Thursday, December 28, 2017


Last year when I met a dear school mate after close to three decades, she remarked that just before she reached the cafĂ© of our assignment, she encountered two instances that seemed to strongly resonate—in a prescient way—with our long association. “I was browsing the CD rack at the book store next door, and I spotted a collection of Tamil songs!” This was surprising why? Because this was a tiny store in the preppy part of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I am one of the few Tamil-speaking friends. “And then a little while later my eye fell on this mathematics book, in the popular non-fiction section.” The reason for remarking on this? My father was a mathematics professor, and this was a subject she had always connected with me (although I have little to do with it and even less affinity for it!).

“Everything seemed to be telling me I was going to meet you!”

We all get these earworm infestations from time to time, right? A song worms its way into our head and refuses to find a way out, taking up residence with endless replays. So it was with this song by Passenger that I first heard covered by a group of pre-teens at a music festival, which stayed with me for weeks, and then, just as suddenly as it had entered, it quit. Like, totally and completely, vacated my conscious mind. Several months later, I was trying hard to think about this song, remembering only that I had liked it, but with no more than a vague sense of the sound. Try as I might, the notes wouldn’t come back to me. In the evening of that same day, as I walked down the stairs of a subway station, I heard the strains of a platform band—playing my song!

My father was born in the month of January and died in the month of April. My father in law was born in the month of April and died in the month of January. They were very good friends, sharing a deep, almost spiritual connection. There’s even a strange symmetry of sorts in the dates: my father’s birthday is January 1, while my father in law’s death anniversary is January 11. My father in law’s birthday is April 26 and my father passed away on April 21. The months therefore bring bittersweet memories for me, but in a way they also serve to remind one that birth, death, and everything in between…it’s all part of the game of life.

You have a dream about someone and happen to meet them the following day. You have a dream about someone and they call you with some important news soon after. You have a dream about someone and it turns out to be surprisingly premonitory. You think a thought and you find it echoed in the newspaper the next day.

Life is full of such apparently surprising coincidences. Or perhaps we see them as coincidences because we are constantly on the lookout for patterns, for ways to read meaning into our otherwise untidy lives.

The idea of synchronicity—the apparent connection between acausal psychic and physical phenomena--is most famously associated with Carl Jung, who is best known for his work on psychoanalytic theory. The writer Paul Levy describes it as “meaningful coincidence” when “our internal, subjective state appears, as if materialized in, as and through the outside world”.

While many rationalists might dismiss the idea as fanciful mumbo-jumbo, something that springs from our innate desire to make sense and bring order to the randomness of life, our wish to believe that there is some grand design to existence. Putting meaning into synchronous events allows us to see our lives as a narrative. And whether one reads meaning into such events, or whether the occurrence of such events is inherently meaningful, depends on which side of the mysticism-rationalism divide one stands.

I myself am a skeptical rationalist—if there is such a thing. I believe there are scientific (or rule-based) explanations for most things, but I also allow that there may be phenomena that are beyond our current understanding, and therefore am hesitant to discount the beliefs of those who argue for a mystical explanation for acausal coincidences.

After all, the most innovative theories in science have come from the willingness to make a conceptual leap to connect disparate bits of evidence in an explanatory framework. And the greatest literature has come from drawing a design into the apparent randomness of human existence.

For now, I’m going to take refuge in another song that had been relegated to the shadows of memory…here’s Synchronicity of a different kind!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Ghosts of Christmas past

Call it the market, call it the Hallmark effect, but there's no denying that every year around this time something gets into the air. No amount of cynicism--or realism--has been able to take away that sense of specialness brought on by images of snow-laden fir trees and green-and-red ribbons and gingerbread and rich plum cake. No matter that I live in a climate where there is neither snow nor fir tree and nicely laced eggnog is hard to come by. And no matter what my postcolonial consciousness knows about the constructed nature of history and the mediated nature of contemporary culture.

Come December, the strains of The Nutcracker and Jim Reeves' Christmas carols courtesy YouTube mingle in my home with the evening telecasts of the Marghazhi kutcheris from Chennai. It's been a few years since we pulled down our little artificial tree and the handmade ornaments made when the kids were in preschool and kindergarten, sit with it in the loft, packed away in tissue paper, along with so many memories. It's been only a couple of years since I last baked sugar cookies in the shapes of the season--a recently discovered gluten intolerance lowered the motivation somewhat.

