Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Up close, from far away

Sometimes, one is assailed by a hopelessness, a frustration born out of the fact that one cannot do anything about the way one feels. You open the newspaper and are bombarded by a dozen stories that speak to the horrible things that go on in this world. Anger, disgust, sadness...and despair. Of course, there are also the many stories of hope and survival that cause one to smile. So we retreat from the assault of the news into a space that is our own, cushion ourselves in conversations about this and that, surround ourselves by the tedium of everyday decision making. Which outfit to wear? What to make for breakfast? Should I do the groceries today or tomorrow? And what about that meeting I need to prepare for? Should I call the electrician to come fix the stairwell light that's been out for weeks?

In the middle of all this, when (and if) we allow the consciousness of the world to intrude, we run the risk of being blanketed again by that old feeling of "what can I do about it but feel?"

So, you asked for it. The two poems that have found their way into the Human Rights Poetry Anthology, nestled among 148 others that are beautiful in their expressions of hope amidst despair, concern amidst apathy.


Terrorism is a way of life

like my morning toast

healthy whole wheat

masking the grinding of bones

salted with the perspiration

from the brows and arms and legs

of suicide prone farmers;

or the orange juice

imported from reconstituted republics

into colonies of consumption

their choreographed dreams exploited

by real estate developers

selling bits and gigs and terrabytes

of mindspace.

Our everydays, our lives,

our lifestyles

cannot do without the products

of habitual violence.

It spices my rudeness

as I disregard

the helplessly signaling pedestrian

in my workday haste.

It spikes the ratings graphs

of television shows

that hold us hostage,

primed as we are

for their distant drama.



The edges of the textbook map

bleed quietly into my studious mind

like ink on blotting paper,

while scribes scratch out

the noisy newsprint

that a hurrying-away boy tosses onto my balcony

every morning.

Social studies lessons

taught without emotion

full of numbing dates and

unpronounceable names

blind our children

to the devouring

reasons of state.

Young men in the northern hills

imagining insurgency;

desperately demonstrating mothers

echoing those from other, no-less-dirty, wars,

trying to reclaim

the lost youth of their generations;

and the elders left to mourn

behind veils and worn-out blankets,

their stories eclipsed

by the questions and answers

in civil services examinations

that push all of life

into a dull green paper folder

to be filed away

in the twisting corridors

of power.

 Please do tell me what (if) they make you feel.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Zipping up (Not)

This morning I spent a full fifteen minutes changing one cushion cover. Here I was, full of housekeeping energy, determined to finish all those boring things one just has to do to keep a house looking somewhat in order (now, I do realise that 'order' is a loaded work, what is perfectly acceptable to one is reason for high tension for another). The first sign that things were not going to go quite in the manner planned was when I found I needed to sit down to get that cover on the cushion. It wasn't one of those easy slip-on-and-fold-over jobs. It needed quite a lot of pushing and pulling to get the thing on, the good fit that it was. This took all of five minutes. And then came the zipper, which, I understand, is also called a slide fastener, because (yes, I get it) it slides along the toothed tracks to fasten or unfasten something. This one was a pretty long zipper--all of 18 inches, which meant some maneuvering to get the fastener to slide. Which it refused to do. It would go an inch or two and stall, and I would have to nudge it a little bit so that the teeth stayed in sync. This kept happening; the fastener was just refusing to slide smoothly, and all this while I was thinking about design and manufacturing and the fact that we just don't seem to be able to get even the simplest devices to function the way they are supposed to. Safety pins, bobby pins, paper clips, vegetable peelers...the list is long. How many of us have bought a strip of paper pins (alpins, they used to be called) and found one after the other lacking a sharp tip, finally making do by just pushing them harder into the paper? How many women have had safety pins (almost) make uneven holes in sarees because they weren't sharp enough? How many of us have asked visiting relatives to bring back these items from abroad and then hoarded them jealously against siblings and cousins who kept wanting to steal those lovely sharp-tipped items?

But the fifteen minutes spent on that particular recalcitrant zip took me back to my childhood, when zips were not all that common in India. They weren't manufactured locally, and when we asked a tailor to use a zip in an article of clothing, we'd have to pay extra, and insist that he use a brand called "YKK". When we bought readymade clothes with zips, we'd  look for those letters on the metal fastener. It also reminded me that the most ingenious inventions are often the simplest, and also the least celebrated.

