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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Kind words from a voice on the telephone

Last month my young friend Chintan forwarded a short news item from a Kolkata newspaper, announcing the demise of one of the city's (and indeed the country's) most respected literary figures, Professor P Lal. There had been no mention of this in any of the other papers, and a couple of my friends in the publishing industry had not heard the news either. Today, a little over a month later, The Hindu's Literary Review carries a full page tribute, combining perspectives from Shashi Deshpande, Keki Daruwalla and Gopikrishnan Kottoor.  All three writers have similar recollections of Prof Lal, all three mention his generosity of spirit and his dedication to the art and craft of literary publishing.

I've been thinking of writing something on this blog ever since Chintan sent me the news. Prof Lal helped me realise a long standing dream of having my own work published. He helped me get beyond the sense that my wish was a mere indulgence. After many months (years?) of dithering, I had put together my collection of poems and decided to seek a publisher. I had of course heard of the Writers Workshop and read many of the collections, both fiction and poetry, put out by them. The hand-bound gold lettered covers were quite familiar and so were the names represented on many of them. Having grown used to an online mode of functioning, I sent off an email to the address indicated on the web site, and received a prompt reply--read the terms and conditions mentioned on our site, and if in agreement, send us the manuscript in hard copy and we will get back to you if we consider it suitable. So I did.

About ten days later, one evening, I received a phone call on my landline (my daughter picked it up and she said, someone called Professor Lal from Calcutta)... yes, it was him, and he was calling to tell me that he liked my work and would be happy to publish it. "But why don't you send it to a commercial publisher, it is really very good," he said. I suppose all of us who write do have a certain sense of the quality of our work, but it always helps reinforce one's confidence to hear it from someone else (especially when that person is not an indulgent parent or a kind friend). We spoke about some of the formalities and then he said, "You must keep writing."

There were a couple more conversations, mostly routine chats about proofs and postage, and as promised, two months later, my book was out, in the beautiful cloth binding that characterises WW. These are moments I won't forget. The phone call and those words. Opening the advance copy of my book.

I do agree that some vanity is involved, and as other commentators have observed, WW has over the years published work of excellence as well as indifference, and it is up to the reader to make the distinction, But Prof Lal's work nevertheless has allowed many of us to emerge from the woodwork more confident, and more willing to take on the sometimes cruel gaze of the critical audience.
 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fifty/50? Milestones, markers and moments that make life

If we count the milestones in our life by the years we pass, then last Sunday was, I guess, a marker of sorts. Two score and ten, a score short of Milton's defined life span for man. But why should one birthday, even if it is the beginning or end of a decade, be particularly noteworthy? That's one of those unnecessary questions, I guess, but having turned the half-century mark (and please note how it seems more significant once you attach the "c" word to it!) I suppose I must be granted the luxury of wondering.

Phone calls, emails, the occasional actual paper-card that comes in the snail mail, handshakes at work and hugs at home (and sometimes vice versa), frantic messages the day after saying "OMG I forgot!" and (the best part) presents you said were not really important but were happy to unwrap anyway. Did I forget the sugar highs and the blind eye to blood glucose levels? What about the arthritic knee that is beginning to makes its presence felt every time I leap up to pick up my mobile and cheerily answer yet another well wisher?

Seriously, when I tried to pause for a moment (between answering the mobile phone and hanging up on the landline) to wonder what all the fuss was about, it struck me that it's largely about reinforcement and guilt. And maybe, sometimes, unfortunately, also regret.

Reinforcement? Well, let's face it, even though we know deep inside that the people around us (well, most) really do care, it's good to be reminded when they completely unexpectedly throw you a surprise or give you an extra warm hug, or even just tap you on the shoulder to say so. It reminds you of the network one has built up over the years, and tells you that the hours that you spent listening to someone or bothering to respond do add up to something. You also realise that networks can't help but grow when they've been fed right. So as we grow older, our circles of friendship reach further and further, and on such days they spring back to gently remind you of the places you've been and the hearts you've connected with. Mushy stuff, I know, but then life does have its real Hallmark moments (is that a contradiction of sorts--you can't have a 'real' yet branded moment?).

And why guilt? Well, this works in at least two ways. One, birthdays give us an opportunity to throw away guilt or at least lay it aside for a while. We pick up the phone and call that elderly aunt we had been meaning to ask after for months, or we re-connect with a friend whose emails have gone unanswered for--has it been a whole year? Some of us wrap this guilt in fancy paper and others simply decide to make up and resolve to not let another year go by before picking up the phone. It's also about dealing with or facing up to another sort of guilt--the guilt of promises made to yourself and not kept. And the older you get, it's this sort of guilt--maybe a better word is regret--that catches up on you more often.

So what I decided to do this year was to revisit some of those promises and see if I could make good on them and give myself a big present: the time and the space to try and deliver on these. I don't want to face the next birthday with too many regrets--while we all know that "would have if I could have" is something that we can't entirely avoid,  we also know that many of the "can'ts" are really only because we don't make them happen, that the excuses seem too many to brush away.

Birthdays also offer us an opportunity to reminisce.
Where was I when I turned 10 or 20 or 30? 
Who was I with? 
What was I doing?

What are the milestones by which we mark our progress through life? Those of us who keep meticulous photo albums probably just need to turn back a few of those old black pages and look at fading pictures, or the younger among us flip back through Picasa albums. But the rest of us must make do with delving into our storehouse of memories and trying to identify the significant moments. That can be fun, and also a bit painful, because one of the things that happens as one gets older is that many of those we've grown up with, many of those who have played important roles in our lives, can only be recalled in memory.

So, reinforcement, guilt/regret, milestones and all, what does it mean to be 50? Indeed, what does it mean to be any age?

It feels good to have lived so many years without too many regrets and still a lot to look forward to.

It feels great to know that you are keeping pace with life (despite having to be told by your 18 year old daughter how to use your cell phone) and still making new friends and that relationships continue to deepen and grow.

And fifty is a nice round number, what? (and in case you get the wrong idea, I say that not because I am round, though I will admit to being nice!)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The art of choosing...a book

If you haven't read Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar's thought provoking and hugely successful book, The Art of Choosing, then I would highly recommend it (if you're into non-fiction trendspotting books), Of course I speak only from the experience of having read a good review in nothing less than the New York Times and having watched a TED Talk. But the review, combined with an interview of the charming woman, made the book sound very promising...and soon enough, it seems to reached the front display in Indian bookstores as well.

But this was not what I was looking for as I browsed my way through a Landmark store this afternoon. I was in search of the perfect gift for a friend who is currently into Indian writing in English.  No dearth of books in this genre, you would think, rightly, in fact a plethora of choices. What used to be a short dusty shelf of books by a handful of authors has now grown to an entire section in the bookstore, with women writers dominating the colourful spines. Writers in translation, chick-lit from a variety of perspectives and age ranges, right from college romances to older women in search of themselves, more serious investigations into life and learning and loss, and a whole variety of other themes. "Preferably stories set in pre-Independence India," she had said, "and maybe, southern India?"

