Monday, December 26, 2011

Karnataka, from the ground up

For the past month and a half, I have been getting to know my neighbouring state a little bit better. With some of my colleagues from the University of Hyderabad's Department of Communication, I've had the opportunity to visit different parts of Karnataka and speak with some of those who are trying to bring public health care to the poorest communities in both rural and urban areas. As part of the wide-ranging public health initiative known as the National Rural Health Mission, the Karnataka State Department of Health and Family Welfare has been attempting to scale up the intensity and range of its activities. The specific project that drew us in was the strengthening of the Department's IEC activities (Information-Education-Communication), particularly, building the capacity of its frontrunners (the block level health education officers) in social and behaviour change communication (known in the profession as SBCC). Supported by UNICEF, this effort involves training the 170 or so BHEOs from the state's 30 districts in new ways of approaching health communication, focusing more on interpersonal communication and participatory methods of engaging communities.

It's been a challenge, to say the least. The diversity of issues across the districts, representing relatively affluent and high literacy areas like Udipi and Shimoga to extremely disadvantaged regions like Raichur and Bidar, the structural hurdles and entrenched corruption in the system, all serve to create a very dubious foundation upon which to build the dream of equitable, accessible, good quality health care. The NRHM is a beginning, and in its seventh year of implementation, it seems, a very small beginning. The BHEOs--many of them in their 25th or 26th year of service, sometimes more--are doing what they can, travelling among the villages they serve, talking to mothers and panchayati raj institutions, persuading medical professionals and para professionals, mobilizing self help groups to pitch in...and somehow keeping their heads above the water.

I have no idea whether or not our feeble efforts to provide some new ideas and new ways of doing will have any impact. But for us (and I know I speak for the whole team here) it's been a learning experience. Now when I travel to Mysore I will look beyond the perimeter of the royal city to see the infant mortality rates that continue to pose a challenge to the villages in Mandya, or when I decide to take that holiday in Coorg, at the back of my mind will dance the awareness of the hill communities in Kodagu that have little or no access to a doctor's healing hands in an emergency. When I trek through the fort in Bidar, a part of me will be thinking of the young women who are not sure they will get to a hospital in time to have their babies there.

There is still a lot to understand, about health care in Karnataka, about how communities can become more active and informed participants in decisions about their own health, and about how the system can be truly strengthened on all fronts.

But there's been another side to the travels as well. There's been the incredible hospitality and warmth of the health workers we've met. The varied landscape of the state, from the rocks and boulders along the Mysore highway to the thickly forested tracts of Uttara Kannada to the deep valleys of Hospet and dramatic ruins of Hampi. In the pauses between workshop sessions, and at the end of long interactive days, we have managed to see a little more of the other side of the places we've visited. Stopping to sample the sugarcane straight from the fields in Mandya, or taking a walk in Brindavan gardens with not a single tourist in sight, walking along Malpe Beach after a long day of talking about communicable diseases, or stepping on the very rock from which Rama is said to have shot at Vali in the area now known as Anegundi near Hampi, the state has unfolded, bit by bit.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rediscovering Sunday morning on Abid Road

After months of wanting to get out there on a Sunday morning and scrounge around the street bazaar for more books to stuff into my already bursting-at-the-margins shelves, we finally made it! Three regulars and one newcomer from our three-month old Book Club met on a Sunday morning, bright and early (well...tennish) near St George's Grammar School (remember those grey school tunics?) and set off to stare at the books on the footpath. The first few displays we came across, just past the Taj Mahal hotel (we could already smell the dosas we had promised ourselves), were not very inspiring, despite snazzy titles and lurid pictures of women in sixties' hairdos on the cover. One title in particular caught my eye: "The curse of the singles table: A true story of 1001 nights without sex" by Suzanne Schlossberg. Intriguing, that, and perhaps nothing like Sheherezade's tales spanning a similar period!

Gouri was the first to spot something she liked, and before we knew it, she was on a mission, to pick up books that had been adapted into movies. Emboldened by Gouri's purposive acquisitions, Binit began looking in earnest for titles that would justify purchase--something that would fall under the broad rubric of "academic"! I had no such qualms, and half an hour later I was about five hundred rupees poorer and had three volumes in my bag: including a nice fat Calvin and Hobbes collection. But the film adaptations far surpassed my collection in number...and beat me in terms of price! Amit too had his share of fun looking at a dozen different editions of classics in translation and sundry coffee table books (which, by the way, Binit had loads of fun looking at!). Old bestsellers at ten rupees each and slightly better reading at forty rupees, and the very real chance of finding that rare edition...doesn't really get better than that for a bibliophile.

Two hours later we began to feel the heat of the midday sun and retired gracefully to the Taj to savour our dosas. I had my Calvin and Hobbes; Binit her visions of Scandinavian villas; and Gauri her collection of movie inspirations. Satisfaction!

The last time I went to the Abids Sunday book market was over 30 years ago (sobering thought), with my friend Suroor and her sister in law Gina, and a five-year-old Imran. We rounded off that morning with dosas too, but at Sarovar, which now no longer exists, the building having been turned into a multi-specialty hospital. The Abids second-hand book bazaar is a Hyderabadi institution. It's a great place to find cheap text books, rummy novels you wouldn't pay full price for, and those colourful Archie spectaculars that bring back a yearning for a comic-filled childhood. And the best part? Crisp masala dosas--or button idlis and wadas--at the Abids Taj!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Always on

It's close to midnight on the second full day of my winter vacation--or what is supposed to be one. I find that I am sitting here at my laptop catching up on email, listening to rough cuts of the upcoming shows on Bol Hyderabad (the campus community radio station of the University of Hyderabad), reading student work that needs to be commented upon, preparing for a series of workshops I have committed to... in short, it doesn't look like a promising beginning for a vacation! And I thought University life was going to be a picnic compared to the corporate or NGO sectors! Whatever happened to the life of quiet reflection peppered with the occasional ruminative lecture that academics are supposed to be privileged to have? When I switched jobs last year, I thought I was entering a space where there would be time for some amount of purposeless reading, for writing (things other than reports and promotional materials), and for stimulating intellectual debate (unlike the heated arguments over paper texture or background colour that I had grown used to having periodically). It's been twelve months now, and those three things have remained mirages.

I'm not complaining, really. I love the work. I absolutely love the highs that come from being in a classroom full of young people who believe in you and what you have to say (for the most part--and I try to ignore the texting that is happening in one corner, or the surreptitious surfing in another). I enjoy the conversations I have with students who walk into my open office and talk about their confusions and their hopes. And I enjoy being able to work with my own deadlines, the independence with which I can organize what and how I will teach. I have no one but myself to blame for the add-ons...the papers I choose to write, the chapters I agree to contribute, the workshops I get involved in, etc. And of course the love affair with radio that has resumed after three long decades of being out of touch with the medium.

