Tuesday, 17 March 2015

When Pirates Become Saviours

The most surreal aspect of these last few days has been watching prominent, liberal and highly regarded feminists on the same side as right-wing politicians burning effigies of the BBC as they demanded a ban on a film they had not even seen. There were widespread and passionate protests against a ban, including in Parliament, but the documentary, about an Indian problem on which every Indian has a view, has now been aired everywhere except in India.
Naturally, it went viral in seconds. I had friends posting links, and thousands watched or downloaded swiftly so that they could see it before the State blocked it off the internet. Watching it through, the first feeling was of vindication simply in the act of watching, the sense that the thousands of people in India, outraged by attempts to control them, had personally thwarted State censorship.
It is a harrowing, deeply disturbing film that you need a strong stomach to watch. The image that emerges through the long interviews with the victim's grieving, bereft parents is of an ordinary, happy family destroyed beyond recovery by the savagery of what was done to their daughter. The raped woman's tutor, an articulate young man who tells us about her aspirations and dreams and the determined way in which she set about achieving them, is the absolute opposite of the stereotypical Indian male. The film also records the wife of one of the accused men in her village in Bihar, and the mother of two others, all leading lives of extreme deprivation. Apart from the jailed man and his lawyers, it has interviews with feminists, judges, policemen.
We are used to governments banning films and books and artists in India. The NDTV channel's black lines through sections of Shobhaa De's article were an eerie reminder of censorship during the Indira Gandhi Emergency years (1975-1977). But to see enlightened feminists demanding a ban on a film makes all of us writing and publishing in India wonder if surviving just got a little harder. For writers, publishers and artists it was difficult enough knowing how easily their work could be banned by the State, or bullied into extinction by fundamentalist groups. And now we have to deal with sections of the liberal intelligentsia turning fundamentalist as well.
Some of these feminists - an isolated minority now that people have seen the film - argued that the film is a patronizing, simplistic, white-Western attempt to condemn a country wholesale; that it does not address 'structural problems' (the Left's term for inequality and poverty); that it profiles all poor Indian men as potential rapists. All these are criticisms, and a sign of democratic health is the fact that these criticisms can be heard. It is doubly ironic then that these same activists support xenophobic State censorship against a film for which apparently every legal permission was granted before it was made. They sidetrack us away from the fundamental issue: why not let us decide what to watch? Why prevent us from forming our own opinions? Should Kipling, Naipaul, and Rushdie be banned because they often say things that many Indians dislike?
When I began writing my third novel, I did not know that one of its central concerns would turn out to be systemic violence against women in India. What I had in my book in one of its very early drafts was a girl on a beach who was an incidental character. In that draft, she stood by a stall selling shell necklaces and I could see her only from the back. Characters in fiction do not always arrive by design and deliberation. The writer is as much a stranger to them at first as the reader, and the process of writing is one of coming closer and closer to the characters, of unpeeling them layer by layer until you know them - and even then, not completely. As I tried to follow the girl's story, to work out what brought her to that particular beach on that day, it emerged that she was a young woman with a traumatic and violent past. Whatever I had to read and research to get her character and life clearer in my head made me feel physically sick or tearful at times, to the point that I was not able to write. I don't know why I reacted to my own narrative in this visceral and crippling way. It was not efficient. The book took me forever to finish.
At the final stage I began to worry about its reception. Not only the critical response to a novel, as every novelist worries about, but whether someone would find things in it to object to. Does it show India as a more generally dangerous place for women than it is? Does it end up showing the West as a refuge and thereby 'pander to the first world'? Will every character or incident be generalized into a type? And these questions in my head which will transmute into criticisms in other heads: are these now reason enough for someone wanting my book banned?
My publisher had the manuscript read by a lawyer and said I had no reason to worry. But in this new context -where women I usually agree with and admire support banning a film for reasons that mostly appear to originate in differences of opinion - I feel less certain. This is suddenly a country in which the joke this week no longer seems a joke: "It's Thursday and only five things have been banned so far." Films. Books. TV shows. The head of the censor board even wants the word 'Bombay' to be banned because it is the West's version of Mumbai.
I remember when Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned. I lived in Calcutta then and vendors would sidle up and offer pirated copies on the sly alongside cheap lipsticks and fly swats. In the same way today, viral downloads of Leslee Udwin's film have defeated the structures of the State as well as the demands of misguided feminists. As a writer and publisher, net pirates depriving me of royalties and sales ought to be my natural enemy. Ironically, I live in a country where I am forced to see them as everyone's best friend.

