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.

A Hundred and Twenty Two

It begins when you knock over an ink bottle with your elbow.

You blink, registering what your clumsy, wayward elbow has done. A conspiracy of blue rushes in hurried whispers across an ever-growing island, corrupting weave after weave of checkered tablecloth. You wince, like it is a vase falling, and you wait for its clipped final complaint. You gather the cloth in a bid to make amends. You don’t know it yet — but you never really believed the cloth would be red and white again. You blink. The blue has seeped through the parched cotton and filmed the polished wood like watery oil. It is on your hands. All over your hands. In your hands, burrowing deep in the grooves between the whorls of your fingerprints. You cannot wipe your hands on your jeans. The back of your throat tastes like salt and rust.

Your hands are a wet royal blue.

You sit on the most unassuming surface available, willing your arms to dislodge themselves. You lean against the wall, you exhale. You loosen muscles one by one. You watch your arms. The veins slowly, with all the will of osmosis, turn a knotted blue. The tendrils, the frail capillaries all blue. Your skin looks like naked paper with all its intentions laid bare.

In your heart is a choir of cellos, thick moans of stringed viscera that ripen your ventricles and valves and walls to a sore tenderness. Your nose tingles. Your eyes sting, and your vision blurs dark.

You catch a blue teardrop. Then twenty.

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.

A Hundred and Twenty

It has little to do with a surprise grandchild.
But your mother does not want me in her house when she’s not around.

Not because she’d have to hesitate before doing up your bed, or would be forced to have an explanation for the stray hair the maid found that is simply too long for explanation. It’s not because she would have to avoid the sofa with her crocheted lace doilies, or the friendly inquiring neighbour. Not even because some day, she’ll find herself watching the clothes vigorously spin in the front-loader, and inexplicably blush.

Forget what I see about you. Your mother does not want me to see things about her.

She does not want me to see the hoarded bits of tamarind mush that she hopes to one day use to fight grease. She does not want me to see the crusty coconut grater with old flakes still stuck in the teeth; the walls of her kitchen that she has adorned with blue and white milk packets; or that her one act of wifely defiance is that she uses your father’s erstwhile brown briefs to soak water from the blabbermouth tap.

She does not want me to know you are married to that threadbare razai you’ve had since you were a child, and that your family has a bit of a cholesterol problem, what with the ghee dish having more char and neglect in it than ghee. She does not want me to see her saree blouses unironed, sun-crisp, and inside out, the occasional rust-mangled hook oxidizing some more on the clothesline. She is not yet ready for the intimacy of an all-cloth-brassiere discussion.

Your mother wants me to see you as you, and not necessarily as her son. She does not want me to see the pink talcum she has bought for your manly armpits, nor the mound of your t-shirts that hasn’t been folded because she is not here. She doesn’t want me to see the gods she brought you up under, dressed in last morning’s wilted flowers. Your mother doesn’t want me to know that she is gnawed by worry, about you and your bed that is gnawed by termites, and that her only defense is a Kannada newspaper and cellotape. Not even The Hindu, or a glossy tabloid supplement.

She doesn’t want me to know the secrets of her youth. I am not to see the blackened old cup on the bathroom shelf, and the half-empty Godrej packet in it. I am not to see that she is mortally afraid of dandruff, and consults with three different kinds of oil. She would rather tell me, than let me deduce from the dubious coloured vials, that she believes Ayurveda can cure her of her swollen feet. I am not to know the smell of her from the latest Lux bar at the sink. I am not to know that her molars are false, and have been forgotten at the same sink.

I am forbidden from knowing the corners she cuts for her budget-keeping. That every morning before the mirror, she contemplates between three stickers, and dutifully sticks them back on the mirror before going to bed. That she mends the buttons of her house-cardigan, each mending done absently in different coloured threads. That by her bedside is a vase with plastic flowers that don’t need replenishing, and it’s not like anyone buys her flowers anyway.

Your mother does not want me to know she has left in a hurry to her mother’s house, maybe for a celebration because the cupboard to the Kanjeevarams is still ajar. But it is your duffel bag that she has taken. Maybe because of what your foreign-returned brother has just installed in your father’s That Cabinet.

Your mother wants to be there when I say, “Oh, she plays the veena?” She wants to modestly blush and brush me away with a hand and say, “Used to. Now I’ve lost practice.”  She wants me to sit in the veranda and fuss over my parentage and show me pictures of you as a little boy with long hair and give me an orange and betel leaves to say she loved having me over.

Your mother is not here.
But she wants to hear me tell her that I will leave, and I will be back soon.

A Pocketful of Sand

A far more civilized, and less self-indulgent version of this appeared in Mint Lounge. Thank you to the brilliant Shamanth Rao for taking this beast through seventy eight gargantubajillion drafts. 

I reluctantly unpack my well-used swimwear and do two more things.

First, shiver: Bangalore is too chilly for a one-piece, however conservative. Second, pick my best moments from my latest visit to a jewel on the West coast of Karnataka – Gokarna.

On New Year’s Eve, when half the sub-continent flocks Goa, my friends and I settled instead for Gokarna, a quieter affair that’s just 130km south. We hopped into a car, and drove 500-odd kilometres from Bangalore, quite literally into the sunset.

The road to Gokarna is dotted with delights. Sunflowers nod hello along National Highway 4 outside Bangalore. Proud windmills do cartwheels on the hills of Chitradurga. Towel-turbaned farmhands thresh rice on the wide-as-a-hair-parting highway to Shimoga. Pines line the tummy-torturing hairpins to Honnavar. The road thereon smells of the sea, and becomes a straightforward ride through Kumta, over the Divgi bridge, and onto the Gokarna-Kudle Road.