Having recently been introduced to Usha K R's writing through an evocatively titled story, "A Girl and a River", I thought a book by her might do the trick and satisfy my choosy friend. I chanced upon her latest title, "Monkey Man", also, like the former, set in her home city of Bangalore but in more contemporary times, exploring issues that force consideration following the rapid modernisation that has transformed the city. My friend Mahrookh had enormously enjoyed "A Girl and a River", a story about a childhood lost to family tempers amid the political turmoil of the early twentieth century, so the author seemed to be a safe bet. This, along with Ali Sethi's "The Wish Maker" rounded off the purchases...well, almost. I also ended up buying two more books, for myself--"Blindness" by Jose Saramago, of whose writing I have heard so much, and a random pick, "The Yacoubian Building", an urban tale by an Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswamy, a first-time read for me.

It's always exciting to discover a writer that has not come to you by recommendation or by fame, but instead has lain quietly waiting to be read, the book selling purely on the strength of the cover blurb and a certain "atmosphere" conveyed by the cover design. You might pick up the book with a little bit of trepidation, but something tells you--maybe it is the font of the title, or the colours used on the jacket, or the grammatical structure of the opening line--that it is going to be a good read.

While I do often file away notes from the Hindu Literary Review or the NYT Review of Books about "must reads", I usually end up buying the unknown, the unrecommended, the less recognised titles--and then, a few months later, I find these names on the fame list. At this point I must confess I do feel a certain vindication for having "found" the author on my own!

So then, how does one go about choosing a book--for oneself or for another? If you want to go beyond the usual suspects and find that something different, then you do have to spend some time picking things off the shelf, smelling them, noting the nuances of the typography of title and text, letting the sound of the first few lines (and then a few here and there sampled from the inner pages) play in your inner ear, and waiting a moment or two to see if the story feels like it is going to "catch" a hook in your brain.  And most times, it works. Well, it's worked for me. That's how I "found" Boman Desai's "Memory of Elephants" and Ursula Le Guin's "Changing Planes". And a host of others who will no doubt find a space on this blog.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Reading in the car

One of the advantages of being driven is that I have more time to read. Now, having earlier been torn between giving up control of the wheel and having a little more time to think, stare out the window and actually see what is going on instead of being disturbed by the aggressive hoardings that have colonised our skyline,  I find that the time gained has its uses. Significantly, I am catching up on my reading. This serves two purposes. One, instead of getting tense and irritable over what seems to me like reckless driving, I distract myself with a book or newspaper. Two, I am able to read uninterruptedly, and the time I have at my disposal is increasing by the day, as the Hyderabad traffic reaches new levels of congestion.

I've taken to leaving a couple of books in the car--just in case--apart from carrying one in my bag. The one I carry in my bag is the more serious, long-haul book, while those left in the car tend to be the "dip into" variety or non-fiction that can be read in bits and pieces. Having just finished an emotionally draining novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, I have now moved to one of the books that's been sitting in the backseat pouch for a while. Margaret Atwood's "Moral Disorder". Atwood is one of my favourite writers. I discovered her only a few years ago, and am amazed at how prolific she is (my daughter tells me that there have been others more prolific--Alexander McCall Smith, for instance, who rises at 3 a.m. to begin writing!) and at the range of her writing.

I encountered Atwood first in a dusty, old edition of "The Handmaid's Tale", a dark and disturbing view of a dystopic future in which reproductive rights and rights of association are nonexistent. I moved on to "The Robber Bride", also somewhat dark but not without touches of humour. There are many other titles sitting on my shelves waiting to be read, but for now let me talk about the two that have been consumed in the car. These are two volumes of short stories: "Wilderness Tips" and "Moral Disorder". I finished the first a while ago, and am about half way through the second. But it's the sort of book where I have to stop now and then in sheer amazement at her felicity of expression and the way in which she is able to capture a moment, look deeply into it, and emerge with sharp insights into human nature. In doing so she presents us with aspects of her characters and their lives that bear so much resemblance to our own meanderings through life, in a way that we are moved to both laugh and cry over them.

"Wilderness Tips" is a collection of stories with a shared theme--everyday decisions, everyday events that forever change us or define who we become. So there is Lois (Death by Landscape) who wanders into the woods out of camp, with a friend, and returns alone, her companion having gone into the trees and disappeared. And Susanna, who danced on a soapbox to win the smiles and approval of her uncles, and grew up to forever seek the same approval from other avuncular figures in her personal and professional life.  The book is about the "single instance that shapes a whole life", as the book jacket says. "Moral Disorder" is different; it follows the confusions of a single character from adolescence through womanhood, stopping along the way to peer into instances that make her life. As a teenager poring over Browning's "The Last Duchess" (a poem many of us may have encountered in English literature classes), she comes to realise that every door one walks through is a pathway to the afterlife. And as an older woman driving to see her mother, she discovers a new kinship with a kid sister who tormented her as a child. It's funny, sad, and above all, insightful.

Atwood's prose is simple and no-nonsense, the simplicity of her writing makes the truths she presents that much more forceful.

I suppose that is what a gifted writer is able to do. Make us stop and look at ourselves in the pages of a book, and find answers to the small and large questions we have in life through the stories they tell. Whether it is on an adventure or in meditation, through the pages of a novel or in the frame of a painting, what we are looking for is a glimmer of the self.

Losing control of the wheel is not so bad, after all. The books make up for it. I'm waiting to get back into the passenger seat and reopen that book. And to smile at the moral disorder that I see in my own life!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New Delhi: Under Construction

CP: outer circle
Okay this is not the worst view, but take a careful look at the flooring and the scaffolding in the background. Tiles being replaced, pillars being rebuilt, roofing being refurbished...and this is the least of it. Most of CP is much worse. Drive on the roads, and more often than not you find yourself in a bottleneck because of construction on either side. Walk, and it's worse, you might fall into one of the several ditches (in Connaught Place you have to step over several, sometimes walking over precariously placed planks to cross a wide one).

Three months to go and nowhere near complete. The news of the day is that the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi will witness a spectacular display of fireworks costing the exchequer some Rs 40 crore. A show up in the sky might distract some from the unfinished work on the roads! Having just returned from a trip to Delhi, I am left with a sense of disenchantment and deep worry. Is this the face we are to present to the world? What has always been a favourite city is now in the throes of a seeming transformation (fortunately, the nicest parts of Central Delhi have been spared) to accommodate the Games, the events, the people and the vehicles. My friend's colony in Central Delhi has had to close one of its main gates to allow parking on that side of the street, while students in Delhi University have had to do without recreational facilities for more than two years in anticipation of a Games makeover to their grounds. While the Metro snakes southward in a promising advance of mass transit, the sidewalks on the University campus have disappeared (hopefully, only temporarily) to give way to wider roads to hold more cars. And when the rain comes down, as it does with regularity in July, not only does it provide relief from the muggy heat, but also spawns rivers of free flowing mud.

