Sunday, 28 September 2014

Hideaway in the Hills

Ranikhet's own traditions and its unique culturehave trumped the charmsof Durga Puja, says Anuradha Roy
(The Telegraph, Sunday 28 September 2014)
  • Anuradha Roy
Late one October evening, a man in a gilt crown, lush false moustaches and polyester dhoti dashed out from Munir Bux Steam Press and Drycleaners, loped across the road and leaped over the parapet into the space below. His only witness at that hour ought to have been a leopard wandering in search of rashly adventurous dogs. Today was different. Argumentative Indians abounded:
Look, there's Manoj.
Not Manoj, can't you see him, he's still at his shop. No, that's Nandu Dhobi. He's Lakshman this year.
Nandu? That three-foot midget as Lakshman? It's someone else.

Below the parapet was an arrangement of tables held together as a stage with ropes and prayers. It had a gleaming maroon backdrop. A hirsute man cradling a mace sat on a stool at a shop nearby, slurping tea. A thickening audience was exchanging raucous notes. Then the microphone crackled, the stage creaked, and Nandu Dhobi appeared in his crown, wig, and robes. His voice had acquired an unfamiliar gravitas. His audience of neighbours stilled themselves, inexplicably respectful. Those of us who had been sheltering over hot rum in the restaurant next to Munir Bux's hauled ourselves over to the parapet for a look.
October nights in Ranikhet are cold. Silence follows the swift fall of darkness as people shut themselves into the warmth within their homes. Incarcerated in Almora jail, Nehru expressed an understandably jaundiced view of hill nights: "Life hides and protects itself and leaves wild nature to its own! In the semidarkness of the moonlight or starlight the mountains loom up mysterious, threatening, overwhelming, and yet almost insubstantial... there is no breath of wind or other sound, and there is an absolute silence that is oppressive in its intensity. Only the telegraph wires perhaps hum faintly, and the stars seem brighter and nearer than ever."

In the nine days preceding Dussehra, the sun still sets on Ranikhet's hills at the usual time but silence is drummed out. Few stay home. Late in the evening the blackness is broken into clumps by beams from fluorescent torches as people spill out from houses scattered far apart and climb the slopes to converge on Mall Road for the next stage in Ravana's eventual destruction. Dusshera is no homecoming for Durga and her entourage here. Unlike most other towns and cities in India with five Bengalis and a collection box for chanda, Ranikhet has nothing Bengalis would recognise as Puja.

In his essay The Descendants, Arvind K. Mehrotra describes the manner in which the Bengali Diaspora made alien cities its own: "A long migration...brought increasing numbers of Bengalis... to Gangetic upcountry in the second half of the nineteenth century...even today if one goes [to Lukergunj near the station in Allahabad] one gets the feeling that one has come to a different part of the country. The shop signs are in Bengali and banner ads for Ranga-Java Deluxe Sindur hang outside."

My ancestors were part of this nineteenth-century migration and they went first to Agra and then to Jaipur, where they put down roots. Intrepid early settlers of their kind soon enough set up Durga Pujas in different towns. My mother remembers spending all day at the Jaipur Puja-bari through her childhood in the 1950s. There were similar probashi enclaves in towns like Lucknow and Allahabad and Kanpur. My brother and I grew up mostly outside Calcutta, and anywhere in India that we lived, October meant the familiar blend of adda and anjali, overeating, overdressing, and variety-show.
In the hills of Kumaon too the Bengalis arrived, but Durga Puja did not. Grubby, hole-in-the-wall restaurants advertise shukto and maacher jhol for the tourists, but that is all. How is it that the Bengalis did not colonise October in the hills, as they did in other places?

Snapshots of Kumaon till the 1970s bring alive an extraordinary cultural and spiritual efflorescence: from Allaudin Khan, Zohra Sehgal, Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan to Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Anandamayi Ma, and Timothy Leary, it is as if, at this time, the world came to Kumaon. Many who passed through or settled here were Bengali: Rabindranath retreated to Ramgarh after the death of his wife and returned to write parts of the Gitanjali; Vivekananda came to the Kasardevi temple in Almora when writing one of the essays published in From Colombo to Almora. Uday Shankar set up his dance academy at Almora, where he performed Ram Lila ballets (on open-air stages surrounded by deodar and chir). Monica Devi, wife of G. N. Chakravarti — the first vice-chancellor of Lucknow University — took sanyas as Yashoda Ma and, with Ronald Henry Nixon, a British fighter pilot turned Cambridge academic turned Vaishnav ascetic, set up a renowned ashram at Mirtola.