Not to forget, there's also another thing that keeps me busy even when the University is closed. Teacher Plus. I've just downloaded 16 articles to be given an editorial once-over for the coming month's issue. There are papers to look at and deal with. There is the next issue of Edu-Care that needs to be planned.

There's a pile of novels by my bed that I'm hoping to get to this month, and tonight, I just might get to the crossword. But for now, I guess I had better get back to work. Yes, it is vacation time. But some of us can't bear to turn ourselves off.

Friday, October 21, 2011

More conversations with cabbies

As we travel into town on an uncharacteristically quiet Sunday evening, the Bangalore roads are relatively traffic free, but the driver of the Meru cab decides to take me by the "easy route" where we will drive uninterrupted by traffic lights. He swings off the four lane highway into a quiet side street that seems to go on and on in the darkness, and I am beginning to wonder if I should have insisted on the bright lights of the main road. But just as my anxiety is beginning to take a dangerous turn, he points out to me a looming wall on my left. It is very high, and soon we come to a pair of massive gates that seem to hide something very important inside. "That's YSR's son's house," the driver notes. "Jagan. That's where he stays when he comes to Bangalore. He owns this whole stretch of land." I made suitably amazed-disbelieving-indignant sounding noises. Just enough to make him go on. "I once took a passenger in there, he was a guest of YSR's, when he was still alive." He went on to talk about how he ended up staying with the guest for his entire visit, driving him around town, being served his meals at the mansion in between. A veritable palace inside those high walls, it seems. You must meet some interesting people, I say, warming up to what promises to be a good way to keep my mind of the long, dark, unfamiliar road. But he was right, we haven't seen a single traffic signal. No traffic to signal.

I learn about the economics of running a Meru cab (Rs 1100 per day goes to the company for use of the cab and their GPS tracking services; he makes around Rs 300 to 500 a day after dues have been paid; no work, no profit, only dues) and the system of quality control (speed violations are recorded immediately, as are any complaints from clients). But there are unexpected bonuses. Mahesh recounts how he had done dedicated duty for a Dutch software professional who was in the city for two days and liked the fact that he spoke English (he was delighted to speak with me in Telugu). When she returned to Bangalore 3 years later she tracked him down (despite the fact that he had switched vehicles). He had forgotten her and wondered who this foreigner was who had asked for him, specifically. Of course, when he met her he remembered having driven her around. When she left, she took him to a Raymond's store and bought him a suit length. "I had never in my life gone into a store like that," he told me.

The next morning I was in another Meru cab, with Santosh, who had been caught in the melee the previous day when thousands of people thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of the Tamil actor Vijay, hailed as the next Ranjnikanth, who was in Bangalore to open a jewelry store near Commercial Street. "It was crazy, people were climbing over cars to see him--and he was here for barely five minutes. I thought my vehicle was going to be damaged," recalls Santosh.

You just never know where the next story awaits you. Sometimes on long dark stretches of road where the conversation lights up the lonely miles. Or on an early morning drive that would have been otherwise occupied by anxious wonderings about the workshop ahead.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Class struggle

Sometimes, when the students in my writing class toil over their assignment (though toil may be an extreme description of the level of engagement, sometimes!), I decide to take a mental walk with my own words. A couple of weeks ago, this is what resulted:

You walk in,
the world on your shoulders
and in the undependable ink
of the whiteboard marker,
you're ready to deliver it,
spell it out,
and analyze it,
so that they can pick up the pieces
and fit them into a jigsaw
of their own desires
and motivations
(parentally fed/denied/rebelled against).
There are alternative words
for ambition
that escape you,
as your gaze flits
from furrowed brow
to glazed eye
to drumming fingers
and snapping ball point pens.
Perhaps that's too strong a description
for this pressure--
a heavy, blanketing, blinkering
they wear to the classroom.
The world stays on my shoulder
but it feels different,
lighter, made less serious
by the skeptical minds
that have beheld it
for the better part
of two hours.

22 September 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mapping the contours of grief

They run through your head like a series of faded pictures; a smile here, a laugh there, a couple of sentences spoken in a voice just beginning to become familiar, a few sentences scribbled in haste in a classroom, an unopened email, an image of a young man sitting on the steps or lounging in a chair with his friends, answers given with a bit of nervousness and a lot of motivation during an interview.

The feelings and thoughts that populate the room where we sit, remembering Rattan, choke the air, the smiles have disappeared from the faces of a normally boisterous group of students from both years of the MA program. We make our polite speeches that hide more than they reveal, because emotion is something that can only be referred to in a controlled, structured manner in an official forum. But this is necessary too, this acknowledgment that we all share regret at a life cut short all too rudely, that we recognize the irreparable loss that this has forced upon a family and on friends, that we think and reflect on what the particularities of this loss can tell us and teach us.

Entering the home, where we are forced to intrude upon the irreconcilable despair of the parents, who have lost a child, a wrenched-from-the-gut loss, we are faced with yet another reality. A different space of absence. We express our sorrow with bent head and pressed-together palms, we speak in hushed tones of how much promise we had discerned, and we sit for a while, wishing we could wish away the hours that have passed, the split-second decisions that have resulted in a tragedy that will forever mark this space.

And I wonder how I will walk into my class, two days from now, and face those forty-odd students whose sense of the room, of their work, their interactions with each other and this beautiful landscape that they inhabit, has been deeply changed. How do we go on as if nothing has happened? How can we reclaim those ordinary conversations that now (for a long time) will carry an undercurrent of this terrible tragedy? How do we look each other in the eye and find something other than the awareness of the fact that there has been a death amidst us? How long will it take for us to not look involuntarily at that seat in the back row and stop to catch a breath?

I've spoken about this before, about how, the older you get, the more loss one experiences--one of the "perks" of living and feeling intensely, of having an ever widening network of people one cares about, even if in different ways and to varying extents. I've know good friends and relations who have lost a child, and this much one knows, that it never gets easier. Of course, this does not mean that we cease to find joy in things and people around us, or that life becomes a burden. Clearly, that's not the case. What time does have the capacity to do is to bring new interests and occupations that fill our minds and our days. Memories recede, they get put away, but they don't disappear. They lose their edge somewhat, maybe, but sometimes, at the most unexpected moments, they resurface to remind us of things that could have been.

Yes, life goes on, but it goes on without those persons who could have been a part of it, and that sense of loss, the absence, becomes a permanent presence.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Club, anyone?

