaned from Bollywood movies.

And what savvy middle-class woman doesn’t want one-upmanship over mercilessly priced big brands whose costs soar ever higher as malls pack Bangalore’s skylines? No wonder the Fancy Store stocks bootlegged versions of products from Jergens, Bath & Body Works, and MAC, among others. The supply chain remains murky because one never finds multiples of the same product, so if you decided to come back to buy another bottle of that body wash you took home today, you may never ever find it anywhere again. Fancy Stores also often resort to some adroit rechristening; Beebok, Adibas and Upma are all brands I’ve found in these shops I frequent.

And yet, the Fancy Store invokes much affection, and not entirely because of nostalgia. Walking into such a place gives one a humbler, sharper perspective of money, a more basic articulation of our desires, and a more open, honest admission that we think that self-worth indeed lies in the things we buy.

Almost like an antithesis – or on second thoughts, precursor – to Bangalore’s changing ideas of what is sacrosanct, is the middle class woman’s second best friend: the Gandhige Angadi. Gandhige is a corruption of the word, Granthike, which roughly translates to herbs and holy articles, and Angadi means shop.

If Morocco’s charm and essence are in its souks teeming with exotic meats and spices, Bangalore’s romance, mystery, and very smell, is in its Gandhige Angadis in its old neighborhoods of Basavanagudi, Chamarajpet, Malleswaram, Jayanagar and their ilk. Here, piles of turmeric, vermilion, and multicoloured rangoli are heaped onto plates, amidst garlands of plastic flowers, strings of tinsel, and cotton wicks. Small plastic frames and effigies of all kinds of deities (usually season dependent) await prayers. The air of the Angadi smells of something ethereal, with distinct accents of ash, camphor, arecanut, cinnamon, and sandal.

The biggest draw of the Angadis is the affirmation they lend to tradition – that everything of worth in this world must be made from scratch. According to tradition, even Puliyogare (tamarind rice, a traditional Bangalore-staple) must be made right from raw tamarind, and to use pre-mixed powders and concentrates would be blasphemy. And so, it is that every item required for every puja has been accounted for in the vast inventory of the Gandhige Angadi. On my trips to nameless shops in Basavanagudi and Hanumanthanagar, I’ve often marveled at the range of intricately made toranas, closely etched copra, and adorable miniatures of kitchen utensils.

The Gandhige Angadi has gone a step ahead of the Fancy Store in understanding its market, and has segmented its clientele sharply: the women who spend a limited (but nonzero) amount of time in the puja room, and the very pious women who attempt to maximize time with their favored deities, even as they balance the demands of bawling kids, work schedules, and household chores.

For the former’s benefit, the Gandhige Angadis offer stickers of predrawn kolams, rolled cotton wicks, readymade sacred threads, pre-mixed orange rice – facilities that let the busy woman get her prayer-fix with minimum effort. These readymade conveniences are exactly what the latter kind of clientele turns its nose upon with a scorn usually reserved for any coffee that wasn’t born of a coffee filter. This latter group of women is also likely to consult the almanac or the Panchanga, naturally exclusively available at the Angadi, to advise you about auspicious days to start at your new job.

The Gandhige Angadi’s goods go well beyond Bangalore, stowed away in NRI suitcases. One of these is the legendary Bangalore Press calendar – a century-old State Press published, elegantly typeset, red bordered calendar that marks all holidays back home, and in a quick column indicates the status of the moon.

Sometimes, when I receive customized postcards from Bangalorean relatives settled abroad, I can spot within the family photograph a green or gold torana, a pair of brass diyas, or a small photo frame with Hanuman carrying a mountain of stories – and I find that the Gandhige Angadi stores much more than things in the name of God. It houses little nuggets of home.

Book List – January 2014

Just like everybody else on the planet, I am growing old remarkably fast, and one of the saddest fallouts of this: I forget all the books I’ve read. Days and nights of reading remain in my memory as just snatches – a foggy idea of the plot, just a feeling, or just one image. Many times, nothing at all. I’m often stuck looking at the bottom of my glass trying to recall just what the hell Jailbird was about and whether it was Vonnegut at all, while some guy in a plaid/linen shirt is going on about how Vonnegut should have given up writing to draw, and the faded Vonnegut fangirl in me is affronted, but the drink has been too expensive to throw in plaid/linen shirt guy’s face.

