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She the Shakti: A Poetic Celebration of Femininity, A Chorus of Change

An Interview with Meenakshi M. Singh, editor of ShetheShakti anthology and founder of SheTheShakti Inc.

In Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s famous dance drama ‘Chitrangada’, the indomitable warrior princess of Manipur, Chitrangada introduces herself to her love, Arjun through these following lines: “I am not the one you hail in the alter, worshipping, nor am I the one you keep behind you, in negligence. Recognize my essence while you keep me beside you always, in your bounty and amid deep hours of crisis, allowing me to be a true partner in your life’s journey, a true accomplice in your missions” (translated from the original Bengali). While browsing through the pages of the bilingual poetry anthology ‘She the Shakti’ (Authorspress, 2017), I felt the resonance of these lines, which conveyed to me the quintessential spirit of womanhood.  

In this collection of 300 poems in both English and Hindi, composed by 124 poets, both women and men, the editor Meenakshi M. Singh, an award-winning poet and REX Karamveer Chakra Awardee brings to the fore the spirited, lyrical voices that empower womanhood through the potent medium of poetry. The anthology builds a discourse around the concept of equality of women through a unique poetic collaboration spearheaded by Meenakshi and her organization “SheTheShaktiInc”, a women empowerment center that she founded in 2017. The poems and prose-poems collected celebrates this concept of equality of women, which had long been denied by the power dynamics of a patriarchal social structure. Meenakshi writes in the foreword to the anthology: “It’s time that history gets created by female gender and history is written fairly. Where female is the main protagonist. It’s time for that change.” In an intimate conversation with her following the publication and critical acclaim of the book, we talk about her inspiration behind this publication and her mission and vision behind her enterprise SheTheShaktiInc. 

Lopa Banerjee: Hello Meenakshi, in the foreword to the English section of the mammoth and timely anthology ‘SheTheShakti’, you write a poem with a rhetorical question: “Do the pens have a gender? /Is it that the ink flows better through a man’s poem?” Would you say these questions that bubbled in your poetic psyche ushered in a womanly deluge where other voices joined in, which resulted in this anthology?

Meenakshi Singh: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Lopa, if we reflect any of the historical epics, or literary work of significance in the past, there is not much presence of a woman’s voice. The protagonist is always a man. I doubt that there was any dearth of thinking women in past. It’s natural for any human being to claim their freedom through expression, so I believe the subjugation was imposed on women as a mandate; it was all patriarchal conditioning.

This fact has really compelled me to claim an equal ground and to change the history for the future. Shetheshakti has emerged like the lava as if it was there, ready to erupt. I had never expected that an idea of mine could turn so grand that it would engage 124 contributors so actively, to celebrate the spirit worldwide. The huge anthology took birth in just 3-4 months’ time without any sponsors or a big team backing it. I still feel overwhelmed from the tremendous response from contributors, including you, raising a woman’s voice in the patriarchal society. I believe that it’s some supreme power that united us all to bring the muted voice of woman to the fore.

I believe that the claim to equality which is at the core of feminism needs to be celebrated and voiced, regardless of gender. The time has come to unite in this collective sentiment. It’s as beneficial and important to be gender sensitized and perceive the world equally for a woman as well as for a man.

 

Lopa: The blurb of the book describes it as a ‘‘grand poetic celebration of femininity.” As an award-winning poet yourself, what has been your vision and mission behind celebrating the spirit of woman empowerment through the medium of poetry, which mainstream publishers generally refrain from publishing?

Meenakshi: I always perceived woman as a powerful being, as a creator (Janani), rather than a victim and thus envisioned ShetheShakti as a celebration of feminists. ShetheShakti was never objectified as an anti-men or an outcry project of sulking/blaming men. It’s a statement of power of the dissenting woman, embracing the spirit and importance of both the masculine and feminine. 

I chose poetry as my medium to empower woman’s voice as personally, I have spoken most of my truths through poetry. Poetry heals, liberates and empowers and so poetry is an important armor of Shakti. Poetry has enabled me to feel enough and thus I came up with a book in 2016, “I am Enough” which was a tribute to womanhood. I have benefited from poetry to carve out an identity and received respect in society through poetry, so I truly believe in the power of poetry and know that poetry could be instrumental to change the fabric of the diasporic society. And hence, I chose poetry to fulfill my mission of an egalitarian society.

Lopa: What kind of societal change do you envision from the production of such a collaborative project?

Meenakshi: ShetheShakti did prove that it was the need of the hour, and therefore numerous people united with this cause.  I must confess that I received many requests after the anthology launch to bring a second edition. I express my humble gratitude for AuthorsPress publisher and Director Sudarshan KCherry ji, who stood like a pillar for this cause. Also I express my heartfelt thanks to the volunteers Aparnaa Laxmi for being the co-editor, Samrudhi Dash, Simran Arora for her enthusiastic efforts in the compilation and graphical posters, Mahima Sharma for spreading the spirit out and loud. I also want to thank eminent poet Chitra Desai for writing the foreword in the Hindi section. I want to thank the male poets especially Dilip Mohapatra Ji to join this celebration of feminism and make it an all-inclusive project. My humble gratitude to each and every poet who came forward and joined this chorus of change.

 Lopa: The themes of gender and sexuality, the feminine identity, the theme of repression of the woman in patriarchy have evolved a lot over the ages, and across cultures and continents. Which feminist poets/authors and artists do you draw inspiration from, if any?

Meenakshi: I have been influenced by many feminists but especially the voices of Maya Angelou, Virginia Wolf, Anais Nin, Coco Chanel, Chimamanda Ngozi have liberated me and empowered me. I feel amazed to think that the viewpoint and the literary oeuvre of Maya Angelou and Virginia Woolf are  still so relevant. Kamala Das, Shashi Deshpande, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey are few of my favorites. And I love feminists of all types from Kamla Bhasin, Shobha De, Meghna Pant, Lady Diana, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Diksha Bijlani, Kangna Ranuat, Priyanka Chopra, Natasha Badhawar, Shaili Chopra, Aparna Vedapuri, Vinita Agrawal, Joie Bose, Smeetha Bhowmick, Lopa Banerjee, Chitra Desai, Vinita Dawra, Geetika Goyal, Meena Agarwal,Shivangi Maletia, Malala, Emma Watson, Santosh Bakaya, Nabina Das, Neela Kaushik, Joshna Banerjee, Paromita Bardoloi, Abha Singh, Monica Oswal, Shivani Pathak, Smriti Irani, Meena Kandasamy, Milee Aishwarya and all those men who respect and celebrate women. There are many groups, forums and portals which give me inspiration in daily life.  

Lopa: What connotations do the coinage of ‘feminism’ bring to your mind as a poet, author, woman and mother?

Feminism is humanism to me, being sensitive and respectful to all humans regardless of gender, race and creed. Feminism to me, is synonymous with equal opportunities, privileges and the status for women at home ground and workplace. Unfortunately, feminism is often seen from a negative perspective, like a feminist is angry, anti-men, rebellious and one who doesn’t conform. But as a poet, writer, mother, feminism to me translates as equality and balance leading to harmony.

Lopa: Keeping in mind that we women have really come a long way from struggling to claim our rightful space in the universe to actually accomplishing giant strides in the diverse spheres of society, has the world really known the importance of gender sensitization?

Meenakshi: The identity of female has gone through evolution in terms of roles and responsibilities. As if earth has boundaries, territory for sexes. Roles were acquired as per the innate qualities of each sex and now is the time where they need to be redefined. We are much beyond the age of hunting where only masculine was revered. In this age of technology, women have all the access, skills and tools to reach out and the professional world needs the gifts of innovation, creativity, communication, which is possessed by both the genders. I feel disturbed to think that in the Indian context, the mindsets of people are still wired, stereotyping the roles of women and men. The Laxman Rekha still gets drawn and the woman who dares to cross it is called a feminazi. Even in the society of animals, there is no gender inequality between sexes but humans hold this distorted view. This gender bias is still evident in the 21st century. 

Lopa: Do you think we still need to evolve a lot in our thoughts and actions regarding the true essence of woman empowerment? 