(Published in The Telegraph, 9 March 2015. Read it here online) 
An article by Kavita Krishnan, laying out the point of view supporting postponement or alternations is here, in the Daily O.

Monday, 20 October 2014


You get the feeling from Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, that while the rest of Japan was waiting with champagne on ice for his Nobel, he took a more sardonic view of the circus. "What a strange world we live in,” says a character in the book. “Some people plug away at building railroad stations, while others make tons of money cooking up sophisticated-sounding words.”
A recurrent opposition is set up in the book between those who live by making things and those who live by words or ideas. The word tsukuru, the narrative explains at some length, can mean to “create”, but Tsukuru Tazaki is named after its more basic meaning,  to “make or build”. Following the conventional world view, Tsukuru thinks that as a mere builder of railway stations, he is much less interesting than two of his childhood friends who deal in words: one has become a car salesman, stereotypically an occupation defined by smooth talking. Another runs a corporate training company called Beyond that brainwashes middle management employees into following orders. A third is a pianist and the fourth, Kuro, is a potter who makes exquisite though flawed cups and bowls: “It doesn’t bring in much money, but I’m really happy that other people need what I create”; Tsukuru understands this, since “I make things myself”.  Just as Kuro etches her name on the undersides of her pottery, Tsukuru writes his into the wet concrete of the stations he builds. They feel the deep sense of kinship that anyone who makes things with their hands will recognise.
There isn’t necessarily an opposition of course: there have always been potters, sculptors,  and carpenters who write, and writers who construct bridges or make planes. The author-note in The Small Wild Goose Pagoda describes Allan Sealy as an apprentice to a bricklayer and the book contains detailed passages on building gates and walls. Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter. Murakami, in a recent interview to the Guardian, describes writing itself as manual work: “I guess I am just engineering something. I like to write. I like to choose the right word. I like to write the right sentence. It’s like gardening or something. You put the seed into the soil at the right time and in the right place.”
In August this year, literally by accident, I discovered precisely how manual writing is. My dog was being attacked by a bigger dog and as I tried to drag my charge to safety I toppled, fell on hard concrete, then noticed that everyone around me was staring at my right arm. An hour later, I was on an orthopaedic’s table cradling my deformed elbow. The doctor diverted me with small talk as he tried to set the dislocated joint in place. “What do you do?” he murmured, yanking my dangling forearm. “A potter,” I screamed, almost throwing up with the pain. “I’m a potter.” “Oh, I see, an artist,” he said pulling savagely. I think I passed out at that point and they transferred me to the surgery.
At that crucial moment, when my work flashed before me as one’s life is said to before death, why had I claimed I was a potter? The fiery pain was my moment of truth: suddenly I realised I regarded writing, which is my bread and butter, as a kind of sleight of hand. Writing? All my friends write. Anyone can write. You can do it with half a brain and one arm. But making pots out of clay -- things that other people need -- few can do that and those few are fully-armed.  It was my instinct to stick to the pottery story because then, you see, the doctor would truly appreciate that my arms were vital in a way they weren’t for accountants or writers. I am no ceramic artist, my clunky pieces are cherished by kind-hearted family and friends alone. Yet if I never wrote a book again I knew I would make pots; if I never made a pot again I had no idea what I would do.
Two days after the surgery, I found myself landed with a writing deadline. It would be difficult typing one-handed, but still, one hand meant five fingers, and the writing would distract me from the pain. I would manage. I opened the book into which I usually scribble notes or sometimes a draft before I start typing into my laptop. I picked up a pen.
Perhaps a thought entered my mind, perhaps it didn’t. At any rate, by the time I got to pinning the thought to paper with my left hand, it had flown off, an unvanquished butterfly. After struggling to write left-handed for many frustrated minutes, I gave up and turned to the computer. I would just type the article straight in. I tapped one word, then another. Attempted a third. But by this time, my mind had swerved off the road, disgusted with the pace. Use a voice recorder, helpful friends suggested, but I could no more think aloud than write one-handed. When I complained in despair to my barber who was chopping away my hair because one hand isn’t enough to tie a ponytail, she whipped out her mobile and said, “Let me show you a video, this man has no arms, no legs, and he manages everything so well!” A close friend was worse: “Wittgenstein’s nephew played Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand after his right arm was amputated.” Luckily I’m not musical, I said, aiming a punch with my left fist.
I could manage quite a lot one-handed -- but not everything, and writing one-handed was one of those things.
“When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down,” says Ferris Jabr in a recent New Yorker essay on “Why Walking Helps Us Think”. This connection between mind and body is felt keenly by even beginner potters who moan that “on some days, nothing works.” It is only over weeks of work at the wheel that you realise those are the days when for some reason the switch that connects your brain with your fingers has short-circuited and you don’t have the power to repair it. Try too hard and you sweat for nothing. Try too little and you get nowhere. Every potter waits for those days when there is a seamless, inexplicable flow of energy uniting body, mind, clay and wheel that results in pots Bernard Leach described as “life flowing for a few moments perfectly through the hands of the potter." This is the “life” that either flows or doesn’t through pieces of writing as well. I was finding out writing was manual work after all: it’s hard enough making words come alive when you are functioning normally, it was impossible one-handed.
Ultimately I did manage to meet my deadline, typing two-handed, clumsily using the flats of the fingernails of my immobilised hand. Once I figured that technique out, it was business as usual: the brain had needed only to be tricked into believing both hands were at work. But a spinning ball of clay on a wheel isn’t fooled by mind games. Two months later, I still haven’t been able to make a pot.
“Talent only functions when it is supported by a tough, unyielding physical and mental focus. All it takes is one screw in your brain to come loose and fall off or some connection in your body to break down, and your concentration vanishes, like dew at dawn,” says a pianist who flits through Colourless Tsukuru.  In the book’s brilliant finale, Tsukuru sits alone at Tokyo station during rush hour, still and meditative, the distillation of solitude in “an overwhelming crush of humanity”.  In Murakami’s world, the unassuming maker of things understands much that others don’t.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Cook’s Story