But spooling backwards. Last year, my daughter and I were with my brother's family and spent Christmas Eve in New York City, doing the tourist circuit, beginning with lunch at the Ellen's Stardust Diner to watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center past the dressed-up Macy's windows to the winter market at Bryant Park, complete with hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. We drank the feel-good kool-aid and smiled along with everyone else, enjoying the warm cosy feeling and ignoring the little voice that said this was not forever. A few days before, we had watched Langston Hughes' Nativity play in a traditional black theatre in downtown Boston and sung along with a jubilant chorus. And that morning, we helped pack cookies and cupcakes for a holiday fundraiser for a healthcare charity.

It's the lights and the music and the cold. And even without the cold, the memory of lights (and of course, the pictures on social media) and the presence of music brings back the spirit. Listening to the simple sounds of the Little Drummer Boy (listen to this lovely version by Pentatonix) or Silent Night also reminds me that it's not all commerce, there is a magic that we need to believe in, something that has little to do with religion and everything to do with faith--in people and the possibility of goodness.

The end of the year is as much about nostalgia as it is about hope. But as I get older, it seems more and more about remembering rather than doing. I scour old photo albums for pictures of winters past and smile at the smiles recorded in those frames.

When the children were little, we bought into the excitement of Christmas morning with gifts ferreted away that magically appeared on the day, even going so far as to hide outside the window jingling what were supposed to be sleigh bells! The anticipation and the delight on the children's faces were well worth the subterfuge and the pretence.

Another precious Christmas memory relates to Achala's elementary school, which had a lovely tradition of having all the children write a story, and two children from each grade were selected to go choose the school tree and read their stories on the bus ride to the tree farm. When in the second grade, Achala's story was selected and what a joy it was to ride the bus with the kids and listen to their varied tales!

But Christmas also brings with it, for me, a sense of "awayness". I first encountered the festive season in all its "winterness" when I was a child in cold, cold, Canada, and then again as a young adult and again as an older adult, each time away from home. There was always the sense of being an outsider looking in, of trying to make one's own something that was essentially foreign--of standing in the driveway of a suburban home looking into a window where a Norman Rockwell family sat unpacking presents around a decorated tree. One is always trying to recreate that warm feeling in its fireside framing, a sense of perfection that is as foreign as those snowy winters. To think of it, once the market appropriates a holiday, it sells us images that make the experience completely unattainable--and in the process, takes away the possibility of perfection that resides in our own spaces, framed in our own colours.

Yet, yet. In Hyderabad, Christmas too--like Deepawali, or Navaratri, or Pongal--brings with it certain traditions that I have come to cherish. The mingling of Tchaikovsky and Thyagaraja in my domestic soundscape. The city's own Festival Choristers and their offering of holiday songs. My friend Sarika's at-home on Christmas day. The rich plum cake, soaked in rum, from Secunderabad Club and rose cookies from Karachi Bakery. And when I can rouse myself from my inertia, buttery sugar cookies from my own kitchen.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


I woke this morning filled with a sense of un-rightness. My alarm had gone off, as it has been obsessively programmed to do, at 5:15 a.m., and, by some lapse of habit, I had hit the snooze button and fallen back to sleep, to awake at the distinctly un-virtuous hour of 7! The sun was already pretty high over the horizon, my husband had done the laundry (line-drying and all), my daughter had made the coffee (authentic South-Indian filter) and left for her practice session, and I…, well I had let a good part of the morning slip-slide away (soundtrack: S&;G song here)! And the un-rightness also stemmed from this persistent sense that I had “stuff to do”, and that time was running out.

But when I think about it, I realize that it’s a sense that dogs me pretty much all the time. I suspect it is a burden that pretty much all professionals carry unless you are in one of those fields where it is literally impossible to carry your work home or in your head—such as a bricklayer or a tailor, perhaps. Even then, the aches in your joints and muscles remind you of work even when you can’t do it.

A few years ago I wrote about the futility of making lists (not checklists, which I agree are very useful), because all they do is remind you of how little one gets done and how much never gets on the list in the first place. So I’ve pretty much given up on lists—except for those calendared reminders that help me avoid double-booking myself (a pesky habit I am yet to overcome). However, there is that ongoing register in my head that seems to function like a ticker on steroids, incessantly typing out the undone tasks, and that’s what I hear when I finally emerge from my snoozed out sleep in the mornings.

So for some context: I am, technically, on break. The semester is over, grades have been turned in, even a doctoral dissertation defended, plans (sort of) made for the next term, course outline it’s time for some R&R right? You would think.