So I went in search of the history of the zipper, and like all good contemporary scholars, my first stop was Wikipedia, where you can (as expected) find a whole lot of information about this very interesting and useful device. For starters, I learned that an American engineer named Whitcomb L Judson is credited with the idea and the design, which was improved upon by a (no surprises here) Swedish designer Gideon Sundback. Wikipedia also tells me: "The word Zipper is onomatopoetic, because it was named for the sound the device makes when used, a high-pitched zip."  

And yes, I also found out that YKK is Japanese, Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki, which continues to be the largest-selling brand in the world, selling more than half the world's zippers. There's a lot more information there for those who might have a curiosity about zips, their history and the various uses to which they are put.

One of my favourite magazines, Slate, has an interesting article on the evolution of the zipper, and this is where I finally found some resonance with my frustrating cushion cover experience. The invention, which is now close to a century old, still has not been perfected (and I thought it was only the Indian zippers). As the author of this article notes, a malfunctioning zipper can render a whole garment (or a favourite cushion cover) unusable.

Fortunately for me, I managed to get the cover on the cushion, and zipped up. And I learned something. Not bad for a Saturday morning.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

in the manner of a thank you

I've reached an age when I'm no longer anxious about age. Well, not in the same way as I was when I was 16, or 30, or even 40. Beyond a point it is no more than a number and the concerns have more to do with the processes that accompany the passage of time rather than any preoccupation with chronology or the idea of "getting old" (or "older").  At 53, I feel fulfilled, yet excited. The fulfillment comes from the aggregation of goodwill that I suddenly become conscious of, in multiple-mediated ways--through cards and texts and whatsapp messages, emails long and short, people suddenly dropping in, unexpected and expected people at the other end of a phone line. The excitement comes from being in a place that I love, doing what I enjoy, looking forward to the possibility and the promise of discovery, at having continued access to the minds (and often hearts) of young people. That's really what keeps me learning--and what better way to live life than to be constantly in touch with those who are discovering it for the first time?

Having a birthday that coincides with Teachers' Day (in India) is a double privilege. You try to keep the birthday part of it quiet, but it sneaks in through information flows from seniors to juniors and of course there is the public square of Facebook where wishes end up becoming public views! But sharing my birthday with something like Teachers' Day means I never have to complain that no one wishes me, or that people have forgotten!

Voices and words reach out from decades ago, as well as from a month ago, and the day just becomes this endless celebration of relationships of so many kinds, connections that have enriched my life in so many ways, and none too small.

Thank you. All of you.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Invitations to note-taking

Nothing sets off the fantasy of literary creation like a blank notebook. The fancier, the better. I have my own set of unrealised fantasies unwritten in the pages of a number of beautifully inspirational notebooks. Pages that are smooth, textured, handmade, machine-pressed, ruled, plain, white or coloured.

I'm one of those who cannot pass by a Moleskine display without feeling an acquisitive twinge. Just as some people collect shoes and handbags, I collect notebooks. This weekend, I spent some time cleaning out my shelves and was amazed at the number that emerged, some entirely blank and others with a few pages used. In sum, they seemed to represent a whole lot of aspiration and very little work.

The aesthetic of the bound empty pages seems to work in a particular way to drive my imagination--and so I spend a good few minutes looking at the inviting blankness, thinking of how they will look in a few months, filled with violet (or black, or blue) ink. I imagine that all those words that run around my head constantly but seem somehow reluctant to make an exit on to the page will be prompted by the promise those notebooks hold. Each time I pick up a notebook, or am given one, that dream renews itself...but soon enough, it's placed firmly on the shelf alongside all those other lovely spines.

Increasingly, I find myself writing directly at the keyboard. I take notes on my cell phone when an idea strikes me--and it's great, because I can put that idea down no matter where I am, no matter if I'm taking a walk or find myself at a concert or in the middle of grocery shopping. Even so, I never leave home without a little notebook and a pen: it's a habit left over from journalism school training, I guess. And while the convenience of electronic note-taking cannot be denied, writing in those paper notebooks holds a particular charm. Notes that reside on my phone or computer (I don't have a notebook PC!) get deleted after use, but those that are scrawled, written over, neatly lettered, or even struck through, remain intact, providing a kind of history of an idea, often one that has been discarded. When I come across them (as happened this weekend during my bout of cleaning), they resonate in new ways, often coming alive again, and suggesting that their time may have come for fuller exploration.