‘It was noted with envy and admiration that the breakfast in these households consisted of eggs, toast and jam instead of vegetable bhujia with paratha, and that even the women had begun to use spoons, though only little ones, to eat. Guests to tea were served cake and sandwiches instead of samosas and barfi. In the evening there was Scotch whisky and soda….instead of keora sharbat’—Sheila Dhar of her family’s move from Old Delhi to Civil Lines

My name is Manju Arya. I think I am 64 years old. My mother died when I was one and then my father married again and went away. My grandmother, my father’s aunt, brought me up in her house in a village near Kathmandu. She was not rich but she gave me laad-pyaar (affection), and did not make me go to school because I didn’t want to go, and by the time I was older I was too shy to go. I played in the rice fields near the house all day and when the dhaan (paddy) came from the fields I took it to the chakki (flour mill) to get it threshed. That was my work. The rice was enough for us for the year. We ate rice for all our meals. When my grandmother died, those days ended and I had to live with my father and his second wife.

Manju Arya (photograph by Anuradha Roy)
I eloped at sixteen. My husband was the valet to the Ambassador of India in Nepal. He travelled all over the world for his work, to Belgium, to America, to other places, and he says he loves Belgium most and after that, Ranikhet. My husband is from Garhwal and the marriage was frowned upon by my father and stepmother. They didn’t speak to me again for many years. At first when I came here  to Ranikhet with my husband—I think it was early in the ’60s—I was quite scared of the jungles around this house and the people whose servant he was. But one day I was doing something and I heard Memsahib shout for me loudly. From the garden of the main house, she was waving towards me with hands glued up with wet flour. I ran up to help her. She had been trying to show the khansama (cook) how to make something out of a book and because he was slow, she got impatient and put her hands into the dough but it was so sticky she couldn’t clean herself. Memsahib could get very agitated very quickly. I cleaned her hands and then kneaded the dough.

No, of course Memsahib didn’t know how to cook and she never cooked. But she had a cookbook in a foreign language and after that day she called me more and more. She would sit on a stool and read from the cookbook to herself and then tell me in Hindi what it meant, what the processes were. In this way I learnt to make tarts, cutluss (cutlets), chicken rosht (roast) and puteen (pudding). Some things I learnt I didn’t like to do: for example putting sharaab (alcohol) into puteen. I can make thin pancakes and also bread. I make soups out of khatta ghaas (wild sorrel) that grows all over the hills and in the monsoon I hunt for junglee tulsi (wild oregano) to put into food. Chicken I cook with rosemary—rosemary bushes work as short hedges around our house. In her salad sometimes I added the leaves of nasturtium, the orange climber-and-creeper which flowers even through cold December. We had no oven and no special pans so I made the tarts on a dekchi (cooking pan) lid and baked them on a chulha (wood stove). For breakfast, when it was in season, I would give Memsahib strawberry—there  was a small patch in the flowerbeds in those days—and malai (cream) from the milk. Sometimes we bought cream from the Military Dairy. There were always more strawberries than she could eat, so we also tasted them. Now the patch is dead.