In short, the road to the Games is a capital Mess.

But maybe, as sometimes happens in our charmed country, by some miracle that defies bad weather and corrupt contractors, the work will get finished and New Delhi will put up a good show.  Most residents won't be around to see it. They've been advised to leave the city during the two-week enforced break and leave it to the visitors--so that parking and water both remain in plentiful supply!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Harley-Davidson in Hyderabad

The rapid proliferation of Western brand names on Indian streets is nothing new; it's been happening since the beginning of the "LPG" era (thanks to my mass comm students who taught me that acronym for liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation). Coca Cola, Pepsi, Levi's, etc. And more recently, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, and other such motorables. But this morning as I was driving to work I saw one that threw me just a little bit--the iconic motorcycle company, Harley-Davidson, has a showroom in (where else?) Banjara Hills! While one might say that the VW Beetle is as much a style and attitude product as the HD, the latter belongs to a culture that somehow feels a bit out of place in the rarefied corporate environs of main street Banjara Hills. Okay, accepted, the motorbikes perhaps got very bad rap based on mythologies created by Hollywood, of biker gangs and Hells Angels being the primary HD clientele, but that too is an image that is hard to wipe out of the imagination, which often turns into memory. And my own imagination -spiced memory cannot rid itself of images of leather-clad, chain wielding gangs of long-haired tattoo-armed men looking for vacant car lots and junk yards in which to to commune. But clearly, at an Indian price tag ranging between close to Rs 700,000 and 3.5 million, those who buy these bikes in Hyderabad are not going to be looking at raising dust storms on outer ring road! And truly speaking, Harleys have had more to do with the police force in the US than with violent biker gangs (largely a creation of cinema). I have friends who are devoted Harley owners, and who use their heavy bikes to explore the countryside and seek "wholesome" outdoor adventure. In fact, the more recent HD ads note "millions of Harley Davidsons, and not a leather jacket in sight." To be honest, neither of the two HD owners I know wears leather or has a tattoo, and one is a smiling grandfather who rides with his lovely wife and a group of friends on weekends, just to feel the wind on their faces and the sun on their backs!

So it's time to set aside my erroneous and imagination-rich ideas and accept that Harley Davidsons are just as likely to be ridden by the youngsters populating the glass palaces in Hi-Tec city as by forty-somethings who once idolize Peter Fonda. In fact, market research shows the average age of a HD biker is now 46, compared to the late 20s of three decades ago! Perhaps that's where the money is...but it's also where the imagination is!

And the HD showroom in Banjara Hills...well, I guess in a couple of weeks it will be just another sign joining the blur that borders my drive to work!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Frankly grey


I’m just back from a wedding in the city of mandapams and katcheris, and of marriages made as a result of discussions over good strong decoction kaapi. I’m also just back from one of those weddings, this one of course not decided by the exchange of yellow and red dotted jadakams (horoscopes) but by the meeting of two young minds that had grown up together. The wedding is incidental to this post, however, which bears upon matters much more trivial. But the wedding provided the context, the backdrop, against which my determination to not be lured by the promoters of “youngistan” was sorely tested.

You see, I’ve entered the “grey zone” in the past year or so, having decided not to give in to increasingly strident voices in advertising that urge one to “stay young” and buy into the cult of youth, that treats ageing as a pathology to be aggressively tackled and stayed at any cost. The cult of youth comes with a huge price tag, hung innocuously on off-the-shelf goods like anti-wrinkle cream and hair colour (remember the young girl who tells her sister—“Safed baal! Didi, my life is over!”) as well as more visibly on hoardings that advertise brow lifts and anti-ageing treatments that “keep you looking young”.  Those who are allowed to turn grey are no longer the parents, but only the grandparents who are safely in their seventies and eighties with no hope of a “life” as the youthful copywriters imagine it. Those in the middle zone—the 40s, 50s and 60s, must look young if they are to partake in that “life” in any way!

So, here I am, pushing the half century (very hard) and like Clarissa Vaughn in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, very decidedly and “defiantly” grey. And strangely enough, I meet with a subtle disapproval, not unlike that meted out to outrageous piercings and tattoos sported by those much younger. Comments range from a fairly even “Oh, so you’ve decided to take the gracefully ageing route?” to “You seem to be really busy, you’ve gone quite grey!” (implying that I do not have the time or the inclination to take care of my appearance). I’m still not totally immune to these reactions that vary from the said disapproval to pity but I do take refuge in my mental images of the stately and still beautiful and very grey Nafisa Ali and many other silver-haired women I know, and stick to my guns, usually responding with no more than a smile.

My greyness is as much a cultural and political statement as it is a matter of convenience. I have no quarrel at all with those who choose to “stay the grey” with L’Oreal or Revlon or even good old kali mehndi and tea leaves, in fact I admire how they look. But I myself do not have the patience or the perseverance to check my roots week after week and ensure that they are adequately covered with the right dash of colour—not too black, not too brown, just the right shade in between. But there’s another side to the story. And that’s the argument that holds in the long run. Why have we as a race privileged youth above all other stages in life? The market is geared to their appetites and whims, often sacrificing good taste and good values in order to pander to their tastes in everything from the texture of fabric to the storylines of soap operas. They are the big consumers, so everything fit to be consumed is directed at their wallets and their eyeballs and earlobes.

Of course, the youth cult is nothing new; now it just has a bigger machine to fuel it and sell to it. And there are more places where it can be worshipped. I haven’t yet been able to find a nice, stylish coffee bar where the music is muted, the magazines on the tables are cerebral, and there are people of all ages, maybe just as many with salt and pepper hair as those with gelled spikes. Or a bookstore where I am not pointed to the spirituality section just because of the color of my hair!

I know a lot of really “cool” people, many of whom have radical and very progressive opinions and lifestyles, and who have chosen to let the silver spread through their hair without resistance. While we talk about getting past superficial judgments based on how we look and dress and speak, what about avoiding judgments based on the level of grey in one’s hair?

The wellness industry has expanded its horizons by making age a pathology, and moving closer to the beauty industry so that the margins between the two are now blurred. Is Botox a treatment for nervous tics and muscular spasms or is it a means of erasing lines and the signs of age? Is a brow lift a means of treating a potential threat to vision or is it a way of defining the eye so as to prettify it? But these and other such treatments take us into another area all together, a totally different ball game.