When I got to Ranikhet, this blaze of cultural and spiritual activity had died down, but I encountered people deeply influenced by a dogma-free spirituality I attributed to Mirtola. I would sit in Amit Sen's verandah and listen to stories of the ashram, which he and his wife Anjali, as well as writers like Bill Aitken, had been part of in their time. Now the ashram was almost deserted and most disciples had scattered, but it remained a live presence.
Amit's nook in Ranikhet was a cottage perched like a monopoly block on a vast board of a meadow chequered yellow and green with ripe corn. He alone was left of the Basus and Boses of Ranikhet. Amit's wife too had died. From all accounts, she had lived it up before: gin and bitters in picnic flasks and bird-watching walks despite a crippling cancer. Now Amit only had the gin, and in the evenings rum, which he often shared with his cook, Joga Singh, or the next door cowherd Himmat Singh, whose bi-annual bath ensured that his presence lingered in the room for hours after the last drink.

This is the thing about Ranikhet: you might buy your vegetables from Pandeyji in the morning and get your gas stove fixed by Raju in the afternoon, then meet them both at a wedding in the evening and swap friendly insults over a meal about their performances in the Ram Lila the week before. The fortresses of class and hierarchy are less forbidding here. Everyone is addressed with the familiar tum rather than the more formal and distant aap. Gifts are always reciprocated even when you can only afford to give a lauki or a bunch of bananas in return. An acquaintance lurks beyond every loop in the road and, bank manager or goatherd, he must holler out a "Namaste", then demand information about every aspect of your life: why were you at the doctor's that afternoon, is your water supply ok, why are you greying. Gossip is both fundamental right and social glue. This is a small hill town cut off from elsewhere, a world in itself.

The clarity in the air, not just from the mountains but from Mirtola, the ease with which they were absorbed into the daily lives of local people, their minute numbers, their homes scattered across ridges and valleys: perhaps all of this dissolved the need in Ranikhet's Bengali Diaspora for the familiar joys of Puja. Like an aging fax message, Durga Puja faded. It moved to the realm of happy but unlonged-for memories.
It's happened to me too. October and November are among the loveliest months in Kumaon, when the clam-my grip of the monsoon eases, the sun dazzles, flowers bloom, the snow peaks emerge from their summer-long hibernation and the festivities begin. For me now October means loafing around in the tinselled bazaar in search of the latest in clay dolls from Meerut and the diyas and anti-monkey catapults sold only at this time. It means ritually buying a new steel utensil from Kundan Singh's shop, whitewashing our house, painting the flowerpots and stairs with red oxide, stringing up marigold garlands, eating bhang chutney, singhori and puas at Pahari friends' homes. It means fuming at the ceaseless, tuneless droning of bhajans on a megaphone that kills the whistling thrush's song right through the Navratras. It means watching the postman in a sari playing Sita as hundreds of tiny lights sparkle on far-off hills at night.

I haven't been in Calcutta during Durga Puja for 25 years. If it's October, it has to be Ranikhet.

Anuradha Roy is the author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth

Friday, 18 July 2014

The more things change the more they remain the same

Ando Mura, Yamato, Japan (about 1939)

Dear L,
How your family and your work getting on?
Nearly everyday we talk about you but it is too far Yamato and St Ives... Here plum blossom and nightingale came, harbinger of spring. I think you remember this best season of Japan.
This year I had five kilns but only five good works (not good, ordinary) and we wish to break up all the others (50) but if we break up all of them we must ask 100 yen each for the five works. Then who will buy? Can they buy? Well if they cannot buy how shall we live? Think! Only five pots out of 100 pots, two months hard work, 150 yen gone.
I will stop. You know well.
Plum blossom, nightingale and the rain of Yamato -- poor, but we enjoy so much. I feel the plum blossom and such kind of flower deeply coming into my mind year by year. Last year I did not feel as I enjoy this year.
I wish to speak to you in the quiet room but I cannot explain well. Bah! English!
Please write to us.
Kenkichi Tomimoto

Handthrown bowl by Bernard Leach

Extracted from Bernard Leach, A Potter's Book, 1940.
Here, Leach reproduces a letter from a potter friend with whom he had worked for many years in Japan in the 1930s. By 'five kilns' Tomimoto is referring to five kiln loads full of pottery. He means to destroy the 50 pots he considers imperfect. In the present day asking 100 yen would mean roughly 770 USD.
Leach's book was for many years a reliable resource for potters and people interested in pottery. Leach wrote that the perfect pot was one which possessed "that right relationship of parts which gives vitality -- life flowing for a few moments perfectly through the hands of the potter."