So, all that stuff that still has to be done? Research projects, papers to be written, new published work to catch up on, and early drafts of theses to read/correct. All the stuff that doesn’t get done during the term, when commuting to work and back depletes whatever energy is left over from teaching and meeting with students and handling sundry institutional tasks.

As every academic knows, each of these can be a separate source of stress—even though they are part of the reason one signed on to the job in the first place. Even though one is reading, writing, and thinking about ideas that one finds fascinating. New papers emerge in the literature at breakneck speed (and Google Alerts makes sure we hear about it) and one has to develop a super-efficient system to sift through the pile and figure out which ones to spend time on reading, or even skimming. Reading then becomes an instrumental, even strategic activity, instead of being a contemplative one. “Reading for pleasure? Ha, I haven’t done that in years!” said one senior academic friend who works at a major America university.

Perhaps it just bad time management, or inability to prioritize in a way that can lead to some balance. Perhaps it’s a symptom of FOMO in the professional sphere, leading to the notion that you have to keep running to stay ahead—or even abreast. So much so that taking time off to enjoy oneself or to relax (simple things like watching a movie, reading a novel, just lying around) feels like time away from the things one should be doing, with the always-lurking sense that that “to-do” pile is not going anywhere, it’s sitting on the home screen of your laptop waiting for your next login.

To my mind, the biggest drawback of connectivity is this, the perception that the world—or that part of it that you occupy—hurtles ahead even as you step off the travellator to catch a breath. That everything that represents work is just a click away. So one has to find a way to insulate one’s consciousness not only from the knowledge of one’s own pending work, but also from the temptation to check in on the state of the workplace.

Holidays are meant for going away—physically and mentally. The physical part is easy enough. But the mental bit is what I have had a hard time working on. It’s easier when the demands on one’s time come from elsewhere (family, community, friends) but in the absence of such demands, it becomes difficult to disconnect from work/place, to ignore that constant, nagging ticker tape, that list that seems to go on and on.  

Sunday, October 01, 2017


It is the morning after several nights in a row. Nine nights, to be precise. The gods are carefully divested of their crowns and garlands, their long black tresses tied back with wispy cotton threads, packed into recycled plastic bags and put away in the big black trunk that holds the history of inter-continental crossings and multiple house-movings.

The living room reclaims its position as marginal to the life of the household--so maybe it is more correctly named the "(with)drawing room" (we don't really live there, do we?)--after having served these ten days as a site of communing with friends and family from a variety of circles, many of whom we see only once or twice a year. But there's a temporary void beneath the window where the steps stood, making space for the descent of the gods from the storage area off our terrace to the level of our everyday. It will take a couple of days before the mundane reasserts itself and the memory of green and blue-tinged bodies, and their other-wordly aura, fades. "The room seems so empty now," my mother in law remarks after we've cleared the last of the festival paraphernalia.

Navaratri, like almost every other festival, brings up all kinds of ambivalent feelings in me. There is nostalgia, of course, for uncomplicated times and the innocence of childhood, where the only protests had to do with getting up early or having to take an oil bath or going around with the invitational kumkum bharani, exposing oneself to the curiosity of the neighborhood aunties who would comment on the length of one's hair or the inadequate number of bangles on one's wrist. But that was always made up for by the innumerable varieties of sundal and sweets that one was offered by those very same aunties. And I was also one of the fortunate few who was never asked to sing for my sundal, having deftly sidestepped those obligatory Carnatic music classes that most of my contemporaries in the Tam-Bram circle were privileged to attend. Much to my parents' regret, I suspect (and truth be told, to my own as well).

Now that I'm an auntie myself (as my children often remind me when I show embarrassing signs of forgetting), and I am the one offering the sundal and sweets, not to speak of being the one who has to spend that extra time in the kitchen cooking it all up, the ten-day festival (even though it is technically nava-ratri or nine nights) represents not just the opportunity for silk and music but also... work. And that work, and everything it represents, is implicated in all sorts of politics that my academic self cannot ignore.

My friends who are more deeply rooted in the progressive academic discourse would have much more to say about this discomfort and its relationship to modernity but for now, I'd just like to lay out some of the contradictions that I am constantly trying to reconcile (and why one even needs to reconcile them is another question, for another time).

