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Everyday Love Letters

I’m an enthusiastic letter writer, so it comes as little surprise that when inspiration strikes, I make the most of it and send out missives like there’s no tomorrow.

We’re just back from a trip and I reveled in the attention of my niece and nephew, playing silly games and pretend-Masterchef. When I got back home from my travels, I wanted to take time to remember those special moments, so easily forgotten. Sharon White had graciously sent me her luxury note-cards and I decided to use them. Sharon is a UK-based artist who creates lovely mixed-media paintings encrusted with diamonds, pearls and other luxurious items. The designs on the cards are selected from her paintings and printed on beautiful paper with matching lined envelopes. A shiny gold sticker on the blank side carries a message which are a fun touch.

Beautiful as these cards are, I didn’t want to wait for a “special” occasion to use them. We all have stacks of ‘good’ paper and pens waiting for that perfect moment (oh wait, maybe that’s just me) but are never used. It felt right to use this beautiful stationery for my tiny relatives.

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And so I did.

As I type, these little love letters are winging their way (hopefully!) to their little addressees. Could this be their first official post in their name? Wouldn’t that be something?

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I’m curious to see what the reactions will be like, but I’m also eager to write some more. November is good enough to start sending out those year-end letters, all the more better to beat the rush. From experience we know that our Christmas cards sent by regular post never ever make it to their intended destination (looking at you, India Post) so sending it now might be a good idea.

Would you like a friendly note from me? Let me know in the comments. Happy writing.

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Consent before Colour – leave us alone this Holi

Growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay meant throwing yourself wholeheartedly into every festival that came your way. So as Holi approached, we stockpiled coloured powder wrapped up in newspaper from the neighbourhood store. We agonised over new designs of pichkaris and cleared space in the balcony for the buckets that would hold water balloons filled at dawn.

Holi itself was sheer delightful madness. A riot of colour and screams as water balloons were aimed at friends and neighbours. Most people gladly got pelted and soaked; it was a celebration in the true sense.

Childhood ends pretty quickly for most Indian women and mine took a rude shock when in the weeks leading up to Holi, water balloons found my teenage body with unerring accuracy. Walking to after-school tuitions, walking to the bus-stop, walking with a parent – there was no safety anymore. Balloons were thrown by strangers hiding behind the safety of their upper-floor homes. My clothes would be inevitably stained by the time I reached my destination, until I started hiring a rickshaw to get me there.

Chasing my career, I realised that public transport couldn’t protect me enough.  Years later, in Mumbai, the claustrophobic women’s compartment in the local train would get even more stifling before Holi as the seasoned traveller began closing the windows and doors of train compartments in the run up to the festival. The women’s compartments become targets at Holi-time for another kind of malicious fun – children living along the railway tracks would throw plastic bags filled with dirty water, excreta, sometimes stones and chilli powder with unerring accuracy, knowing exactly at what point of the track the train would slow down enough for the bags to shatter and douse the travellers inside. Autorickshaws and buses aren’t spared either. Male commuters also get the brunt of this at times. Aimed high enough a plastic bag filled with water and a few stones can make a commuter lose his already precarious grip, his vision and sometimes, even his life.

What kind of a perverse pleasure is this, in harassing already weary commuters? What are we celebrating when we coerce people to join in when they don’t want to? Where do we draw the line between so-called fun and violence?

In the years since I moved out of Bombay, I miss much about the city. What I don’t miss is the constant groping and being touched, the being on high alert every time you cross a railway bridge or climb into a bus not knowing if one of your co-passengers or the conductor would brush against you or have roving hands and pretend that he had not done anything.

Now that Holi is here, stories from women around the country are pouring in – and they are all of the same colour. Groping, molestation, being chased by men and boys all in the name of “fun”.  One can’t walk out of the house without risking a water balloon being aimed at you or colour being applied over your body. Did someone ask us if we wanted to play along? ‘Holi hai’ is enough permission for hands to touch you, for fingers to wander over your body in the guise of ‘harmless’ fun.

The question of consent is raised also when photographers and media personnel who stay on the fringes of cultural events are also assaulted. If you’re out, you’re fair game – that seems to be the motto of the male reveller.  Delhi Police and other organisations have taken to social media to address the issue of consent. There are even helpful listicles that warn you of things to watch out at holi parties with your so-called friends. But will mere tweets and posts protect us from racous men who don’t seem to understand the complaint?

Young women are sparing no punches while sharing their experiences. They get trolled for saying that they want a safe holi, that they are too scared to leave home and join in the celebrations. The #ConsentbeforeColour hashtag is trending with more tales of violence and non-consensual festivities being shared each time you refresh the page.