Of course, another way of looking at this is to say that we now have more choices; we can choose to look the way we feel, and we have the means to make our inner selves visible. If I have the inner vitality of a 25 year old, why can’t I do what it takes to look as close to that age as possible? If I feel young, why can’t I do what it takes to look young?

But my point is, why should I look young in order to prove to someone else that I feel young? Today, I look in the mirror, and yes, I confess, I am a little alarmed at the rate at which silvery glints in my hair are increasing; but a moment later I turn away, and I forget how I look. I am what I feel; I am what I think; I am what I like to do. And all you need to do is to talk to me to figure out if you can relate to the person I am…not the age I am at!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

taking measure of 21 years

How does one measure the usefulness of anything? Does it lie in its quantum of influence--spatially, numerically, intellectually, materially? Does it lie in its ability to survive over time? Or (as some in this age would have it) in the number of mentions it generates on social media?

An idea that was born just over 21 years ago is now in the process of being put to rest. Not quite given up on as an idea, but in its material form, designated "unsustainable".

Teacher Plus was mooted in the second half of 1988, and given shape to in the first half of 1989, in the offices of Orient Longman Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad. The ELT team in the publishing house, of whom Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao (Buchamma), Usha Aroor and Rema Gnanadickam were a part, originated the idea of a professional magazine for school teachers that would serve as a forum for the sharing of teaching ideas and experiences, and perhaps motivate teachers to play a catalyzing role in reforming classroom practice. I was recruited in January 1989 to help give shape to the idea, as the company lacked experience in magazine publishing. I had just moved back to Hyderabad after a two-year stint with Living Media in New Delhi, helping start up and run their magazine, Computers Today.  Rema and I, with help from others in the Orient Longman office in Hyderabad worked with graphic artist Ranjit Roy Choudhury to create the bright orange logo and identity for the tabloid, which was launched as a bimonthly in July 1989, three months ahead of my first daughter Achala's birth. (Aside: Pradeep, now MD of Orient Blackswan, drove me around on his motorbike in Chennai, when I was six months pregnant, on marketing rounds for TP!) Usha Aroor served as the senior editor but as she was based in Madras, the day to day planning and operations were handled by Rema and me.

Later in the year, I moved to a part time role as consultant editor of the magazine and Rema moved to Australia, leaving the magazine in the hands of Deepa Chattopadhyay, an editor and linguistics scholar who had returned to India a short while before after completing a PhD in the US. Deepa ran the magazine with a skeleton staff for the next decade, helped by various part timers including Sumana Kasturi and Aditi. I continued to be involved as a consultant, except for the years  1994 to '98, when I was working on my own PhD in the US. The magazine never left my mindspace for very long though, even while I was abroad.

In 2001, Sheel joined the magazine as a part time editor, and Deepa moved out. From then on, Sheel and I steered the magazine with help from itinerant junior editors and the OL production team (significantly, Nayab). In 2002, Buchamma, her friend Tanvir and Sheel entered into a partnership and formed Spark-India, a firm devoted to the production of educational resource materials. The development and production of Teacher Plus was then outsourced by OL to Spark-India. My role as consultant continued, and I helped plan the issue and source articles while Sheel handled day to day follow up and coordinated production--I tend to be good with the big picture while Sheel is great with details. Buchamma and Tanvir provided guidance and occasional editorial inputs. We drew in additional editorial assistance from Sujata C, a freelance writer and editor who also felt strongly about education and the need to empower teachers. Then Nirmala, who had been with The Hindu for over two decades, joined Teacher Plus in February 2006 and the magazine took on a more streamlined, professional structure with her inputs. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, a friend, spent time with us, working as a writing coach and doing a column on thinkers in education. Neha Kamdar, who had been my student at Hyderabad University, joined the team in 2006 and worked for a few months before her departure to the US for a doctoral programme, and her position was taken by Meghana Rao (also a former student at HCU), who worked with us for a year before her journey westward began. Another person who worked with us and brought a lot of smiles into Sudarshan, where the magazine was housed, was Temjenwabang, a doctoral student at HCU. Teacher Plus (and Spark) was becoming a great place for people who wanted to learn and who cared about education!

In 2006 we lost Tanvir who succumbed to cancer and left the third place in the partnership vacant. I stepped in at that point to make up the partnership and to take a more active part in producing Teacher Plus.

Around this time, IT giant Wipro's corporate social responsibility arm known as Wipro Applying Thought in Schools (WATIS) became interested in floating a magazine for teachers, something they thought would help the overall project of education reform that they were engaged in, with a variety of other organisations ranging from Ekalavya (Bhopal) to Digantar (Rajasthan). After Anand Swaminathan and Vijay Gupta came to meet us and had a few rounds of discussion, they began supporting the magazine in 2005, and in January 2007, enabled Spark-India to acquire the magazine from Orient Longman (which is now known as Orient Blackswan). The WATIS support (later coordinated by Prakash Iyer) also helped Spark invest in a new design and format for the magazine and re-launch it in June 2007 as a monthly. The new design was overseen by Vinay Jain, a Delhi-based designer who had worked on The Hindu's Folio series. Soon after the launch of the monthly edition, the Teacher Plus team consolidated with a few additions and a few farewells. Shalini joined Nirmala as a second editor in July 2007; Kumar came on board as a full time layout artist/designer at the same time. In addition, now Shweta handles accounts and circulation while Sushma manages the team and looks at marketing. For a year, we also had Pawan Singh (the writer of many Last Words) and for a summer, Chintan Modi (a fellow from Seagull Books). And so the learning space continued to grow. Toward the middle of 2009, we relaunched the web site and brought much of the new content online. The site was designed by Ochre Media and the entire process was coordinated by Divya Sripraphul (yes, yet another former student from the Communications Dept, HCU!).

The magazine reached out to practising teachers across the country, and built up a small but committed readership, comprising educators in alternative spaces as well as government school teachers and teacher trainers. The focus right from the start was to provide a mix of hands-on tips, discussions of issues related to classroom management, child development, curriculum planning and delivery, and the larger politics of education, as well as commentary on current developments in the field. Our contributors included practising teachers at all levels, many who had never really considered themselves writers, and people who felt strongly about education and wanted to share their viewpoints. For many, it was the first such forum they had participated in; the idea of a teachers' magazine was novel and exciting, offering the opportunity to share things as mundane but crucial as how to teach fractions or spellings or even burnout.

Over the years, we have built up an amazing network of people with many different ideas and approaches to education but one common passion; child education in the broadest sense of the word. The pages of Teacher Plus have carried articles that have appealed to the primary school teacher as well as the one handling board-facing students, and principals worried about teacher recruitment and retention or the design of playgrounds. This has resulted in a large editorial bank of ideas and resources: projects, activity sheets, and teaching tips. Orient Longman published one collection of Teacher Plus projects in the mid 1990s that is now out of print, but the rest lies in the pages of the magazine, in staff rooms and teachers' bookshelves around the country.

