Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Pig Called Dolores and Other Australian stories

 I learnt many new things on my first visit to Australia. That water drains anticlockwise Down Under. That Victorian refers not to nineteenth-century England but to the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital. Also that Australia has llamas—and two days into my travels, I was standing face to face with one on a green meadow high above the ocean.
Llama at Otway Farm. Photograph by Anuradha Roy
The llama had a serene, supercilious face and her elegance was undiminished by the fact that sprigs of hay stuck out from her mouth. Early training from Tintin comics gave me the cosmopolitan ease with which to handle the situation: step back as if admiring the view before she can spray you with spittle. When I wondered at his choice of exotic pets, Steve Earle of Otway Farm told me the llama was a sheepdog in disguise. It chased away foxes, protected new-born lambs. It was a working member of his farm.
My learning curve was going to get steeper: next I was told pigs are brainier than dogs. As tall, bearded Steve trilled “Dolores!” in an unexpectedly coquettish voice, a giant sow trundled across knee-deep mud to reach him, her emotional complexity obvious and moving. In that second, as Steve scratched her hairy ears, you could see how, in love, the homeliest of faces glows.
Dolores and her colleague, Mildred, live on Steve’s farm to hunt out truffles. Truffles sell at about 2,000 Australian dollars, so Dolores and Mildred were about the most valuable staffers at Otway. At the Atlantic restaurant in Melbourne, when I ate chef Scott Pickett’s truffled chicken wings, savouring each smoky mouthful, I sent a silent note of thanks to Team Dolores.
Melbourne showed me how, in a newish country where traditions hadn’t been inherited via centuries of transmission, it was possible to invent them with flair and imagination. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is on its way to becoming one of those traditions: invented only about twenty years ago, it now occupies a central place in Melbourne life. Any stranger I fell into conversation with eventually began telling me about it.

Read the rest here in Outlook Traveller

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Missing Slate

THE MISSING SLATE's latest issue ("The Politics of Art") features an extract from The Folded Earth as well as fiction from Anjum Hasan, Anjali Joseph, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kuzhali Manickavel, and Sidin Vadukut. And poetry from Tishani Doshi, Minal Hajratwala, Aditi Machado, Shikha Malaviya, Tabish Khair, Prabhat, Sudeep Sen, Ravi Shankar, Kedarnath Singh, Arundhathi Subramaniam, and Jeet Thayil. Prabhat and Kedarnath Singh are translated from Hindi by Rahul Soni. The Missing Slate is an arts and literary journal with roots in several countries. Its website says "the story behind our name (a question we’re often asked) arose from the current literary landscape in Pakistan, a country with a rich history but a low tolerance for it".

Salt by Anastasia Inspiderwiht
I'm very pleased that the extract from The Folded Earth is set alongside a poem by Kedarnath Singh. Years ago as literature editor at the OUP in Delhi, I looked after A. K. Ramanujan and Vinay Dharwadker's anthology of modern Indian poetry. In that typescript, I came across this poem:

Kedarnath Singh (b. 1934): ON READING A LOVE POEM

When I'd read that long love poem
I closed the book and asked --
Where are the ducks?

I was surprised that they were nowhere
even far into the distance

It was in the third line of the poem
or perhaps the fifth
that I first felt
there might be ducks here somewhere

I'd heard the flap flap of their wings
but that may have been my illusion

I don't know for how long
that woman
had been standing in the twelfth line
waiting for a bus

The poem was completely silent
about where she wanted to go
only a little sunshine
sifted from the seventeenth line
was falling on her shoulders

The woman was happy
at least there was nothing in her face to suggest
that by the time she reached the twenty-first line
she'd disappear completely
like every other woman

There were sakhu trees
standing where the next line began
the trees were spreading
a strange dread through the poem

Every line that came next
was a deep disturbing fear and doubt
about every subsequent line

If only I'd remembered--
it was in the nineteenth line
that the woman was slicing potatoes

She was slicing
large round brown potatoes
inside the poem
and the poem was becoming
more and more silent
more solid

I think it was the smell
of freshly chopped vegetables
that kept the woman alive
for the next several lines