I'm just back from an hour talking about something I find it difficult to stop talking about, with four others who appear to be somewhat similarly inclined. Not a crowd by any standards, but a group that represents a beginning. The idea to start a book club has been brewing for a while now; every time I find myself in conversation with someone about a book I've read, or a friend asks me to recommend reading for a child with a voracious appetite for the printed word, I can feel a certain excitement about words and the ways in which they turn into stories, offering windows into lives of others, worlds that I would never have access to without the channel created by imagination. Oftentimes these conversations have ended with the suggestion that we should start a book club. After many months of prevarication and a bit of a push from a young friend, it finally happened, and that's how I found myself in the brightly painted library of Little People Tree with four others, talking books.

We were/are all a little bit clueless about what exactly a book club was supposed to do. So we spent the hour bouncing around ideas, talking about what we liked or did not like about the books we'd read, trying to decide where we wanted to go and how. Why do people love Chetan Bhagat or hate him? What makes works in translation work? Is Orhan Pamuk obscure or fascinating?

And how do we like our books? Dog eared and well handled, or pristine and crisp? Does writing in the margins give a book character or become an unwelcome and unruly intrusion into a reader's relationship with the text? How do we deal with book borrowers who forget the fact and appropriate our tomes? What do we think about books turned into movies (and now, vice versa, too!)?

The conversation did not peter out, it was brought to a close. We've decided to meet two weeks from now, hopefully in a larger group. In the meantime, here's the book we will be discovering (or rediscovering): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

If you'd like to read along, please do join us. October 14, 6 p.m. at Little People Tree, Secunderabad.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Poems of a different hue

Last night I listened to a Professor of English and Ethnic Studies, Dr Wilfred Samuels, read (rather, sing) the poetry of a man I had heard of but only vaguely. While I am no stranger to African American literature (Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are among my favorite writers), the poetry I was less familiar with--other than of course Maya Angelou whose "I know why the caged bird sings" has inspired many a high school student to delve further into the poetry that breaks free from centuries of oppression. But I suppose those who know African-American literature would know that you cannot speak of the poetry of Black America without speaking of Langston Hughes. Dr Samuel's, in a deep and resonant voice reminiscent of the negro spiritual, gave the audience a Hughes poem that runs as deep as its title: The Negro Speaks of Rivers Says Hughes, in a refrain that runs through the rendering of the poem like an undercurrent to the river of thought itself, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers", a line that conveys both the anguish of the speaker and the hope that comes from a belief that the world we see is not entirety of knowledge or life. It's also a line that recalls the spirit of resistance--not of a violent kind, but a resistance of the spirit, that marks long struggles against injustices of various kinds, from slavery to apartheid to genocide to displacement. For us in India, perhaps it recalls the struggle in the Narmada and other valleys, marked by as much poetry and music to keep them alive. "Ma Rewa", a folk song adapted by Indian Ocean is one such. The poetry of Langston Hughes does something else. It makes an essential connection between the history of the African-American and the contemporary Black identity. In "Theme for English B" he raises an issue that is felt just as much by the marginalised Indian child in an average classroom--how much of the "we" in a teacher's mind is constituted by his or her experience and history? Is there space for us "to know what is true for you or me" in a way that goes beyond the superficiality of well constructed words? As Dr Samuels emphasized, one cannot understand text without context.. And the gift of poetry is that is opens the door to worlds through a lace-like arrangement of words. Context through text. So through the poetry of Langston Hughes, I enter the world of blues poetry, as musical to the verbal ear as the tripping notes of a jazz band. And a side door takes me to the verse of Lawrence Dunbar and the irrepressible rhythm of "Jump back, honey, jump back" (A Negro Love Song by Paul Lawrence Dunbar), performed by Dr Samuels with a smile and a lilt, urging participation from the staid audience at Hyderabad's Poetry Society meeting.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Reading Teachers

Three books, a dozen teachers, two expert voices, and a brightly painted room. The result was an hour of reflection and enjoyment, an escape into a space we had forgotten existed. Our own pleasure in the magic woven by words, the ability to travel into experiences not our own, and the possibility of discovering empathies--if not answers--in these narratives. When we at Teacher Plus were wondering what we could do to make the day special for our own community of teachers, we hit upon the idea of a session where teachers would turn listeners--not for the purpose of taking ideas back into their classrooms but to rediscover the simple pleasures of listening to a good story. The books we chose were simple, easy to obtain volumes that told stories that, despite their varied setting, were universal in the themes they addressed: boisterous classrooms, distracted students, difficult teenagers, and the never quite defined aims of education. But these themes were not wrapped in polemic or abstract intellectualisms. They were at the centre of real teacher interactions in the everyday. The first of these was an extract from what some may dismiss as an exercise in sentimentalism: A Cup of Comfort for Teachers, from which we drew a piece called "Why I teach". How doubts and uncertainties about children are revealed as nothing more than prejudice and misconception and how, so often, these are proven wrong once we just open our minds and listen. Children surprise us constantly, but we need to be ready to experience surprise. The second set of readings came from a book that is perhaps less familiar to many--Frank McCourt's Teacher Man. Those who have read Angela's Ashes would know his style, and this one does not disappoint. Whether it is talking about facing a class of hostile adolescents from troubled and poverty stricken homes, or wondering about how and why we teach, McCourt delights and strikes a chord with many of us. The bit we read was from McCourt's experiment with the word "gibberish" to drive home a grammar point in English class. Suddenly boys who had nothing but impatience with parsing sentences were alert and interested in playing with words. And finally, that old classic, To Sir with Love. The song by Lulu that never fails to give me goosebumps opened our memory banks and many of us traveled back to the well-loved film of our childhood. Our readers, Aarti Phatarphekar and Ranjan Ranganathan, brought the text alive with their evocative reading. We laughed with Braithwaite and his rough kids, and thought back wistfully to the last scenes in the movie, which underscored the transformation that is possible when a teacher cares about his/her work and the children who are part of it. We find answers and echoes in books, both fiction and non-fiction, in unexpected ways. They open our minds to different ways of thinking and doing that we, in our limited worlds, would never have encountered first hand. More than one teacher remarked that she was going to the nearest bookstore to look for a copy of one or other book.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cut, stir, simmer and serve, spiced with a running train of thought

