Image Courtesy : Wikipedia

What I like about TV and web series is that they come with the luxury of time and space, allowing the arc of the story to develop in enough detail. Events unfold at their own pace, and personalities reveal their inner complexities, measure by interesting measure. That additional time and space also allow the viewer to digest a different idea or perspective before moving on to the next. Happily, modern-day OTT platforms have brought us wealth in viewing from all over the world, but the content serialised on our homegrown TV channels is still frustratingly stagnant and disappointing. 

However, there is one series that I watch faithfully, Aai Kuthe Kay Karte, in Marathi (based on a Bangla series). The name roughly translates to: What Does Mother Do, Anyway? The story of a powerless stay-at-home mom and of her slow transformation, stepping out of her circumscribed existence to carve a life of her own, for herself, by herself, and on her own terms. I started watching it on a very bored afternoon a couple of years ago, willingly seduced by the promise predictable in the title, that mom would eventually do a whole gobsmacking lot. In the initial stages (that I zipped through in fast-forward), it felt as regressive as all the mother-and-daughter-in-law-syndrome driven content that has ruled Indian television for decades. Arundhati, the middle-class, middle-aged, unglamorous housewife, slaves to the beck and call of her arrogant husband, his parents and her children, gets trampled upon like the proverbial pathetic doormat, has no money, few rights, and no respect at all. But she carries on regardless, convinced that in her quiet uncomplaining service lay the greater good. I cringed in disgust as I watched her societally formatted martyrdom, but stayed patient, waiting for the inevitable flip, curious to see how that would be handled. 

And then it began to redeem itself. Yes, the production values remained awkwardly poor, the direction meandered around the sub-average, the episodes often stretching with stale ploys and juvenile inanities, the plotting more formulaic than inspired, and the scripting regressing off and on into stereotypical ideals about family values and women’s responsibilities. Phew. But somehow over time, it got a hold of itself, and developed something resembling a spine. The writing broached societal and inter-personal issues in their subtler nuances; the dialogues stirred, some dramatic and powerful, some quietly catalysing introspection; and the varied greys in most of the characters became believable and were convincingly portrayed. It all seemed to rise a notch, progressively so, and I felt vindicated as successive episodes worked through incremental changes in Arundhati and her situation. A growing awareness of the gap between her actual and desired status as woman, wife, mother, nurturer, thence a realignment in her attitude to the world and people around her, a gradual shedding of her crippling inhibitions and fears, and a gritty resolve to embrace a life radically different from all she has known hitherto. One of self-reliance, financially, physically, mentally and emotionally. Arundhati has now divorced her cheating husband, has a job and career, rented her own accommodation, and seems reasonably upbeat about her future. It spoke to me so loudly and clearly that it’s now become a compulsive watch. I’m hooked. 

A longish but relevant side note: 

I remember learning about the concept of value added in our national income accounting course in Economics. Specifically, imputing it where it wasn’t reflected in monetary payment. I remember the discussion around the bonded labourer, that human beast of burden beholden to landlords in an exploitative arrangement that typified erstwhile agricultural society, his value added subsumed in the coffers of his masters. And I remember my young mind drawing a parallel with the archetypal housewife and asking, who computes the value added by her? Her toiling through a ceaseless stream of chores, washing, cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing, cooking, serving, caring, counselling, nursing, nurturing, all through the day. And satisfying her lord and master at night, sometimes against her will. All without the prospect of retirement. Does she not add value? Then why isn’t her contribution accounted for separately in our GDP? Our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers and all the women before and after them, working assiduously, shouldering all responsibilities at home, enabling the men in their families to participate in the labour market and be paid. As Arundhati asks, if we have a societally sanctioned/enforced division of labour, why is working at home of any less value than working outside?

The answer, of course, is payment in money. That incontestable measure of value, source of power, yardstick of hierarchical status. Well, if every act that was done by the homemaker were to be monetised, she would have a hefty bank balance against her name too, no? Get real. That doesn’t happen. For her work is supposed to come from love and duty. Which are expected free of charge. Her time and energy and effort are owned by the collective of the family. But the pennies earned by her keeper are toted against his name, handed out as and when, providing for everyone (including her) to be fed, clothed and sheltered under his roof. Not that the keeper is necessarily cruel or callous, that may not be in his nature. But it is in the nature of the system that empowers him and not the euphemism of his better half. 

Well, women have travelled a long way since this archaic division of labour and many of them are now doing it all. Giving love, doing duty, earning money. And demanding love and duty from those they are with, though not always getting as much, for the men have been slow to adjust. Arundhati is but a late entry to this fluidly dynamic mix, but she will soon realise that one aspiration she aims for, that has hitherto eluded her: Respect, as an equal.