I read the responses to the women’s stories of assault and they are uniformly defiant. And they are uniformly male voices who are the guardians of our festivals, denying the issue, pretending that there is no problem. The issue is with your friends and family, says one. Most women who have been attacked in public places at holi have been by strangers. The whole concept of “bura mat mano, holi hai (don’t feel bad; it’s Holi)” feeds off on the fear and helplessness of women who dare leave their homes and get on with their lives while the men want to have their fun.

What can be a deterrent to this blatant and open form of harassment? Section 152 of the Indian Railways Act 1982 recommends imprisonment for life for people who throw balloons at local trains. How the Railway Police enforces this remains to be seen.  We need stricter punishments for “eve-teasers”, gropers and misbehaving men in general. Safe cities go beyond creating high mast illuminations or new pedestrian zones. Our neighbourhoods should allow us to walk when we want and where we want, without fear of assault. Will we see this happen this Holi?

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#52essays2017

One of my many goals for my writing career in 2016 was to send out 5 completed essays. Not pitches, but completed stories that may have paid in real money. Or not.

While I received commissions for over 45 journalistic stories, guess how many essays I sent out?

None.

For 2017, I made a similar goal. I dare not be more ambitious than 5. My other writing goals have more than doubled since 2016 and I’m more than confident of sending out a gazillion pitches to meet those numbers.

But essays?

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I have been re-reading my journal to mine ideas that have fallen through the grumbles and the notes and observations. And it strikes me that so many of these pages could be fodder for essays. So I was delighted to hear that Vanessa Martir (who challenged herself to write 52 essays in 2016) was inviting other writers to join in the challenge I jumped at the opportunity. There’s nothing like a public challenge with people you sort-of know to get you moving!

While I will use ideas from the #52essays2017 group, I will definitely cheat and work on some of the ideas from my various journals too. All of them will be up on the blog (a requirement for the group) but not all will be public.

I’m looking forward to this as an exercise in tackling fear. Because that’s what this resistance is all about. Why else can I write about sleeping, toilets, interiors and the most mundane things but I don’t dare articulate my thoughts about writing, about parenting, or any other personal aspect of my life?

So I’m challenging myself this year to write these 52 little essays. Who knows, maybe out of these might come those elusive five.One can only hope.

And hope is what is going to get us through this coming year. Here’s to a happier year than the last one has been. Cheers!

 

 

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8 Ways to Draw an Elephant (Tara Books)

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Two of my resolutions this year were to draw more and to review more children’s books on this blog. I was so pleased then, to be able to experiment with the absolutely lovely ‘8 Ways to Draw an Elephant’ by Paola Ferrarotti (@pferrarotti).

This beautiful 16-page book is also called a “coloring book”, but to me it seemed to be more useful as a how-to book. Each double-page spread tells you a fact about elephants and gives you ideas on how to draw a different kind, or inject a new element to the drawing.

So one page talks about what elephants eat, others talk about decorated temple elephants. The animal’s physical features are described as are their habitats and differences between African and Asian elephants.

The best part is that each elephant is represented by a different Indian art form – from Madhubani to Patua. My only disappointment is that there were no Gond artists represented, because I’m crazy about Gond art, but maybe in the next edition.

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So the boy and I sat down this rainy afternoon with the book and I asked him to look through it and see if there were any he would like to draw. The rain thundered down our battered roof tiles while he leafed through the book, reading the paragraphs, absorbing the information. He chose two and said, Let’s do these two for now.

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So we each took our sketch books and pencils and our colored pencils for support and began. We chose not to draw on the book itself but to make our own version on our paper. I found the drawings easy to copy but coming up with creative ideas of my own has always been a stumbling block. No such trouble for the boy.

I’d rather make a sitting sleeping elephant, he said.

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And it was gorgeous.

The ones on the left are mine. They are more…delicate and unimaginative in the sense that they’re almost a copy of what’s in the book. The colors of mine were duplicated from the boy’s after he got upset that his didn’t look like what he thought it was going to be like. I thought it was great but one can’t argue with a seven year old who is determined to find fault with himself. So I copied his color scheme to show him how good it was and how creative it was.

And since he had a multi-colored elephant, I decided to get myself a pink one. With great eyelashes. Because elephants do have beautiful eyes.

Next, I’d like to take this to canvas. It’ll be easier to get messy there and take the elephants out of their (my) comfort zone. This gorgeous book from Tara Books is going to see a bit of action in the coming weeks. Maybe I’ll even be brave enough to post some photos here!

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Once upon a chole bhature

I wrote this little essay for Roads and Kingdoms. When I pitched the idea, it was going to be all about the food and the flavour and crackle of the sizzling pattice on the tava. Midway through writing it, though, memories of my dad crept in, and I remembered how much food meant to him and how the memory of it is intertwined with how my life turned out.

Writing brings out the strangest memories.

