(The January 2013 issue of India Today Travel Plus is a special one, with contributions from many writers on most of India's states. My bit, on Uttarakhand, travels the valley of the dog...)
Photograph by Anuradha Roy
Our dog’s ears are oddly shaped. They resemble enormous
lily petals, or bat wings. The world, viewed through the valley that those bat
ears forms, looks different. Kumaon’s hills, where we travel and live, aren’t
invitations to energetic climbs, for example. Instead they call for detailed olfactory
explorations followed by wide-ranging squirts of pee. By dusk our legs are
aching to walk — but we can’t be out much longer with BatEars as company since
dusk is when our resident leopards step out for dinner. Their favourite food is
Before BatEars entered our lives we regarded most
wildlife differently, perhaps indifferently. I never used to hear far-off foxes.
Now, if there is the faintest call of a fox, BatEars, in a primal throwback to
her wolfish genes, flings her head back and yodels. The foxes recognize a
fellow creature and yodel back. The singing continues across forest and valley
until the singers tire.
Travelling in a car with BatEars means going slow because
she has monkeys to scold and passing dogs to talk to. She insists on frequent
breaks — taking seriously the old cliché that it’s the journey and not the
destination that matters. Pausing to find places where paths meander off
highways is a priority because BatEars says she must be let off her leash for a
run. Secluded mango orchards, streams, banks of wild kari patta — we find them because of her. We stop at a particular plant
nursery at Kainchi for its slopes filled with the pee-mail that BatEars needs
to check. On hot days the nursery’s gardener offers her water and asks her how
she is that morning. This means our car suddenly blossoms, becoming a moving
garden bursting with bilious magenta petunias that we never wanted.
BatEars is particular about hotels. She has no patience
with towering glass cubes, preferring places close to earth. Her hotel room
must have grass nearby, and not so tended that it’s too short to nibble. It
must have patches of sweet-smelling earth to dig up and roll about in. A
hosepipe at hand to wash off the mud afterwards — perhaps? A hotel bed soft
enough to stomp down and hollow, then sink into with a sigh. These comfy,
tolerant hotels almost only occur, like the Himalayan magpie, in the Himalayan
Philosophical conversations elevate the road because
of BatEars. On blazing summer days, when we pause on the highway, people look
in at the brown mongrel pasted against the AC vent in the front seat and exclaim
“Yehi hai karma! We’re burning up while that dog’s sitting in an air-conditioned
car.” In the hills of Kumaon, the men struck by such sudden images of destiny are
delighted they can tell the neighbours what they just saw. In the scorched badlands
of mofussil Uttar Pradesh the expressions of these men, reminded of Fate, turn bitter
on. BatEars stares neutrally ahead, a weathered traveller who has clocked
thousands of miles over her eleven years.
Ravi Das Camp is about seven miles
from the president’s palace in New Delhi. En route are the mansions
where members of parliament live, guarded by armed soldiers in bunkers.
The men who in December allegedly raped a young paramedic
brutally enough to kill her lived in Ravi Das Camp, a slum reported to
be as fetid and dehumanizing as the many others close to the homes and
offices of Delhi’s political elite.
a sense it is fitting that the alleged rapists and murderers lived
within touching distance of our politicians. In the 2009 parliamentary
elections, India’s political parties fielded 6 candidates charged with
rape while 34 candidates were awaiting trial for crimes against women.
In the state assemblies, 42 members had rape or associated charges
against them at the time of their election. In all, according to a recent report published by the Association for Democratic Reforms, India has over 300 such politicians in power.
I came back to Delhi from travels elsewhere on Christmas eve. The roads
were windswept and foggy and, unusually for any Indian city, almost
deserted. Through a drive of about 20 kilometres, there was not a single
pedestrian for long stretches. There were fewer than usual cars, hardly
any auto rickshaws. Enormous state transport buses sailed past with no
occupants other than the driver and conductor.
In response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi on 16th December of a young
student, the state had taken several steps, the results of which I was
witnessing from the window of my taxi from the airport: the Delhi metro,
by which an average of about 1.8 million people travel every day, had
been shut down; the state had cordoned off the entire central vista of
Delhi where the protesters had been attacked the day before by the
police, with water cannon (in freezing December weather), tear gas and
batons. It had also set in force something called Section 144, which
makes it punishable for more than five people to gather anywhere.
Gandhi described British colonial rule over India as ‘satanic’. It is
hard to find any other word to describe the way India is ruled now.
The daily violence against women in India is nauseating enough but
people are yet more livid because of the state’s routine indifference to
it. The Home Minister has said that if he went to meet the protesters
at India Gate today, as was being demanded, he might some day be asked
to meet ‘Maoists.' Both he and the police commissioner justified the
violent action against the thousands of students agitating for justice,
claiming that the protest had been taken over by hooligans.