And yet there are millions and millions of Arundhatis all over the word who are still doomed to live their lives in the shadows of their patriarchs, still toiling without relief, often slave to that burgeoning and exacting master, the sacrosanct joint family. Denied that passport to freedom, a means to earn money, their own livelihood. And conversely and perversely, there are many, many women who own that passport, but are afraid to use it. Trapped by their conditioning, swallowing the narrative of the woman’s inescapable responsibility in home and hearth, teetering through that precarious balancing act between office and home, pressured, pressured, pressured, managing it all but still deferring to the male in the home as the legitimate voice of authority. The over-worked bread-winning maid getting battered time and again by her abusive indolent husband is just one obvious example. There are many among the upper classes that are similarly victimised by the same mindsets, that also laugh self-deprecatingly at the sexist humour that contemptuously ridicules the female and her feminism. Education is their means to money and money means to power, undoubtedly. But one needs the conviction to use it. Have-wings doesn’t necessarily translate to will-fly. 

Well, I applaud all the Arundhatis everywhere who have suffered, protested, braved a new life, and learned to safeguard their self-respect. All are not as viciously virtuous and irritatingly infallible as the one in the TV series, most are as grey as you and me, and their stories are probably truer and more inspiring than the one televised. But until we discover those, this one will have to do. Though I do wish that the one on TV would fumble a little, be a little selfish, get swayed from the smugly virtuous, be a little less correct. So that those who are in her situation but aren’t Miss Perfects like her could still believe they have a healthy chance to reclaim their lives for themselves. And while I’m wishing, Arundhati, please tighten your leaky water taps. Rather than getting my sympathy, your pathological crying makes me swear with impatience: What the hell did you expect, woman? Steel yourself. And move on.


Returning home has always been an absolute joy for me. Howsoever fascinating and fruitful the sojourn abroad, the promise of retrieving my own customary space to reclaim myself, my own bed to dream in, my own land and sun and soil, happily lures me back every time.

I remember one morning on reaching home from the US, being immediately assailed by the unmistakable aroma of curry leaves sizzling in hot oil. Breakfast in my neighbour’s kitchen, all so comfortably familiar. I stood a moment longer at my door, debating, pohe or upama? And instantly wanting a plateful of both. It isn’t as if these options aren’t available outside India. But it is their alchemy with our own exclusive contexts, the unapologetic glare of the sun shining outside, the heat I typically sense on my skin, the sound of the fan whirring overhead, our voices raised in our speech with our own idiosyncratic intonations and accents, the jabbering of the mynahs and bulbuls in our champa and gulmohar and amaltas trees …. all of that and more that makes it so distinctively and uniquely ours.

On a lighter note, it’s a relief for me to again stash away those bulky jackets, sweaters and scarves, all that swathed my tropical-raised self while braving the bracing chill of the temperate lands I roamed. I remember wearying of the bleary blues and blacks that swamped the sartorial there, my eyes hungering for the unabashed riot of colours we have at home.

Of course, it isn’t just about the trappings, the sights and sounds and senses that I feel myself at home with. It is much much deeper. I am rooted here, completely and thoroughly. That is, I am not merely a sentimental or serendipitously patriotic Indian. Not that I would flaunt my patriotism on my sleeve even though it is the ruling flavour. But yes, I am utterly convinced that this is where I was and am meant to be.  

I remember the time many years ago when I was mulling over some tricky choices. Whatever ambiguity I might have overlooked in other respects, there was one, among a few, that was categorically non-negotiable: I would never live elsewhere. I can be happy in any corner of this country, I averred, not abroad. I belonged here. All my people were here, all my contexts came from here, my music grew here, I was fulfilled here and imagined myself to continue being thus fulfilled in the years to come as well. Then why forsake this for any other?

Or, was I not brave enough, adventurous enough to pack my bags and try to make my life elsewhere? Test new waters, new climes? Was I playing it safe?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I was raised by parents who believed passionately in the concept of India, who themselves were raised in pre-Independence years dreaming of unfurling the tricolour one day. Raised by men and women who fought determinedly to free this land, to nurture and educate its children, to inculcate values of free and rational thought and expression. Growing up I would hear stories of my grandmother being battered in lathi-charges or being locked up in prison and my mother pining away for months on end without her. My other grandmother worked hard to rescue our women from their travails, to empower them, as also to help found a school for children. I heard about my grandfathers who supported their wives’ dreams with a dedication that did them proud, me too. I know how my maternal grandfather would step in to write editorials in his wife’s newspaper, sustaining her readers’ spirit and morale while she suffered incarceration. My other grandfather helped balance the women’s council’s books when his wife had torn her hair out in frustration at the unconquerable magnitude of the task. So many stories, so much pride in my clan, my people and my land, all that bound me to them. Why not revel in it for all time? Why play with loyalties?

And that is what I happily did all these years. Yes, there is plenty that ails my home, land and people, plenty that has gone awry from what had been imagined and dreamed of by my parents and theirs. This is not the India that they had fought for. Nor is this entirely the India I wish to wake up to every morning. Agreed. It is what it is. But that still never made me question where I had chosen to be. Migrate? Not for me. Not that I had any quarrel with those who did cross overseas, nor did I ever judge them their choices. They had their valid reasons to leave, I had mine to stay on.

And so, as and when those of the diaspora that I knew came visiting their old home, spending quality time with their ageing parents, hopping around to the corner for a batata wada, catching a night of music at Sawai or a home-grown natak, refreshing old memories, I knew that some of what they had left behind still called them back. And when we holidayed in locales abroad, soaking in their air and life and customs and systems, traipsing through their palaces and chateaus, museums and galleries, serenaded by their violins and cellos, forging connects with people there and breaking bread with them, we lived and did as them. All global humans for every happy while. But home was always where the heart finally was.