To avoid such sticky situations, this year on, I’ve decided to keep track of all the stuff I read. Note that these are not reviews. I’m incapable of objectivity and love nearly everything I read. This makes me the perfect workshopping louse – finding positives even in a rag of chloroform, and giving unsolicited advice even to the works of Dante.

Some of these books I began in December 2013, and out of sheer book-greed, committed some unsuccessful book-polygamy, and had to back up several chapters. And as I write this, I’ve already forgotten so many memorable bits of these books I’ve read, and this deeply saddens me. I will consider getting my head checked for ADHD, but in the meantime, here is some copious note-taking:

JANUARY 2014

Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down – Dave Barry

The year began with Dave Barry. It’s a bringing-in-the-new-year tradition that I have with friends – we read Dave Barry aloud to each other, and laugh like hyenas till we’ve finished our drink mostly via spritzing it through our noses.

To illustrate how much of an impression he makes on me: I was recently asked what book I would take to my grave, and my prompt reply was, “The Bell Jar and any Dave Barry book”. I have gorged on and enjoyed almost all of Dave Barry’s stellar bibliography, except his disastrous novel, Big Trouble, which I like saying was a lapse of judgement. I was happy to find that I still had two of his column compilations left to read – Dave Barry is From Mars & Venus, and Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down – and that means more occasions to giggle at the intelligent use of “booger”.

On the trip, we chose to read Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down. The book features his staple topics: adventures raising his son, spending money on utterly useless things, guy stuff, current affairs, public policy, weird and strange phenomena (read: public policy), news items that other publications carried, and what a gigantic joke real estate/home decor is. My favourite here was a few-part series where he went on about the woes of plumbing, and he lambasted an actual 1992 American law that banned people from using toilets with 3.5 gallon cisterns, and mandated 1.6 gallon cisterns in view of environmental concerns. His accurate science estimated that because of this law, he was forced to spend about 26% of his adult life successfully flushing all the three toilets of his house. Of course he pissed (ha ha) off a whole bunch of green people, but people are always getting hurt around a Dave Barry column.

As usual, his work was liberally sprinkled with, “I am not making this up.”

Make no mistake, Barry is capable of stunning profundity, as he proved in these two 9/11 memorials: Just for Being Americans, and a year later, On Hallowed Ground. And his pieces about his son always touch a note of loveliness. But I guess Barry is best remembered as pioneering a brand, a signature style of comic writing that I have found some Indian writers inadvertently imitate. His style is a case study of how when people are involved, absurdity and reality have no semblance of a line between them.

Gaysia – Benjamin Law

I ripped Gaysia off Editor/Critic Faiza S. Khan’s Twitter feed a while ago, when she’d raved about what a rollicking read this is. And now I think I trust her judgement on two counts: the first volume of Life’s Too Short (which I also read this month), and how much I thoroughly enjoyed Gaysia.

As the title suggests, Benjamin Law follows the trail of alternate sexuality across Asia, and his findings are surprising, shocking, and often, so, so saddening.

Law covers a whole vibgyor of people: lesbians and faux heterosexual marriages in China, HIV-afflicted gay sex-workers in Burma, moneyboys in Indonesia, Japan’s biggest gayest TV stars, Thailand’s beauty pageant for transgender women – possibly Asia’s only, and definitely Asia’s biggest. His ballsiest bits are face-to-face encounters with India’s own Baba OfCourseItsHim, and a clergyman in Malaysia, who both offer a cure for homosexuality.

In the ambit of each of these themes, Law also explores the role of the Internet in empowering alternate sexuality, medicine’s hand in relating the body to sexuality, destitution in the third world, the moral vagaries of prostitution, the unfair correlation between venereal disease and homosexuality, the media’s exploitation of “anomaly” and “queer” – forcing transgenders into campy, slapstick imagery. Law demonstrates how everywhere it’s quiet desperation, guilt, alienation, and a gobsmacking absence of human rights. He concludes his journey in India – by happily attending the Bombay Pride despite his scale-8 food poisoning, and lauding the Delhi High Court’s verdict on section 377. Dear Benjamin, you spoke too soon.