But that of course is when some writing has actually made its way on to the pages of those beautiful notebooks. More often than not, though, the books lie in waiting, and I...well, I escape to those lazy afternoon fantasies that occupy their blank pages, leather backed or spiral bound, thick Auroville sheets fragrant with pressed flowers, vacant volumes gifted by trusting friends, anytime books and yearbooks, diaries full of dates and designs and unmade appointments....

Maybe one day, yet, I will fill them with something more.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Suburbia everywhere--or anywhere?

I've made so many short visits to so many places, just enough time to get a sort-of sense of a place, and then off. Also, I'm getting to the age where my memories are turning into mush--a sort of treacly mixture of names, images, sensations. Generally good but not very easy to distinguish one spoonful from the next. Of course there are those bits that stand out of the bowl, impressions and experiences which I can go back to and revisit and recognize all the lines and shapes that made them.

Right now I'm in Syndey. It is cold but sunny. My mornings are short rushes to the train and the bus and the days are long and somewhat winding as I make my way through papers and people, trying to learn something and share something of what I have learned before.

And in the middle of all that, there is still poetry...some of which disappears the moment I've thought the words, and other bits that get written down on scraps of paper.

Here's one. It's called "Suburbia everywhere"

Walk. Rush.
The train's almost here.
Drat. Missed it.
Slipped on the wet pavement
[and depending on where I was]
--the heel broke.
--I fell into a pile of rubbish.
--I fell into a puddle.
--I'm caught just in time by a fellow pedestrian.
[all likely scenarios]
Why do we do this?
Living far away from the city
seems to make the countryside dream
that much more possible.
No matter
that one-sixth of my life
--on any everyday basis--
is spent
cursing the weather, hot or cold,
counting the seconds to missed transport
or, as the case may be,
avoiding wet patches on the pavement.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Surprise on Sunday

It's the usual summer Sunday. The day begins with many plans. Groceries are to be bought and cleaning to be done. Old things to be discarded and new fixtures to be installed. Before you know it the heat has got into your head and under your skin and burnt your good intentions to a fine crisp, no smoke even. Going out into the intensity of the growing afternoon is now completely ruled out. And I sit at my computer screen and decide to catch up on that paper that is refusing to write itself, that demands more attention than I have been willing to give it. Sentence by short sentence, I make progress, and it begins to take shape...more in my mind than in MS Word, but nevertheless, I am beginning to discern its outline.

The bell rings and my somnolent daughter is roused to go answer it. She comes back quickly with a question on her face and a slightly embarrassed smile: the visitors are for me. Something that happens only rarely.

The three young people at the door are smiling and laughing at my surprise. Three young people whom I feel like I met only a few days ago, have come to say goodbye.

When we come to the end of an academic year, the overwhelming feeling is one of relief. Finally, you can put away the notes and the schedules, throw that red-ink pen aside, and organize your days on your own terms. No more reading through indifferent answer scripts and hastily (and often shoddily) written essays. No more preparing for classes only to be disappointed by the response, or lack of it. No more wondering whether it's you, the system, or something else that is to blame.

For a few weeks, at least. Until the new academic year begins and the same thing starts all over again.

But occasionally, the end of the year is also a time of sadness, when you say goodbye to a group of students, a few of whom helped make the classes meaningful, who took the trouble to connect, some of whom you may not see again. It's those few who make the teacher's journey worthwhile and it's the possibility of others like them that keep you looking forward to the next session.

So when these three showed up on my doorstep this Sunday, with an hour to spare before they dashed off to the station to catch a train (one of them was leaving the city), I was more than pleased. When young people take the time and the effort to stop by and say hello (or goodbye), it does mean a lot. After all, they could have just as easily spent that half hour over a cup of cold coffee at the nearest cafe, or meeting other friends of their own age group. Instead, we spent that half hour reminiscing about their time at the University, talking about their plans for the future, and chatting about things that get left in the margins of classroom notes. It didn't feel like a goodbye as much as a catching up.