Until our daughter left for the US. And made her own home there with her husband. The years rolled from one to the next and we watched closely as she made her life there, studying, working, living, growing. Rooting herself in another land. Building her own tribe around her. Melding all that she had carried from here with all that she chose to embrace there.

Then we predictably and routinely juggled with time zones, picking convenient hours to call and chat, imagining her comfortably asleep while we worked through our days, praying that her days were productive with zero glitches while we slept. And that she stayed safe, happy and healthy. I suppose she did the same, but I’m guessing not with my intense fervour. She might have outgrown her umbilical attachment, but I’m still holding tight.

Many parents do the same, worldwide, we are not unique in that. They all do it bravely, some easily, some less so. They swallow their concerns and their worries so that their children don’t feel weighed down by them. It is how it is. But it feels all the more challenging when the physical distance that separates us is so punishingly vast that we need to travel long hours and days just to be together again. Yet I would gladly do it every single time. I did, through those rolling years.

Now when I look at the hills that surround the suburb she lives in, when I stroll through the spacious park close by, see the brilliantly blue skies overhead, spy the tiny hummingbirds flitting through her garden, see her neighbours stop and say hello when she is walking her dog, hear their music playing in their cars and malls, drive by their majestic evergreens lining their wide roads or their southern magnolia flowering magnificently in their summers, it also feels reassuringly familiar. And when I see her happy face in the midst of all of that, it feels right.

I make my pohe and upama in her kitchen and she smiles her satisfied smile that says, Just like home. I know it isn’t, her selective nostalgia notwithstanding, but how does that even matter? Isn’t home where the heart is?

So, what holds me back in my land today, I ask myself. My parents have passed, many of my tribe too, yet their history remains. I know in my gut that I still nurture myself and my life here. Much of me is still anchored here. I still despair at the grim stories that crowd our headlines. I still cheer when our young raise our flag in sporting arenas. My ears perk up with interest when I hear spicy chatter in colloquial Hindi and Marathi. I smile when the koel calls from the kamini blossoms in our garden. I luxuriantly inhale the petrichor from the first monsoon showers on our parched soil. My heart warms when my bai celebrates her children’s school grades with me, popping a pedha in my mouth.

And yet all the while my treacherous heart feels perversely and wretchedly torn between this home and our daughter’s, longing for them to somehow coincide. Knowing they won’t.

And then, when we came back from our recent visit to the US, after I thought I had well recovered from my moping and missing our daughter and was again glorying in my life here, I caught myself suddenly longing for another glimpse of those Californian hills. My eyes began to wander through her neighbourhood, going through its corners and turns as if they were my own. My ears pick up the sounds of a familiar western number from a passing car, my head beginning to bob in rhythm and I am washed with a brand-new nostalgia. My hands now long to cradle an ice-cold margarita, pair it with some chips and guacamole, and immerse myself in that idyllically lingering twilight. My fingers always itch to call her, hear her voice, see her face, see my son-in-law’s head nestled beside hers. Watch as she stirs her coffee in the mug we had bought together. Ache to be there again.

And I think, heck! There are loves and longings and loyalties, aren’t there? I know that what I feel for her transcends everything else, it is how it is. That makes me adopt what she has claimed as hers, that makes me want to join in on some of her adventures, that makes her new contexts mine as well, that makes my heart happy when my mind and memory conjure her familiar surroundings again, no longer as foreign.

Then am I no longer as loyally Indian, are my roots breaking loose? Or am I being clingingly maternal? Neither. I still love my land, my people and I believe I am as fiercely respectful of her space as I am of mine. I guess I’ve only now realised what many already have before me: that there can be another wonderful place to call home. It need not coincide with the one here. That I would be just as full of joy to return there. For the heart is just as happy there.

My Write Choice

Ever since I started writing I have been questioned off and on about my choice of language, English. There are those among my circles of family, friends and acquaintances who are puzzled as to why a person born and raised in a Maharashtrian family, who has been living in Pune for the past several decades, and who is reasonably capable of articulating her thoughts in Marathi should opt for English when formalising them in print.

I try when I feel patient enough, which is rare, to explain the linguistic particulars of me and myself. I grew up in Jamshedpur where my father worked for Tisco, now known as Tata Steel. I went to school there with my older sisters and many other children from families that hailed from different parts of the country. All working in a town far away from their native origins, all building a cosmopolitan community or a prototype of an integrated nation, all happily melding their respective ethnicities in one melting pot. Our mothers would speak in different native tongues at home and all of us young children searched for the one bridge that could effectively and happily connect us all. Our parents opting to send us to a school that taught in English, that bridge was forged and we were joined.

So that was that. English came home and stayed. But not as a guest. Rather, as one of our own. On par with our own maternal languages. My mother befriended languages as we do people and soon she too was reading Shaw and Cronin and Maugham and Christie and Wodehouse just as we were, and as easily as she still read her Marathi litterateurs and the Sanskrit verses of her favourite Kalidas. While we were and still are fluent in Marathi, Hindi and English, the last soon became our default medium of discourse, of all debates and discussions. At home and outside it.