It's a quarter past five and I walk sleepily into the kitchen, my hand reaches for the medium-sized coffee filter and I not-so-precisely measure five heaping spoons of fresh grounds into it and with the other half of my brain pull out the milk to boil. I put away last night's clean and dry dishes as silently as possible, knowing the early morning stillness magnifies the sound of a tinkling spoon into something resembling cannon fire in the slumbering mind of the still-sleeping household. I watch the milk first slowly and then rapidly rise to a boil thinking of Kanthiamma, my maternal grandmother, tell me it's a good sign if the milk boils over. (Well it's done that several times over and I haven't noticed any unusual good luck coming my way.) I make my coffee and as I lift the tumbler to my lips I wonder whether it will be a "perfect coffee day". My friend Mahrookh visits my wandering mind at that moment, saying in her inimitable Tamil imitation "sariya iruka di?" A quick fade and there's my cousin Rajee who insists that you add the decoction to the hot milk, and not the other way round, to get the perfect cup. Then it's Elle's turn, sitting at her window seat in Jittery Joe's (I wonder if it's still there, the seat and the window and Jittery Joe's) joining me in an outsize cup while over a spillover discussion from the culture club. Then can Carolina be far behind, an image of her outside the downtown coffee bar where we last met in Athens, talking about the culture club in its current avatar, more graduate students, less Elle. I must pull my mind back to my kitchen in the here and now but while I am visiting Athens how can I not stop by Sarita's kitchen and glance at the two big filters made ready in the night by Ganesh, the official coffee maker of the Beechwood house? And of course there is Tonya, who loved the coffee I made for her, to go with the chocolate croissants from Harris Teeter, and here is Melinda, another comrade in graduate-school arms. Now I must turn my attention to the beans, and as I string them I think of Ramana in the huge kitchen at the base of Arunachala, lining up the beans and the strings in neat piles, my mind's image to Amma's recounting...but somewhere in the middle of that journey of consciousness I remember learning a new method of making paruppu usili by microwaving the dal instead of steaming it (thank you, Malati). From beans to the sambar is a quick journey interrupted by a long mental detour that takes me past many cooks who have added flavour to my life and many good meals I have shared with friends, cousins and others. By the time the rice and dal are done, and the lunch boxes are packed, I feel like I am back from a nice long visit over many cups of tea and coffee, having had a whiff of the aromas wafting from every kitchen I've been in and every table I've sat at. The most surprising memories, pop into my head when I am closeted in the kitchen every morning. More people than I send birthday greetings to or call even once a year, many whom I have not met in decades and am unlikely to ever meet again (some being in what we may call "a better place"). Some people with whom I share no connection other than a fleeting smile or a quick shake of the hand. It's amazing how many people touch you. And leave fingerprints in your memory.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Found in Translation

As I scanned my bookshelf and ticked off in my mind the books I had finished reading, it struck me that works in translation comprised about 80 percent of my list last year. I don't consciously look for translated work, other than those by writers in Indian languages (being handicapped by my relative inability to fully appreciate the written word in the Indian languages I am familiar with) but it turns out that many of the non-Indian writers I had read last year were also in translation. Allowing works of imagination (and information of course) to travel across linguistic and cultural boundaries leads to a wonderful movement of ideas, creating connections in a relatively effortless manner. Of course, I completely appreciate that the act of translation is certainly not without effort, in fact requires a special talent that is able to transfer mood and meaning to an alien language in a way that leaves no sense of a "foreign tongue" in a reader's head. The best translations are fluent transmissions of meaning, in which you are able to appreciate the context/content of the original without being hindered by an unfamiliar idiom.

Our reading lives are enriched by work in translation, right from short stories by Tagore in our sixth grade "non-detailed" books to the passages from Homer in high school or college. And we don't even notice that they are meanings twice-born (respectful apologies to the late Prof Meenakshi Mukherjee who used the term "twice born" to describe Indian writing in English), first in the author's mind and then in the translator's.

Of the wonderful twice born books I have read these last few months, the one that is almost definitely top of the list is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The translation carries the light elegance that must have defined the original. The story of an unlikely but beautiful friendship between a concierge, a precocious thirteen year old who discovers the concierge's carefully hidden intelligence,  and a Japanese widower with  a heightened aesthetic awareness. And then, a single copy hidden amongst the best sellers I found another translated work, this time from the Portuguese, Night Train to Lisbon. This provided a slightly bumpier ride through the story but gave me plenty of contextual information in case I need to take that train ride myself.

The past year also saw me venturing into more recent works from Indian writers in translation. The hour past midnight by Salma took me on a journey into the kind of Tamil home that I have not have the privilege of entering, while the translated edition of Sivasankari's "Palangal" (Bridges in English) gives me the opportunity to match my impressions with my mother's reading of the same novel in the original.

I'm grateful to these translators, these painstaking purveyors of other people's stories, these men and women who undertake to retell in a manner that gives you entry to worlds that would otherwise be walled off by language. My world would be poorer without them, as would that of many others who cherish stories of a million tongues.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Won't you sign my e-book please?

A couple of weeks ago I came home from a book launch with a nice fat hardbound copy of the novel, Amitav Ghosh's "River of Smoke", signed by the author with an inscription to my daughter. This copy joined my set of three of Ghosh's books, each with a signature and a personal note. Then there's the signed copy of Chimamanda Adichie's "Half of a Yellow Sun" alongside Alexander McCall Smith's "No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" with his name scrawled on the fly-leaf. Other authors have scrawled their unrecognizable or distinctive black-ink John Hancocks on other books, from Mark Tully to William Dalrymple to Kaveri Nambisan. Each of the inscriptions brings back a story of a meeting, of a specific context of experiencing the book. And I treasure them all. I know, ten or twenty years from now, when my bibliophile daughter takes over my bookshelves, she will feel the same fondness for those old volumes, maybe a bit yellowed and dog-eared, but with the charming smell of ink and thick paper that refuses to get old. Each time someone tells me about a recent conversion to Kindle or the Nook or books on the iPad, I think to myself, oh how convenient, to be able to travel with one slim gadget that carries a thousand books in it, and to read in comfort wherever you go without worrying about "running out" of reading material!

But I am also equally convinced that the paper and ink version of the book will not go the way of the dinosaur and steam engine just yet. Apart from the raw commerce surrounding the production of hard copy books, there is just too much cultural meaning surrounding them for people to give them up easily. There is the charm of marginalia--and better still, second-hand marginalia that makes us smile or mutter as we leaf through a pre-owned copy. I think there are at least two good reasons for predicted a long life for the printed book. One, most of us still feel the delight and excitement of tearing off the pretty wrapping from a book-sized object and exclaiming, "Oh, but just what I wanted to read!" And two, there is a special meaning attached to author-signed copies of books, no matter how obscure or distant the author. Pradeep Sebastian writes in his column in The Hindu about precious "association copies"  ,  books that have been inscribed and signed for a particular person. There is a special feeling about owning a book with the writer's own [pen and ink] mark on it. In this, the e-book  just cannot compete. After all, can you imagine someone going up to an author with an e-gadget and asking, "could you sign my ebook please?"