But what is the point of this long history?

Because the story has an end, one that is coming up in the next month. July 2010 will be the last issue of Teacher Plus. An ongoing struggle to build up the subscriber base and the resultant challenge to become financially sustainable has forced this decision. Even under OL, the magazine had struggled to stay afloat, with the subscription base never going beyond 2000, and only a very strong organizational commitment keeping it alive. The first year after Spark took it over, an energetic drive by Buchamma added a few hundred subscriptions, still not enough to take it to a break even point. The WATIS support, it was hoped, would infuse fresh energy and bring a wider audience to the magazine, and while there is no question the former has happened, the latter has been a huge challenge.  Those who handle media products know that huge marketing inputs are needed to create visibility and buy in from potential readers. This has not been possible with Teacher Plus. Our efforts have been largely word of mouth and small mailing drives, clearly not enough to lead to the 10,000 we need to stay afloat.

So now, three years later, we stand at a point where we have to ask ourselves: does 2500 subscriptions count for "significant impact"?

Impact yes, significant, no.

Does an estimated readership of 10,000+ count for anything?

I suspect each of the teachers and educators that makes up that number would say yes to both.

But as an enterprise that needs to achieve both quality and business survival, Teacher Plus falls short. There is no doubt that we have built a magazine that makes sense. In terms of quality of production and content, we've achieved a standard of excellence that does not exist in scholastic journalism in the country. I for one firmly believe that teachers need and deserve a good looking, engaging magazine that affirms their professional identity, and Teacher Plus has attempted to be that. But in terms of business survival, we have not yet hit upon the formula that works. We need more teachers to read such a magazine, and draw advertisers to it, if it is to remain alive. But 21 years of trying (not in the right way, maybe) hasn't worked.

So, it's time for the idea to take a rest.

In this case, 21 hasn't really meant a coming of age, but a transition of another kind. And a learning, nonetheless.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Making lists


Such comfort one can take from striking items off a long list of to-dos. It gives you a keen sense of satisfaction, the feeling that you have been productive, that things have been accomplished, that you can get on with life having set it in some sort of order....

So on my refrigerator is a magnet-backed notepad and on my desk is a colorful post-it pad, and next to my telephone is a set of one-side used paper caught into a pad with a giant butterfly clip. And the assortment of pens to go along with these bits of stationery must be seen to be believed. Pencils ranging in length from an inch to 8, ballpoint pens in varying degrees of dryness, gel pens with their refills missing and caps thrown away, markers that don't mark, crayons waxed over with disuse, fountain pens that have stopped flowing many moons ago...so you get the picture!

But let's set the tools aside for a moment and focus on the lists themselves. Long lists and short lists, today's must-dos and weekly goals, and better still, year-long resolutions that hopefully will be forgotten and trashed by the time the next one comes along. What makes us make lists? What makes it easy for us to so easily strike some items off, count them as accomplished, and others as un-accomplishable?

My friend Sarika swears by her lists. And I take much comfort from them, being as I am so scatterbrained and likely to continuously re-prioritize and therefore forget. She starts each workday morning with a glance down her current list and then looks up at the whiteboard in our office to see what lists she has made for our graphics team. What's going to be finished today? And what has to be started? With determined swipes of her marker, she removes items deemed to be completed before adding others (unlike me, who keeps adding and sadly enough finds little to strike off). It's a good ten minutes before she deigns to look up at the rest of us and pronounce her verdict on the upcoming hours. Are we going to be caught in a tizzy of finishing up so she can strike things off the list? Or are we going to settle into a thinking mode as we begin some new tasks? The mood of the office often depends on Sarika's sense of how well she has progressed down her list!

So I then quietly sidle into my cabin, daunted by my inability to strike things off. But it puzzles me. I seem to be busy, working, handing over papers that have been handed to me, sending off emails in response to others sent to me (with attachments duly tracked and renamed). So why is it that my lists never grow any shorter? Or make that impressive array of red checks against the numbered items? Am I like the basketball player who runs all over the court, sweating and shouting, but never scores?

I'm pretty sure I am not that unproductive. Maybe I do run in different directions and am often out of breath without having gotten very far, but I must get some things done!

So I've come to the conclusion that it's not about making lists, really, but making realistic lists, lists that are full of things one can get done. My problem, I've discovered, is that my lists end up being more like wish lists. Large, long term projects that depend on at least two other people and a flow of information that is often interrupted before it rounds the first bend. Sarika, on the other hand, operates on the wisdom of the pragmatist. She puts down small, doable items that are important to achieve in the way to achieving larger goals. So each day, she can look forward to going home with a list made considerably shorter.

My lists are full of large goals, and I am overwhelmed the moment I look at the list each morning. Two weeks later, a month later, I find I have been busy doing things that are not on the list but the items on there have received no attention. They are too big even to begin thinking about. I seem to have not paid enough attention in the classes on goal setting and planning. Yes, I do know all about SMART goals but when it comes to organizing my day, I seem to forget that bit of the lecture. I can’t seem to draw back from the big picture to focus on the details, and it’s the details, I have learned from my friends, that make the list move.

Now I find that the Web is full of handy tips on list making, with several sites devoted to “the art” of making lists. Diaries and calendars offer spaces to create one’s hourly schedules and prioritize them. eHow.com, for instance, tells you how to do “just about anything” with sage advice to “spend a little time each day in planning”, while the “Ta Da List” (www.tadlist.com) claims to be simpler than writing on paper. And of course, rememberthemilk, iGoogle’s task manager, and umpteen others. There are tools for grocery lists and time-bound lists, with scheduled prompts built in.

I wonder, though, if these tools will accommodate the grand nature of my own day-to-day plans, each item designed to change the world of my workplace. What I need is a tool that will take these individual grand plans and break them down into small, baby steps that I can just maybe begin ticking off.

I already have a set of markers, in three different colours, to code that list. And a pad of nice yellow sticky notes that is waiting on my desk.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Black dogs and other imagined realities

I’ve just finished my second Ian McEwan book in a row, and my fifth overall. I’m sure this happens with many of us, that we find ourselves caught up with a writer we enjoy and whose work engages us in a deep, intimate way, and we are loath to leave. We immerse ourselves in book after book and just do not want to part company. The book I just finished is “Black Dogs” and the one just before was “Enduring Love”. For anyone who has read Ian McEwan, you would sense a certain comforting sameness across his writing—not a boring, tedious sameness, but a common thread of deeply felt humanity (and perhaps many writers have this) that is at once despairing and hopeful. There’s a recognition of a core of evil and ugliness that runs through all individuals, and it is in overcoming this or confronting it with the goodness that also runs through us that a story emerges. It’s also the specificity with which large-scale events affect each one of us, and changes our lives, forever.