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Short reviews: January #100bookpact

As part of the ambitious #100bookpact, I’m reading with intention. I’m reading fiction and memoir, poetry and cookbooks. I’m looking over a teetering tbr pile and smiling gleefully to myself. I’m not intimidated by the goal at all. It will be nice to reach it, but I won’t beat myself over not reaching that arbitrary number either.

In January 2016, I read 19 books. They were an assortment of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Here are my favourites:

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer : Silence and stillness has fascinated me for years and the quest for it only gets stronger with each passing hour living by the side of a busy road. This gem of a book is based on a TED talk by the reclusive author and I savored it, much like feasting over a patch of green or the quiet of a night in a village. I had to read the book in relative quiet too, which meant taking it with me while I waited for M to finish a chess class, reading it in the stillness of the car, the sounds of a football game not as deal-breaking as unending traffic. The book also has some stunning images of Iceland, all of which make me terribly glad that I bought this for myself for Christmas.

Why Loiter by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade: This one has been on my wishlist forever. I finally ordered it for aforementioned Christmas and I’m so glad I did. Women’s access to public space in India is negligible at best and groups like Why Loiter  and Blank Noise are doing significant work in changing this. Fascinating reading.

Lullabies by Lang Leav : I took part in one of those Facebook Secret Santa Book Exchanges (yes, one of those). Christmas is a time when you can afford to put your cynicism aside and I’m glad I did. I sent out just one book but got about nine in return. It’s a long way from the promised 36, but really, do we need so many? Most of the ones sent to me were good choice. Some were not to my taste, so those will find another, more welcoming home. This one was a beauty. The cover itself is dark, alluring. Lang imagines this to be “a bedside table kind of book” and indeed it is. The poems are short and lyrical enough that you can choose one at random and it will flow through your heart like a warm breeze on a Spring morning.

Calenday by Lauren Halderman : I read this book last year but never got around to posting a review online. I’m remedied it by re-reading this little firecracker of a tribute to motherhood. You find yourself nodding at all the recognised gestures, the forgotten vignettes of your child’s early years. Halderman experiments with form, chasing the words down the page unfettered and wild much like that two year old who could not be restrained and the only way to watch him in slow motion is in your hazy memory.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Sheffer and Annie Barrows: I bought this book for myself (and the next one in this list) after reading this round-up of epistolary novels on Charukesi’s blog. My interest in letter writing began early and Daddy Long Legs took it to another level altogether. This year I’m doing #100letters so maybe it was divine providence to come across these recommendations. Guernsey was a delight. It was lush and elegant, simple and complicated with a story-line populated with the most charming characters and some heartbreaking events straight out of a war movie. Set in Guernsey, the story revolves around a literary club that comes up overnight during World War II and what happens over the next few years. I expected to enjoy this book very much, and indeed I did. It was flawless. What I didn’t expect was to cry several times. There are many soul-crushing moments, when you question humanity or the lack of it. I loved this book and I hope you will read it and love it too.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff was another totally charming book of letters between Hanff, an American writer and a London bookshop. Such a correspondence today would only be fiction, given how overnight book deliveries and emails have changed the way we communicate with the world. One doesn’t have to wait months or years for a book to show up and be posted to you. Again set in World War II, the book is a treat for lovers of reading and letters alike. Makes you want to pick up the pen and dust off that notepad once again.

 

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#100bookpact

I’ve always been a dedicated New Year Resolution Maker. I love my ‘Word for the Year’, my list of goals and to-dos. The internet has added another whopper now, making me promise things I might not be able to do. Still, life is all about trying, so watch out for two things:

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The #100bookpact is about reading 100 books in 2016. Re-reading and ebooks are permitted which makes things easier! Facebook’s Secret Santa brought me several surprises for Christmas, plus I gifted myself four beautiful books. So right now I’m reading Pico Iyer’s quiet ‘The Art of Stillness’ and Shilpa Phadke’s significant work ‘Why Loiter’, a book that has been long on my wish-list and is finally here.

The second pact I’m making is the #100letters. Inspired by Sandhya Menon’s post, I’m challenging myself to write (and post!) 100 letters this year. I’ve always been an enthusiastic letter writer and my earliest memories of summer holidays are filled with inland letters from my father (who stayed behind in Bombay to work while we cavorted with the cows at my grandmother’s home) and from a school friend, who enjoyed this exchange of news as much as I did. Pen-friending has not worked in recent years as email or other things get in the way and it feels a bit fake.

I still write letters, though, even though the postal department continues to lose my postcards and letters and one is never assured of it reaching its destination. Still, the sheer pleasure of receiving something in the post is unbeatable (and increasingly rare) so if you would like a letter from me, please let me know!

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It’s Christmas time in the city

It’s siesta time on Christmas Day. The family is sleeping away the stuffed chicken and the (awesome) Duty Free bottle of Port wine. M is playing quietly with his new toys. Actually, he is playing quietly with the box – the package is as interesting to him as the toy itself.