English still is my language of thought and action and emotion. And thence of writing. Of course, I’ve borrowed words that belong to our own soil and have blossomed under our own sun. I still adhere to calling our ubiquitous aromatic kadhi limba or kari patta by their Marathi or Hindi names, rarely referring to them as curry leaves, and most certainly not when I’m actually tossing them in hot oil. Or, jhootha/ushta is just that and I know no English equivalent that expresses its exact or entire intent. Just as chit, loot, pyjama, bangle, bungalow, veranda and so on were incorporated by the British into their dictionaries, I’ve added my own selection of Hindi and Marathi words and catch phrases to my everyday parlance in English. My own version of fusion.

But I look around me and I find a peculiar paradox.


On the one hand, I see an increasing embracement of English as one of the necessary tools in today’s economically imperative globalisation. With the ongoing technological revolution and its windfall of information access on devices that can fit into our palms, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to say that we hold the world in our hands. But that world doesn’t necessarily speak nor understand the languages we grew at home. The ones we call our mother tongues. Out there we have Chinese (Mandarin, as its most popular variant), Spanish, Arabic, German, French, Russian and Japanese. And, of course, English, with which we are already familiar and have heard spoken in our midst since the past couple of centuries and more. From which words like officer (afsar), hospital (aspatal), captain (kaptaan), bottle (botal) and so on had already been lifted, modified and made our own. And from which today words like enter, search, like, copy, paste, send, share and such similar virtual commands have swiftly slid and seeped into our native tongues and are used indiscriminately even by those who have never stepped into a school and would hardly appreciate the foreign origins of parts of their everyday lexicon.


On the other hand, I also come across a bristling resentment against the very same language. It is seen as an obdurately surviving relic of our unhappy colonial past. A need to refute a language that was once taught to the ruled subjects to produce men that could effectively serve their royal British Majesties. A vestigial emblem that reminds us of of our political enslavement and economic plunder. That we should choose to express ourselves in that language could, according to resurgent nationalists, only indicate an abject but resilient colonised mind-set, a reluctance to right past wrongs, and an apathy in restoring pride and prestige to what was and is home grown. Moreover, they remind us, English was and is essentially elitist, a dividing tool, the separator of the socio-economically and politically powerful classes with high prestige quotients from the masses who are more comfortable expressing themselves in their own respective vernaculars. The still entrenched divider between the rulers and the ruled, perpetuating cruel condescension. A passport to vacuous snobbery. Shame! Times have changed, they remind us. Be Indian. Speak Indian.

But I have never regarded English as un-Indian. On the contrary, it is to me my means of communicating with my Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kashmiri, Bengali, Bihari, Odiya, Malayali friends. All kaleidoscopically Indian. To easily understand and be understood. To share. To bond. To commit. My national integrator. Very early on I could guess who was a Tamilian, who a Bengali, or a Gujarati, or a Punjabi, just by hearing their unique accents, their elongation of certain vowels, their suppression of certain consonants, their distinguishing phonetics, diction, typical mix-ups in syntax, their own respective native tongues stamping their identities with authority on the adopted one. But that just added bags and bags of fabulous flavour. And helped us appropriate what was once foreign as one of our own. Indian English.

And what exactly and uniquely is it to speak indigenous Indian? Tamil? Bangla? Dogri? Marathi? Which variant of Marathi, the one spoken in Mumbai or Nagpur or Kolhapur? Or the one that Pune superciliously believes to be its sole chaste avatar? Our much touted diversity could actually become a stumbling, if not dividing block, if we chose to revert exclusively to the homespun. Hindi, that was once adopted as our national lingua franca has really not made the inroads expected. There are those that disdainfully look down upon it or plainly refuse to speak it, much like the French refuse to speak English, fearing that giving way to the language of the northern plains may swamp their own particular ethnicities. Linguistic roots are a matter of ethnic pride and nobody can or should be expected to surrender that. And the longstanding power tussle that festers beneath the stitched bonhomie of states comes up front and close, because yielding precedence of one’s language to another’s is as susceptible to tensions as relinquishing water from rivers. The lingual divides flare up and subside intermittently, either spontaneously or deliberately, depending on who is looking to catch the eye and ear of the public and therefore looking for an inflammatory grouse to vent.

Then, what to do? How does this paradox get resolved? I can switch easily between Marathi and Hindi and English. But can we all? And is that even enough? How do I gain access to the ideas that could enrich my life but have been expressed in languages beyond the reach of my comprehension? Much is lost in translation, I agree, but that remains my only realistic hope of understanding what, for example, the farmer in that remote corner of the northeast thinks about the rest of his country and countrymen. On the other hand, the local municipal school’s watchman’s daughter who aspires to be a computer scientist was stumped by the standard of English in her text books. Why have not our books been written in my language, she asks in frustration. Really, why haven’t they? Or, for example, why hasn’t that Bible of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy, been translated into all our regional languages yet? Why should a girl who has studied in Marathi all her schooling life suddenly be expected to improve her English skills just so she can pursue her specialised academic interest? But the committed and motivated girl that she is, she buckles down and does, confidently melding her learned English medical jargon with her instinctive Marathi when giving instructions to the nurse assisting her in getting our babies born. Like that only.