Meenakshi: It needs a revolution to shake things and restore that balance and ShetheShakti is not less than a revolution. I would be happy to witness those times when a woman stops imitating a man to prove her equal identity but embraces her womanhood to be able to celebrate herself emotionally, physically and financially. That is woman empowerment to me and that is my mission.

Lopa:  The depiction of womanhood, the strength, power, frailty and humanity of a woman in Indian society has mostly been shaped by religious conditioning, by the portrayal of women in mythological epics and scriptures. What is your vision regarding the force of femininity as depicted in religion, culture, literature and epics?

Meenakshi: Indian society is rich and empowered due to its roots but there is no mandate or guideline to renew it to make it suitable to the contemporary times.

I would like to point out the hypocrisy in Indian society, especially in the portrayal of a woman. On one hand, the woman is worshipped in temples as Shakti, the symbol of power and on the other hand, she considered as the weakest, dumbest, lowest creature in the society. I understand the derivation of this philosophy from the financial status quo of a man in the family. But then the woman is supposed to follow certain norms, she is rendered mute and caged in homes. This arrangement of keeping the women confined might have suited in the days where enemies invaded.

But in today’s times, I find it ridiculous and irrelevant. I wonder, unless a woman comes out of her shell, how she would be able to prove her independence, and equalize with a man’s status quo? It is heartening to see so many women coming out, reclaiming their equal rights.

Religion has a significant role to play in a woman’s journey in India. My thoughts could be scandalous but most of the Goddesses, the ideal women were muted, underpowered and followed their counter parts like blind followers. All man Gods had their own vehicles but goddesses didn’t…they sulked and waited and dedicated their lives, waiting for their men. I doubt such mythological depictions. I have my doubts about such stories and fables crafted by men, but then that’s a personal viewpoint. The entire lifecycle is governed by the conditioning a girl child goes through in India. The Indian ethos and norms need urgent revision to suit to contemporary requirements and gender roles. 

Lopa: Let me also ask you about the organization “She The Shakti Inc” that you founded in 2017, which is an initiative of yours towards attaining woman empowerment. What are the major highlights of this initiative, apart from its literary aspect, i.e., books/anthologies?

Meenakshi: To give back to society, I pledged to have a mission to empower fellow women through their creative expressions and dissent. In order to do this, I launched SheTheShakti Inc., a woman empowerment center, on Jan1st, 2017. It came up with ShetheShakti, an anthology of 124 poets, a grand poetic celebration of feminism, a collective voice towards empowering woman’s voice in the society. It expressed a chorus of change, of celebration, of hope. It is founded to empower a woman’s voice and raise her identity from all aspects. ShetheShakti is also bringing out an anthology of poems, ‘A Chorus of Youth’ by young Indian poets of age 8-16 years, to foster the creative expression in today’s youth as I believe the voices and creativity of youth don’t get platforms other than schools to get unleashed, and ShetheShakti wishes to be an enabler for our future generation. ShetheShakti has tied up with the NGO Neofusion and announced ShetheShakti Star award on Kaka Hathrasi’s Day to recognize the most creative student in neoFusion academy where all under privileged children are getting holistic education under the tutelage of Dr. Anubhooti Bhatnagar. 

Lopa: Do you think literature and arts is sufficient to attain the goal of empowering feminist voices, or we need more grassroot level initiatives to attain it?

Meenakshi: Literature and art do possess the power of altering society’s gender consciousness, thereby empowering women. It all sprouts from the mindsets of people; gender equality has to be sown in young minds first so that our daughters can blossom. So literature might not seem enough, but has significant role to germinate gender equality in society. Since ages, history, literature and art has shown the supremacy of men over women and thus we are in this unequal state. If you read any story of a fast which Indian women keep, it’s all about duties and dedication of a woman for men/boys. There is no fast in the Indian culture which is kept for a woman/girl/mother. So the attitude needs to be changed at the grassroots level.

My vision for ShetheShakti is to become an instrument to build such a humane society which celebrates, embraces and empowers girls and women psychologically, emotionally, physically and socially. I am working as a woman empowerment coach at the minimal level now. I am exploring various mediums other than Literature and arts and have high hopes towards ShetheShakti. 

Lopa: The best thing I have seen as one of the contributors of ‘She The Shakti’ is the outpouring of the poetic voices of men joining in this collaboration of change. Do you think this will add to its constructive, proactive dissent and solidify the awareness of women being synonymous to Shakti (power)?

Meenakshi: I am grateful that you acknowledged the solidarity and the potency for change in ShetheShakti. Having male poets joining in for feminism and woman empowerment is the most beautiful phenomenon in this endeavor. I salute the male poets, especially for being man enough, for their courage and resonance. As I mentioned earlier, ShetheShakti is all inclusive and stands to raise woman’s voice, but at the same time it carries equal respect for a man’s voice, resulting in a balanced society. You must have noticed that during the recent “MeToo” campaign all around the world, some men also came forward to join in the campaign and it’s beautiful that men also feel it is the need of the times to unmute the silence of women. 

Lopa: Creating an anthology is always a collective experience, rather than anything else. However, the cathartic journey of publishing the anthology invariably enriches our sense of self-exploration by reading the literary works of others. Do you think any of the discerning contemporary poetic voices in ‘She the Shakti’ has strengthened your vision of femininity and humanity?

Meenakshi: ShetheShakti stands on behalf of every woman and thus will stay as a collective voice forever towards elevating the status of the half of the world. It belongs to each and every poet of ShetheShakti as it does to me but personally it has been the most fulfilling creative project for me for some beautiful reasons. As I expressed at the book launch program in Delhi that the amount of joy I felt at the launch of Shetheshakti was boundless, way more than I would have felt at my exclusive books. Secondly, I was from IT industry and it was my dream to get published few years back. I knew that feeling of ecstasy and I wanted to give back to the society in a manner to enable others to feel that joy. So we engaged poets in ShetheShakti, including both veteran authors and literary stalwarts and also emerging poets and this concoction is very special to me.

I received so much gratitude and respect to the point of being overwhelmed from contributors from all walks of life, including a scientist, housewife, dancer, doctor, and even an underprivileged woman and an 84-year-old woman. This will stand as my most precious fortune.

I have deep regards for the stalwarts and eminent poets who engaged and graced ShetheShakti anthology and since numbers are huge, it won’t be feasible to list the names here. All the voices bring power, change and uniqueness to build feminine voice and it’s not possible for me to compare and judge anyone’s poetry. Each poet is dear to me and is an important member of ShetheShakti family. 

Lopa: As a mother of two daughters, do you wish to sow the seeds of woman empowerment and gender sensitization in their young minds, starting from a tender age? 

Meenakshi: I envision ShetheShakti Inc as a change maker in the society towards an equal, humanistic, sensitive and egalitarian world.

Me and my husband used to work together. I chose to quit my corporate job when my twin daughters were born. I did receive consolation from a few aged neighbors for giving birth to twin daughters in this 21st century.

My role as a nurturer at home has never been looked down upon and I am able to pursue my passion of writing as my choice. So the seeds are already sown in the psyche of my daughters. And the way we celebrate the presence of our daughters does bring delight to my heart and a sign that times have changed. My writing, my choices and my identity must have played a role in shaping the viewpoint of my daughters about a mother.

My twin daughters Mihikaa and Maansi are stronger feminists than me as I have encountered during our discussions. Once there was a placard, “Save the Girl child” when my daughters were just 5 years old. Then Maansi had asked: why not save the boy child, mama? At home, sometimes we pass statements like girls keep their room clean due to our conditioned minds and instantly my daughters correct us pointing out the gender stereotype and then we need to utter the correct statement: kids keep their rooms clean. I wish in our future generation, both sexes are always treated equally.

I feel delighted when my daughters look up to me and want to be like me when they grow up. It reflects they have no such prejudices that a woman needs to be submissive and apologetic about her choices.

When we were children, it wasn’t easy for our mothers to make independent choices and they would have felt apologetic if they partied or dressed up like today’s women do. They were apologetic for claiming their own freedom. I could claim that my pen gave me that power and confidence.