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Remembering Husain saab

Walking down the middle circle of Connaught Place, New Delhi, one does not expect to run into celebrities--it's sort of the back alley to the corporate world, lined with rear entrances to offices and the occasional restaurant kitchen that serves the capital's circular centre. We were on our way to the bus stop after a long day's work, in a rush to reach Jantar Mantar before the 5:45 bus to RK Puram. Approaching us was this tall, slim, black-clad figure...walking barefoot, and instantly recognizable behind his dark glasses. Like the starry-eyed twenty-somethings we were, we stopped him and instantly whipped out any paper we had and demanded an autograph. He stopped, smiled pleasantly, and wished us in his soft Hindustani, and signed. While we stood there gawking and overcome that we had had an exclusive encounter with the country's most celebrated artist in this unlikeliest of places, and away from gheraoing crowds.

I have no idea where that signed notepad went--perhaps is lodged inside one of the numerous cardboard boxes that hold my memorabilia from the different phases of my life. But the memory is stark and fresh.

More than two decades later I met him again, this time a planned visit to his home-turned-museum in Hyderabad, Cinema Ghar. It was also an occasion for me to meet another old acquaintance, Khalid Mohammed, who was "hanging out" with Husain saab in the process of writing his authorized biography. The formal outcome of the meeting with M F Husain is recorded here, in The Hindu Metro Plus.

But I left the interview with more than a story for the local paper. It was a sense of ordinariness, a politeness that characterized the first meeting too, that pervaded our conversation. Yes, Husain saab may be criticised for his strategic use of public attention to purvey his goods and stoke his reputation. He may be vilified for taking tongue-in-cheek jabs (and sometimes not so tongue in cheek) at mainstream morality and populist politics. But one cannot deny that his couldn't-care-less-ness is sincere. His only truth is his art.

And I also left with one other thing. A signed, numbered graphic print of his Joan of Arc.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The amazing women in my life--Part 2/Lessons in living and loving

How does one talk about one’s parents without falling into the usual traps of sentimentality or its opposite? Without recourse to familiar narratives of support, opposition, nurturing or its absence? There is the temptation to qualify every statement I make with a disclaimer, a sign of embarrassment perhaps, so I shall do this all at once before I begin.
  • Everyone has stories to tell about their parents.
  • Each one of these stories is unique, touching, formative.
  • Every parent-child relationship forms and grows within specific circumstances which render it special.
  • Within every nurturing relationship there is the possibility of its absence, its distortion, its corruption.
  • Laughter, love, anger, sadness, conflict, confusion...these and other emotions/states of mind are the building blocks of all relationships, and the claim of their presence in one acknowledges both the unique and the universal nature of the relationship being described.
And the list could go on.
But I suppose I should set aside the hesitations I feel and go on with my own narrative. The fear that it will at once say too much and too little must be overcome. But saying that this fear exists to some extent (perhaps) exonerates me from judgment of either kind.
Okay, here I go....
One of my earliest memories of my mother and me together is of us in a park; she is painting while I am doing something close by, maybe scribbling or colouring. We are in Canada, and it is the 1960s. There are other memories, but few of my childhood where it was just the two of us. 
I didn’t think of it as such then, but I suppose I have always shared her with many, many people. And perhaps that is the essence of her, the feeling that she is always available for everyone. In the family, it meant my father could be available for his extended family, no matter what the need. For her sisters, nieces and nephews, it meant she could be called upon for moral and emotional support whenever they needed it. 
For me...well for me, it showed me how to be.
My mother--Lakshmi--was married a few weeks before she turned nineteen. She was in her third year of a BA, and suddenly from being a student, she found herself as the eldest daughter in law in a family of seven siblings, the youngest of whom was just five years old. My grandfather had passed away several years earlier, leaving my father as de facto “head” and main support of the family. Within the year, they sat in loco parentis at two weddings, and then became parents themselves. 
For the first fifteen years of my life, we lived mostly in a joint family, with periods now and then when one or the other brothers traveled abroad or on short transfers within the country. The household consisted of two married brothers and their children (by 1968 it was two each), the youngest brother who was just seven years older than me, and Chitti, my grandmother (but more about her some other time). Between her duties as a mother, daughter in law, wife, sister in law and other sundry roles, she found a little time to explore other interests. She taught school briefly, kept in touch with tailoring and embroidery, and of course gave of herself--something that is I think essential to who she is. In 1965, when she had to follow my father to Canada--then a cold, completely unfamiliar country--I can only imagine the sense of uncertainty and apprehension (never fear) that she may have felt. In the three years we lived in Calgary, she discovered what it was like to live without family, waiting three weeks or more for a response to a letter (remember, those were the days before direct dialing and the internet was a secret hidden deep in the defense department), experiencing cold that could not even be imagined in south India, and getting used to being stared at as she walked around in her sari and long plait. She learned how to drive, to punch computer cards, to shop in large supermarkets, and also, to manage the early months of pregnancy without the doting attentions of family (my brother was born soon after we returned to India in 1968).
We came back once again to life in a joint family, with its own joys and frustrations, good times and bad. Decisions had to be shared, time was never one’s own. But it is perhaps to her credit (and of course the other adults in the house) that for the children, it was a wonderful place to be. There was always someone to play and fight with, and someone to stand up for you when one of the parents was mad with you.  Amma and my aunt, Vijaya Chitti, did most things together. They sewed together, shopped together, planned festivals together, took trips apart so there was always someone at home to take care of things while the other was all, it appeared to be a completely harmonious existence. Only now, as an adult and mother myself, do I understand the dreams and desires that a young woman (she was 28 when we returned) may have had to set aside to create such harmony.
Amma went back to teaching many years later, having done a BEd through correspondence after she was done with “mothering”--I had gone off to the US to do my master’s and my brother was “safely” in college. When my father retired and they moved into their own house in Secunderabad, she went back to being a full time homemaker. Her weekends were filled with visits from grandchildren, and she rediscovered some of her other interests--gardening, reading, and craft.
Her ability to give of herself found fulfilment during this time, when she joined a group of like minded people who were running a counseling centre called Seva. It was in Seva I think that she has found a space that nurtures this part of herself, her ability to give unstintingly and without favor. She listens with as much compassion and interest to a young girl who has been left in the city by poor parents, to fend for herself, as she does to a middle class housewife experiencing domestic discord, or a software professional trying to come to terms with varying expectations from family and work. 