In its own right, this book is a travel book – Law’s adventures while following other people’s adventures, proclivities and escapades. It is ambitious, documenting and demonstrating how offensively reductionist our labels of gender and sex are. What I appreciate most about Gaysia, is its activism that allows curiosity, invites questions, finds itself in very funny, human situations, and doesn’t wave a flag or chuck pamphlets and slogans at you.

I’m sure Law had plans to feature more voices of sexuality, but I’d have loved for him to also shed light on topics like the queer elderly, or the queer disabled. I especially missed the condition of transgenders in India – a story distinctly different from all other transgender voices featured across other countries. Aside, I wonder what he’d have to say about Grindr (the book’s writing predates it), and Shit Girls Say to Gay Guys. And I would’ve loved for him to have a chat with Bobby Darling.

Law’s choice of stories is already so compelling, and he lets the stories tell themselves without heavy hand or clever-craft. And this is a point I will make again, later, after I’m done taking notes on Perur’s If It’s Monday…

If It’s Monday, It Must be Madurai – Srinath Perur

Actually, I’d hoped Perur would debut in the big-bad-book world with a collection of short stories. I’d once stumbled upon this little wonder in one of the earlier issues of Out of Print! when I was doing a click trail of Samhita Arni way back in 2010. A little diligent searching stalking later, I found another bright short, and I was convinced this guy was going to reinvent the South Indian short story. Of course, I promptly forgot.

Time did its thing. In my bookshelf, Dom Moraes happened. Bill Bryson went to Africa. Pico Iyer left from Kathmandu. And spot in the middle of an Advertising-related breakdown, a very talented, kind and excellent friend told me to drop everything and pursue writing, just like his friend Perur had. Perur was allegedly so badass, he’d snap his head, whip his ponytail, and ride tour-buses full of inquisitive maamis from Cherai to Cherrapunji. A couple of years later, Open magazine previewed what is my third favourite segment in Srinath Perur’s If It’s Monday, It Must be Madurai.

There is a moment in the book that I had the privilege of describing to Perur, in person, as “kickass” or something equally awful. A few pages into the book, Perur likens a woman rolling around the Vaitheeshwaran temple with the help of a female relative, to an LPG cylinder being barreled around. I remember I had laughed aloud, and glowed with a fondness for the storytelling that ensued: reflective, warm, sincere, so full of wonder and surprise.

The lesson for me in both Perur and Law’s writing is a humble distance of the narrator from the text. Both books are deeply personal – the happily-married Law explores homosexuality in more unfair quarters of the world, Perur finds shades of where he comes from, over and over again. And yet, both books transcend the two eyes they are seen from. They are bigger than the writer and his craft. The strongest sense I received from both these books is authorial humility: that the person the author listens to, has the better story to tell.

Although, my favourite moment in If It’s Monday… remains when Perur is in the thick of the many-lakh strong 12-day Wari pilgrimage, walking a sole-scorching 200 km across Maharashtra in the name of a god he reports an on-and-off relationship with. Circumstances find him actively participating in a ritual: he is dressed in a red dhoti, holding offering for the deity, and by mandate, has to avoid being touched by any of the other pilgrims. Somewhere in the midst of it all, he accidentally becomes a Warkari, “I even catch myself indignantly barking ‘mauli’, when someone comes too close for comfort, and find that I’ve become active party to an exclusion I don’t even believe in.”

It’s a lovely truth Perur uncovers, and perhaps holds as a leitmotif through his chronicle as a traveler watching other travelers – that despite the stance of observation we strike, as writers and documenters and curious onlookers, for all the removal of self from the scene, we are unwitting participants, extras and junior artistes who have been handed very specific roles.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

I had misgivings about McCarthy, because it turned out I had once tried reading Blood Meridian and had taken the lord’s name in vain. I looked very hard and didn’t find any great feelings for No Country For Old Men either. In short, I was distracted by, god knows, Meluha, and I’d make an early morning orange juice face at the mention of McCarthy – a crying shame for a masochist who braved Trainspotting, Infinite Jest, AND Heart of Darkness before they made it to a Flavorwire list of hardest reads in modern literature.