In our own home we eat daal bhaat (dal-rice) in the morning every day. Memsahib, all her life, gave us two kilos of chana daal to cook every month. In those days it was the cheapest daal. In winter we might have rotis made of madua (millet) which is very warming and bhatt ki daal (black soya broth), which is also warming. When it’s cold, the children pluck big lemons from the tree and get maltas (oranges) from the market and then make the pulp into chutney with dahi and chilli and then they eat it all in the sun. It’s too sour for me these days. When it snows my grandchildren run about playing in the cold and pick up lumps of clean snow to mix with gur and eat as ice cream.

If I ever brought leftovers home from Memsahib, nobody would eat them but my husband and me. My children think all that English food is tasteless. They don’t like anything that is not chatpata (tangy). I’ve slowly started to like soups. I also like tuna, and omelettes with cheese, and coffee. My children don’t like any of these things. My youngest grandchild begs his mother each time she goes to the market to get her just one aloo tikki (potato cutlet), on the sly. But her mother says she can’t do that. There are too many children in the house and we can’t afford aloo tikkis for all of them, except occasionally. I tell them I’ll make you tikki at home, but they say it’s not the same thing.

We’ve never eaten out in a restaurant to fill our stomachs—but if we are stuck in the bazaar long past mealtime then we might eat a samosa or a tikki. One day my granddaughter, who has a new job, took me to eat at Rajdeep Hotel in the bazaar. We shared a plate of chowmein. It was expensive, twelve rupees for that plate. But youngsters want these things, like noodles. They always want Maggi noodles in their tiffin. Look at the tea shops in Ranikhet now: they all cook Maggi noodles and sell it as a snack! The children want ice cream, they want cakes with cream. All these things are too expensive for us. But for their birthdays we buy a small cake and I make chhole (chick peas). For some special days we cook mutton or chicken curry. Earlier when we bought mutton the butcher would know from the small amount that it was for our own use and would always give us pieces of scrap and gristle although we were paying the full price. If we bought bread we would always find we had been given a stale loaf, sometimes with fungus. My daughters, who are very smart, began to tell the shopkeepers they were buying for Memsahib and then they got better quality. My daughters will never be servants like I have been all my life. They are all BA pass, they have different ideas.

I have lived in Bombay with Memsahib also. All along the wall in front of our house there were a line of stalls selling dosa and paav bhaji (bread and vegetables). Early each morning the stall owners would start chopping kilos of onions and coriander and peeling potatoes and then cooking. Then, at lunchtime all the office-goers would crowd the stalls. I had never eaten a dosa before. They had great big tavas (griddles) on which they would spread the batter really fast and bake them golden and crisp. I could smell their sambar (spicy lentil curry) from the balcony: it used to make my mouth water then and even now, I love eating sambar. My middle daughter has learned to make it. We pluck curry patta (leaf) that grow wild near Ranibagh, on the way up from Kathgodam, and dry it and store it. We can now buy sambar powder in the market if we want to. I always say, if you have money, you can buy anything in Ranikhet these days!

In those days, in Bombay, I would stand at the balcony and watch them stirring the sambar and turning out heaps of white idlis. Then after the lunch-time rush was over the vendors would clean up, and in late afternoon, go nearby to buy a piece of fish each for themselves. They’d cook it with a lot of masala and in the evening they would have their one meal of the day with great relish--fish curry and rice. The owners of the bungalows near these vendors would be very annoyed by the crowds and cooking smells, and would try to chase them away, but I could not stop watching them from the upstairs balcony everyday.

I have never returned to Nepal. I was not welcome in my father’s house. I don’t even know what happened to my stepmother, but I know my father is dead. One day a Memsahib from Nepal brought bhogta (grapefruit). I had never seen it since I left the country. When I cut it and saw the pink flesh inside and smelled it, my home came back to me--the fields in the village near Kathmandu. I have kept the seeds and planted some of them. They’ll fruit one day.


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.