The prime minister made a brief statement *eight days* after the rape.
It was delivered in his usual robotic manner, successfully dispelling
the notion that he had any capacity for human anguish. The PM is not
given to making speeches, he is said to be a reserved economist. Not
many days before, he had addressed industrialists – for about twenty
minutes. It appears pretty clear what he feels passionate about, if
Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling
party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have
been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did
not mean she should have been out at midnight. (Factually too, this was
wrong. She and her friend had got on the bus at 9.15 pm, after waiting
an hour for other public transport.) This is not unusual. After almost
every rape that makes it to the headlines, someone in power usually
chastises the victim for going out/ dressing too provocatively/ staying
out too late. A survey in June 2011 named India (alongside Pakistan,
Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo) as one of most dangerous places in
the world to be a woman. As a woman you know the truth of this every day
on the streets of Indian cities, particularly Delhi.
I came to Delhi at 26 for a job, a migrant, just as this young woman is.
My housemate, also a migrant, a student from the north-east of India,
would tell me she was molested almost each time she stepped out in
public transport and was often flashed. We’re used to being groped in
buses, leered at on the streets. It’s normal for cars to slow down and
for sleazy men to roll down windows and invite us in when we’re waiting
for public transport. We are used to walking with our arms close to our
bodies, making no eye contact with men. We don’t stroll, we walk
quickly to our destinations. If it’s after dark we try and have someone
we know accompany us home. Even so, when we get home safe we count
ourselves lucky. Of course many girls and women aren’t safe in their
It’s impossible to feel remotely celebratory on Christmas day knowing
that a young woman who came to Delhi merely to train as a
physiotherapist is now on a ventilator in a hospital not far from my
house. Most of her intestines have been removed because six men, not
content with shoving their penises into her, used an iron rod. They
carried on torturing her with the rod even after she fell unconscious
from the agony. Then they threw her and her friend, whom they had also
beaten unconscious, out of the road and drove away. The woman and her
friend were naked and bleeding. That was how they remained at that
roadside for the next hour until the police reached and covered them
with bed sheets borrowed from a hotel nearby.
Transport restrictions make it hard to reach central Delhi where the
main protests are. But in my neighbourhood today, there was a procession
of men and women. Not a big one that would stop the traffic, just about
thirty or so people holding lit candles and placards, shouting slogans
seeking justice. If there is no metro and the roads are blocked by riot
police there is no choice but to decentralize the protests. The tragedy
is that the Indian state has perfected a system of delaying justice so
infinitely that while most of the world thinks of India as the world’s
largest democracy, it is actually among the world’s largest and most
One of my secret pleasures about Partial Recall is that I actually drew its cover.
My second secret pleasure is that I managed to insert my dog, Biscoot, into the picture. She's sleeping on that cushion at the reader's feet.
Then I felt really enthusiastic and drew endpapers for it as well. It shows the little owl that is also on the spine of the book -- you can see it in the picture below.
And now I think it's the most beautiful book we've ever made at Permanent Black....
I design all of the covers for our books but it's not often that I get to draw one, either because that wouldn't be appropriate for the book or because authors would not put up with my artistic efforts. Arvind, the author of Partial Recall, was clear in his head about the kind of look he wanted for the cover (old-fashioned, evoking old literary worlds) and yet he was absolutely happy to let me have the freedom to figure it out for myself. That's the combination every cover designer longs for.
There was an interesting email recently, on The Folded Earth, from a reader who introduced himself as Ashirbad Raha. He included a poem he had written, in Hindi, which picks up themes and threads from the novel. Inter-language intertextuality!
"...I penned this small piece of poetry (below) this morning
dreaming of where Maya lives and with a dream that some day
I too would go back to my parents, hills and my small town and
write a book... This small poem is dedicated to your writing in The Folded Earth."
[THE HINDI ORIGINAL FOLLOWS. A ROUGH ENGLISH TRANSLATION IS FURTHER DOWN.]
पडोसी के बरामदे में वो पीली बल्ब.. शाम को पहाड़ी हवा में ऐसे झूमती है.. जैसे, मानो मदहोश हो शाम के इश्क में...
ठीक जब सुबह के 6 बजते हैं तो आकाशवाणी की आवाज़ खिड़की से झांकती है.... हल वाले पूरण चाचा भी खेत जाते है उस वक़्त...
अंग्रेजो के ज़माने का होगा वो गेस्ट हाउस... फर्श की दरारों में अपनी उम्र छुपाये... दीवारों पे सीलन सजाये....
कमरे के कोने में मकड़ों का एक शहर है.. बाहर नर्म घास पे एक गिलहरी आती है हर दोपहर.. एक मोर की टोली भी अक्सर गुजरती है....