Gokarna, as every travel guidebook loves to say, means the cow’s ear. Legend has it that Shiva, after being banished by Brahma from Kailasa, returned from hell through the ear of a cow. And this is the lore that has been incanted to name the abode of Shiva’s Atma Linga. How his Atma Linga came to be here is another fascinating tale. Ardent Shiva devotee Ravana was taking the very form of Shiva, his Atma Linga, to Lanka. Other gods worried that it would make Ravana too powerful. So Vishnu orchestrated a sundown, forcing pious Ravana to perform his evening rituals. Ganesha appeared as a boy and offered to hold aloft the Linga while Ravana bathed. Once Ravana went out of sight, Ganesha placed and firmly lodged the Atma Linga at Gokarna, thus preventing Ravana from taking it to Lanka – and making Gokarna a prominent place of Shiva worship in India today.

Set in the North Canara district of Karnataka, Gokarna lies in the shadow of the Western Ghats, where the hills embrace the Arabian Sea. Gokarna town with its Mahabaleshwara temple (housing the Atma Linga) opens up to the main Gokarna beach: a mess of fish hawkers, empty chips packets, and boatmen offering to take you everywhere.

A half-hour hilly walk away is beach-bum central Kudle. A boat-ride or a breathless trek ahead is Om beach with its shore shaped like an Om, a geological homage to Shiva himself. Further south comes Half-Moon, a beach that resembles a sand-filled Cheshire Cat smile. And finally comes Paradise, with its hammocks and coconut palms.

Heads filled with images of freely perspiring cocktails with tiny umbrellas, we reached our homestay just after sun-down. Rajeev Gaonkar, ex-techie turned host, opened his henchin-mane, or traditional slat-roofed home to us. A tea and a bath later, we hopped back into our car, and sought Paradise.

We discovered that by night, Gokarna is a place where streelights, road signs and GPS systems stop working. The Great Bear howled, and Polaris laughed at how lost we were. Several wrong turns finally brought us to, wait for it, a traffic jam. A barely motorable road, tucked away in the folds of hillside, most often populated by cows, was today full of Tempos and party-goers. We parked, and using our flashlights, stumbled and tripped our way to Paradise where disappointment awaited.

Authorities had banned alcohol that night, and there was no Thailand-like jamboree on. The shacks played nondescript music, and tourists made civil conversation. On New Year’s Eve, this was eerie.

So we drove to Palolem, Goa. A half-hour fireworks extravaganza and a 250km drive later, we were back in Gokarna. We woke to a traditional lemon rice-sambar-vermicelli paysam lunch that Mrs. Gaonkar plied us with. Well-fed and watered, we decided to soak some sea.

I cannot fathom why the Om, Half Moon and Paradise beaches are bigger hits than the Kudle beach. Perhaps it’s because Kudle’s easier to reach. Or that it offers few shacks and fewer things to do. To us, these seemed like the very factors that make Kudle an unparalleled beach-bum joint. So we drove along a winding off-road with moody hill vegetation, parked, and settled on the sand to turn at least five shades browner than our drivers’ license photos.

The sea at Kudle is shallow enough for a person who thinks she can swim (me), and swollen enough for everyone else. My routine was simple: whip up an appetite with some serious splashing, and polish off a Nutella pancake after. What Maggi is to Ladakh, Nutella pancakes are to Gokarna. The non-vegetarians reported that they were considering living entirely on Calamari rings and Prawn chilli. Catering to international clientele, the menus spanned Russian, Israeli, American, English, and Keralite fare. Suitably baited, I ate a lot of Paneer Manchurian.

When not stuffing my face, I found that Kudle is an autonomous adventurer’s sweet-spot. On one day, I chose to sit at the beach and write and read and get distracted by everything and do nothing. On another, I decided to stroll into Gokarna town.

Gokarna town is a little knot in the hills: a spiritual light; a decadent blackhole. Here, dreadlocked sadhus rubbed shoulders with pot-addled god-hunters and the Shabrimalai-chaste. The procession ratha, or chariot, sat outside the Mahabaleshwara temple awaiting Shivaratri for hundreds to draw its ropes, while rented two-wheelers snaked through sneaky narrow roads. Sparrows bustled hurriedly, but old men with thick cataracts sat outside shops watching tourists. Bangaloreans ate rice with spoons, and Caucasians wore tilaks and ate joladd (jowar)-rotti with their hands. Shops sold bongs and Om-printed bags. Graffiti of a pop sadhu, captioned “Videshi Sadhu” begged to be a Facebook upload. I was offered a permanent tattoo, cheap yoga pants, and some “good stuff”.

My next caper began when I walked back to Kudle from Gokarna town and took a detour at the cliff en-route to watch stretches of dry grass shift like wheat-fields. I sat at the crag’s edge, and watched the sea crash into the rocks, saw fishermen catch crabs, and spied a man in a wheelchair relish the sunset.

The nights crackled with bonfires.  And once they were out, the stars burned with ferocity. We sometimes lay in the cool sand and made up our own constellations. Or we sat in bare shacks of just chairs, tables, and sand, drinking 25 Long Island Iced Teas, outdoing each other in multiplication games. Sometimes, we sat to play Taboo. Sometimes I read Dave Barry aloud.

One morning, I woke early and watched Kudle come alive – a secret global village full of unusual wonders: toddlers in baby suits meeting the sea for the first time, couples laughing at jokes in alien tongues, a line of school-children trekking the shoreline, girls twirling hula hoops, boys beat-boxing, tattooed men playing volleyball, and foreigners reading Shantaram. And in that scene sat I, watching, amazed.

A trip to Gokarna doesn’t end with the drive back.

It just begins again, with the pocketful of fine sand you bring back home.