Take, for instance, this extract:

“As they drank from their water bottles he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores, whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions…each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise…. For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths,… which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories….. what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?”

(Black Dogs, Vintage, 1998, p.165)

All novelists capture our minds and hearts with something that is universal, yet particular, in a way that we are able to become part of the story, a fly on the wall, feeling everything that every character is feeling:

If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile, in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish grany and a pale, correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognized a figure in the expectant crowd…. I kept hearing the same signing sound on a downward note, often breathed through a name as two people pressed forward to go into their embrace.

(Enduring Love, Vintage, 2004, p. 4)

That one reminded me of my own private drama at an airport, one of those unforgettable cinematic scenes that one goes back to time and again. 1993, October 20. Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Three days before my younger daughter turned two and my older one, four. I had been in the US for a little under two months, and my husband and children were arriving from India to join me. I had not seen my little girls for almost two months. We arrived at the airport, my friend Ganesh and I, a little early as may be expected, for anxious parents who have not seen their children for a while! Finally, after what seems to be an interminable wait, the glass doors slide open and people, tired, travel worn, unsure, expectant, begin walking through into the arrivals area. It is a good five minutes before we spot them, an adult pushing a trolley with one hand and holding a sleepy but wide-eyed toddler on the other arm, and a little blue-frocked pony-tailed girl, my four-year-old Achala hanging on to his tee shirt by the side. Then she sees me, and in an instant, catapults through the doorway, straight into my arms, the stuffed animal she had been clutching forgotten and on the floor. Six weeks or more melted away and we were together again.

It took a little longer for two-year-old Ananya…she refused to recognize me, perhaps punishing me for having left without her, so there was no “arrival” for her, only a transition from one comfortable, familiar space, to another that took some time to become home.

But back to McEwan and his writing. Atonement showed us how, one person’s mistaken perception and subsequent action could tear apart lives, while Saturday takes us on a minutely experienced 24 hours culminating in a dramatic event that again, breaks down the ordinariness of our everydays, and Chesil Beach places under the microscope one evening in two lifetimes, one which changes their directions forever.

These are the book’s I’ve read. And I’m looking forward to the others….

Saturday, May 08, 2010

One house at a time

Thursday evening, 6 p.m. The work day is over for many of us, at least those for whom it who began in the morning. The bell rings. A slightly built man is at the door, two thick plastic folders under his arm and a cloth bag over his shoulder. "Census madam," he says, a bit hesitantly (because, I discover later, he expects to be chewed over by the irate inhabitants of this colony, as he has been warned). I invite him inside and ask if he wants a glass of water, seeing as it is really really hot, 42 degrees and no rain. "Later, madam. First, I need to ask some questions." He sits down on a chair in the fan-less verandah, refusing to come inside where there is a bit more air and the whiff of breeze from a cooler. A. Ramesh, the forty-ish schoolteacher who has come to do "census duty" asks me diligently about my antecedents, qualifications, and occupation, and then moves on to the head of the household and others. His hesitant manner slips a bit as he tells me about the work he has been "conscripted" into. He has been walking through colonies like mine for the past two weeks and will do the same for the next two. The data for Hyderabad's 8 million or so inhabitants is to be collected by June 10. This is the first phase of the Census, also known as the Housing and Houselisting Survey. Some people answer with a smile, making his job in the heat of the summer just a bit easier. Others turn him away saying they do not have the time to answer, telling him to come later. He will return once or twice, or as many times as it takes him to get the information, but before the deadline. Fortunately Ramesh does not have to deal with a classroom just now, as summer holidays have begun. So while his students take a break from his science lessons, he beats the streets with this two plastic folders, a stock of pencils and an eraser (I noticed because he was able to amend the form after I had given him a couple of unnecessary answers that he had to delete!). Those who do remain inaccessible will be covered in the next sweep, after which the data are consolidated.

After the glass of cold water that follows his data entry and my counter questions, Ramesh finally leans back and allows himself to relax just a little bit, before he moves on to the next house. He leaves me with a scrap of paper, a receipt which is to be produced after my face and fingerprints are captured so that a e Unique Identification Number can be assigned. This will be another mammoth task, and both together will give the Government of India its single biggest planning tool, to be then combined with formulae for resource use and generation, social services and their distribution, and projections of all kinds.

Ramesh is one of 2,500,000 individuals who have been called upon to help bring in this data. School teachers like him are the foot soldiers of these initiatives, and while they do earn a small additional allowance for their participation, it is certainly not voluntary--for those in government schools and government aided schools, such tasks often take up so much time that they cannot do justice to their primary occupation, teaching. In this case, the enumeration has been scheduled so that teaching schedules are minimally affected.

The exercise is huge, the largest of its kind, barring perhaps a Census that might be done in China. The Indian Census for the first time will also record details such as each household's connectivity and access to water, sanitation and power. The sheer logistics of the operation, along with the possibilities that come from good use of the data, are amazing (a word I do not like, but find useful here).

So, I guess, it's time for us all to stand up and be counted...and to let those who count into our homes with a glass of water at least, to give them a bit of respite from the blazing summer sun!

http://www.thehindu.com/2010/04/02/stories/2010040250640100.htm
http://www.fullhyderabad.com/hyderabad-news/india-census-2010-starts-indias-largest-initiative-ever-492
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/01/india-census-worlds-bigge_n_521224.html
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8598159.stm

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Streetside love stories

On the old Bombay Highway, the road that snakes through Mehdipatnam and Rethi Bowli and whizzees past the shiny new DLF complex to lead to the University of Hyderabad after crossing a beautiful bougainvillea lined stretch, is a tiny cafe called "Time to Time", Held up in a traffic jam I find myself watching lives unfold outside its colourful signboard. A couple walks by, slowly, the girl with a college bag slung over one shoulder and the boy carrying a backpack, dawdling their way to college, perhaps, carrying excuses in their pockets. Another woman stands at the adjoining bus shelter carrying a shopping bag, next to her is an older man, greying and a tiredness visible in his sloping shoulders. He turns to her and takes the bag from her in an almost proprietary manner. She looks at him and smiles.

The most poignant love stories are not the ones that are enacted on desert sands silhouetted against burning skies, or amidst warring families and blood feuds. They happen in prosaic everyday moments, to people in everyday clothes, with humdrum needs and wants, families, homes, meals-to-be-cooked and shopping-to-be-done, involving lives entwined, enmeshed in ordinary circumstances, in spaces that fall between bills-to-be-paid and livings-to-be-earned. They are built of feelings that are felt during those mundane responsibilities and realities, their romance woven into the threads of existence that cannot be separated from the routine

Do such love stories lose their cinematic, other-worldly appeal simply because they happen to people with wrinkled hands, slouched shoulders, dark-circles-under-the-eyes or splotchy skin and greying hair? There is no make up person to touch up the oily spots or darken those pale lips and un-lustrous eyes. There's only emotion, felt keenly, strongly, truly, an emotion that totally occupies the spaces that contain the quotidian, the spaces that fill the pauses between everyday moments.