By the time I got to the twenty-second line
I felt that the poem was changing its location
like a speeding bullet
the poem had whizzed over the woman's shoulder
towards the sakhu trees

There were no lines after that
there were no more words in the poem
there was only the woman
there were only
her shoulders her back
her voice--
there was only the woman
standing whole outside the poem now
and breaking it to pieces

(translated by Vinay Dharwadker)

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Paris Diary

Colours, colours. The Sennelier on the Left Bank, an art shop where anything seems possible
At a little square near St Sulpice a white-bearded man in a printed shirt in dappled autumn colours strolled over. He had a genial twinkle in his eyes and all the time in the world on that sunny morning. He paused to chat about the colour of the light, the quality of the breeze, how wonderful Paris felt on such a day -- a day of a kind when it might even appear a pleasant city were it not for the fact that there were so many French people in it....and why was I wearing black? You must never wear black, he said as he waved au revoir, black sucks the life out.

Another day, another stranger: she paused to give me directions -- I was walking away, quite definitely away from where I needed to be, she told me, then walked with me half the way in the dark evening despite her heavy bags, to set me straight. Two days later she turned up at the launch of the French edition of The Folded Earth, Les Plis de la Terre with a bag full of gifts -- including a tiny compass...

Add caption
Every corner I turned in Paris on this visit seemed to hold a magical encounter. Most magical of all was the first evening when Myriam and I walked the wooden stairs up to her flat on the fourth floor and her building's concierge stopped her en route to hand her a package: copies of the book I had written and she had translated. We toasted it with many glasses of wine and marvelled at the timing of the package's appearance: how was it that came not a moment before or after but the very hour she and I happened to enter her building? Because celebrating her translations of my books together in Paris was something we had long planned but never managed to do before.

Myriam Bellehigue and I originally met on a staircase -- years ago when we were students. Now, by many strange sets of coincidences and chances, she is my translator. She teaches English at the Sorbonne and is also a translator for Actes Sud. Her translations, everyone says, are fluid and perfect, and a reader read out from them to wonderful dramatic effect when the book was released at the Indian Embassy in Paris by the Ambassador Arun Singh. There was a Q&A conducted by my French publisher Rajesh Sharma and afterwards there was what there always is afterwards -- copies signed, drinks drunk, notes exchanged.
The book was released in Paris on 9 October 2013.

Friday, 16 August 2013

A Matter of Belonging

Fear takes physical form in our neighbourhood in Hyderabad: it is embodied in a man who seems a hundred years old. When he is sighted round the corner, bent and frowning, heading with rapid steps for our cul de sac, we stop playing on the latest mountain of sand or rubble and scoot out of sight behind the houses.

The houses are his, the sand and rubble are his. He is universally known as Tataiyya, or grandfather. The local laws give him the right to evict tenants overnight. If the tenant refuses to leave, he sends thugs who ransack homes and fling belongings into the street. You didn’t want to be on Tataiyya’s wrong side, not if you wanted a roof over you: this has been dinned into us by our parents. We were never to risk his displeasure. My father has been a field geologist and our early life was lived in tents. He says that felt more secure: the tent and the patch of sky above were your own.

There are five houses in the cul de sac. The one we occupy overlooks the big rectangle of dirt around which the houses are built. On our left is a garden with a stone-walled well and guava trees. At the back, a narrow yard with an outdoor latrine. On the right side, a patch of grass in which a drumstick tree stands in one corner, all by itself.

It’s an old-fashioned, two-storied house with flagstone flooring, deep verandahs. A Punjabi joint family has the upper floor. The new daughter-in-law spends all morning practising romantic songs from Hindi movies: first we hear the original played on the record, then her uncertain voice picks up a fragment of the tune, then the record comes back. Late at night, after her husband is home and the rest of the quadrangle has fallen quiet, her voice floats downward, still pinched and off-key: “Tum duur nazar aaye, badi duur nazar aaye…”.