Monday, 16 June 2014

Writing a Cylinder

Cylinders are to ceramics what the alphabet is to writing, and the first thing all potters have to learn is to throw a cylinder. This sounds much, much easier than it is.
I’ve been at potters’ wheels in various places for years but am still a wobbly, faltering potter wonderstruck if I manage to pull something off. I began at university, in the Round Church at Cambridge. Below the Church, like a secret in the basement, was a little pottery, kiln included, for any student who wanted to come and throw a pot or two. There were no teachers, nobody to tell you a thing. At that time there was no Youtube either, to learn from a vast world of potters out there. You were given a key to enter the ancient grotto -- any time of night or day -- and then, mostly in solitude, you stared at the wheel that was spinning, and tried to figure it out. I have a pot I made then, and wonder how I made it at all.
My first real teacher, Bani de Roy, was a student of the illustrious Shoji Hamada, and she had a studio in Gulmohur Park in Delhi. She was an austere disciplinarian of the old school who believed in practise. And practise, practise, practise. For two months -- or however long it took to get it perfect -- she compelled her students to make nothing but cylinders. You were fired up by visions of gorgeously glazed teapots, bowls and urns; but if she glimpsed you trying out anything but a cylinder, that hot Delhi barsaati turned instantly Arctic.
What is a cylinder, speaking ceramically? It is the most basic shape, a straight-sided tumbler of sorts. Once made, you can billow it out into a bowl or close it up into an urn, or rim it for a lid, go with it wherever your imagination takes you and however far your control of the clay lets you go. 

Attempt at a bud vase; by Anuradha Roy

But first you have to get that cylinder right.
Selsbo Keramik cylinder

A breeze.
You prepared your clay (that’s another story), weighed out balls of 500 grams each and then you sweated blood and tears over the wheel. For days you couldn’t centre the clay. Or you could not pull up the walls. If you did pull the walls up to your disbelieving satisfaction, you managed to warp the rim or poke a finger through it just as the damn thing was getting to a magical 5 inches. Or the walls were of uneven thickness. Or there was an airbubble trapped in the clay that popped out as an angry blister as the walls thinned. Or you made it right but cut it off the wheel badly. Or you had made the base too thin (or too thick). In each case, you had to plop your painstakingly-prepared clay into the slop bucket, and go back to the beginning.
At first if you managed to create an object that looked somewhat like a cylinder, you beamed, looked around for appreciation. Bani-di (that is what we called her) frowned and thought about it, then said: Throw it away and start again. She was about seventy then, white-hair in a small bun, tall and already creaky, with spectacles that the light bounced off. If it involved work, she smiled very little in the first few months and when she did, you went home walking on air. 

After telling you to throw whatever it was away, she went back to reading her newspaper, or to the giant pot she was throwing effortlessly on another wheel even as you slumped and listened to the sound of your heart shattering.
And this of course, is why making pots and writing books feel so much alike. You throw it away and start again. And again.

Colonel Rajvijay Rai of the Kumaon Regiment, whom I met in Ranikhet because of my books, emails:
Your article, 'Writing a Cylinder', rekindled memories of my childhood. My brother and I, after school, would walk home through a settlement of potters and I would often watch with amazement the deftness with which the artisans would craft one earthen cup after another out of a seemingly unending loam of clay. The clay itself was sourced from a riverbed, or a pond, and was carted long distances in an improvised wheel barrow. What struck me then about this craft was the relative silence in which the potters worked. Rarely would one find a potter chatting with someone or a radio blaring nearby while he was on the wheel.
Now for some trivia gleaned from my rural upbringing. The potters belong to a caste called Konhaar and are distinct from the Kanhaar (the palanquin bearers). Both of these are supposedly lower castes but are not treated as untouchables. In fact, the Kanhaars along with the Nau or barber, play an important part in the so called upper caste marriages and funerals. The Konhaars would also be employed in laying the tiled roofs of rural houses. 
Nizamabad, a small township about 30 km from my hometown Azamgarh, is known for 'black' pottery. The trick, I am told, lies in mixing goat dung with the clay and baking the pieces in a covered clay oven which lends a glossy black sheen.
The pottery is thereafter finished with hand etched designs which are filled with a powder mixed with mercury. Please see the attached photo to get an idea of what I have described."