And so this conundrum of languages continues and we trundle along speaking bits of this and bits of that. And get by. Make do. Our language jugaad. I chat with my neighbours in Marathi, sing in Hindi and write in English. And when I tell the weaver in distant Kanchipuram who has been modestly making ends meet while always gloriously making Indian that I want a beige coloured saree with a dull gold temple border, I know that, for all our proud espousal of our linguistic roots, he and the traders representing him are familiar with all the key English words. So I don’t need to learn Tamil, nor he Marathi. It’s business, baba! Just click on picture, press like and send. Simple.

The Days of Abandonment


                                                                                                                                                                    by Elena Ferrante


A Review


 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.

The Sense Of An Ending


By Julian Barnes



A Review

I remember falling in love with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when I’d read it a couple of years ago. I also remember realising as soon as I’d finished, that I needed to read it again (which I did for a book club), slowly, carefully, with more attention to every word, understanding and savouring the ideas that Barnes subtly, almost insidiously, puts across. Ideas and concepts that I had probably let slip by in my hungry pursuit of the narrative.

Well, the narrative is what it is and I’m a firm believer in all possible sorts. Your story can be anything. It’s how you tell it that matters. Convince me. Barnes did. Retired, well-settled and, perhaps, a tad placid Tony Webster receives a letter and a bequest of money from the departed mother of his ex-girlfriend from college, Veronica. And this triggers a chain of memories from his distant youth, each unfolding gradually in its interpretive shades and details as we read on. Memories of the prodigally gifted and deeply reflective Adrian. The somewhat unreadable Veronica and his weekend with her judging family. Her mostly reticent and yet once curiously chatty mother. And, of course, the suicides. The earlier one from school founding the basis of understanding and comparing with the one from later on. All characters, all turns and twists in the plot, all interpretations and re-interpretations of events, chains of causation, utterances, attitudes, expressions, all seem completely plausible. And through the remembering and recounting of them all is Tony’s sympathetic but pragmatic ex-wife, Margaret, listening to his ramblings, shrewdly pinning the source of his agitation and smartly moving on. And Tony continues to sift through his memories trying to fit them coherently with the reality he sees today.

We all know time to be malleable, sometimes treacherously so, as we are forced to learn during moments of huge emotional turmoil. We also know our memory to be fallible at best, patching together the snatches and snippets that filter through time’s subjective sieve, leading us to construe or misconstrue according to our own predispositions. We know that history is written differently by victors and the vanquished, and again by the survivors of any period of turbulence. We know that each experience of every relationship determines not merely the progress over time of that particular relationship, but of all others as well, for we are but the accumulation of all that we have experienced. We know that while we could fantasize about life imitating art, many of us let life simply happen to us, that our innate inertia leads us to choices that render us peaceable and comfortably settled.

But here is a writer that takes all of this and more and pushes the envelope further and further and even further, until we are gasping drenched in the power of his ideation.
Every word, every observation, every analogy, every metaphor is apt. Just so. And they all impel you to question yourself, to cross check against the parallels in your own personal history, in your own sets of predilections and prejudices, in your own dwelling over personal pettiness and thence missing the larger picture, your own shuffling and reshuffling of cards from your memory to come up with a hand that suits you best at that particular moment.

Barnes’ style of writing is deceptively simple, chatty, homely, but it packs in huge punches, especially when you’re not looking. There’s dry humour, recourse to satire, and an ability and willingness to look at people and things, ourselves included, square in the eye. To me, Barnes is like a wise old owl, nestled comfortably and seemingly stoically in his favourite tree, staring into the darkness around and deciphering nuances in the night as only owls can. He peels the darkness that we hide within us and then pierces right through. Illumination.

Well, this slim little book, more novella than novel, is packed with power and will probably prove to be timeless in its appeal.


(Image Source : Google Images) 


I also watched Riteish Batra’s film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending. I was extremely sceptical as to how such a reflective and nuanced piece of writing could be faithfully translated to visual celluloid. But I was happily surprised. Batra has, of course, tweaked the storyline, ironed ambiguities into definitives and fleshed in a character more than in the original. Well directed, well scripted and well performed, it was a rewarding experience. Of course, less so than the book. But I’m not really complaining. Batra has impressed with Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night as well. And am happy that we have a young director who handles human sensitivities with such grace. And quiet confidence.

Random Thoughts on Random Days

There are days and there are days. Just like that. On some days I feel as if life sucks, and that everything I do turns awry. My best laid plans go kaput and I am either frustrated or angry or disheartened. I might wake up with an uncomfortable foreboding that things are likely to go terribly wrong, and I go to bed with the notion of zilch, of having achieved absolutely nothing or, worse, having ruined some. Yet, mixed with that is a strange relief that I’ve managed to survive. Phew.