Why? Because McCarthy loves raising inappropriate fingers at grammar and punctuation, clumping clauses together, forgoing conjunctions, articles, and throwing in poetry-sounding fragments – stylistic choices that I’d dismissed as cheap gimmick. But here’s where the slap landed in my face – no, it wasn’t Stephen Fry shaming grammarnazis – it was pages in when it dawned on me that I had not missed a single beat. The telling is taut, and pacy, and I finished it in a sitting and a half. It occurred to me that this was a style probably born of editing, a shearing of convention and structure, and oh my god, it worked. It was such a sophisticated touch to a commentary on the breakdown of the world.

The Road is a bare-bones father-son story set in a post-apocalyptic world. Everything is stripped of excess in the book – conversation, feelings, colour. And the writing is an additional character in the story – lean, hungry, functional, bulging-eyed from malnutrition, trying to pass unnoticed to predators. The hope supplied in an otherwise superbly bleak story, was also so meagre, and in such wisely doled portions. And yet, McCarthy shows off elsewhere. His descriptions of the father’s inventiveness are detailed with much care. And I am in awe of how McCarthy has described a consistently grey landscape in multiple tender, layered, and unboring ways.

This wise guy whom I exchange Yo Mamma jokes with thinks The Road is among his Top 3 books in the world. Heck, I wish I knew what was top 3 for me, but I read something that I think could be a strong contender in my Top 5:

In Praise of Older Women – Stephen Vizinczey

Every now and then, I find something that I know will change and evolve in meaning each time I encounter it. And I think this is one of those reads that I want to revisit time and again, because I know I will come back rewarded each time.

In a month loaded with great reads, this HAD to be my favourite. Set in the times of the Second World War, it is a collection of András Vajda’s meanderings in the world of older women. András recounts these journeys – they are too profound and reflective to be called escapades – as an older man, and so his stories are sung with a grace and charm and so much humour in a place rife with squalor. The atmosphere of the book is much like the film, Life is Beautiful: swollen with melancholy, but desperately, stubbornly hopeful.

Reading this in an era of Fifty Shades of You Can Really Do That!? Vizinczey’s book makes a very very sophisticated case for eroticism. There are no dirty bits to skip to. But it is an intensely sexual book that places sexual everything at an altar. If András Vajda has a gift, it appears to be an insurmountable curiosity of women, and a nonplussed acceptance of his own sexuality as a tool for survival. He conducts each act of intimacy with such reverence (an excellent throwback to his Catholic upbringing) and holds on to each fragile arrangement with an anchorage that reveals his Post-Modernism: we are here, and we are now, and only what we behold is true, because the world could be blown to pieces anytime now.

Vizinczey does several clever things to András Vajda. In each country that András goes to, his first name bastardizes to something else – Andre, Andrew, etc. – as if to show how András is a natural-born camouflaging animal, built for physical, mental, and spiritual longevity. András loses most everything to war, his boyhood, his nationality, his religion, his friends, his connection with his mother – and his lovers. But the one thing he does hold on to, is the wisdom he accrues from older women, lessons of love and loss that he values above all else. András is not infallible. He is young, arrogant, impulsive. He is insecure and needs constant validation of his abilities as a lover. And yet, when he finds himself entangled with a woman, he does not debase her to merely a half of an act, but finds what she is made of, with the love she has to offer. By setting András in WWII, Vizinczey deftly makes existing social codes farcical and laughable, and allows András to meditate sexuality as something sacred between just the two people involved. Although the title says, “In Praise of Older Women”, Vizinczey offers far, far more than just patronizing observations of woman-kind, and does not have patience with a war of the sexes.

I suppose why the book left a lasting impression on me, is because of the lucidity with which it explains the significance of intimacy. It usually goes unsaid, muted by all the overwhelming sensations of the act itself. Where I come from, we are told sex is a sort of final destination in commitment, or in some places, a score to keep; we are often warned that what lies beyond is pain, or shame. Vizinczey rubbishes everything, and makes intimacy something that keeps András’ humanity intact.