दो महीने के लिए आया हूँ यहाँ.. रेशमी सुकून में खोने....
शायद एक किताब भी लिखूं....
That yellow bulb in the neighbour's verandah
Dances every evening in the mountain breeze
As if drunk with love for the evening.
At exactly six every morning
The sound of a radio through the window And Puran Chacha leaves for the fields with his plough.
This guest house must be from British times
Its age hidden in the cracks in its floor Its decoration the damp on its walls There is a city of spiders in the corner of the room
A squirrel appears every afternoon on the soft grass
A colony of peacocks walks past.
I am here for two months
Lost in the silken threads of dreaming.
"How does a writer compete against the media's
invasion of public discourse in all its chattering, hectoring, commercially packaged
This is a challenging,
but by the same token, very exciting time for the Indian novelist – certainly the Indian novelist who writes in
English. In an obvious and easily accessible sense, this has to do with the
opening up of the global market. However, there are certain other aspects of
this development that have a more direct bearing on the creative situation.
The problems of belonging
and identity that played such a preponderant role in the first decades – the terrain that was memorably identified by Meenakshi
Mukherjee as “the anxiety of Indianness” - seem to have lost some of their fascination.
It is remarkable, therefore, that two (and arguably, three) of the five novels
on our shortlist are set outside India, set as far afield as Guyana and Morocco.
This is, unquestionably, a welcome development – Indianness is no longer a yoke that the Indian writer is forced
to wear. However, this raises the matter of the complex relationship between
locality and globality or universality in a very interesting way. Thus, we
would argue, the global defines the horizon of aspiration, but the path to that
horizon lies, and must lie, through some intimately experienced locality, some
Then again, and for
immediately identifiable reasons, the first generation of writers felt
compelled, in some sense, to imitate Stephen Dedalus's famous move, at the end
of Portrait: “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race.” Hence the urge, both declared and attributed, to write “the great Indian novel”. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is, of course,a crucial landmark in this cultural trajectory. But it is
also evident, now, that for a new generation of Indian novelists, Rushdie has
already become a forebear, a respected ancestor. Thus, we have novels that seek
to tell small lives, to explore the shifting identities that texture ordinary
Finally, we cannot help
but remark the fact that two of the five novels on our shortlist are concerned
with opium, albeit at opposite ends of a deeply significant historical arc.
Being a judge for
contemporary Indian fiction is like being a prospector for gold. Or for those
who have read Rahul Bhattacharya's splendid book set in Guyana, like a
prospector panning the river for diamonds. That is to say it is both an arduous
and an exhilarating task.
You sift through many
layers looking for nuggets or shards of diamonds. As Rahul will tell you, when
you first see a rough diamond, it looks quite ordinary.
For some, the thrill is
in the seeking. For others, it is being able to possess that shining nugget.
For a judge, it is being able to pick up and display this tiny fragment of
In our case, we found
many shining nuggets and by a process of elimination, discovered five such
pieces. Each one was cut and polished in a different manner.
The final choice was a
difficult one. Amongst the issues we discussed were those touched upon by Alok
Rai – thus, the hunt for the
great Indian novel, the burden of the past – colonial, feudal, or the affiliations of religion, caste and
class, and the tensions these can create for the writer.
There is also the
challenge of the present. How does a writer compete against the media's
invasion of public discourse in all its chattering, hectoring, commercially packaged
One way could be by
creating a small, inviolable space in which to observe and record all the
subterranean upheavals to create those moments of clarity that we value as
The small diamond that
we have unearthed and enjoyed is called The
Folded Earth. All the three of us are happy the Economist Crossword Prize
for Indian Fiction for 2011 goes to Anuradha Roy.
Geeta DoctorAlok RaiFiammetta Rocco
Statement at the Economist Crossword Prize Award for Fiction 2012.
Just back from the Ubud Festival for Readers and Writers (which is a nice way to name a literary festival)-- came back to find that my piece on moments of wonderment that steal upon you at times when travelling is just out in the NatGeo Traveller. There were a few such moments in Bali -- here is the piece.
It was rush hour for bats, burglars, owls and party
animals: about 2 a.m. I was climbing uphill in deep forest, feeling my way over
unfamiliar slopes and rocks. Trees took away most of the sky and from somewhere
in the distance came the roar of rushing water. It was the dead of night, yet
it wasn’t dark. The light was penumbral, as if it was dawn or dusk—for this was
a walk through Norwegian woods in the improbable thing that is a Scandinavian
The rushing sound intensified into a roar. It turned
out to be a fierce little river crashing over rocks and boulders, throwing up
high clouds of spray. A frail, two-foot-wide bridge plunged bravely across the
raging water. Dreamlike, we stepped on the swaying bridge blinking against the
cold, fresh water misting our faces. Below us were boulders and trees frayed by
water. Minutes turned into eternity, with each step land was further away and
our link with life—that narrow hanging bridge—appeared more tenuous. When at
last we returned to firm land on the other side, the Norwegian novelist who had
brought the three of us along for the night-walk passed around a hip flask and a
smoky single malt curled down our throats, sweetly warm and rich.