Once my daughter asked me that why do we worship these goddesses and who’s the best? There is a poem of mine, “Don’t be a goddess dear daughter” which I wrote, reflecting on a role model among our Indian goddesses. I told my daughter to be her own goddess than follow anyone though my daughters are not that old to understand the meaning fully. I was quite apprehensive to recite this poem in public as it could indicate sign of blasphemy, but as a poet I felt it was my responsibility to show the mirror of our society and to discard irrelevant thoughts. This poem has been well received in all forums and I believe the society is ready for change.

Lopa: What are your future endeavors towards women empowerment, empowerment of the girl child and societal changes?

Meenakshi: I envision great things for ShetheShakti, but since I chose to raise myself through raising my daughters and being there physically present with them at home, I am working from home. I envision expanding this center to be an institution of creative expression, running workshops, open mics, theatrical workshops, bustling with creativity, art and nurturing women empowerment, thereby transforming our society into a sensitive and humane one. It will be an organization where women come to realize their innate potential. I founded this single-handedly and would be happy to have like-minded partners and a team towards strengthening ShetheShakti.

Woman empowerment doesn’t translate into aping men or being like men but being like a woman, embracing and celebrating herself, as is. In this consumerist age, women need to go beyond pink and be truly empowered beyond the stereotypes of looking good. Rather they need to feel good from within. And when one woman stands to empower another woman, the results are better as it is the women who have a bigger role in society to weave its mindset. So it’s time that she doesn’t feel limited, confined and prejudiced.

We envision a transformed world where both the sexes collaborate in tandem as Shiva & Shakti. That is our legacy for our sons & daughters to blossom in a gender-neutral society. She is the Shakti herself and she needs to realize and believe in herself that she is enough, as is, always.

 

Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet and editor based in Dallas, TX. Her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’ and her debut poetry collection ‘Let The Night Sing’ have received honorary mentions at Los Angeles Book Festival 2017 and New England Book Festival 2017 respectively. She has also received the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and for translation (2016), instituted by The Significant League.

Meenakshi M. Singh is an author, founder of SheTheShakti Inc., a woman empowerment centre. An author of three books, her literary work has also been published in more than 50 national and international anthologies and journals. She has been conferred the much reputed Karamveer Chakra Award, the REX Global Fellowship and also the Magicka Women’s Achievement Award, Pride of Women Award by the Agaman group and the SashaktiNari Parishad Pride of Nation Award in 2015. 

Learning from Andal, Learning from the Devadasi

Andal as a Goddess depicted in Tanjore art.

Recently, the Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu called Andal a devadasi and sparked off some protests by the Tam-brahm community. Honestly, the protests by this unassuming, middle-class community in the history of Tamil Nadu caste politics are a new and far more interesting phenomenon, the historical scholarship, on the other hand, is old, hackneyed, ideological and in urgent need of revision. In the face of the protests, Vairamuthu apologized and pointed out that he was not calling Andal a devadasi anyway but another scholar from a 70s book that can’t be located easily was (in Indian Movement: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform by Subhash Chandra Malik). As usual, the issue spiraled into pointing out the distorted histories of the left and corrective attempts from the right on some fora. Tradition has it that women are excluded from issues concerning them, so we must ask: what should our take be on this issue? As feminists, we revel in Andal and her exemplary life as much as we do in the devadasis’ contribution to our society, temples and art forms. Yet, the feminist take on the Andal-devadasi controversy cannot be simplistic or shy away from the problems of history-writing. To show why, I draw from my own research into medieval bhakti a bit and present some thoughts you could consider in making your mind up.

For those of you yet to google Andal up, here is her story in brief. Andal as a baby is found in a garden by Vishnuchitta, a temple priest who then brings her up as his daughter. She tries out garlands meant for the temple deity, thinking they must first look beautiful on her if they are to look beautiful on the deity. One day, Vishnuchitta catches her doing this and admonishes her, for unworn and pure flowers must be offered to Hindu deities. Soon after, the deity appears in Vishnuchitta’s dream and insists that he wants only those garlands tried out by Andal. Andal’s devotion is so deep that she asks to be married to Ranganatha at Srirangam when she grows up, another form of the same deity. Upon marriage, she merges with her beloved deity with no traces left behind. She is hailed as a Goddess and is one of the twelve much-revered Tamil Vaishnavite saints of medieval India. Andal composed two works, Tiruppavai and Tirumozhli. Andal means ruler. The story of Andal is deeply moving. Andal’s innocence, sincerity and perseverance as well as her strength and delicateness are remarkable even when her story is told in unsentimental ways.

When I first heard the story as I child, I was moved to tears and didn’t need to know the history of medieval India to understand it. I say this because there is nothing complete or irrefutable about the history that is doing the rounds aka one that Vairamuthu is drawing his understanding from. Why? The mainstream history that we have today is indeed leftist. It works on the standard format of looking for the feudal lord and the underdog in everything it touches. Even simple inferences about the extraordinariness of Andal makes it paint the rest of the women as super-ordinary. It is such an attempt that makes historians say speculative things like, women took to spirituality because of the oppression of patriarchy in those times or that women never ventured out of the house. My research reveals many credible historical sources wherein women ‘converted’ their husbands’ sect from one to another and even demanded to be married to a person with a certain kind of devotion. They are known to have rejected or rebuked husbands for their lack of devotion as well. The birth of daughters was prayed for and celebrated in medieval India and their loss upon marriage, mourned. Women ruled as queens during this time. In leftist histories, the regressiveness of medieval society and tradition is premised on an assumption of egalitarianism and Protestantism that is attributed to the Bhakti period in comparison with the Protestant movement of Europe. Contrary to the assumptions made, Bhakti did not seek to eradicate caste or gender inequality, it only reiterated what was held to be true in the Vedas: that for spiritual sadhana, class, caste, gender and such worldly categories do not matter. Further, viewing medieval society by premising ourselves in modernity shows our uncritical affiliation with modernity so as to declare tradition as its polar opposite, rife with superstition and backwardness. We must simply disagree with and condemn Vairamuthu’s position that Andal was a devadasi because it is historically inaccurate with no evidence to back the claim. Devadasis have a rich and varied history—not all women who were devadasis were treated as prostitutes; some were performers of various art forms, others led pious lives within the bounds of temples. Andal lived in the immediate surroundings of a temple because she grew up as Vishnuchitta’s daughter and temple priests traditionally lived within a stone’s throw from the temple. This doesn’t make her a devadasi. Andal lived most of the years of her short life being in love with Krishna, her favourite deity and her compositions express her love in erotic terms. But this too does not make her a devadasi necessarily, she could just be a devotee. She married her beloved deity, but this was no ordinary marriage or devadasi marriage. She was dedicated to the temple deity beyond and above requirements of her, of her own will and inclination. She was not bound by tradition to do so. Her choice is what we should find fascinating. Andal surrendered herself to Krishna, but also chided him when she wanted to, accusing him of anything she wanted to. For her, Krishna was real; she was not deluded. Her life was a miracle in itself and though hagiographies may exaggerate, she is not the first or last in the long line of saints who leave their physical bodies in an unusual way—whatever we may or may not understand or believe of this today. We don’t have to uncritically accept these claims but they are stories alright. It is better we let questions persist rather than propose answers that are baseless.

This said, the protests from the Tam-brahm are not unproblematic. They tend to emerge from a moral position of superiority that looks down upon devadasis and sex-workers with enormous insensitivity. Though the protestors have put forward a simple demand for apology, the contours of their position are not entirely unknown. Their moralistic position refuses to acknowledge the complexities of caste, class and gender and seeks to look the other way when complicity in forms of oppression are mentioned. They practice such petty moralism today that they disown their own if they feel that one or another person does not conform to the black-white world they love to hold dear. If only they developed a more sophisticated stance towards their understanding of society and history, could we take them more seriously each time they cried ‘hurt religious sentiments.’ I say this despite the fact that the Tam-brahm community rarely comes forward in this manner, remaining genteel, even effeminate and ultra-cautious. The Tam-brahminization of classical art forms that were wrenched from the hands of the devadasis during the nationalist period is a well-known history that we need to remember on this occasion. The point again is not to critique individual left historians or be anti-brahminical and attack them but to be aware of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their approaches even if on a case by case basis.