The Life’s Too Short Literary Review – New Writing from Pakistan. Vol. 1

So, there was a brilliant Landmark sale. And I grit my teeth and waylaid temptation like a nun at Lent. Only to succumb when I found this fantastic anthology for a steal, along with a hardcover of Nilanjana Roy’s Wildings, also for a steal, and oh my god, a supercute Penguin-Classics-cover-inspired bag that reads “A Suitable Bag”, guess what, for a steal.

So far, my forays into Pakistani Writing in English had only extended to usual suspects, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, and Mohsin Hamid. But this collection of thrilling short stories, translations, excerpts, and a photo-essay, carefully thrown together by Faiza S. Khan and Aysha Raja go such a long way in showing off an impressive repertoire of literary talent in the country. Off hand, I recall some excellent moments, like a crisp, stunning description of a full-grown man’s eggs-sunny-side-up ritual in Madiha Sattar’s Ruth & Richard, and Danish Islam’s hilarious account of hair-dye issues in Mir Sahib’s Hairdo, and a haunted dream that a hyper-imaginative child suffers at the hands of The Six Fingered Man by Aziz Sheikh. Also a teaser from a mildly Animal Farm-esque graphic novel, Rabbit Rap, that I hope to read in February.

These stories are new writing, I guess not just in terms of exposure, but the milieu the stories come from: empowered urban English-speakers, many who still live in the wake of the colonizer-patronage-privilege, very strongly bound to an old-world, creating new interpretations of their heritage, who are cast constantly in the shadow of blanket stereotypes. It’s the same struggle all developing nations share. As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TEDx talk, nobody in the first world expects us to have normal growing-up problems; because to them, our narrative is distilled to two-dimensional single stories like rampant poverty, chasing cows, and in the case of Pakistan, fundamentalism. The anthology is actually a lesson in curating, picking stories from a spectrum of themes: magic realism, feminism, body image, fidelity, coming of age, aging, lesbianism, displacement and the idea of home, feudal and filial relationships, and of course, living between bomb-shells. If much of a developing country’s story needs to be stuffed into a book, this would come pretty close.

Y: The Last Man | Vol. 1: Unmanned – Bryan Vaughan, Pia (hehe) Guerra

I started this series while standing in the aisle of Landmark, during aforementioned Sale, practicing aforementioned restraint, which was easy, given the price of the book. I think I ought to reserve comment until I’m at least four books down, but suffice to say I can’t wait to go back and gobble them up.

But up until now, this seems like an interesting inversion of gender politics. Y, or Yorick, is the last male on earth, and has a strongly symbolic pet monkey. He’s being, ha ha, sought after for many reasons. I’d read somewhere (of course I don’t remember where) that if it came down to it, females in the human species can propagate themselves asexually, because of their even XX chromosome, where as men are kind of doomed because of their Y. Ergo, Y, the last man. I’m confused if the source of this information was Science, or some ultra-feminist trump card to deride men. Anyway. I wonder if the series ever takes this titbit head-on. It’d be interesting to come out unscathed from such a clash.

I’m being snooty literary-fiction reader reading a graphic novel, but GNs really should go easy on the symbolism. Okay, will reserve more snooty, half-baked notes for times post-devourment.

While on a train back from Bombay, I also began reading Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness – yet another collection of her short stories, and at the time of writing this, have made much headway into Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book on writing difficulties. I have avoided “how to write” books up until now, but I guess I felt like a little ass-whooping. Naturally, the next book will be Stephen King’s On Writing – the only Stephen King I own in physical form.

Now for dinner. And actually writing.

Voices Off

Participated in this wonderful, wonderful theatre experiment, called Remote Bangalore. I wrote about it for Time Out Bengaluru for their January issue. Here’s an excerpt of the sort of awesomeness director Stefan Kaegi was up to.

Kaegi, the director of Berlin-based theatre company Rimini Protokoll, has taken cues from the world of online games, where hundreds of strangers “swarm out on virtual treasure hunts” to create Remote X. Only this time, the arena is an actual city and the players are citizens who engage with the city in an unconventional way. Fifty players will embark on a tour of Bangalore with the aid of radio headsets. A synthetic voice, like a GPS navigation system, will direct the horde, issuing instructions. The result promises to be intriguing, a human art installation with real-time vignettes of people in their urban surroundings.