In the room below I lie awake, mystified. Is this romance? On our recently acquired television set, buxom Jamuna in a bandage-tight sari approaches her marital bed to the rhythms of a languorous song. She’s holding a huge glass of milk and as she hands it to Akkineni Nageswara Rao, trembling and simpering, something significant passes between them. I don’t know the meaning of that glance. I don’t know yet that this glass of milk in Telugu movies signifies plenitude, fertility, sex.

Read the rest here, in the Open Magazine

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Bohemian brilliance

One bright day in June, I stood in the dim-lit living room of Vanessa Bell’s farmhouse in Charleston, Sussex and wondered at the route that had led me there. Not the journey, which was no more than about two hours driving from London through English countryside covered in wildflowers. But the far-flung combination of reasons that had made it an imperative for me to stand in that room and breathe in air permeated with old books and threadbare rugs.

One of the reasons was Virginia Woolf’s book, a A Room of One’s Own. Which girl struggling to write would not be thrilled by Virginia Woolf’s essay on the impossible odds against women writing? It spoke in a voice that was true, witty and clear, despite the decades between the author’s time and ours. My friends read it, I read it, and then we worked our way through much of Woolf’s fiction, idolizing her as other teenagers might a rock star. For years the same postcard of young Virginia sketched in wistful charcoal was thumbtacked onto our bookshelves, glancing away from us, its gaze as elusive as her writing.
And then there was the cover of A Room of One’s Own, painted by the author’s sister Vanessa Bell. An arrangement of blobs of colour and handpainted type, that cover was memorable for its very clumsiness. Vanessa Bell painted all the covers for her sister’s books and the books were published by the Hogarth Press, which was run by the author’s husband, Leonard Woolf. The three of them were at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group, that included writers such as E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. Their literary and artistic experiments were as fabled as their sexual ones.
As I read about the Bloomsbury Group, I read of Charleston. This was the farmhouse to which Vanessa Bell retreated with a few other members of the group during the first world war when conscription made it compulsory for men to join the army. They fled to this farm because agricultural labourers were not forced into joining up.
The valley of Charleston sits under the shoulder of the Downs which separates it from the English Channel. When Vanessa Bell moved there in 1916, it was a spartan 17th-century farmhouse of flint and brick, with a hand-pump for water and no electricity or telephone. Only, it was no ordinary farmhouse. Charleston was an explosion of colour, passion, secrets, artistic adventures: an experiment in living differently in the 1920s. It was a large, unruly household, with Vanessa, a governess and her lover, five children, a cook, kitchen maid, as well as the artist Duncan Grant and his lover David Garnett. It was the location for liaisons between the same set in seemingly inexhaustible combinations and for the making of a great deal of art.
Such bohemian freedom and such casual brilliance! Charleston came to embody an exotic, unreal way to live, so far removed from the rickety Calcutta classroom in which we thumbed our worn-out college textbooks that it became our stuff of fantasy.
Today the area around the farmhouse is still mainly agricultural, and this June morning, with bleating sheep on the slopes not far from the house, it smelled of warm grass and flowers. The garden has mosaics and ponds and in one corner a young shrub grows out of the headless torso of a woman chopped off at her thighs. As you go from room to room, you pass flamboyantly painted cupboards, bathtubs, windows, fireplaces, lampstands, tables, chests. Flowers, nudes, vases, and vines dance and leap all over the furniture in blues, greys, pinks, oranges and reds. There are painted fireplaces and windows. Many artists scorn this kind of domestic art as a variety of decoration; few remember that Renoir too once painted on porcelain and curtains for a living.
Inside Charleston (Source: Melbourneblogger)
The pottery was made, glazed and painted by members of the family. The textiles that cover the sofas were designed by them. From children of five to renowned artists, anyone who passed through the house appears to have slapped paint onto the nearest table or chest of drawers. The charming thing about the house is this equality between high art and childrens’ daubs of paint. In the same room there might be lampshades made by one son, cupboards painted by another daughter while the painting on the wall is a Picasso.  
At Charleston, the home itself had been turned into an artefact. It became the design hub for Omega, a London design studio run by Roger Fry, once Vanessa Bell’s lover. Inside its lushly painted rooms, it was hard to tell apart life from art.
My mother had never heard of Charleston, but she painted. Normally she painted watercolours on paper, but often she painted things in the house too. We had a lot of chunky old furniture and in those days one never threw out old things on a whim. You lived with what you had. Her way of renewing our furniture was to take a tin of enamel paint and a brush to whatever had begun to displease her. The house would smell of turp and soon the cupboard or table would go from grey to red or green. She had seen doors and walls painted gorgeously by folk artists in Rajasthan, where she had grown up. She must have thought she would do the same to her own house. It was somewhat eccentric behaviour for a woman of her generation.
As soon as my brother and I could handle brushes we joined her and our house changed by degrees into a forest. Yellow and blue and orange macaws grinned behind tropical palms on the once oil-spattered stretch of wall behind the gas stove in our old, untiled kitchen. Blue sunbirds drank nectar from red hibiscus on an Electrolux fridge discoloured with age. A stretch of plywood (it hid a defunct cooler fan) became aquamarine and green water floating with bulbuous fish and fronds of weed. I have shelves in my kitchen today covered in purple morning glory, and wonky little cupboards and plywood tables made new via Berger and a brush. 
A cupboard I painted, including Ranikhet's lilies and leopard
For me, therefore, going to Charleston was not a trip to yet another literary home preserved as museum. It was a long-planned expedition to see a house painted as mine might have been — only I had neither the talent nor a Sussex farmhouse. It was also a pilgrimage to see where several of my favourite books had been dreamt up: in nearby Rodmell is Monk’s House, where Virginia Woolf lived and wrote. The river Ouse that Woolf drowned herself in after a nervous breakdown still flows behind Monk’s House, shaded by serene trees.
I lingered for some minutes gazing at the river, trying to sense ghosts, but Rodmell village has nothing spooky about it. At the Cricketer’s Arms the benches outside are full with people drinking cider and eating sausages. A little distance away, is the Berwick Church whose walls are decorated with playful murals by Vanessa and her menage. Charleston itself, on this June day, buzzes with students at an art workshop. The teachers murmur companionably to each other drinking tea from bright, big mugs. It’s all so cosy and tame it doesn’t seem possible that this was the epicentre of artistic hedonism and literary agony a century or so ago.
Inside the painted house, with its plump beds and shelves full of books, it feels as if the family will come back any time, aghast at our invasion. Staying seems intrusive. Outside in the garden, a weatherbeaten old statue peers out of the shrubbery at a bank of red poppies, and tall heads of allium nod over the sunlit pond. 
(published in National Geographic Traveller India, July 2013)

Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Return of the Leeches

At first, you think it's rainwater that's soaked your feet. Take your shoes off and you see your socks are bright red. A black slug is writhing on your ankle. Your skin crawls, your blood flows, but however hard you try, you can't shake the thing off.
'Mountain Rain', Watercolour by Sheela Roy

A leech, the season's first. Other people rely on the met office and the newspaper for formal announcements of the monsoon. In the hills, the job's done by leeches. They are called "joke" in Hindi — somehow they never make you laugh. It is a mystery where leeches come from in the monsoon and where they go to once it's over. There must be people who know this. I don't. About a week or so after the rains set in, the leeches begin to emerge. Out of air, dropping much as the gentle rain from heaven does upon the earth beneath, leeches fall quietly off leaves and trees, they pour out of the grass and pine needles and they march with starved determination towards warm blood. Ours.

Read the rest of the article here in the Indian Express, Sunday 30 June 2013

Monday, 3 June 2013

Jam Session

Two days of stormy weather and now there are pre-Raphaelite mornings when any number of blessed damozels must be leaning out from the golden bars of heaven thinking Ranikhet's the place to be. 

Photograph by Anuradha Roy
 I've been sorting my stack of hill books -- many of which I've written about here. Browsing -- an unavoidable aspect of sorting -- through those old favourites, The Snow Leopard and The Valley of Flowers, I found all kinds of things I had missed before. And I noticed that both Peter Matthiessen and Frank Smythe, during their walks in Nepal, came upon bushes of Kilmora, a wild berry that is all over Ranikhet right now. They call it by its Latin name, Berberis. For some reason this is the first summer I've noticed these bunches of purple berries in bushes. No idea why I was blind to them before, they are so pretty.