Whether women are religious or not, their cause does not benefit with affiliation to either of these positions. One extols the devadasis and condemns Andal somewhat, the other extols Andal and could condemn the devadasis. If women would like to be respected, not for their sexual choices, which is an intensely personal matter, but for being women, as humans equal to men, then where do these two polarized options leave us? Feminist positions unassociated with the left are hard to find. Yet, in this era of postmodernism where ideology is quite passe, why shouldn’t we hope to embrace multiple, vague and arbitrary positions regarding Andal instead of insisting on one or another history?

The bare minimum of Andal’s story, whether fact or fiction, is inspiring enough for women. We would have a problem with Andal if our understanding of feminism was simplistic enough to admonish femininity, devotion, marriage, family, love, sexual desire because they are patriarchal. The truth is, women embrace all of these or reject them or tweak them, or like Andal interpret each in her own way. Women of today tend to marry and redefine it, fall in love and opt out of it, have families they care enough to fight with, call out on their children, celebrate and contain their desires and practice any number of variations of all these. Being feminine does not mean being weak. Strength and femininity can co-exist and has co-existed, as in Andal. It is patriarchy that would like to have us believe otherwise. In addition, it is our general assumption that medieval India did not speak out about sexual desire, which is why we tend to think of Andal as extraordinary or rebellious. Medieval women negotiated sexual desire anyway.
Even if streedharma was followed during these times, it was considered a path to the highest cultural goal, moksha. Women by tending to their husbands and his family would secure a coveted position for themselves, their labour was of value. Miraculous powers were often a byproduct of their filial devotion, while filial devotion in general had rewards as well. Andal’s love for Krishna followed the marriage model and streedharma which reaped her very rich rewards. She vanished without a trace into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple at Srirangam, uniting with a deity who rules the earth and the Gods! Within the logic and narrative of the story, there is enough to convey the effectiveness of Andal’s devotion, the perfect achievement of her worthy aims. The characteristics Andal displays in her story are of great value too. Persistence being one. Purity being another. How much control over one’s actions should one have to be single-minded and unwavering like her! It’s not trivial; anyone of us working outside the home or inside it knows that our everyday tasks too demand great focus from us. Cultivating a character is not to be underestimated and inculcating values considered noble are not necessarily futile though there is much cynicism about them today.

 

Andal, her life story narrated pictorially.

If our feminism is not just a bunch of stereotypes and one where we don’t look at our past or tradition as inferior and silly but are ready to learn some lessons from, we may find much that appeals to our critical minds in there. If our feminism is one where we know that traditional women make choices too—within tradition, whatever the repertoire maybe and however it may appear different to those who have opted out of tradition, then Andal and the devadasi would be equally great. We will help ourselves much if we viewed medieval India as we view our own society today with versions of tradition and modernity competing for our attention; the spectrum beautifully diverse, fickle and irreducible. Let us hope that the young women of the Tam-Brahm community are already asking important questions of their mothers, chipping away at the black-white world into a grey. In her own life, Andal convinced her father to a marriage with the deity Ranganatha in Srirangam, a town far from Srivilliputtur where she resided. Vishnuchitta assembled his family and others and traveled the whole distance as the bride’s party. No ordinary feat. Any of us who has stood their ground on career or marriage with our families would know. Andal does not have to lend herself to our 21st century life directly, women have the imagination to understand her life and her achievements as per her own context, spiritual as it maybe. Neither does the devadasi have to narrate her woes to us in detail before we feel a burning rage against those who exploited her. Andal, the woman, sans her modern and so-called traditional interpreters, is all we women really need.

This essay was first published on Women’s Web. http://www.womensweb.in/2018/01/vairamuthu-learning-from-andal-learning-from-the-devadasi-topical-jan18wk3/

Interviewing the Master-minds Behind Silhouette I & II And Other Fiction

Silhouette I & II And Other Fiction published by Authorspress, edited by Reena Prasad, Michele Baron and Dr. AV Koshy, is one of its own kind of an anthology in the arena of contemporary Indian writing in English. The anthology features the International Reuel prize winning novella ‘Eternal Links’ by Sunila Kamal, ‘The Silhouette’ by Dr. Santosh Bakaya of ‘Ballad of Bapu’ fame, and ‘The Silhouette Sequel’ by Dr. AV Koshy (co-editor), which explains the title of the anthology. The book also consists of a variegated assortment of short stories penned by established and upcoming authors who all happen to be the members of the Facebook literary group ‘The Significant League’. I am also one of the contributors of this anthology.  

Dr. Santosh Bakaya in the introduction to the book, refers to Neil Gaiman’s words: ”Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back for dinner.” Each of these stories in the collection solidify this quote. There has never been a dull moment while reading it yet. Each story comes with its own journey, its own ascending and descending points, its own rising and climax.

The interview below is with two of the anthology’s three editors, Dr. AV Koshy and Michele Baron.

Lopa Banerjee: Hello Dr. Koshy, Michele Baron, can you tell me a bit of the background of this compilation of stories, and how this book came into being?

Dr. AV Koshy: We ran a NANOWRIMO in our group and Michele chose Sunila’s as the best story. That was the beginning. As we got other Reuel Prize winners like Santosh Bakaya and Pramila Khadun published earlier, both Reena and myself wanted to get her published too.  Around the same time Santosh wrote Silhoutte and I felt like writing its sequel and as a result we suddenly had three things we wanted to publish. We felt that was not enough, so we put out a call in our groups and the anthology, not defined with any specific theme, got terrific responses. We put it together and hey presto! We had one more after THE SIGNIFICANT ANTHOLOGY. Sudarshan Kcherry came forward to publish it and we were so grateful to him for the same, so that was how Silhouette I and II and other short fiction came into being. As usual, we tried our best not to compromise on quality.

Michele Baron: Many of us, emerging and established authors, readers, and experimenters-of-form, came together in a global Facebook group called The Significant League (named after our pilot offering, ‘The Significant Anthology’, published in 2015). ‘Silhouette I & II’ contains novelettes written during the NANOWRIMO challenge 2016. There is always a lot of energy, a plenitude of inspiration in a young literary group. Our authors were eager to write, full of wonder about what might be possible. Title stories composed by Dr. Santosh Bakaya and Dr. Ampat Koshy form the glue binding this hybrid collection of short fiction, and the editors worked diligently to preserve the authenticity of each contributor’s voice, ensuring a co-creation of works that embraces the many different traditions, aspirations, and world-views of the participating writers.

Lopa Banerjee:  What inspired you as editors to choose the title of the anthology as ‘Silhouette I&II’? Can you tell the readers a few words about the concept behind the book’s cover illustration, i.e., the silhouette of a man standing on the rocks by the ocean? What does that image signify in terms of the subject-matter/theme of the anthology?

Dr. AV Koshy: I will let Michele talk on the powerful cover as she did it mainly but I took Gauri Dixit’s photo of Kovalam which looked beautiful as a backdrop and the final touches were done by Authorspress who always does scintillating covers. He superimposed Michele’s painting on to the beach and rocks for the back. This one was no exception.

Michele Baron: The anthology’s title is inspired by the short stories written by Dr. Santosh Bakaya, and Dr. Ampat Koshy. Other works are written on themes chosen by the respective authors. Actually, I painted the image on the cover of Silhouette I & II, although the publisher re-formatted the title/author-info I’d originally written upon it. The image is of a long-coated figure, which might be a man, but the hat and looseness of the coat obscure the gender, age, and even the aspect (coming or going) of the silhouette. The foreground, as well as the background is mottled and shrouded with fog, and was meant to resemble the changing tides of fortune, the uneven, unpredictable landscapes of the journeys each of us must take through life.

The light emerges from an undisclosed source, and might be the headlights of a vehicle passing by, or other ray of illumination breaking through the darkness of uncertainty—at once providing visibility, and spotlighting just how intangible the moment of waiting, before immersion in each story of the anthology, each adventure of our own lives, can be.