--how does one deal with the notion of the oppressive Brahminical without discarding everything that is beautiful and good in tradition?
--how does one hold on to the aesthetic aspects of culture while also refashioning the meanings held within the form(s)?
--in other words, how does one appropriate the form while discarding all that this very form may have represented in the past?
--how does one learn to take pleasure in the social and cultural opportunities that such festivals offer in a truly secular--and egalitarian--way?

Each year, I try to deal with these questions, sometimes subconsciously, as I put the bomma golu together and make my list of people to invite and balance my time between the demands of work and the extended kitchen time. Many of the dolls that we display have a special meaning for my family; the main pieces were made by my mother in law over forty years ago, lovingly and painstakingly, and each time we bring them out is a chance for her to recall her younger, more agile self and take pleasure once again in the sense of crafting something. Each year, as we prepare the display, we listen to stories of the making of the dolls, the years the family spent in Shillong, the many people who came and saw and what they said. This invariably leads to conversations about other navaratris in other places, and my children (if they happen to be here) and I are treated to glimpses of the past which tend to stay buried the rest of the year as we go about our regular business. We remember people who have turned into faded faces in our photo albums, and get a sense of what life was like before modern telecommunications.

So clearly, the sense of ambivalence also derives from another sort of nostalgia, for the loss of neighborhood, of the ease of getting around, of dispersed families, of a calendar that respected the personal and the familial and recognized the need for a periodic slowing down of the professional. The days leading up to the festival, I'm anxious and nervous about managing things, and I allow a resentment to build up, telling myself that I am only meeting expectations, that I am doing things that are not part of my modern-liberal psyche. But that's only partly true. I am myself loath to give up the practice, because it is tied up with so much that I value and respect, with so much that--when I allow myself--I truly take pleasure in.

And in the doing of things, in the ritual of setting up the display, the resentment fades. While those questions and contradictions remain, I set them aside for another time, another space, another context.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Freedom and all that jazz

Sanjeevaiah Park, Secunderabad
When I was in the ninth grade, I won the second prize in a short story writing competition. I fashioned my story in the realist style of R K Narayan combined with the cinematic sensibility of Shyam Benegal who had just punctured our urban development myth with the explosive Ankur, and its images of a persistent feudalism and class oppression. Perhaps it was telling that the first place went to a sweet, hopeful story about a lost-and-found pet and my own somewhat cynical narrative about a young woman and her alcoholic husband was an uncomfortable second. Or maybe the good nuns of St Ann's Convent thought I was writing a tad above my station--as a 14-year-old.

My fiction unfolded on Independence Day--India's 17th--and its underlying point was that we were a long way from having achieved freedom for all. Granted, it was an unsophisticated, somewhat naive treatment of the kind of plot that is not uncommon in both commercial and literary fiction, but it was deeply felt, and at its core was the beginnings of a disenchantment with the rhetoric and reality of nation building.

My politics haven't changed much in the forty-years since (gosh has it been that long?). I might write that story with more nuance, less black and white and more grey and even some glimmer of color, because as one grows older one also learns to see hope and happiness in small acts and tiny corners, and take joy in the moment (and the momentary).

Still, I can't not be a bit irritated each year when the 15th of August comes around and we find ourselves subjected to all manner of lofty claims about progress and whatnot by whichever government is currently in power. Don't get me wrong. I too get goosebumps when I listen to our "Tryst with destiny" speech, and I too am humbled by the manner in which so many united to end colonial rule. But you don't have to look too far to see how far we have not come. And then there are all those tragedies that have dogged us in the wake of independence; they endure like a long low scream that Edward Munch would have had a hard time capturing.

I still find my refuge in writing.

August 15, 2017

What exactly are we celebrating?

The various impunities made available, like candy 
at our Made-in-India vending machines?

Freedom to turn personal frustrations into public hatred?

Freedom to allow babies to die, un-breathing,
because you/they wouldn't/couldn't 
pay for air?

Freedom to change words in textbooks
and remake histories in some singular,
monolithic image?

Freedom to spread hate in the name 
of some version of love (so you say)
for that completely unnecessary thing called Nation?

Freedom to draw boundaries around notions
of personhood, being, loving, even 

I can list enough of these...these freedoms
to fill the 70 pages of your
new history books

That turn wondering children
into accepting, repeating automatons,
better to work the algorithmic gears
of this unconstitutional republic.

As far as I can see, you've used up
all the Freedom.

And now, you're selling it back to us
in byte-sized plastic tirangas

that we are free 
to buy
with the spare change left to us;

of a demonetized economy.