It is odd how on such days I don’t even notice the things that are quietly going on as they should, the little parts of my routine that carry on undisturbed, allowing me to focus my energies on the ones that are not. They figure nowhere on my radar.


And then there are those days when I awaken with all the positive energy possible. When everything I do succeeds, and when I attempt something really difficult, pushing my luck just a tad further, that succeeds as well. I don’t see the things that are amiss, the little spokes in my wheel that I toss out with scant ado. I smile and power through them all, going to bed with that feeling of being uniquely blessed and a happy conviction that all’s wonderfully right with my world.


Of course, there are plenty of normal days, the mixed bags of the moderately good and bad. The ones that I live on my own, with no extra help or interference from any real or imaginary supernatural forces, as if I have escaped their attention and hence their benevolent or malign influence altogether.


(Image Source : Pinterest. The Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow Hardcover by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, 2008)

There are those I know who put it all down to my mood, an innately temperamental disposition. As if it were an entity on and of its own and that I choose to succumb to it instead of harnessing it to my will. That I allow myself to be pulled up to dizzying heights or plummeted to dismal lows like a capricious self-indulgent yoyo, instead of rolling along that even keel that typifies the consistent and serene. That all days, they argue, are essentially alike and that it’s just over-imaginative me that’s reading more into the calendar than there really is, deflecting the source of my own internal flux on to powers that may or may not even exist. Hyper, is their favourite word of accusation.


Spontaneous and passionate is how I would prefer to describe myself. But, really, who is buying? And who am I kidding? Yet, to encapsulate all my hurtling through my highs and lows in that one rogue ambiguous word, mood? Bah!


In fact, my specially bad and good days have been happening ever since I’ve been a child. I remember getting punished for reaching school just a little late, getting stumped by a particularly foul Chemistry test, not finding my voice in my music classes, quarrelling over absolute trivia with my sisters at home, getting hauled up by my parents for something that I hadn’t really done, and so on, a cumulative series of miseries. And then there were superlative Maths tests, followed by rare periods of lucid Chemistry, creating magic in music, finding that book that I had always wanted to read, spending extra time with friends, reaching home atrociously late yet going happily unnoticed and unscathed.


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(Image Source : Wikipedia) 

I also remember my mother poring over her Panchaang, the Hindu almanac, sifting through the auspicious and inauspicious days and hours. Amavasya, she would shake her head, and we would avoid travelling or wait one more day before trying out or buying something new, as the moon had played truant and we had to await its return to our skies. And, of course, there were those days when our planets, moon and stars were all supposedly well aligned, when we could confidently undertake new ventures and forge new beginnings, for they were destined to succeed. I was, and still am, rather sceptical, and I would, and still do, vehemently hold that any day could be a perfectly good one, and that every day carries the potential of turning out to be a perfectly nasty one, regardless of the moon’s and planets’ itineraries. I neither believe nor disbelieve in astrological charts, I simply prefer to disregard them. I suspect that my good and bad days have their own endogenous logical cycles though unfathomable to me, and will occur regardless of what is or is not foretold by my horoscope, palm lines, tarot cards, numerological configurations, etcetera.


Of course, there are periods of deep anxiety and wretched vulnerability when we may be sorely tempted to decipher that cycle and read beforehand the end of its troughs, containing the dark gloom within a manageable finite, looking ahead towards the predicted upswing and keeping ourselves afloat till then. But would that not then rob me of whatever autonomy I believe I have? Make me a willing puppet of forces unknown to me? Or alternatively, try to second guess everything and sidestep the given trajectory of my life? Is that even possible? Who really knows? I don’t. And I would rather struggle with my frustrating ignorance and swallow my perhaps pitiable abhorrence of uncertainty than lock my belief in another human’s soothsaying prowess. Steer clear of clairvoyants.


So I muddle through my calendar, acknowledging days as superb, horrid or just average, but in retrospect. And while the last category may be what life is mostly made up of in terms of sheer volume, it’s the challenges of the other two that really get me going, make me walk that extra mile, spurring me to explore that mysterious fork down the road. Think. Feel. Create. Live. Giving full vent to my spontaneity and passion. With a clear understanding that the knowledge of the yoyo’s lows can be just as powerful and productive as that of its highs. And bounce between the alternating nadirs of despair and zeniths of bliss with an abandon as uninhibitedly exaggerated as these words may sound. For I know not how to be otherwise.

Of Work and Freedom

Whenever the movie The Help surfaces while I’m surfing across TV channels, searching for something to settle on, I find myself watching at least a couple of its scenes before moving on. My first viewing, several years ago, had been against the backdrop of all the noise and hype that usually accompanies awards ceremonies, where it had featured brightly, bagging a few trophies. But my scepticism had been blown away, it was all it had been touted to be, a well-crafted film with a solid subject and story.