I’m spending Christmas afternoon reading up on urbanism. A quick google to check up on something else led to a whole wonderland of blogs and sites doing exactly what I want to do – study and write about the intersection between people and spaces.

I am riveted. It is not the first time I have come across urbanists, of course. But this time, for some strange reason, the wheels turned and things fell into place. Urban spaces and all their nooks and crannies intrigue me. Improving an existing space by involving the stakeholders, particularly the people who actually live there, is a source of endless fascination, thanks to all the constant parade of planners and plotters we see in Goa.

So here I am, (hair flying in my face and blinding me thanks to a  breezy table fan), bursting with ideas. It’s putting in focus what I want to do in the coming years and it is this: I want to write about cities and its people and their problems. While other work is of course welcome, this is what I really really want to do. And I want to have enough work of this kind that I can afford to say no to the mind-numbing or boring assignments that are offered to writers in India.

And now that we’re over Christmas Day (whew) and the fun of the holidays really begins, I’m so eager to get back to work. But for now, hours after I got bookmarked the blogs before my family chucked a stuffed Santa at me, Jim Reeves is crooning on the stereo system and M is enjoying his teenage cousins. Our Christmas tree lights and star lights have both blown, but what the heck, everybody’s still laughing and in a good mood so that’s all that matters.

How’s your Christmas been so far?

 

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More

This has probably been the longest that I have gone without updating this blog. Somewhere along the line, this space lost its identity. When I began blogging over a decade ago in 2004, the medium was full of promise. It was a safe space for observations and commentary on Bombay, my city. Then it became about life in England. Books and parenting and writing crept in along the way. And now all those things are such an integral part of my life that they don’t warrant special notes online.

Or for that matter, off-line.

I’ve been actively engaged in the pursuit of writing since the age of eight. I would have never foreseen that this is what I would do for a living, that words would become my bread and butter, literally food for thought and sustenance. But that’s what it has come to, and the thought gives me unbridled joy. Writing is the one thing that sustains me. More than reading or gardening or painting, scribbling in my journal or dog-eared notebook keeps me alive. It allows me to smile.

This year, I broke new ground with writing published in The Atlantic, Vice, Scroll.in, The Wire, Culture and Cuisines, among others. Next year promises to be equally shiny and I can’t wait to get back to it (after the holidays).

As the year sets, my resolutions/goals for the next twelve months are firmly in place. I have my word for 2016 and it encompasses everything I want in my life. I might have used it before, but that doesn’t matter, because it fits perfectly right now.

I want More. More work, more writing, more travel, definitely more art. I want more essays, more poetry, and lots more money from my work. Some of this is contradictory (more money from poetry? No chance!) but it will all work out.

Because 2016 is going to be the year of more kisses, more holding hands, more games and practicing cha-cha in the kitchen.

I feel that rare sense of sunny optimism that always comes at the end of the year. Do you?

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The drug of solitude

In India, the academic year begins in June. After two months of summer, where yellow mangoes and the humidity consumed our waking hours, the kids are back in school. M is now in first grade, his first year in big-boy school. This first week has gone by pretty uneventfully. There were the expected tears on the first day, tummy-aches continue without fail every morning, there’s anxiety over ‘strict’ teachers and mid-day meals served by the school. He comes home for lunch, happy and buzzing, so perhaps it is safe to let go of the anxiety (mine).

I wake before the sun has shown up for work, the sky still getting out of bed. Rain clouds linger, waiting just for the moment we step out. The house is deliciously dark and quiet. I have thirty minutes to sleep-walk through the bathroom, make the coffee, open the downstairs door so the newspaper man can bring the three newspapers upstairs instead of leaving them on the stoop where they could get wet or worse, stolen.

The thirty minutes are over before I’m properly awake. I gulp my first cup of coffee, wake M and then while he is easing into the morning I have my second cup of coffee and get things ready.

By eight I’m back home, M safely ensconced in his classroom. By then though, the rest of the household has woken up, the house is wide awake and the magic of the morning is lost.

I’m surprised at how much this affects me, this not having ‘adequate’ time to sit in the semi-darkness by myself and watch my thoughts wake up. As the years go by, I find myself getting even more solitary, longing for pockets of time where I have the house to myself, or a quiet moment to read without interruption or noise. It makes me feel bad, this wanting to be away from the family. But without this quiet-time, I might lose my mind completely.

It’s only the first week of this new schedule and I’m still trying to work out this new rhythm. Would waking 30 minutes earlier help? Last night, I went to sleep almost at 1 am, having wrapped up a deadline. With that kind of night, waking at 5.30 seems almost cruel.

Do you have this need to steal some time for yourself as well? Or am I wanting too much?

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