And where do these love stories find a telling? Or a viewing? Are they too precious to be given on loan to the realm of words and images, to be corrupted by the sight-smell-touch and ultimately, the mis-interpretation by minds unprepared, or too, too prepared, for the extra-ordinary?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Good works

As we turned the corner off a little lane off another lane off a road everyone knows as "the East Maredpally Main Road", my friend Havovi remarked, "We think we know the city but we probably know less than five percent of it!" Most likely, much less, given the fact that is is growing both inward and outward every day.

We arrived a few minutes later at the "Dalith Women's Home", an old age shelter for destitute women, run by Kamalamma, who retired from the Indian Railways and put her superannuation benefits into this project. The Home offers a space for women who find themselves without caregivers or support, some single and destitute, some abandoned by their families, and others who simply have no place to go. There are around 30 people living in this rather ramshackle semi-detached building which is itself on the edges of an area that has been forgotten by city developers. An old railway track runs just by it, providing a huge source of entertainment to the children in the area, who run to watch the occasional goods train or engine on its way to the Lallaguda yard, less than half a kilometer away. Across from the Home is a small open space where the children play, The children are mostly from the surrounding basti; some are the children of the young women who, like their older home-mates, have nowhere else to go. One arrived at Kamalamma's doorstep heavy with child, her older son barely two years old. There are others like her, who have now become part of this support system, lending their youth and their agility to keeping the place going from day to day.

Kamalamma keeps the place going with whatever help comes her way. A few charitable groups have pledged short term or incidental support, a wet grinder here, a water pump there, a few cots and blankets now and then, and the occasional visitors like us who, bemused by the extent of need, give a little and leave feeling inadequate and helpless, promising to come back with more. "What do you need?" we ask her. (The question seems a bit superfluous, when Need, with a capital N, is everything they feel.) "We don;t refuse anything," she responds. "Everything that is given can be made use of in some way." So we put our minds to work, thinking of all the excess in our own lives that we can slough off, and make our hearts and minds a bit lighter in the process.

Notebooks for the children to use, sheets and blankets for the old women, money for a pucca roof, vessels and containers for food, clothes, ...and then all the other things that do not bear listing because we know it will be an aeon before they are given...better sanitation (the 35-odd people have use of three toilets located just outside the facility, their metal doors almost falling off the hinges), a more organized layout..the list of needs is endless. Havovi, who has asked about the toilets, remarks, "I read the other day that India has more cell phones than toilets!"

We talk to her and some of the other women for a few more minutes and make our way back to the car, which now looks indecently large in this small space that goes for a road, next to the railway line. And as we prepare to leave we hear the sound of a train approaching. One little girl runs toward the track, in anticipation of the view she will soon have, a promise of the means to escape the known, and everything it represents. Other children run toward the track, too, and soon one of the young mothers comes out, shouting at them to keep a safe distance. One of the little girls has never seen a train before, and the others begin to describe it to her. The engine comes lumbering up the track. That's all it is, an engine, moving tiredly on a track that few people, in the railways and elsewhere, remember.

We leave the little girl, dressed in a bright red salwar kameez that's a bit too big for her, her eyes wide and hopeful, as she stares at the receding engine. And we leave the little island of support that Kamalamma has created for the women, feeling a bit sad at how much more needs to be done. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and turn away, cloaking ourselves in the idea that we cannot really do much. It's much harder to stay and do the little one can. It might just mean that a little girl in a red salwar kameez is able to look at other things in wonder, and in hope.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stumbling around sarcophagi...doesn't have to be morbid!




A green-flagged gateway marks the entry to Paigah Tombs, a group of forgotten graves that lie in an oasis-like bubble off a major vehicular artery on the southeastern fringes of Hyderabad. Then, stepping through a veritable hole in the wall of untidy urban sprawl, we walk into space waiting to be discovered by the occasional tourist who draws her travel maps from memories left behind by others, now so easily archived on the world wide web. The intricacies of the delicate stuccoed walls shading and protecting the numerous sarcophagi are not immediately apparent, curtained as they are by several mango and neem trees that populate this irregular quadrangle, bounded by a mosque (with its own reflecting pool) on the west (predictably), an older, brown walled building (sheltering the oldest graves) on the south, and a dilapidated complex on the north that has been turned into dwellings for the caretaker family. The shaded pathway directs you inside, across marble steps where you leave your footwear and your tired-tourist skepticism, to the long line of archways bordering the entry to the tombs.

The Paigahs seem to have been a large and (by the standards of the day) illustrious family. Their generational connections branched wide and deep, across lines of royalty and power that trails off into an indistinct delta with streams so finely drawn they cannot be seen in the present. The Paigahs were nobles of the highest order, next only to the ruling family (the Asaf Jahs or the Nizams) in the hierarchy of the old kingdom of Hyderabad. Their sons married the daughters of the ruling family, and many were offered positions of power and prestige, handling the coffers and managing the estates of the Nizams. The Paigahs reached the zenith of their power under the sixth Nizam, Mahboob Ali Pasha (the "Beloved"), when their influence over matters of the court and its assets was unquestioned. During these years, from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, the Paigahs consolidated their wealth in real estate, building large mansions (havelis) and populating them with art and furniture from Europe. The famed Falaknuma ("the eye in the sky") Palace, the Asman Garh Palace, and the Paigah Palace complex in Begumpet were built during this period. Vicar ul Umra, who built Falaknuma (and the Spanish mosque on the grounds of the Begumpet Palace complex), and sold it to Mahboob Ali Pasha for a mere Rs 35 lakhs. Asman Garh Palace, built by Sir Asman Jah Bahadur, was also handed over--gifted--to Mahboob Ali Pasha who had commented on its beauty.

So it is perhaps only to be expected that the Paigahs conceived of and commissioned a final resting place that reflected their taste for architectural and artistic beauty.

The Paigah Tombs are located just off the very busy 6-lane Santoshnagar highway, but are still quite difficult to find. They are now a crumbling complex of marble and limestone, visited only by the most committed tourists and history buffs.

So how did we find ourselves here?

The enthusiasm of the student group mentioned in the last post had dwindled in the face of an increasingly hot summer and end of semester commitments but three young women decided to brave a burning Tuesday morning to make the visit.

We met at Charminar bus stop and hired an auto-wallah to take us there and back for Rs 300. (Don't believe the maps, the distance from Charminar is not as small as it seems!) It took us a good half hour to get there, driving past Falaknuma on the hill (now newly painted a bright white), and making many stops to ask for directions. We finally found the green-flagged arch diagonally opposite the large Owaisi Hospital. Once we turned into the lane under the arch, there were signs leading right up to the compound. We entered the complex through a small green gate and then, it was a different world.