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(Image Source : Vanity Fair) 

The random re-viewings remind me of its narrative and appeal and, unfortunately, of the relevance of its subject even today. Employing people of colour for the drudgery of ones’ domestic chores may be frowned upon and perhaps politically unthinkable today, but there clearly was a time when it was an accepted practice, accepted by both whites as well as blacks. By whites because they were blinded by privilege, an entitled belief in their natural superiority over other races, their legitimising backbone of exploitation. By blacks because they had been oppressed and hence conditioned for centuries through slavery and systematic segregation, because any expression of their dissent had been stifled, even ruthlessly snuffed out over generations, and because otherwise they would have had no bread on their tables. They also accepted not being allowed to sit with the whites, pray in their churches, eat at their tables, relieve themselves in their toilets. And while The Help portrays the animus between the two communities while largely following the eyes and voice of its rebellious white protagonist, it does give sizeable footage to the disgruntled yet helplessly acquiescent black voices, exposing the symptoms of the divide if not its deep-rooted causes and reminding us of the flagrant injustice of it all.

The discrimination and implicit segregation insidiously endures. Even at home. No, we don’t really have blacks as such, we are all different shades of brown. But we do have our own caste hierarchies, and Gandhian philosophy, and Ambedkar’s, Phule’s and many other notable social reformers’ persistent painstaking efforts notwithstanding, we still have obnoxious relics of caste-job correlations. The Annihilation of Caste seems to be but a distant pipe dream.

Yes, we have a kind of ‘upward’ migration, where people of the so-called inferior castes can dream of and realistically aspire to occupying places originally reserved for the upper echelons. Doors, spaces, jobs and homes are now thankfully increasingly open for all, a slow but perceptible dismantling of caste barriers. And, of course, it would be politically incorrect to not do so. In fact, as the original ‘upper’ castes are quick to point out, there is a reverse reservation in place today, a system that is edging them out of dominions that had traditionally and exclusively been theirs.

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(Image Source : The Hindu) 

But, frankly, I have yet to see Brahmin men and women cleaning toilets in non-Brahmin homes. Every day. For a living. Or toiling without any decent protection in the stiflingly dark and dangerous sewage drains that run under the bellies of towns and cities. Or carrying the euphemistically termed night soil on their heads towards the designated waste disposal dumps. Manual scavenging has, since decades, been declared unacceptable because of its caste quotient and thence illegal, but has nonetheless survived in regions and communities that obdurately and inhumanly look the other way. Watching their videos on the internet fills me with repugnance and shame. And anger.

I remember watching Fandry, a Marathi film made by the director of the hugely popular and successful Sairat. I had been bowled over by its sheer beauty, showing it as it is, sans embellishments, sans melodrama. A simple story simply told. But again in that apparent simplicity were embedded layers and layers of social complexities, those that we have inherited from over centuries ago, and that seem to doggedly and successfully resist change. Here again there were jobs that only Dalits in the village could do. Like snaring pigs that were proving to be a menace. That was their birthright. Theirs alone. So an adolescent Dalit boy who has a crush on his upper-caste schoolmate must go through the angst of being watched by her along with a mocking, jeering village crowd, when he and his family are chasing and entrapping the disgusting but elusive pigs. Heart breaking.

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(Image Source : IMDb) 

There also comes to mind a documentary, The Children of the Pyre, made a few years ago, that raises similar questions. Simply brilliant with scant playing-up of the inherently and obviously gruesome subject. Getting the stark horror of burning body parts done with and out of the way in the first few frames, we are allowed into the private worlds of the underprivileged children who work to ensure that the fires are well stoked until the bodies burn through. We see their natural innocence jostling with their grotesque reality, a reality that they have inherited by birth. So while a Brahmin chants the mantras and officiates over the funeral ceremony, it is the Dalits who stick around long after the mourners and priests have left, to ensure that the cremation is properly complete, else as one of them warns, the scavenging dogs that prowl the Benaras Ghaats will feast on the remnants of the corpse. One of the many lines that stayed with me as I walked out of the auditorium was, if we are untouchable and can’t share your space, then how are we allowed to burn your bodies in your funerals? So, does the ‘choot-achoot’ distinction melt away on funeral pyres? According to convenience and expedience or because our souls that supposedly outlive our burnt bodies had never been stamped with caste in the first place?

Yes, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures and many more such well-made films show us the dark side of what society once used to be like in the west. Yes, racism is still an inescapable fact of life there even today. But its face isn’t as absolute as it was a century ago. These films don’t deal with the subjects of today. But the horror that befell the people of colour then, still torments the underprivileged in India today. If The Help were to be adapted and made in India it could be a film about today. Fandry and The Children of the Pyre are about today. I dare not imagine how ghastly it all must have been a hundred years ago. Our inheritance of our caste related socio-cultural history clings on tenaciously and still surrounds the accident of our birth. So while we may mark Labour Day on our holiday calendars with officious fanfare, the underlying idea of the dignity of labour has been reduced to a mere lip serving platitude.

So, going back to the movie The Help, the question poses itself: what about the help we have at home? Where does it come from? Which social strata? Do we treat them on par with us? Do they sit at our tables, on our sofas, use our toilets? Mostly, the answer is a circumspect no. If I ask this question directly there is some squirming, a wish to deflect the issue, or a nervous half-baked response which says “they themselves won’t be comfortable with that”. Or there is a blunt dismissal of their ‘worthiness’ to do so, to be treated on par. And the question is then redirected towards me, “Do you do that? Treat them as complete equals? Sit with them on your sofa to watch TV? Eat your meals with them at your dining table?” Regrettably, the answer is still sometimes an embarrassed no.