Ripening berries of the Berberis aristata/ Kilmora/ Daru Haldi/ Tree Turmeric, growing in Ranikhet. Photo by Anuradha Roy.

"After climbing some 1,500 feet we emerged from the forest on to a shoulder where I found monkshood in seed, then traversed steep hillsides covered here and there in juniper and berberis, B. aristata." 
(The Valley of Flowers)

"At this altitude, near 7000 feet, the trail passes among oaks ... This cloud forest -- who knows? -- may hide a yeti. At the wood edge, alder and ilex, viburnum, barberry, and rhododendron, daisies and everlasting wild strawberry..." (The Snow Leopard)

It was only other day that I noticed in my own wood's edge bushes from which bluish purple berries hung in grapelike bunches. I plucked a few -- an enterprise fraught with scratches and blood because of the lethal thorns. Showed them to the old woman herding cows nearby. This woman, Pande-ji-ki-biwi, is Pande-the-chowkidar's wife and we have known each other many years. When she sights me walking she often says, "Out for a stroll? Go on, keep wandering. Some people's only work in life is strolling about."

She peered at the berries, then told me it was called kilmora. Children eat it, she said, full of mirth at the my suggestion that jam -- and maybe a family's fortune -- might be made from it. "Where's the juice in it? It's all seed, and the seed is bitter". She told me it was the roots of the plant that were really useful -- dried and powdered, the root could cure everything, from diabetes to conjunctivitis to flu. 

A cell phone began to ring. She plucked it from from the waist of her sari and tucked it under her ear to talk, settling on her haunches. After a few minutes she took her knitting from a plastic bag beside her and her needles clicked over a cream and red glove even as she chatted into her phone and kept an eye out for her wayward cows. I had been dismissed.

I carried on walking and around the next bend the bushes had bright yellow bunches of wild raspberries.

Hisalu (Rubus ellipticus/ Yellow Himalayan raspberry ) growing in Ranikhet. Photo by Anuradha Roy.

A few loops further down a paunchy man was poised dangerously in the crook of a kafal tree, trying to pluck a bunch of berries just out of reach. His wife and two children stood below, urging him on.

Kafal (Myrica esculenta/Bay-Berry/Box myrtle)
(This photo is sourced from the net. I couldn't get close enough to the berries either.)

Everyone in town is fighting for a fair share of hisalu and kafal, but nobody seems much interested in the humble kilmora. Searching through Polunin and Stainton's Flowers of the Himalaya, I found that this was the very bush I had seen covered with lemon yellow flowers in April and that "extracts from its wood, bark and roots are used used medicinally" (Pandeji-ki-biwi was right about that then). Nowhere did it mention anyone eating the berries. When I asked a couple of friends about jamming the berries they adopted that kind and inscrutable look people usually adopt when faced with extreme foolishness in someone they don't want to offend.

Another friend, a poet in Dehradun, had never seen it but was much taken by its common English name, which apparently is Indian ophthalmic barberry. Probably because of the first two lines from one of his poems that keep playing in my head at unexpected moments, I have a feeling the Indian opthalmic barberry might figure in his poetry some day:

"Was that a barbet I heard 
In the jujube tree? 
Or walking sticks rattling 
In an empty cupboard? 
Are questions I ask 
All summer long
Then when vacation ends, 
We pack our bags, 
Lock up the place, 
And return to the plains."

(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, 'Locking Up', The Transfiguring Places)

Anyway -- I came back home the next day with more scratches and many more kilmoras. 

I boiled them up, strained out the seeds and then boiled them some more with sugar. 

My kilmora jam. A translucent, gleaming purple, sweet with the faint touch of bitterness that only good marmalades usually have, and delicious with stacks of hot pancakes or buttery toast.