Sometimes, when you set aside that trip to the grocery store and just stay home on a Sunday, it can be worth it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

marginal verse

What I love about poetry is the possibility it allows you to capture the little moments in life, in short bursts of expression, and gives you a way to put completely random observations into the verbal equivalent of little perfume bottles to be brought out and opened at will, to give one a whiff of a mood, a moment, an idea, an event.

For me, poetry provides an escape from the humdrum. Or perhaps it is more correct to say it allows me to see what exists in the folds of linear time. For instance, when I was sitting watching my students labour over their examination, my mind wandered and wondered about other kinds of writing....

Advice to authors

If you want to write books
about people unlike yourself,
you must bare your eyes
and look closely
so that the middle-class crust
that shields you
from offense of the sensory kind,
doesn't keep you from
the entirety of life,
including that
which is behind the garbage heap
and buried under mounds of yesterday's trash
or locked behind the 
drunken abuser's door
and shoved into the dirty dark corners
of the street at midnight.
Of course, it's easier to sample luxury and wealth,
to imagine the curse of plenty--
that, I can get used to, in my head.
Poverty, on the other hand,
can be a bit too rare
for the vegan's palate.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Margie, this one's for you

Twenty years is a long time. It's the kind of time that's needed for good memories to acquire a soft sheen that glows when you look back at them. And that's what I do--smile--when I think of Margie, her wild curls, her black tunic tops, her sparkling eyes half hidden behind the bangs, and her sexy smile.

My first days at Grady School as a doctoral student would have been long and lonely without the quick and easy friendship of five women who quite simply took me under their wing and supported me with laughter, navigational tools, even furniture--Melinda, Pat, Margie, Candace and Tonya. Margie, the girl from "the South side of Chicago" was the closest to me in height, and perhaps that's why I found her the easiest to get comfortable with! It also made it possible for her to ensure that I had the right kind of clothes to pack for a two week (work) trip to Hawaii!

Memories of the grind of doctoral work are tempered--no, embellished--by the times we all spent together, in the grad carrels and outside. Group baby-sitting for Rick's little girl Zoe (a young woman now) and taking her along with us for a shopping spree at Payless Shoes. Planning Tonya's bridal shower (cream cheese vegie pizza--Margie, I still can taste your recipe). Putting together a yard sale to raise funds for a friend's health care expenses. Our joint project for Spencer's class on advanced research methods (do blondes have more fun?). The parties at your low slung house; the cats and the music. Long nights at the Survey Research Centre, you as the improbable supervisor. Your buying a carton of Vidalia onions for your Dad, who loved them. The trip up to Tennessee to fill out our book of memories for Tonya.

And now, here we are, in our own little cubby holes of our own little lives, continents apart, filling in our own scrapbooks with memories of you.

Be at peace, my friend. Maybe cyberspace extends into the great wide open. And I hope you're reading this, and breaking into laughter.

Friday, February 15, 2013


For those of us who grew up in urban, English-speaking India in the 70s (that's a sure sign of the academic, the need to qualify and delimit the who, when, where, otherwise known as the subject location!), the title of this post may ring a bell (remember the song Psychobabble by the Alan Parsons Project?). But that's just the inspiration for the title.

Last week Prof Ananda Mitra of Wake Forest University (North Carolina, USA) visited Hyderabad briefly and talked about his current passion, the idea of "big data" and the "narrative bits" (see for more) that we generate as we leave our verbal traces on the Internet through facebook posts and gmail status messages. As I listened to him, this is the verbal trace I generated...

Update your status
Tweet a tweet
Post a post
maybe upload an insta-picture
and geo-tag yourself
into existence.
Tell a story of the self
and the Other
using a virtual machinery
of clicks and comments.
One might say,
be a dilletante
in the dance of life
flitting from one window
of being
to the next;
minimize, maximize
moving through mind-sites.
The conversations proceed
in the time-space of the cyber
a chatter of immense proportions
twisted, turning, trans-positioned
wires of light.
I surface on your wall
a mere blip on a screen
across the world
but our words
on the chat frame
and make meaning
(or not).
But what the heck,
let's hold our coffee cups
and meet for a while
in that little corner window
of our globalised world
and talk.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Memories like onions

When I opened this blank page I intended to write something quite different. I had bounced between windows and chased hyperlinks trying to wrap my head around the issues of the day. Battling patriarchy and the right to take offense, corruption in politics and everyday life, parochialism in national awards, our dismal rating on the human development indicators, and so much else. How does one make sense of anything? Easier, so much easier, to burrow inside a chosen fictional world and take flight with one (not-too-intense) fantasy or another.