The silhouetted EveryPerson of the cover art might be an ‘Other’, ourselves, or “our hero” — who enables us to safely view life’s various challenges and mysteries through the lenses of each author in the collected volume.

The back cover image of the rocks along the ocean at Kovalam was supplied by another of our authors, Gauri Dixit; the rugged beauty of the coastline speaks for itself.

Lopa Banerjee: How do you think this anthology can make a difference in the contemporary market of fiction anthologies?

Delhi Litexperia–book launch

Dr. AV Koshy: See, Lopa, frankly today’s world is disappointing as they seem to look for brand names in publishing and already famous names to decide who is good and who is not. This anthology was read by many whom I knew and whom I did not– each person said it is remarkable, it is easily a 4.5 or a 5. But it goes no further. However, we scored a great success when Sudarshan Kcherry sent his catalogue to Library of Congress USA with no recommendations of books published in 2017 and backwards and this was bought by the Library of Congress. I hope it shows someone somewhere has/had the brains to realize just how good it is. Hopefully in libraries they send it to in eight or so countries or where it will be listed in the books, so that someone picks it up, and then it will go further. Truth is, unless academics write of us, no one cares if we don’t get awards or are published by big names or are not available in bookstores.

Michele Baron: Our contributors hail from all across the globe, and offer voices ranging from the newly-fledged, as well as highly seasoned and published. Not all of us, as authors, have been encouraged to sing loudly, but in Silhouette I & II, all our contributors face the dragons and uncharted territories of their fiction, and map the journeys for us, in songs and anthems, stories and poems clearly articulated. Such a compendium of international voices, and the tales they tell, is special, and well deserves its place on the marketing shelves of contemporary fiction anthologies.

Lopa Banerjee: Your thoughts about the Reuel Fiction Prize winning novella by Sunila Khemchandani Kamal, ‘Eternal Links’? Why did you choose to feature this novella in ‘Silhouette I & II And Other Fiction’, along with the other stories featured in the anthology? What would you say about the novella in terms of theme, characterization and style of narration, with your editors’ lens?

Dr. AV Koshy: We try to get Reuel Prize winners and our admins in TSL and others there published and promoted in our own way. This was our prize or gift to her. Instead of money a publication is better, don’t you think, of course due to Sudarshan’s kindness.

Michele Baron: In so many cases, it is difficult to choose from among the panoply of so many authors, so many thoughts, and styles, and stories. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote several famous maxims which may illuminate the mystery of writing, and the vagaries of choice:

“Forget all rules, forget all restrictions—as to what ought to be said.. Write for the pleasure of it… No ideas but in things… Invent!” [W.C.Williams’ poem “A Sort of a Song”].

The novella written by 2016 Reuel Prize Winner Sunila Khemchandani Kamal stood out among the entries presented for consideration for Silhouette I & II, but the anthology as a whole is a very strong collection of voices, speaking from experience and imagination, concocted of local idiolect, dialogue, imagery, and invention. It was indeed a challenge to choose from among the great variety of engrossing offerings, and a joy to include so many authors in the anthology itself.

Lopa Banerjee: Dr. Koshy, what prompted you to write the ‘The Silhouette Sequel’, taking the cues from Dr. Santosh Bakaya’s dark, sinister thriller ‘The Silhouette’? Do you think such cerebral and creative collaborations in short story writing will go a long way in promoting the real essence of literature? I am asking this question since I have seen that currently the trend is to write more market-oriented novels in the thriller genre, with less literary flair and more glossy storytelling with fast-paced narration? What is your take on such fiction?

Dr. AV Koshy: Silhouette Sequel is cerebral, it is also fast paced even for those who don’t get the allusions, but it is meant for a niche audience. As for the collaboration, Santosh’s lovely story really inspired me– that is why I took it on. The trend is always to write what is more popular and we fight against it as we are naturally trying to write at a higher level, nothing can be done about it. Popular fiction has its place as people do want light reads but no reason why we should compromise and be less demanding in our writing of our readers and not stretch them as I have done in my story in their capabilities.

Lopa Banerjee: If I give you the choice to pick and choose the most poignant and remarkable stories in the collection apart from the title story ‘Silhouette’ by Dr. Santosh Bakaya, which stories will come to your mind?

Dr. AV Koshy: Well, this may be biased but Joanna Koshy’s story stands out for me as does the stories of Angela Gamos, Dominic Francis and so many others including Reena’s snake story. The question is a bit unfair actually as the truth is, we got only good stories and all matter, though some may matter more to some and some to the others. A reader of mine loved your story Lopa. I loved Aiswarya’s too and Daipayan’s and Gorakhnath’s and, well, as editors we liked all, or we would not have taken all. Michele’s is very fine writing.

Michele Baron: Our authors provided much inspiration to the editors, from stark stories of survival to fanciful presentations of alternate realities. “Dreams and Reality” (Rhiti Bose), “Destiny Meets Me” (Anindita Bose), and “Beauty Revised” (Soumya Mukherjee) combine with “Survival of a Stripper (Angela F20cc), “A Bottle of Vinegar” (Fatima Afshan), and “Moon River Debris” (Vineetha Mekkoth) with flair and promise — a promise further extended and expended by all the participating authors of Silhouette I & II.

Bangalore launch of the book in Atta galatta bookstore

Lopa Banerjee: What has been the publishing journey of this anthology with Authorspress, one of the scholarly and literary publishers based in India? Authorspress in the recent few years has been quite known to publish literary works in India which are sometimes avant-garde, experimental and out of the mainstream in terms of their subject matter and writing. Who would be your readers of this anthology of selected fiction, now that the book has found a home in the Library of Congress, USA? The usual fiction readers in India and USA, or the more discerning readers who understand and appreciate quality literature?

Dr. AV Koshy: Absolutely, without Authorspress we would be nowhere or nothing. I hope we find quality and appreciative and discerning readers but nowadays it is tough with an anthology coming out every day literally. I do want to thank the publisher for arranging a beautiful launch for us in Delhi, especially, apart from bringing this book out in such a fine manner.

Michele Baron: I defer to my co-editors, who have greater tenure, training, and accomplishment as scholars, educators, critics, and authors of writing.

Lopa Banerjee: Short stories written since the times of classic English fiction writers like O. Henry, Guy De Maupassant, Earnest Hemingway and Teo Tolstoy have been the celebration of the tiny windows in the lives of their protagonists which have been delectable for their engaging narratives in spite of the precision in their scope of storytelling. In the Indian subcontinent, authors like Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore and others have excelled in this art of storytelling, as did some Indian authors in English including R.K. Narayanan, Mulk Raj Anand, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri (diaspora category) and not to forget, Khushwant Singh. Do you think some contemporary fiction writers have the same sharp literary attributes, though they may not be as renowned as them, presently?

Dr. AV Koshy: Definitely, Lopa, but no one will believe it till we get awards and are written of in critical studies which is how we enter the mainstream and also till we are found in book stores and appear on syllabuses – we just need more validation.

Michele Baron: People find their points of reference not only in looking to the past, nor, alone, in standing upon the shoulders of the greats, to gaze into the still-nebulous future. I think contemporary readers, and readers of the future, might, indeed, discover that some of the short fiction written in these times, some among the contemporary “college” of authors, do possess the acuity and appeal of the “timeless” authors who have preceded us.

Lopa Banerjee: As founder and admins of the Facebook literary group, The Significant League, you have instituted the International Reuel Prize in poetry, fiction and translation and also literary criticism which is in its fourth year in 2017. Can you tell me a few words about the significant milestones achieved in these four years as a part of this literary group and what is your vision for the International Reuel Prize and its awardees in the coming days?

Dr. AV Koshy: We are building step by step and stone by stone but the awardees have done well. Very well. All of them have carved a niche for themselves now, and how they leverage it in the near future is up to them. The milestones are introducing it for poetry, expanding it to other genres, and keeping its special thrust for differently abled people also alive. It is an activist prize. We try to be impartial and fair and give new comers a chance and I don’t really see others doing that as much in my opinion.