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Mauritius Diary

Photograph by Anuradha Roy

Is This Us?
A bus with ‘La Perle de la Savanne’ painted down its back and sides trundles down the road and we crawl in its wake. Behind us, many others as patient. There’s no honking nor any attempts to overtake the bus. This wouldn’t be so mystifying if about 63 per cent of the population in Mauritius were not Indian-origin. Where’s their Indianness gone? Why isn’t anyone shooting jets of scarlet spittle or peeing into roadside walls? I travel across the island, see no garbage heaps. And oh—nobody’s groping women. I feel safe enough to take taxis alone across the country, safe enough to sail to another island on a motorboat where the only other passengers are the Creole boatman and his buddy. Jade, celadon, sapphire and turquoise melt and mingle in the sea under a sky as blue as a kingfisher’s wing. We make our crossing. The water’s clear enough to see fish flitting past corals. No hint of floating rubbish.

No Sweet Deal
Indian-origin people in Mauritius are descended from indentured lab­ourers who migrated there after the abolition of slavery in 1835. Indentured labour was less savage than slavery. The migrants were not coerced or kidnapped, they chose to come. And although conditions were harsh and they often lost contact with relatives, they weren’t imprisoned or denied their traditions. By the 1920s, about five lakh people from India had settled in Mauritius. Today, highways cut through sugarcane fields tranquil in silvery arcs from sprinklers. But take a look at any forest land and you realise what torment it was to hack fields out of that impregnable tropical jungle.

A Tale of Courage
As I was about to leave, Alain Gordon-Gentil, writer and cultural councillor, gifted me a DVD of his film about Indian indentured labourers. Many descendants long to return to their roots: “Setting foot on the land of one’s ancestors is an intensely emotional experience.” Goorooduth Chuttoo, who farms seven acres of land, describes how he visited his ancestral Bihar village some years ago, only to find starving relatives living in poverty. Their mud huts were like relics from the nineteenth-century labour camps in Mauritius. Only then did he appreciate his luck: “If my family hadn’t come to Mauritius, perhaps I would have been a rickshawpuller in India.” The celebrated Mauritian writer Nathacha Appanah, whose first novel is about the journey of indentured labourers, says, “I never felt it was a sad story...(I thought of) their courage—having the courage to cross the black water, take the boat.”

Bollywood Travels
Indians were not the only migrants to Mauritius in the 19th century, people came from Madagascar, Mozambique, China and elsewhere. It is fascinating to see how fluently they switch languages here, from French to Creole to English, even Hindi. In my taxi, a lugubrious voice announces local deaths and funeral details; when I beg for something more cheerful, the channel changes to dhak-dhak music from Bollywood. Newspapers report the doings of Kareena and Deepika, banners proclaim a pious Sivaratri, and there are Hindu temples everywhere. As Nathacha drives me around the countryside, we pass a building with a simple wooden cross outside. The thatched roof has to be replaced often, she says, because cyclones blow it away. Under the roof is a peaceful little church that smells of hay. Outside, below an almond tree, is installed a colourful statue of Madonna and Child. From the church onward to Le Morne, a forbidding cliff sheltering caves and overhangs where runaway slaves used to hide. On February 1, 1835, a police party searched out the slaves in hiding to tell them they were finally free. Thinking this a ruse, the terrified slaves jumped to their death from the cliff.
Photograph by Anuradha Roy

While It Lasts
The land sweeps far into the distance, ringed by spiky volcanic hills, uninterr­upted by buildings. The sky looks bigger, the moon hangs low among a billion stars, double its normal size. All of this might change. Infotech tower blocks are coming up: the government wants Mauritius to turn into Singapore, someone says. The South Africans are building luxury villas and clubs for their exclusive use. Locals complain their beaches are overrun, their best produce exported. At the prime minister’s house, angst doesn’t int­rude. The evening is cool, someone’s strumming jazz, fretworked balustrades separate the verandah from a banyan-treed garden. A dreadlocked art­ist from Reunion shows me a diary filled with drawings. A French writer looks over our shoulders. The literary festival I’m here for is at the Swami Vivekananda Centre and Nehru Hospital is nearby. Dinner could be dholl puri or octopus curry, then tartes tatin, vanilla tea. Perhaps some Phoenix beer too.

A paradox...
My five-star hotel is hospitable to strays. I’m feeding the visiting cat when a hedgehog muscles in. Cat retreats without a fight.

Originally published in Outlook

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