I suppose you could say hers is an ordinary life--insofar as any of us live "ordinary" lives. But for me, I cannot begin to count the ways in which she has contributed to the person I am. It is more about what she has not done--or more correctly, what she has abstained from doing. She has never told me what she expects of me, or what I must do or not do. My life has been remarkably empty of parental force or direction, but it is precisely because of that that I have found a direction that is my own, and I am stronger for that. She listens without judgment, and when I complain, she neither supports me nor tells me what to do--but that tells me more than any specific piece of advice could. She is perhaps the most noninterfering and nonjudgmental person I know. One of my friends said "there's a quietness" about her that radiates a sense of peace and comfort.
I have much more of her now than I ever did as a child. She makes it possible for me to have a successful career, for me to pursue my own dreams and desires, and her home continues to be an extension of my own. It’s a space that begs to be shared, just like its owner, and we have taken full advantage of that. She, along with her friend, my mother in law, have added touches like the kolam on the terracotta walls of our compound, that make our home a welcoming and friendly space. My friends have often said that they feel more welcome in my mother’s house than my own, and my children lounge around with their friends in “Ammamma’s house”  more often than they do in mine. She continues to be engaged with art and craft, and spreads her work around generously. Almost every member of the family has received a Thanjavur painting done by her, and almost every child has worn a smock or a frock embroidered and tailored by her. She has been available for nieces and nephews, sisters and sisters in law, just as much as she has for me. What it’s meant for me is a legacy of goodwill and affection, the spoils of her exercises in giving!
And that continues to be a lesson for life. It’s a tough one to learn--but watching her, I am amazed at how easily it comes to her. To give of herself--her time, her attention, her energies--is first nature to her.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Monkey mayhem!

This morning my friend and colleague Sushma texted me to say she would be coming in late to the office. Given that we all deal with such things as children's exams, admissions, dropping them off some place and picking them up at another, I did not think much of it, and did not ask why. But when she did come in, with a somewhat harassed expression, we just had to sit down and listen to why.

The corridor outside her house, a green space of potted plants and a bird's nest, a sort of oasis in her urban high-rise, had been totally trashed by rampaging monkeys! Thinking the abundant greenery housed more than just pretty leaves, a gang of four hefty monkeys tore through the vines, pulled down cables that interfered with their search, and finally broke some pots in anger, not having found any fruit or other comestibles. When they finally ran away, Sushma and her husband were faced with a disaster coloured in terracotta and spotted green--bits of broken pots, scattered mud, leaves and tendrils torn and hanging everywhere....

"Our telephone line has snapped," cried one irate neighbour."Make sure you clean our balcony too, there are bits of broken pots here too," said another, one floor below. "My television isn't working--it's your responsibility to see the cable is up and running," demanded a third.

"But when people have a problem like this, don't the neighbours help?" I asked.

"Well, they blamed us for having so many pots and leading the monkeys to think there may be fruit behind all that greenery," said Sushma.

So Sushma and her husband Anup spent the next hour gathering the debris, cleaning their space then then their neighbours', and fixing whatever cables they could, while angry neighbours either looked on or walked away.

The incident brought up several questions, some directly related and others (in the manner thoughts run across mental networks) not.

First of all, why do people immediately jump on others, blaming instead of looking to see how they could work together? Don't they see that this could happen to anyone, that monkeys could have just as easily come to the first floor or anywhere else and created the same havoc there. As on an earlier "invasion" in Sushma's house, the monkeys could have taken a look inside a fridge, sampled their dal and curry, and made a royal mess of their kitchens. When something happens, in our homes, in our streets, in our neighbourhoods, why is the first impulse to look for whom to blame rather than to see what we can do to take care of the situation? Fixing blame can help us find out why it happened and perhaps try to ensure that it doesn't happen again, but it does not help take care of the situation that has arisen in the moment. For that we just need to set aside the why and pitch with a how and a what!

Secondly, how do monkeys experience urbania? What is it that prompts them to leave the shelter of their trees and jump into our homes? Sushma tells me that in this case, the monkeys may have mistaken the lush potted foliage outside her door for a tree-like growth, and they were hoping to find something edible among the leaves. In Hyderabad, and in many other Indian cities, monkeys are not an unusual sight, sometimes travelling in large groups, complete extended families, settling down on terraces and in parks where we see mothers tending to young ones, and aggressive males scouring the dumps and margins of homes for food. Summers seem to bring them out into the city in larger numbers, maybe because of the arid conditions in what's left of our surrounding forests. Just as people travel to the city seeking jobs in the off seasons of agriculture, they too come here for sustenance. And when they don't find it in the "natural" places they move into what we consider our preserve, the built up forests of the city.

All sorts of boundaries blur in the relentless growth of the city. And some new walls are built. We may as well accept that if we destroy the countryside to gain new plush gated communities, some of us will have to deal with the living things that used to populate those areas. So as we move outward, searching for pristine spaces in which to create our billboard communities, the monkeys move further into the city, claiming all manner of spaces where they can find the one thing they are looking for--food.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Summer arrives in Hyderabad, with Haiku

The trees along the road, overlooking people's compound walls, peeping over the crumbling walls of historic sites, and of course, the view from my balcony...all have together given me some great moments the past few weeks. And so the Haiku emerges, distracting me, of course, from the traffic, but also bringing a smile to my lips as I navigate the rushing hours of the day.  The very amateurish photos are grabbed by me as I rush through the day. 

Please read this as a work in new images and words come together, they will find their way here. And I must mention the debt of gratitude I owe my friend Sadhana, whose enthusiasm for the wonders of nature is infectious! 
Quotidian joys:
the purple jacaranda
against the blue sky

Copper pods burst into
flame, blazing a bold yellow
along the highway

Silver oaks witness
Traffic’s mad, rude rowdy rush
To distant nowheres
The rain trees' branches 
spread their generous arms
like waiting grandfathers


An open blossom
reveals a whole world within
--faith, beauty, and peace

The pink touched blooms of
the temple tree now welcome 
summer’s mango scent
Swinging mangoes wait 
pregnant with pungent promise--
green to yellow soon!

Overhead, around
it’s blooming summer, smiles, sweat...
holidays arrive!

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Power of the Fast, the Power of Poetry

For the past few days, one of the "last men standing" in the name of Gandhi has been fasting in Delhi. His protest has captured the minds and hearts of millions of people across this country, sparking rallies in support and signature campaigns to add power to the very simple demand he is making: to enable a mechanism to fight corruption in politics and other public institutions. Civil society groups in most parts of the country are organizing their own protest events, going on relay fasts and drumming up support via every possible medium from Facebook to Twitter to plain old text messaging to get people into public spaces to silently and sensibly express their anger and frustration with the system and support the demand for one sort of a clean-up mechanism. In Delhi, where Anna Hazare is confronting the government with his fast-unto-death (or fast unto the death of corruption), hundreds are people are thronging Jantar Mantar and the Boat Club lawns, carrying candles and placards, singing bhajans and signing hope. While there are some who are joining the bandwagon to gain publicity for themselves and their organizations, many feel truly and strongly that this is a common fight, one that we must all join if something is to be achieved.