Lopa Banerjee: Finally, what would be your message to the aspiring south-Asian writers trying to break in the contemporary literary marketplace?

Dr. AV Koshy:  Get proper contracts, get into bookstores, use literary agents if need be, get awards, be on it all the time but don’t forget that ultimately the content and style and form of your language is what matters.

Michele Baron: We are an internationally-educated, internationally-located writing group, and yet we form a neighborhood, small enough that we recognize names, become familiar with the styles, and begin to be somewhat jocular in our online commentary and support of our fellow authors. We do have contributors in other tongues and alphabets, but the language of our publications remains English and its jargon and vernaculars.

It is interesting to be something of a migrant among people (as I seem to be). Market demographics target specific groups, and attach labels and priorities which writers, themselves, might not discern as relevant during the process of inspiration, creation and publication. As humans, we experience hopes, fears, disasters, and dreams. Some of our journey is informed by our origins, race, religion, education, and access; some of it is general to all of humanity. As far as my message to the aspiring south-Asian writers trying to emerge in the contemporary literary marketplace (or to survive the slings, arrows, and edits of time, and be “discovered” in some distant future) is concerned, I would say, to any, as to each, be true to your experience and capacity to conceive, and create, a coherent piece of writing. There is plenty of ‘formula’ writing available, and I suppose it is profitable to those in the ‘formula’ slip-stream, but the vitality and veracity of the art, for me, is in the purity of the need to give voice to thoughts and experience. Whether through written word, spoken word, music, visual arts, or other performance arts, the light of truth which can unite heart, mind, and the intangibles of being are what I find most inspiring, and most necessary to writing.

This probably makes me an anomaly, something of an outsider to the “marketplace” of writers, of writing. It would be lovely to be successful. People do strive for excellence, thirst for recognition, after all. That an internationally-authored anthology of writing, such as Silhouette I & II, has emerged from indie ranks to its seat on the shelves of readers in private homes, and included among the many noteworthy works in the US Library of Congress archives is a wonderful thing — to writers of south-Asian origins, or of, any, all, nationalities.

I would also add to this, write, listen, and write some more. Find your voice, and present it, and your stories, to the world. With thanks to anthologies such as Silhouette I & II, the world will have its chance to discover, and read, your writing. The future will proceed from there, if you keep writing.

 

Bios:

Dr. AV Koshy is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English at the College for Arts and Humanities for Girls, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a widely published poet and Pushcart-nominee, literary critic, fiction writer, editor and anthologist. He has won many prizes and holds many positions and awards as a writer. He is the founder of The Significant League, a vibrant literary group in Facebook, has instituted the Reuel International Literary Prize in 2014 and runs an autism NPO with his wife Anna Gabriel.

Michele Baron is a world traveler, former Fulbright Fellow who currently lives in Kyrgyzstan. She develops outreach projects, writes poetry, prose, nonfiction, has self-published A Modest Menu: Poverty, Hunger and Food Security, in Poetry and Prose; and A Holiday Carol, and blue wings unfolding at Amazon.com; and is a visual/performance artist, among other occupations.

Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet and translator, a Journey Awards winner of Chanticleer Reviews 2014 and Honorable Mention awardee at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017. She is currently based in Dallas, TX.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of “Night of the Fiestas” By Kristin Valdez Quade

In “Night of the Fiestas” (W.W.Norton, 2015), Kristin Valdez Quade explores the complicated question of class and race in contemporary America — a double-sided coin of fascination and, often, disdain. Her characters might be separated from each other by socio-economic chasms, but their lives touch in intimate ways. The socialite is set against the striver, the climber against the arrived, the ambitious against the complacent, employer against employee, the well-adjusted against the malcontent. The sparks set off by these interactions awaken Valdez’s characters to their demons and disappointments, leaving them stunned and humbled by the consequences their own actions unleash. In several of the stories in this collection, we see the artlessness of the protagonists and how their blundering, all-too-human over reaching comes back to haunt them.

In “Cannute Commands the Tides”, Margaret, an older woman, dissatisfied with the mediocrity of her artistic achievement, becomes enamored with her cleaning woman, Carmen. Her dreams of  emancipating and understanding Carmen end in violence and shock when the latter’s no-good adult son shows up at her home with a gun. Margaret becomes an escapee from her own mansion, a disappointed Cannute watching from the driveway, as Carmen tends to her abusive, criminal son, “the two of them as destructive and unstoppable as any force of nature”.

In “Jubilee”, Andrea, is to all concerned, the ultimate achiever. She is the daughter of working-class New Mexican parents. Her father owns a taco cart and has worked, all his life, in some capacity or the other in the fruit orchards and home of the wealthy, landowning Lowells. Andrea is admitted into Stanford on merit, and in her cohort is Parker Lowell, the daughter of her father’s employer. Every interaction between the two girls – including Andrea’s recollections of her childhood with Parker — is shrouded by the narrative of Andrea’s life, a narrative constructed by herself and skewed from having grown up in the shadow of the successful Lowells. In the face of Parker Lowell’s innate sense of ease, her beauty, her ‘whiteness’, and the many gifts of privilege she enjoys without question, Andrea is and will always be no more than a striver and an outsider. Andrea’s alienation is intensified from her notion that however hard she works and despite the professional success she knows will come to her, she was born to none of it. In this very keen revelation, Quade questions the truth of what is at heart a uniquely American theme — that of democracy and self-determination, of inventing one’s destiny in a society founded on the fruit of individual effort, free, as its immigrant beginnings would suggest, from the class and caste structures of the old country. Yet in Andrea’s struggle with class and race, Quade identifies our near-universal hankering to share a seat with the blue-bloods, and our instinct that it is more elegant or desirable, somehow, to be born into privilege than to earn it.

At the jubilee celebration that the story takes its name from, Andrea’s interactions with Parker are alternately awkward, manipulative and finally, damaging. One of her earliest memories is of Mr.Lowell yelling at her when he catches her plucking blueberries in the orchard. No doubt, it is a memory altered by Andrea’s resentment of the Lowells. At the end of the story, a chastened Andrea recalls that Mr.Lowell had not yelled at her, and instead had affectionately requested her to stop, and sent her away with a Coke. Having wounded both herself and Parker, Andrea returns to the orchard and plucks blueberries frantically. It is ironic and yet, not surprising at all, that the single activity that helps her escape her shame is the work of her parents and of her people – fruit picking. She returns to the work whose stain she has dreamed of erasing all of her life. Valdez Quade’s empathy and talent come through in the wisdom of this sentence that reveals Andrea’s need to obliterate her past and her actions, and if it were possible, her culpability.

“She picked and she picked, until she forgot that there were other people around, and as the leaves rustled and the light scattered around her, she forgot herself too.”

 

— Mary Ann Koruth

Craft of writing: No Bells, No Whistles—The Power of Simple Language

Twilight (by Henri Cole, from his collection, “Blackbird and Wolf”)

There’s a black bear
in the apple tree
and he won’t come down.
I can hear him panting,
like an athlete.
I can smell the stink
of his body.

Come down, black bear.
Can you hear me?

The mind is the most interesting thing to me;
like the sudden death of the sun,
it seems implausible that darkness will swallow it
or that anything is lost forever there,
like a black bear in a fruit tree,
gulping up sour apples
with dry sucking sounds,

or like us at the pier, somber and tired,
making food from sunlight,
you saying a word, me saying a word, trying hard,
Though things were disintegrating.
Still, I wanted you,
your lips on my neck,
your postmodern sexuality.
Forlorn and anonymous:
I didn’t want to be that. I could hear
the great barking monsters of the lower waters
calling me forward.

You see, my mind takes me far,
but my heart dreams of return.

Black bear,
with pale-pink tongue
at the center of his face,
Is turning his head,
Like the face of Christ from life.
Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear.
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

I have read this poem over and over again, loving it each time. I return to it like I do to many poems, because it provides an affirmation of my own feelings, my own condition at some point or the other. Like all good art, it mirrors pain rather than seeking to resolve it; it captures rather than critiques; it does not pretend to understand passion. It simply evokes the narrator’s exhaustion and sadness.