Thursday, 30 May 2013


Celebration time. Jyotsna, the girl who lives next door, has passed her Class Ten board exams (CBSE): and with a 92 percentile score. Her report card had no B grades at all, only As, and many of those A grades had double and triple plus signs alongside.

So what's special?
Jyotsna when she was eight. She is the taller one.

What's special is that Jyotsna's father, a jawan in the army, died when she was four. Her mother, who works from morning to night tending cows and collecting fodder, is illiterate. She lives in a two-roomed house with a shifting population of relatives and sometimes there are fourteen people living in those two rooms, sometimes three or four fewer. There's no generator for the hours and hours when there is no power (every day). She has no quiet corner, let alone a room to study in, nor a desk of her own. She goes to Central School, about six kilometres away -- walking, whatever the weather.

None of this is is unusual. What is remarkable is that despite all this she managed to learn to use computers, read and write in English. She read the newspaper every day, taking it from us in the evening because her family can't afford a paper.  I don't know what else she did to carve out the time and space to crack the big exam.

Yet she's no nerd. I've seen her belt out jhatka-matka dances at wedding 'sangeets' and she has an enviable sense of style: a tee from one place, a dupatta from somewhere else, a few snips and tucks on a pair of pants, a toss of her head, and she's off!

Monday, 27 May 2013


Summertime, and the tourists have come, the water supply has dried up, garden plants have shrivelled, the forest is getting ready to go up in flames -- as every year. But the roadside bushes are loaded with  raspberries and purpling blackberries and our bird cherries have turned red.

Our plum tree had to be propped up using a car jack and a forked log, it's so heavy with fruit and marauding monkeys.

The good thing about the hills is that most people share their fruit. The other day a complete stranger offered me a handful of pine nuts -- she had been collecting them from under the trees -- and they take ages to find, so it was almost as noble of her as sharing ... water. Would she share water? Probably not. Water makes blood flow here.

We've no apricot trees but an ancient carpenter, Kunwar Ram, who has been part of our life for years, came from his village with a couple of kilos; our nearby taxi driver friend Harish, whose house burnt down in last year's forest fires, also sent across apricots from his tree (it didn't perish in the fires). Harish, incidentally, is the most wonderful of drivers, the best in the Kumaon, booked months ahead for long road holidays by people who want him to drive them in the hills again and again. He turns down prospective customers, though, on the basis of their personality: if he detects what he terms the lack of a "loving nature" he refuses to drive those people a second time. Because most of his customers happen to be Bengali he has a stash of mournful Bengali pop song CDs in his Tavera, which he plays again and again if he's driving around a Bengali (eg me). Harish is a foodie: rajma only from Munsiyari, mung dal pakoras only from a particular shop in Kainchi etc -- so if he thinks his apricots are good enough to give his friends, they're guarenteed top class.

Peaches and greengages arrived from other neighbours. Fresh fruit for breakfast, in-betweens and dessert. But soft fruit spoils quickly. Tarts were obviously asking to be made, and jam. Sensing overwork, my sixteen-year-old oven died one quiet evening, without drama, abandoning the two loafs of bread inside it to their flopped destiny. The thing is that you can't buy new ovens in Ranikhet, nor can you repair old ones: nobody knows how to. We knew this from experience.

Gappu-da, the harassed gentleman who runs the electrical goods shop in the bazaar, made phone calls to suppliers in the larger foothill towns and reported that we were behind the times: nobody used conventional ovens now, it was a microwave or nothing. The apricots turned yellower, the peaches began rot, despair was in the air. And then a supplier who had one -- but only one -- oven in stock was located in Kashipur. There was no question of deliberating over the right brand or size. It was to be that one or nothing.

The delivery was fraught with tension because the supplier in Kashipur had to go to the bus stop at midnight and load it on the overnight bus to Haldwani, from where it was to make its journey to Ranikhet by taxi. Would it reached unscathed? Would it reach at all? Would the box actually contain an oven? It was a blind date.

And then at last it arrived.  I agree that tarts don't look like much, but that's because I'm a lousy food photographer and I don't have nice enough plates. They were buttery. They were tart and sweet and soft and crisp all at once. They tasted fabulous.

 As does the jam.