I remember stepping out of the Dachau concentration camp when touring around Munich, physically numbed by what I had seen, then revolted and enraged by it all. Beginning with the promise emblazoned along the arch at the gates: Work will set you free. Forced labour from an incarcerated race but sanctimoniously dressed up with a mirage of freedom. I remember thinking that the cruel monstrosity was not the creation of a solitary mad man, but that it involved the active participation of plenty of other mad men and women, and also the tacit complicity of a people who were willing or complacent enough to cover their noses to escape the foul stench from the burning of the socio-politically despised, no longer fruitful and hence redundant dispensable flesh. And I remember feeling guilty of belonging to a human race that revels in inflicting suffering on its own. I felt ashamed that I belonged to a human race which despite its astounding mental and social evolution, just doesn’t do enough, doesn’t step up to protect its own, doesn’t fight for its neighbour’s rights. The right to exist with dignity.

And today I feel the same shame. For I am often but a passive, even blind observer of human indignities and travails in my own backyard, for I am so wrapped up in my social apathy, that it takes films like these to jolt me out of my comfortable stupor, my entrenched unseeability of their apparently ineffaceable untouchability. And I hold myself guilty of not doing enough.

In the Company of Art

When I first started writing it was just something to do, to kill time that sat staring at me, mocking my uselessness in a world of busy and productive people. A bad back had put a temporary halt to my normal routine and I was at my wits’ end as to how I would get through the vacant long twenty four hours of the day, each day, each week, each month, for some months. I grew restless and then listless. And deprived of regular company, extremely lonely.


Then I suddenly remembered my friend Lila’s suggestion: write. It had been made soon after I had returned from a beautiful holiday in Ratnagiri and had recounted my experiences to her. My Guru, Madhuritai, had always insisted that there is a writer in me waiting to come out, but I had never really paid much heed. Where was the time anyway? But now there was more than plenty of it, and I undertook it as a project, a challenge. Picking up the pen was an achievement in itself, as was writing the first few lines. It wasn’t easy. My pages looked ugly, marred with scratches and squiggles as my mind ploughed back and forth, searching for appropriate expressions, suitable phrases, the apt words to clothe my raw and sometimes equally elusive thoughts. When my article on Konkan was complete I mailed it to Lila, relieved that it was done, but also happy that I could do it. Hurrah! After the euphoria had subsided a little I thought I could do it again. I did. I wrote. And I wrote. And Lila faithfully read it all, prodding me along, ever encouraging, ever supportive. Her mail box was soon deluged. I read some of my work to Madhuritai and she too was happy and proud like an indulgent parent.


That was then. Life has long since returned to its old routine and my day is happily full again. Yet I continue to write. Why? Because I just couldn’t stop. Because it is so wonderfully rewarding, so cathartic, so therapeutic and so liberating. I have found a loyal and committed friend in my computer screen. (Yes, I have graduated from paper and pen to that modern day contraption. Well done, I congratulate myself!) It has opened up a window to my mind, helping me understand my own sentiments, gather my thoughts, formalise my views, making them lucid, almost tangible. It helps me retrieve caches of dusty memories, giving me a fresh insight into my own past, where I come from, why I feel the way I do. And it never doubts my sensibilities. It takes, and it takes, without faulting, questioning, reproaching. Ever accepting.


Of course, what is written will be read. That is a given. It is first read by me, and so it must be true to me. It must honestly portray that bit of me that I am opening up. It must satisfy me. If it satisfies others who read it, that is a bonus. And I got plenty of such bonuses from a growing group of readers.


The first not-so-good, unfavourable feedbacks that I received made me rather grumpy and miserable. I sulked a bit. I was assailed by self-doubt. I would wonder why something that appealed to me wasn’t universally appealing. I wondered if I should change my style, change my outlook, or if I should stop writing altogether. But I changed nothing. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I still maintain that if my work appeals to me, if it is good enough for me, then it is good in itself. For, the bottom line is that I write for myself. Primarily a readership of one. And I reminded myself that I needed to be democratically liberal, that people will have different views, different perceptions, different tastes. I write from my perspective and with my integrity, my expression largely conditioned by what I have experienced, read and assimilated over the years. A feedback does not only endorse or question the veracity or appropriateness of my views and my expression, but also opens up the reader to me: her views, her reading habits, her preferences, her yardsticks of judgement. And there is enough room in this world for multitudes of those. I just needed to learn to accept that. And get along. And continue to request and welcome feedbacks, open minded.


Of course, the process of writing can be a lonely one. But that is true of most art. One communicates with oneself, engaged in a dialogue with one’s mind and heart and soul. All our faculties are turned inward. Excitedly hopeful about the end result yet anxious. All on one’s own. When I sing, I am all by myself, even if the room is full of people. Nobody holds my hand and guides me along. The agony over a missed note or the ecstasy over a true one are mine and mine alone. But therein lies a beautiful truth: the art itself is the artist’s true companion. True friend. True guide. I am blessed to have discovered that. And that just adds to the adage, art for art’s sake.