“I want to learn the faith of the indifferent”.

Peace eludes the narrator; even indifference will do in its place, he says. The line is ironic but also gives the poem its pathos–is there a greater tragedy than to want to be indifferent to life?

Less is more, they say, and this poem uses that adage to great success. Its language is simple, and its delivery, direct. It possesses the same qualities that Mathew Arnold praised about Homeric style: “…that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble…”
When I read “Twilight”, these words came to mind—simple, direct, rapid. The black bear in an apple tree is a simple metaphor for the mind: dark, unknowable and unpredictable, cradled in branches that bear fruit, so full of color and life.

“I can smell the stink of his body”.

Cole does not mask the stink of the bear in more sophisticated language. The plainness of his language is intentional—and the intentionality is enforced in the rhythm and meter of the line, with the emphasis on the words, “smell”, and “stink”. Read it aloud to yourself, and see.

Go further down the poem and you see that there is no pedantry, no flourishes, no poetic effects. If there is any conceit, it is only in the words “your postmodern sexuality”: how is sexuality postmodern? Everywhere else in the poem, our trust and attention are won over by simple pleas, and clear statements.

…Come down, black bear
Can you hear me?

You see, my mind takes me far,
But my heart dreams of return…

And then, the most enthralling lines:

Black bear,
With pale-pink tongue
At the center of his face,
Is turning his head,
Like the face of Christ from life.

Five lines that connote the contrasting states of suffering and satiety—the bear, sated from eating, turns away blindly, letting its tongue hang out, oblivious to the inner life of the narrator, in a gesture similar to the way that Christ on the cross turned away his own head, but with his eyes wide open, acutely aware of suffering.

The power of the poem lies in its quiet confidence: short sentences, unassuming language, and the single, consistent image of the bear. The image of Christ is universal and accurate, throwing open the poem, and inviting us into the utter despair of the narrator. It appears, completely unexpected, at the very end, shaking up the reader, before it closes in an echo of our own discomfort:

Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear.
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

Pickle Jar – Community of Cinema Lovers!

Pickle Jar is a Bengaluru based community of cinema lovers, who are bound by their passion for watching movies and their commitment to social issues. This community consists of members from different walks of life who, while holding full time professional roles, come together and conduct film festivals that leave a lingering taste and some happy memories long after they are over, just like a pickle!

The community was founded by Vasanthi Hariprakash, a well-known Radio and TV personality in Bengaluru. Known for her vibrant enthusiasm and her passion for all things social, she says she thought of this group after reading an article by the well-known actress Shabana Azmi on her contemporary actress Smita Patil. While the article initially seeded only a thought to catch up on a Smita Patil movie, it eventually – on prodding by a friend – transformed into a bigger vision, why not get some more folks and see the movie together?

And, that led to creation of Pickle Jar, a community that converses, co-creates and curates cinema.

Their journey began in 2016 with a Smita Patil Film Festival, the first of its kind in Bengaluru in May last year that was inaugurated by Shyam Benegal, and it was a huge success. It managed to enliven back Smita Patil into our lives and showcased her as a classic actress to the newer generation who had only heard about her. What made the festival different though was the conversations that made people reflect and think deeper, and of course left a lingering taste and memory long after it was over, much to their liking!

Charged with the response they received, in November last year, they hosted the Hrishikesh Mukherjee Film Festival that had renowned actor Amol Palekar conversing and sharing many unknown nuggets on the one of the best film makers known for his simplicity. Much before Steve Jobs coined the phrase, Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, Hrishikesh Mukherjee had lived it while making his films!

Since its inception, the group has been progressing ahead and getting some nods, pats and applauds by some greats of Indian cinema like Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Amol Palekar TS Nagabharana, and some younger directors like Vikas Bahl, Raam Reddy and Suman Kittur.

The next on the card for them is Travel Talkies, a film festival scheduled to be held later this month in Chennai (16 and 17 Dec), where they will feature some travel related feature films, must-watch documentaries and, short films from across the country. As always with Pickle Jar, the festival will be unique in quite a few ways. It intends to show 7 feature films in 5 Indian languages to show case the beautiful multilingual diversity of India. This time around, they are also planning to show some short films to showcase new talent. These travel-based short films will be judged by a renowned jury. And, most importantly will encourage and inspire women to travel solo and see the world!  Entry to the show that is being held at Wandering Artist, Chennai is free.

So, if you happen to be in Chennai for that weekend and are a travel and movie buff, you know where to go!

Meanwhile I am so glad that my city Bengaluru, largely known as a Startup city in the IT industry, is transforming itself to be art, culture and literary hub too, with such fledgling initiatives like Pickle Jar.

Love you, Bengaluru!

 

Swapna Narayanan is an author of short stories and poems currently based in Bengaluru, India.

“I am a die-hard romantic, unabashedly indulging in childhood memories”, says Dr. Santosh Bakaya, Poet, Author of ‘Where Are The Lilacs?’

Interviewing Dr. Santosh Bakaya, Author of Where Are The Lilacs, a collection of poems on restoring peace and harmony.

With her stupendous poetic treatise Ballad of Bapu (published by Vitasta, 2015) on the life and times of the father of the nation and the advocate of the non-violence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, which is an effervescent poetic treat to even those who have not been Gandhiji’s staunch devotees/followers, Dr. Santosh Bakaya’s foray in the literary arena of Indian writing in English has not been any less phenomenal. I was introduced to her brilliant, evocative body of work through The Significant League, a vibrant literature group in Facebook from where she had received the International Reuel Prize for Writing and Literature in 2014, and have been humbled to know the silken flow of her words that meander like a never-ending cascade, with effortless ease in both prose and poetry. Where Are The Lilacs, another one of her notable poetry collections published by Authorspress in 2016, following the success of the critically acclaimed Ballad of Bapu is like a never-ending corridor where the birds of peace fly unabashed, challenging and enquiring the essence of the crushing reality of hate and devastation all around. Up, close and personal with the author, we get to know the spirited, erudite soul giving birth to this classic collection. We get to know what inspired her to write the poems of Where Are the Lilacs and what exactly defines the versatile body of her work. Dr. Santosh Bakaya is also the celebrated author of Flights From My Terrace, a collection of 58 evocative, soul-nourishing personal essays, published by Authorspress in early 2017.

Lopa Banerjee: Dr. Bakaya, so nice to connect with you! After your phenomenal book Ballad of Bapu, the poetic treatise on the political and personal life of Mahatma Gandhi, Where Are The Lilacs, your collection of one hundred and eleven peace poems is making waves in the literary arena. What is your inspiration behind choosing these subjects for your literary work, whether it is the deep-rooted political philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, or the poems of Where Are the Lilacs where you are a lyrical advocate of peace amid a savage, all-pervading landscape of cruelty?

Santosh Bakaya: Well, I have time and again reiterated that humanity cannot do without the principles that Gandhi stood for – Truth, non-violence and peace.

Martin Luther King Jr, had prophetically maintained, “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of civilizations are written the pathetic words,’ too late’.” Indeed, it is high time, that we chose between peaceful coexistence and violent co-annihilation.

Let not that tide in the affairs of man ebb, let us seize it at the opportune moment. And the opportune moment is now. Or never.

‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ Thus wrote W. H Auden in his poem, ‘In memory of W. B Yeats’ – yes, but through poetry, poets can vent their ire and frustration at a world gone awry – where children die just like that! We have reached the stage where we have already started ringing our hands in impotent rage and muttering, “Too late, too late.”

I have always advocated peace, be it in my classes, or through my words. The all-pervasive cruelty, where humans are killing each other with a cannibalistic glee is so nightmarish.

Through this collection of peace poems, I have tried to emphasize, ‘the fierce urgency of now’. I have always raised my voice against injustice in any form and staunchly echoed King’s words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and through my writings will hopefully continue to do so.