[…]

In today’s digital world, human interactions often become remote, reliant on technology. Remote X throws up questions about artificial intelligence, free will, conformity and authority. It’s hard not to draw parallels with books like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; Spike Jonze’s movie Her, where a man falls in love with an operating system with artificial intelligence; and research such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of the early ’60s, in which a controlled authority directed subjects to inflict shocks on strangers.

In Bangalore, Kaegi has got the synthetic voice rendered in what he calls “Indian English”. The version is called Deepa. Kaegi said that she’s quite different from Siri, the iPhone voice application. Siri has been designed to dispense information, while Deepa gives directive,” said Kaegi. “Siri is a programme. Deepa is a script.” Deepa has been set to an original score by Niki Neecke, a music designer who is currently a resident artist at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. The score will have cues such as hawker cries, blaring horns and political rallies.

You can read the rest of the story here.

A Hundred and Twenty Four

When I am not considering the cleanliness of my navel, I remember to be grateful for empathy and the strange and wonderful places it takes me to. That on a quiet day, at an unsuspecting moment, I can find kinship in odd vulnerabilities at the corners of everyday tedium. That I can find myself in unusual shoes.

I find me in that child’s two-second pause while he registers he just let his helium balloon go. I am in that breathless shock of cold the construction worker feels when he empties a mug of water on his head. I am that 12 year old who goes on stage during a wedding reception, shakes the groom’s hand awkwardly, and walks off self-conscious. I am in the awkwardness of the waiting girl who absently checks her phone. I am in the unconvincing excuse the belated boy comes up with.

I am that friend at the birthday party who gave the birthday boy money instead of a wildly exciting video game. I am that girl posing in a group photograph, who never knows what to do with her hands – should she assume intimacy with the person next to her by draping her hand across his shoulder, or does he mean something to hold his waist? I am the urchin at a bakery glass display, eyeing a sickeningly rich pink pastry. I am the gentleman determinedly not looking at the bent girl’s gaping neckline.

I wince when the parlour lady threads the 16 year old’s supple upper-lip. I feel the itchiness of the monkey cap the diabetic grandfather has been forced to wear. My gut chills like the man who learns he has placed second on the reality show. I am homesick like the silhouettes in the windows of an interstate bus pulling out of those last few stretches of city, watching people ride in the opposite direction, homesickness mounting as they get closer home. I feel the strain in my arms from that girl who ferries her uncomfortable mother on her scooter. My toes flex for texture when a hawker takes to the tar road by foot. I pinch my eyes shut imagining the acridity of the beedi that man smokes.

I’m convinced that the maker is an amateur artist in pursuit of his perfect drawing, for he keeps tracing and retracing our borders over and over again. All that makes us different from each other are the wisps and ghosts between Pilot-pen-drawn lines. Our anomalies are errors by his hand that could well be attributed to bumps in cosmic paper. Maybe to make up for this, he threw in the gift of empathy, that we may see ourselves past those hazy, rakish lines. Maybe, with empathy, he wants us to fill in the colours.

Or maybe, just maybe, empathy was his way of saying sorry for loneliness.

An Unofficial Nike Ad.

Pull out your old marathon tee.
Put it aside to change into when you’re done.

Wear your still-wet-from-the-downpour-day-before shoes. And run.

Ditch the app. Fuck the playlist. Run. Feel your muscles heave. Feel the eyes of strangers on you when you run a pace they know is too quick to keep up. Feel the confusion of the stray that wants to chase you, but cocks its head in amusement instead. Feel the rattle in your chest; feel the real, heavy, throbbing thing in it. Feel your thirst hiss in your ears.

Run. Count every step, every stumble, every struggle for breath. When your numbers stray, start over. Taste the ash of your lungs burning, and regret every sigh that escaped you in your hours of darkness. Respond to the cadence of your punishment; bead after bead of inaccessible sweat, thud after thud of your own growing heaviness.

Cut the air with soft-formed fists. Obey the lay of the path. Bend when the road bends. Jump when the road gapes. Brave the tree’s curious branch with a gash on your cheek. Notch every time you pass your house, your lane, your neighbour’s big blue SUV. Be amazed at the mechanics of how your calves tug, the balls of your toes spring you forward, your knees flex — and you, tiny, insignificant you, glide over; your run, a holy trinity between gravity, inertia, and human will. It is you that the earth resists. You are the action the earth is in reaction to. What other vindication do you seek?