Maybe it's the mood of the world. People everywhere, from Egypt to Iran to Libya to the heartlands of Chattisgarh and Vizianagaram, are saying enough is enough. Enough oppression. Enough discrimination. Enough corruption. What was once a helpless frustration has turned into a determined anger (Bapu too said there are uses for anger, and we must find those uses and channel the energy that anger carries with it) that has now been catalysed into a specific movement by Anna Hazare.

Why is fasting such a powerful tool of protest? What does one person's threat to refuse sustenance achieve, and what does it symbolise? It seems to be a peculiarly Eastern way of indicating protest and inciting guilt. It lays the burden of action on the object that is being confronted--in this case, it appeals to the conscience of government to admit its guilt and expiate it by acceding to the demand of the protestor. The fast is a powerful means of activating social conscience, particularly in this time of excess. Most of us consume much more than we need, so to be brought face to face with denial for a purpose does something to us--or at least to those of us who feel some sense of outrage at injustice of different kinds.

That "fount" of digital knowledge Wikipedia, tells us that the hunger strike as a means of protest, to draw the attention of the powerful to the problems of the people, dates back millennia, and is recorded in texts dating back to 400 BC or earlier. But most of us instinctively associate the hunger strike with the non-violent activism of Gandhi, and later with those who carried on the tradition, such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Anna Hazare, and of course the indomitable Irom Sharmila.

Anna Hazare's fast comes in the wake of the exposure of some of the country's worst scams: CWG, land deals in the capital and elsewhere, 2G spectrum sale, mining contracts in Karnataka, votes for sale...and the list goes on. We are all so sick of reading about corrupt politicians yet feel we cannot do anything to stem the rot. But the proposed Lok Pal bill offered a glimmer of hope, and one that Anna Hazare is determined to force the government to make real. So we now have a face to that protest, and a means which seems within our reach. Perhaps that's why this time, the fast has sparked off such a deeply felt reaction across Indians of all ages and persuasions.

At the University of Hyderabad, students plan a candle light march on the evening of April 9.
On Hyderabad's Necklace Road, people gathered in the morning of April 9 holding candles to show their support, and began a signature campaign as well as a relay hunger strike that will go on until there is a clear response to Anna Hazare's demand.
In Cyberabad, people took time off from their high paying IT jobs on Tuesday April 5 to gather together and show their support, some fasting for a whole day, others committing to skip a meal.
Quietly, in homes, people are performing their own symbolic acts of support--foregoing a meal, adding their votes and signatures to forwarded emails and messages, talking about it and spreading the culture of resistance to corruption.

And some write. Prose and poetry. Art and Music. To fire the embers of peaceful protest and energise the hope that change can happen.

The link below is a great example of the power of words, and their capacity to make us feel and think, and perhaps also, act.

Suheir Hammad's amazing poetry performed">

Friday, March 25, 2011

The view from my balcony

This is something I do fairly often, but this morning I just stopped to enjoy the moment a little longer, and I realized that it made all the difference. Almost every morning, I open the wire mesh door to our little balcony and look down at the greenery and think to myself (apologies to Mr Armstrong) it's a wonderful world....well yes, there is the devastation in Japan, the people's struggles that turn violent in the face of oppressive state mechanisms, hunger and deprivation, repressive dictatorships in North Korea, Libya and smaller pockets around the globe....but still there is my tiny patch of a garden, with its blooming lilies and alamander, the hardy bougainvillea, the hibiscus that strains toward the sun from under the branching mango tree, and the beautiful bilwa (Bael) that stands by the front gate. And how could I forget the double jasmine, its plump, thickly packed petals holding in their scent until just the right moment touches them open, and then they can't stop perfuming the air until they are completely spent, brown and droopy against the dark green leaves.

It's just a small patch of garden, rocky for the most part, and rather sandy and unfertile. My mother tries to coax it into fecundity with persuasive additions of topsoil and compost, and loving sprays of water. But for the most part, it doesn't respond. When it does, however, it makes us sit up and take note. Suddenly, it seems like there are flowers to look at and smell, enough for my mother in law's puja and enough to put into a bowl and drink in the scent for a day or two. Straight down, the branches of the temple tree, almost bare of leaves but starkly beautiful with its smooth branches holding out flowers, their pink tinged petals holding a warm yellow centre. A little to the right is one of the three tall coconut palms, reaching up to the sky in an ever more hopeful bid to touch a cloud. Behind me is the faithful mango, which turns out a good crop year after year. Right now it is the hot and sour "manga thalar", raw mango cut into small pieces and seasoned liberally with mustard seeds and hing and chili powder and salt. And further to my left is the guava, which we had almost given up for lacking the ability to generate or grow good fruit. In between is the extravagant Ixora, its orange-red inflorescence demanding your attention. I'm keenly aware that in a city such as the one I live in, a garden of any kind is a luxury, despite the many hoardings advertising new homes in "sylvan" surroundings. So this morning I took an extra moment to soak in the little greenery I am privileged to look down on every time I go out on to the balcony.

As I go back inside and let the door swing shut behind me, I think yes, I can do this. I can face another day of  rude car drivers and badly planned roads, buses that overtake from the wrong side and motorcyclists who weave trouble into the traffic. Part of my energy shot each day comes from this view of the garden.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Bread and roses, a hundred years on...

There was a time when I was called upon to write a story about International Women's Day for the local feature supplement, and each year (I think it was three or four years in a row) I had to search my mind to see if there were new issues to write about. Balancing different roles, women and security, support groups, perceptions and stereotypes, etc. etc....I can see your eyes glaze over as you think, "same old, same old". That's true. But then, think about it, in 100 years, the issues are no different. Equal wages for equal work. The right to self-determination. The right to personhood on equal terms. The right to property. The right to not be treated as an object or possession. The same list. Year after year.

So this year I found myself wondering, are the speakers this year going to say anything different>

The newspaper stories are the same. What's different is that people now think it is a day to "celebrate" and not "agitate". So there are flowers for the women in the office, and phone calls and SMSs being passed around. But when we allow people (media) to turn this day of reflecting upon issues into a Hallmark event that allows us to parade beauties (pretty things) on our feature supplements in celebration of womanhood, are we not allowing the day to be subverted, and overtaken by the market, instead of retaining its essentially provocative and agitational purpose?