But again, that's not what I am writing about. I wanted to wonder, instead, about the layered nature of our moments. For instance. I sit here at my laptop which sits on a large rosewood desk covered in kalamkari fabric which I know needs to be pulled off and washed; my mind is half directing my fingers on the keyboard but they seem to have a life of their own; the other half (quarter? tenth?) is taking in the constant sound of the television that is switching between the replay of the Ozzie Open and a Dakota Fanning movie and something else I can't quite catch; and whatever's left is thinking about tomorrow and what needs to be done (always, always).

So we're having dinner and watching Animal Planet and one part of me is thinking about my cousin Rajee who makes the best, crisp-est dosas and another part is remembering how Achala, age two, could name all these exotic Amazonian animals. I take a taste of mulagai podi and remember my grandmother who always added a dash of jaggery when she made it.

My mind is like that bioscope that I once read about (or heard sung about in an old Hindi movie song--dekho, dekho, dekho, baa-yi-scope dekho), flitting between images sometimes unrelated, snatches of lives gone before, lives imagined and shared in the telling...but unlike the serial flow of the bioscope frames, the pictures in my mind are stacked in a translucent heap, one swimming to the top at a time but never quite edging the others out.

So every time I chop onions I think of the good doctor in Ian McEwan's Saturday, peeling an onion in such haste that he cuts through the good bits as well, and when I happen to note the time at 9:15 p.m. I think of my friend Sarika listening to the trundling of the Mumbai Express through Begumpet station and thinking of her family in Pune...whose memories, exactly?

Would be nice, I think, to block this rush of colour and sound for a while and hold my mind calm, quiet, white, that I could write my own ideas on it and maybe turn them into that story that keeps getting interrupted.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Protests, provocations and prevarications

I don't often go out late at night. And it's been years since I walked on Tank Bund, our local promenade, at any time of day or night. So last night, thanks to a couple of feisty and committed young women, I did both. Hyderabad's Midnight March, called to reinforce the demands for safer public spaces and a change in societal attitudes toward gender and gender-based violence, was by any account a huge success. There were feminists old, young, and in-between, of all genders; mothers with young children in tow and fathers with toddlers on their shoulders; people speaking, singing and shouting slogans in Hindi, Telugu and English; those who fit the misused label of middle class, and many who might not. Things were organized without being restrictively disciplined, there was space for conversation and silence, and above all, there was energy.

I ran into many old friends and caught sight of many more recent acquaintances, including a number of young people who had passed through my classes and remembered (or forgot) enough to say a warm hello.

While the demands were serious (let's break the silence, let's rethink the laws), the mood was one of hope. If so many of us, who had at one time shared a quiet and helpless anger, were out there showing ourselves, then there must be a way out of these shackles society seems to have locked itself within.

But walking there among all those people, I couldn't help myself from those treacherous moments of doubt. What happens after a midnight march? One young woman who was with me voiced her doubt aloud, asking, does a thousand-strong crowd walking along a well-lit thoroughfare equal a reclamation of the night? When we yell "down down" with something, do we understand the entirety of what we are fighting or are we only tilting at the windmills we see? When we scream for justice, do we all agree on what justice is and how it should be done? What we want is the opposite of a violent solution, and somehow, the stridency of our shouts taints that very desire. Another young woman asked me what I thought of the whole thing. I'm not sure, I said. All I know is that this can't be enough; that this must lead to something more.

Of course, all of this does not in at all take away from the need for such visible representations of societal angst. It reminds us that in the middle of all the ugliness there is still so much will to act, so much capacity to push for change.

Already, the volume and intensity of conversation around rape, sexuality, and gender-based violence has increased. Silences are being broken and people at least in some quarters are paying more attention. While some may dismiss it all as middle class posturing or a temporary (youth-led) fervour, some of it will most definitely stick.

So, did it make a difference that I went? Perhaps not. But it does make a difference that we all went.

And as we walked back to our car at 1:30 a.m., on a dark and lonely street where it was the only vehicle left, my young friend noted, "Well, we have reclaimed the night, after all."