Fall in step with your body. Revel in your mind’s dread.

Go home to a mirror that cannot cloud with doubt. Rummage your soul for some sadness, imagine an insecurity, and watch your body not give a single, solo, solitary or even a half-a-hearted fuck. Learn how no god, no guide, no good word carried you through — like you, and your two feet did.

Run. And stop after greatness.
It’s where you will trespass, again, tomorrow.

Delayed Gratification. And Chow Chow Bhath.

Only recently did it click in my head, that I eat sandwich borders first, the creamed biscuit second, and my cake’s icing last.

Perhaps it is a sign of persistent middle-class manners – or just a persistent middle-class mother – but I’m afraid delayed gratification is quite a reflex for me.

I’d like to imagine that this was our society’s designers’ way of ingraining in us this unrelenting faith, this habit that believes that wading through the hard things will bring us to the good. Like it is a system of motor-memorizing optimism itself. The causes for my hoard-the-happy behaviour are fairly easy to peg: endless waits for birthdays and foreign-returning aunts, blindly promised and mostly achieved percentages, piggy banks that refused to fill up, spinach that refused to finish, black buckles that refused to break. In my young double-pig-tailed head, it was an ancient barter system of karma via dharma. Every vacation was earned by an exam. Every cloud of misty breath was earned by standing in the cold.

This revelation dawned on me midway through — my Chow Chow Bhath.

For the uninitiated, Chow Chow Bhath is a dish that brings together inverted cupfuls of kharabhath and kesaribhath. Kharabhath is a thinly disguised form of upma, horror in the form of spiced semolina gunk that features in many children’s tiffin box disappointments. Kesaribhath – is sweet ambrosia; upma’s beautiful, profound, fun sister whom you meet at a supremely boring house party and wonder, “Gee, which one was adopted?”

There was an exact point in my wolfing that fateful Chow Chow Bhath that this epiphany happened: when I found that I had bolted through 70% of the Upma (urf Kharabhath), and had not even touched the Kesaribhath yet. That meant, it would leave too much sweet to eat at one shot, and I’d have to pace it between spoonfuls of offensive Kharabhath (alias Upma).

So you see, this Chow Chow Bhath is a Trojan Horse in our house of binary: it simply blanches the 0s and 1s with all that ghee. It is an inconvenient truth: but you cannot finish all the Kharabhath and singly relish the Kesaribhath. Once your sadness has been conquered, your happiness diminishes in value in its abundance. Because good and bad do not follow through in a crest-trough pattern, and are not enjoyed void of the other. They stand like adjacent houses – a pretty one, and an ugly one – a sight that you take in its entirety. Like two blobs of spiced and sweetened semolina.

And yet, it is fitting that this musing on delayed gratification opened such a simple way of working out that one thing we want most for ourselves; that thing we lose to ephemera. Inevitably, it is that one thing we save for last. It is the thing we wait to do at the end of the day, when all our wealth to squander is time and quiet and heart. When we can sit on a bench, and swing our legs, and chew with luxury and deliberation.

For me, it is this. Sitting here and sewing in, word after word.

A Hundred and Twenty One

The most important lesson I learned at a swimming pool is from a time before when I could swim.

I loved our school swimming pool. It was crystal blue, large, square, and tiled white. On many early mornings, I’d sit at the bleachers with my back to the field, and watch the gentle swells of the water. Whenever a breeze blew moisture my way, I’d open my mouth and swallow whole chlorine-and-pine wetness.

The pool was always a playful brimful. Its fullness would toy with my limited understanding of surface tension – that although the water bobbed and threatened to erupt, it never did. It flirted with the rules of confinement; laughing garrulously at the prudish well-cut white boundary, but always gathering its skirts before spilling over.

It was a pool with personality – a fiery mentor befitting a school that groomed young ladies. It was a living, breathing thing whose belly would shudder, and it would cluck its tongue at winds that took themselves too seriously. It would put up a fight when little girls with blubbery thighs in neon swimsuits would thrash about blindly. It would coax into its vast care crying children who’d rub their eyes to rid themselves of tears, shame, and chlorine.