I'm not sure how or what to think about this. Although how and what I think about women's "issues" in general and gender-based (or anything-based) discrimination remains the same. Of course, within all the hype, there are occasions for true debate and unhurried, deep discussion, and the opportunity to introduce a new generation of thinking young women to the complexities of the issues that continue to be important and that continue to require urgent action and continued commitment. For instance, at a film screening this evening, women young, middle aged and old, and a few men, discussed the institution of marriage and what it means in these changing times. On television, a talk show host parleyed with a cross section of society about the need to reform the rape laws. So there are spaces for such conversation, and avenues for change.

To recap, a few of those earlier articles that have a gender dimension can be found here here, and here

Monday, February 28, 2011

The perils of multitasking

Mornings demand multitasking. For most of us, whether we work at home or elsewhere, it's a time when we are rushing to open the door to ten different service providers from the milkman to the newspaperwallah to the trash collector to the next-door neighbour asking for a cup of sugar, while the phone rings to give you the latest on whether the bandh will affect your organization or your child's school or not,  and the other phone, of the mobile variety, beeps insistently with messages ranging from bill alerts to not-to-miss sale alerts. Breathless already? Well that's the reality most of us whizz through every morning--we just don't stop long enough to make that list!

When the morning is complicated by a television turned on and tuned into Oscar fever, things don't get helped much. The milk boils over while you are watching Jake Gyllenhall smile at Amy Adams or trying to not watch Aish and Abhishek sound trite and plastic. The toast burns in the toaster that doesn't pop up (yes, the one you've sworn to fix next weekend) while you wish for the tenth time that you could go watch a movie in a real theatre eating real buttered popcorn instead of on your laptop off a CD that might get you into trouble with the piracy police. 

Before you know it, you have all of half an hour in which to shower, make yourself look presentable, pack the high-energy lunchboxes, wolf down some breakfast, stuff your satchel with every paper and book you are likely to need and some that you just might...and make it to work on time.

It's a rush (and not the pleasurable kind) that gets complicated by the presumed ability to work on many different things at the same time.  It's not just that many things need to get done within a limited amount of time, so you stack them up on the same time slot and handle one with one arm and another with one leg while the other two limbs get ready to handle the next two tasks. It's that all this while, your mind is multitasking too. One track has its eye on the simmering pot but the other is planning the morning's lecture (and not the "to-the-kids" variety) while yet another is thinking about the grocery list and a fourth is thinking you need to get to the phone and make that call before you forget...and as you turn to swear at the boiled-over milk, you forget.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Music on wheels

Anyone who has driven in Hyderabad, or has been a participant of some kind in what passes for traffic here, will empathise with the daily frustrations of dealing with bad road etiquette, the total absence of lane consciousness, the aggressiveness of large and small vehicles, and the absolute belief that one's schedule and need to reach a destination supersedes every other person's.  Until recently, I was able to block out the madness by losing myself in a book, safe in the back seat, while my driver battled the daily cruelties of the city's streets. About a month ago, my driver decided to move to greener pastures (and possibly, a more interesting route to navigate each day) so I was back behind the steering wheel and had to leave my set of unread novels in the back, so I could concentrate on the road ahead (not that I had at any point planned to bring my reading to rest on the dashboard).

I face a fairly long drive each morning. Twenty six kilometers each way, through the thick of the Secunderabad commercial district to the broad Bungalow lined avenues of Jubilee Hills (fast giving way to shopfronts of the haute variety) and the otherworldliness of Hi-Tech City, by the last lung-space of the Botanical Gardens and finally across what used to be a peripheral village now swallowed by the city. When I reach the gates of the University, my odometer has just ticked past the twenty fifth kilometer and I speed past the last one to make it my class on time. 

I distract myself from the traffic and the rude drivers by looking at the screaming signboards along the way, the missing apostrophes and bad spellings on the posters populating the median, and the sale notices that keep popping up in unexpected places. There are also the poor pedestrians, resigned to their fate along the margins of the roads, waiting for the rare motorist who will spare a few seconds to allow them safe passage across the street. But this can't hold my attention long, and besides, I do need to heed the happenings on the road ahead of me and behind me (and of course beside me, as my car has suffered from the closeness of scooters and autorickshaws). 

So I turn on the music.  And the meditation begins. The inside of the car is transformed into sanctuary, a bubble that insulates me from the desperation and the pettiness of the street, from the noise and the rudeness that it seems to inspire. I begin, then, to function at two levels. A part of me keeps in touch with the road, paying attention to the stop and go signs, the switching-lane signals, and the flashing lights that demand that I move aside. Another part of me retreats into the envelope of the music.

What do I listen to in the car? It's an eclectic variety, ranging from the Monkees to Dido, from Lata-Rafi duets to Farhan Akhtar playing the rock star, from Joan Baez to Indian Ocean. And as the songs shuffle across the soundscape, they bring along with them memories, pictures from different segments of my life, occasionally drawing out images that I had given up for lost. The Monkees, for instance, a group from the late sixties (Davy Jones, an idol in my eight-year-old eyes) can take me back to Calgary, Canada, with "Daydream Believer" just as quickly as Simon & Garfunkel can transport me to a football stadium in Atlanta, August 15, 1983, opening their act with "Cecilia", or Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust recalls the smoky haze of college, the dreams and loves that seemed at the time to hold the promise of forever.

When my iPod switches unexpectedly to a more recent chord, perhaps something put in by my daughters, I am forced back into the present. The shift is not entirely unpleasant, as it allows me to share the aural memories of my children and through these, something of their perspective as well. The Scientist by Coldplay reminds me of Achala's time at Valley School, and her schoolgirl fantasies associated with the song, while Dido takes me to a more contemporary hopescape, one that seems, somehow, to occupy a space in a small seaside cottage in an artists' village. And of course the extravagant aspirations of Iqbal or Chak De give me a little insight into Ananya's sporting ambitions. 

And then I always come back with a smile to the comfort of the Beatles, Moody Blues, and the occasional Springsteen number, reminders of youth and good times. I wonder, sometimes, as I involuntarily break into song and nod my greying head in time to the beat of "Come Together", whether the person in the Honda City in the next lane is just a bit worried about the sanity of his neighbour.

The music is what makes my 52-kilometer trek more than bearable. The parallel journeys into memory and imagination blanket me from the daily struggle with the traffic and the noise and the rudeness. Instead, I find myself in that dark New Jersey bar with the Piano Man, or with Ringo and company in the Octopus' Garden, or better still, somewhere Across the Universe with Lennon....