We walked on. The dusk that was also dawn lightened
further, the woods thinned and opened out onto an empty road that looped over
the shoulder of the hill. The headlights of a waiting car snapped on and it glided
towards us. No forbidden substances had changed hands yet everything was
happening as if in a trance. As the car drove us back towards the tiny mountain
town of Lillehammer, the sun, which had never properly set, shook itself fully
awake again, returning us to real life.
I’m not sure what I had
expected on my first trip to Norway. Certainly I hadn’t planned a walk in night-time
woods, one that would turn into strange magic. In a succinct statement of how
she journeyed through life, the old Queen of Tonga,was categorical: “I Just Bes,” she said. In other words, “Just
chill”—and let interesting things happen. It’s not a bad motto for travel,
life, and much else.
Many years ago, as a
student, I was traveling in Italy and a string of missed trains forced me towards
Assisi. The streets of the little town were hilly and cobbled, every stone felt
storied and beautiful. Since I knew nothing about Assisi except that St.
Francis fed the birds there long years ago, I was astonished to find that its
main basilica was covered in frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue. I had seen the
paintings on grainy postcards at tourist shops elsewhere in Italy, and here
they were in life, massive and unbelievably luminous. I went back to the church
again and again, cancelling other plans to be able to stay on in Assisi.
years on, in 1997, parts of that church came crashing down in an earthquake,
and several of the frescoes were ground to dust. A day or two after the quake,
a committee gathered in the church to assess the damage. Even as they were
examining the building, an aftershock surged through the town. It killed four
of the experts assembled inside the church, and more frescoed walls and domes disintegrated.
What made me miss train
connections and end up in Assisi? It had seemed serendipity then, and after the
earthquake it appeared even more a miracle that I had seen the frescoes when the
church was still intact. In one of his books on steam trains, Bill Aitken is
stranded on a mud flat in a boat, waiting for a bus that refuses to come. “Sitting
on that sandy shore as the twilight deepened, a profound air of beatitude
settled on both mind and body,” he reflects, “…At such moments, you know
exactly what eternity feels like. Had I been in a less contented frame of mind
and cursed the lateness of the connecting bus, the moment would have been
Naturally, such moments,
when infinity appears within reach, don’t time themselves to arrive when you’re
atop Everest or standing before one of the world’s listed wonders, trying to
feel what you’re meant to. More tourists than can be numbered have said of the
Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower that when, at the end of long travels and ticket
queues and crowds, they were finally standing before the legendary building,
all they felt was a stale sense of déjà vu and mild disappointment.
One morning, after weeks of
struggle trying to swim, I realised I was halfway across the waterfor the very first time. I had left off
clutching the walls of the pool. I was no longer inhaling water instead of air.
I could not pin down what was different, but the struggle was over. My arms,
legs, head, lungs were inexplicably doing what they had been supposed to do all
along, in sync. I no longer needed the reassurance of land.
Water was in its own way, a
different planet and it seemed to me that my profound weightless, soundless
ecstasy in moving through a different element altogether had been felt before
only by Neil Armstrong on his first moonwalk. And by about a hundred thousand
other people who, like me, learnt to swim late in life.
To seek out such moments
people dive with sharks, ski across the North Pole, and raft in white rivers. Or
they try to swim. To each of us at these times, extracted from our normal
surroundings and put into one where we have no idea what to expect, it is as if
our minds are being spun around in a kaleidoscope to show us a world entirely
Travellers are often given
the sense that they must consume whatever information, impressions, and
sensations a place affords, click more photographs than can ever be looked at,
make notes, then move on to the next place on the list of things to see.
like inspiration or ideas or love, moments of travel magic, as in my Norwegian
Wood, have a tendency to steal upon you when you expect them least. When you
aren’t trying. That perfection of unhurry cannot be worked towards, it needs
you to let go and, like the old Queen said, just be.
Someone rang up yesterday as I was cooking dinner to tell me that The Folded Earth is on the Crossword shortlist. I've a powerful sense of deja vu because An Atlas of Impossible Longing was on the same shortlist in 2009, and Amitav Ghosh was on that shortlist too (with Sea of Poppies), as he is here. That year he shared the prize with Neel Mukherjee's Past Continuous, but what I remember most about going to Bombay for the award ceremony is the rain that lashed the beaches, the high winds that turned umbrellas inside out, and the crisp fried Bombay Duck at Mahesh Food Home.