During monsoons, it was pitter-patter company when I’d sit in my buttoned-up cardigan and play with raindrops that clung to the chain-link fence, using the ends of my plaits like paintbrushes. The pool’s deep end would be a liquid emerald, light winking in its depths and running a cold current through the backs of my knees.

It was the year I was finally assigned my house colour. Red. It was Spring.  The trees that arched over the pool sent flying kisses to the water below, and the pool would blush in concentric, ever-expanding circles – an endless charade that I’d watch with my fingers tangled in the diamonds of the wire-fence. Pink lips of flowers would caress blue and tuck themselves at the far ends of the pool, waiting for the exasperated pool-cleaner.

That day, he was even more exasperated.

Bright coloured ropes had been drawn to mark tracks, and a sound system had been set up. The synchronised-swimming team adjusted each other’s bright blue swim-caps, and waved at familiar faces on the other side of the fence. The swim coach was in a starch-stiff salwar and her stainless steel whistle flashed a sunlit smile.

We made crepe-paper pom-poms for each other. We yelled jingles. Our team is dynamite, our team is dy-na-mite. Our swimmers huddled, a devout teacher crossed herself, and the speaker crackled. The swimmers stood on the starting blocks. The more conscious ones snapped the ends of their suits. A few stretched. A few tensed. My favourite senior’s thigh muscle rippled. A shot sounded.

The girls sprang like jaguars and splashed us onlookers. They sliced through the water, and flipped under to turn around, and my senior took the lead — when the girl next to me screamed. Red blossomed on my white skirt and in my hands. My pom-poms had bled colour. A few of the older girls exchanged meaningful looks and breathed. One girl caressed my head.

We sailed the relay. We broke for lunch. We jostled for seats in the front row. Our house was leading, so we hooted and whooped. It was now the 200 meter race.

The swimmers lined up, but it was an unusual time for quiet.

The last swimmer to limp her way to her block was Sheroza. Sheroza had survived a near-fatal accident two years before. She had lost her brother, and had come back to school a completely different person. She touched her toes with a little effort. She snapped on her goggles. Her black Speedo cap banded and hid her tight curls. Her eyes seared the track ahead, and an angry long gash ran the length of her right leg.

I winced when the shot rang.

The girls were off. They butterflew their way down their tracks, golden, glorious wings spanning conquests that day and forever more. The swimmers tumbled under water and rose again, water phoenixes rising lap after lap. And yet, the only chant on everybody’s lips: She-ro-za. She-ro-za. She-ro-za.

Silence fell. The girls from our house finished first and second. Six tracks had finished the race. But everyone’s gaze was riveted to the seventh: Sheroza. She turned her last tumble. The trees hushed each other. The water quivered when Sheroza’s arms would break from the pool’s face, and slide back under. Break. Slide. Break. Slide. A pensive bird’s wing-beat on her way home. It escaped someone’s lips, “Come on Sheroza!” Sheroza surfaced, and hiccuped a sob. Break. Slide. “Come on Sheroza!” Break. Slide. The six other girls in the pool wiped their eyes. Water lapped at the sides of the pool, heaving and rooting for Sheroza. “Come on Sheroza!”

The other swimmers hugged Sheroza for a long time and she cried, and cried. The rest of us couldn’t stop clapping and sniffling.

The pool hummed softly, and waited.

I was 22 when I learned to swim; when I learned of the cadence of water – and that its power is in how it can make even light buoyant. I learned to disperse tears amidst its molecules. I learned of its haunting shadows in my shivers and crimped fingers on chilly November nights. I learned of its parallel universe with its own quality of silence. I learned of the sculpting qualities of water; its soft, painless chiseling at everything we hate about ourselves – our bodies, our lethargy, our fear.

With a little help from refraction, water can throw light on how just a little wetness is enough to unsettle us.

And yet, water is what it takes.

A rectangle of it. An ocean of it. A cloudburst of it. A fountain of it.

Water takes into her lap our rough edges, our unrelenting realities, that we may break from her surface as brilliant sparkling victors.