Many generations of Paigahs are buried here, in at least three separate enclosures. There may have been more, but encroachments on the southern and eastern side have eaten into the compound. The long building directly facing the mosque houses most of the graves, the oldest dating back to the early 1800s. The more important members of the family such as Asman Jah, Kurshid Jah (Amir e Kabir, whose grave has an ostrich egg suspended over it) and Vicar ul Umra (whose grave, though simpler, has a couplet written by the last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, over the doorway) have their own enclosures, as do the senior wives of these men. Others are in groups of two or three. Each of the enclosures is bounded on all sides by walls of exquisite jaali work, each one a different pattern. Heavy wooden doors elaborately carved in styles reminiscent of Rajasthani jharokas lead into these enclosures. Some of the gravestones are still inlaid with semi precious stones, while the others are more weathered.

After spending many minutes gazing longingly at the doors, particularly (and wondering if it would be possible to replicate one for our own home fronts!), being suitably impressed by the mid-day reflection of the mosque in the pool outside, and wandering through the other two less impressive buildings, we made our way back to the busy-ness of the outside world, where our auto-wallah awaited us and his fare.

I first visited the tombs in 1988, on an assignment to write a tourist guide to Hyderabad city, and at the time, had struggled to find the tombs, just as I did 22 years later! The tombs were in slightly better condition then, with more of the stucco intact. Although the complex has now been declared a heritage site and has been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, restoration and even preservation seem to have been put off indefinitely.

Friday, April 23, 2010

rediscovering the old city




Walking down the lanes of the old city of Hyderabad can be either a nightmare or an adventure, and of course one of the many variants and mixtures in between. If you live or work in Lad Bazaar or Patthergatti of course, it's no more than routine. A group of uncomplaining (actually, enthusiastic) students from the MA-Communication program at the University of Hyderabad agreed to join me on a walk through the old city, giving up a precious Sunday of sleeping in. The Heritage Walk conducted by Andhra Pradesh Tourism invites one to discover history in the routine, by unpacking for the unfamiliar walker, the layers of history that lie beneath the grimy walls of these crowded, dilapidated, yet vibrant marketplaces. Beginning at Charminar, the 16th century monument that has come to symbolise the city's heritage, the walk takes you through the lane known variously as "Lad Bazaar" (the market place of indulgence) or Chudi Bazaar (bangle market). The early morning commencement saves the walkers from the hawkers and the enthusiastic bangle and ittar sellers, and allows you to glimpse under the garishly painted awnings, a bit of the outermost walls, now destroyed, of the Chowmahalla Palace complex. Our walk, on April 11, was led by the articulate and knowledgeable Manisha Gadhalay, who peeled away the present to show us what the area may have looked and felt like when the Qutb Shahis and Asaf Jahis (dynasties that ruled Hyderabad between the 14th and 20th centuries) held court.

I've been through the old city, and this route, many times, and each time I cannot hold the excitement I feel when I notice a small piece of stucco work I had not seen before, or catch a sense of space that tells me something about how life was lived. And when you share this love of a city that has grown on you, with a group of young and receptive minds, it's doubly exciting. Cameras clicked and notes were taken as Manisha led us through Lad Bazaar to the north wall of Mecca Masjid, then again through what used to be the jilau-khana (stables) to Mahbook Chowk and the 19th century clock tower that is now surrounded by a bird market, locksmiths selling every conceivable shape and size of lock, a maze of meat stalls, to the front courtyard of what remains of a once grand deorhi. Then out again, to walk down another pathway to Kurshid Jah's baradari, its large compound now taken over by Sunday cricket teams and footballers, to a brief pause in the archways of the grand portico, now watched over by a family of goats and a woman cooking the morning meal in what may have once been a mirrored parlour, an aina-khana.

Bemoaning the disappearing sense of historicity, we pass a tight discussion group who turn out to be members of a civic group interested in the preservation of the heritage sites in the old city. Hope, maybe?

Manisha points out the front of another mansion--a panel beneath the roof holds symbols of a cultural unity; the face of Surya and the crescent of Islam. And finally, the gates of Chowmahalla, the complex of four palaces that housed the Hyderabadi royalty. The Chowmahalla has been written about extensively in recent times, interest in its treasures renewed when Princess Esra, wife of the older grandson of the seventh and last Nizam, decided to throw open its gates to the public and restore its interiors. Restoration is a work in progress, and every visit reveals a new facet of a culture overtaken by time. The Heritage Walk ends with breakfast in one of the shaded courtyards of the palace, and Manisha leaves us with some final stories of the old city, and a desire to see more, learn more.

So we decided not to stop there, and continue, a few days later, with a visit to the Paigah Tombs, another forgotten landmark on the map of the old city. But that's another story.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Notes from the classroom

Having assigned the ten students in my feature writing class a short assignment, in which they were to write the first instalment of a column to be called "The personal is political", I could not stop my pen from picking itself up and joining them in the furious scratching on paper. This is what emerged....

Sitting in the classroom, the fan whirrs above my head, casting a rapidly rippling shadow over the lined book-page (does a moving object "cast" a shadow?), making my words seem like they are emerging from under the waters of a flowing river. How is the act of writing, this movement of thought from mind to page, a political act? What is the exercise and expression of power that it implies? Is the political resident inherently in the symbols we create, consciously and otherwise (for one might argue that there can be no true unconscious, everything one does is the sum of deliberations over time)? The fact that I use one turn of phrase rather than another--is that political? Is it that I carry ten pens, none of them costing more than twenty rupees, to ensure that my words do not run into an inkless vacuum? Is it that I write--and mostly think--in English? Is it that I sit here, at the head of this cloth-covered table, striking the pose of writing teacher, with the power to tell my students to bend over their books and apply themselves to a task of my choosing? Does the labeling of these acts and their attendant intentions trivialise what most of us understand as politics? Is the political in fact restricted to the popular understanding of the term "politics"? Or does the fact of being a human being occupying--naturally and otherwise--certain positions in relation to others (always, in relation to others), constitute an essential politic-ality? And here my pen pauses.

Because what that implies is that every act, every thought, whether in performance or interpretation, must be framed, unframed, reframed, as political.

And that's what this space is about. About looking at our lives--one's life--with a microscopic intensity, bringing to bear on it all the harshness of ethical illumination, so that it is rendered clear, its antecedents and possible consequences made visible.

Why?

So that we can then take each step that we do take (and reflect on those we do not take) with full awareness and responsibility.

One might then say that such intense reflectivity/reflexivity robs life of spontaneity. On one level, perhaps this is true. But on another, it calls for an internalisation of the process of reflection in a way that makes all thought, all action, ethical, or sensitive to consequence.

And maybe that is one way in which we can hope to live the good life.