Lopa Banerjee: What is the significance of the title of the collection, Where Are The Lilacs? What, according to you, are the Lilacs, hidden under the blanketed coat of the ‘bloody mess’ and ‘the discordant notes of the war drums’ which you have elucidated in the foreword/Author’s Note? Would you define the poems only as your reflections on the myriad ‘peace notes scattered around us’, which you mention in your Author’s note, or do you think in the hands of a sensitive, discerning reader, they would also serve as an antidote to the anguish and despair that destruction brings along with it?

Santosh Bakaya: Well, the title of my book has been taken from Pablo Neruda’s heart – wrenching poem, “I’m explaining a few things”, where he talks of his beautiful house, bursting with geraniums in every cranny.  This house of flowers was reduced to a ‘dead house’ in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war when the profusion of flowers in the garden disappeared, and the poet was left exclaiming, “come and see the blood in the streets”.

Some of these poems I wrote, while gruesome scenes flashed on the television screen, some are cathartic endeavors, and others are prayers. I cherish the hope that one day, ‘the longed for tidal wave of justice’ will sweep away all violence and injustice from this world.

When I write, my heart takes over, and my head sits pillion. Yes, there are myriad peace notes scattered all around us, but we are so obsessed with so many meaningless pursuits that we just don’t have the time to string these notes to create a soothing peace song.

When I have recited my peace poems, I have seen people crying, and commenting about the futility of violence. When will all this end? They ask. Yes, it does serve as an antidote to the anguish and despair that destruction brings, but I feel, that if I can awaken people to the ‘fierce urgency of now’, my task will be done.

Lopa Banerjee: In the very first poem of the collection, you write: “Ah, soft, the delectable petrichor/Wafts from the rain-drenched earth./In this birth is lost the stench of gore.” There is a very sweet lyrical flow in the poem which brings in the torrents of rain, ripping ‘the skies apart’. Then again, in the poem ‘The Moon Hums A Peace Song’, you present the moon as a corollary to this image of the rain, both being lingering metaphors washing away the insanity of bloodshed all around us. Would you say these poems are representative of the romantic poet within you who ushers in childhood fantasies to ward off the senseless demonstration of violence around us?

Santosh Bakaya:  Yes, they are escapist metaphors for me. Nature is always soothing, the moon, the sun, the stars are indeed an antidote to the insensate violence all around. Just as an infant’s thumb creeps into its mouth, when it wants to be soothed, similarly, I rush to these metaphors of nature. They instantly soothe me.

Yes, I am a die-hard romantic, unabashedly indulging in these childhood memories.  Many are the times, when the moon, walking the night in its silver sheen, has quelled the stormy turbulence in my heart and the twittering birds have silenced the churning and burning of the heart. Nature is my haven I scurry into, when confronted with the senseless violence around.

Lopa Banerjee: The poems that follow carry the delicate lyrical images of ‘love birds’, ‘chirping and twittering’, the mermaid and the dolphins frolicking and traipsing by, ‘the chubby five-year-old’ boy clapping with ‘juvenile laughter’ to the mellifluous symphony of the rain, the blue balloon, ‘bloating with promise.’ How indispensable have these lyrical images been in the crafting of these poems?

Santosh Bakaya: All these images are very important – they are not merely images but scenes which I have witnessed in the lanes, bylanes and thoroughfares of life. I can never erase the memory of that rag picker child, from my memory, who was chasing a bloated, blue balloon, his face sheathed in happiness, so pure, that it brought a deluge of tears. Small pleasures of life have the potential to make us happy, why hanker after material trinkets?

Lopa Banerjee: The poems also seem to carry a very nostalgic air, along with a romantic refrain, which I sense, has come from your ineffable attachment with the natural landscape of Kashmir, your hometown and your childhood haven. For example, in the poem, ‘And The Fires Burned’, there are some lyrical associations of a young girl with the river Lidder, the boulder, the pine tree, the hyacinths and the nameless other flowers, as she reflects sadly on her father’s tragic demise. Again, in the poem ‘Magic Of The Peaceful Past’, you write: “Changing colour like autumn leaves/Floating around like snowflakes…” How has your association with the physical and emotional landscape of Kashmir shaped up a part of this collection? Would you say these delicately woven poems can also be virtual messengers of peace in the volatile reality that your hometown is facing for some years now?

Santosh Bakaya: Yes, the condition of my hometown, known for its communal harmony, for its spectacular beauty, for the poetry of Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon, and for its Sufi saints, is pathetic right now, and no one seems to be bothered.

I was not born in Kashmir, but we spent a lot of our childhood days there. I keep going back, to find myself cavorting next to the pines, inhaling the fragrance of the poplar- lined boulevard and watching the Lidder, the pebbles making love to the waves, and shepherds singing songs of peace.  My heart bleeds. It bleeds for my hometown that is Kashmir.

Yes, it bleeds through my poems.

I don’t know, whether my poems can be virtual messengers of peace in the volatile reality, but, yes, I am known to cling to straws and maybe someday, I will think that one day, I “did something slightly unusual.”

Lopa Banerjee: In your poem ‘Woman of Substance’, you write about Rosa Parks, the famous American civil rights activist and her daring defiance that pierced through the mindless segregation of a racist America. Any particular reason why you chose to include this poem in the collection? Is it because you opted to extend your voice towards any kind of social injustice that has shaken the core values of a world besotted with inequality and intolerance?

Santosh Bakaya: My all-time favourite quote is the one by Martin Luther King Jr: “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In this anthology, I have tried to include poems, which talk of injustice. By refusing to stand up in the segregated bus, to make place for a white passenger, Rosa Parks, on 1 December, 1955, stood up not only for her beleaguered community but for the entire human race. She stood up for peace and equality. Her one brave step created a revolutionary storm in the world.

Peace means inequality, intolerance, fairness and justice.

Call me naïve, but I earnestly cherish the hope that maybe “someday, “in the deserts of the heart”, the healing fountain might start?

Lopa Banerjee: The poems of the collection are evocative enough to compel the readers to look back at the tragic moments of loss and devastation, while also taking in a fistful of hope and happiness that comes with the closure and the catharsis that humanity derives from the warfare. For example, in the poem, ‘The Colours of Love’, the “two sparrows appear/Hopping cheerily on the branch of a dead tree”….and then “The two lovebirds fly away/To the golden gates of their paradise…To awaken the next dawn.” Also, in the final poem of the collection, ‘A New Year Dawns’, you write about the soft, soothing radiance of the euphoric dance of a new dawn, a new year. What has inspired you to portray these binary feelings of reflecting the dark and miserable, and also the lullaby-like, wistful, hopeful poems, that fit so well into this poetic narrative of peace?

Santosh Bakaya: In this topsy – turvy world, the good, bad, the ugly all go together.  There is pain, devastation, selfishness, and there is also love. Being a die-hard optimist, I staunchly believe in the power of love, and hope that the uninhibited and continuous flow of love, will one day drown the rampant cacophony of hatred and lilacs will again bloom.

Poets like Pablo Neruda will not expect us to ask, and where are the lilacs? Bandits will not come through the skies to kill children and the blood of the children will not run through the streets. Gunfire and blood followed the Spanish civil war when the smiles, the brilliant hues, the vibrant life, the flowers, the cavorting children all vanished, and Neruda was left with the bruised notes of this heart- wrenching poem, from which I have taken the title of my book.

How poignantly Neruda writes,

“And one morning all that was burning,

one morning the bonfires

leapt out of the earth

devouring human beings.”

Why should humans fall over humans with cannibalistic glee? Why indeed!

Lopa Banerjee: You write about the Kalashnikov in your characteristic heart-wrenching expressions in the poem ‘Such A Cruel Thing This Kalashnikov’: “Ah, It is small in size/But severs all earthly ties/Plays dangerous games/And is obsessed with changing names.” Would you say that Where Are The Lilacs is meant to be an eye-opener for the perpetrators of war and turmoil, as much as it is for the young children born into this world, who, you hope and wish, “do not have to ask Santa for bullet proof jackets, a world where childhood is a synonym for happiness”? What would you have to say about the book as a legacy for them?

Santosh Bakaya: Well, I have always maintained that hatred is corrosive, hatred cannot beget love, and only love can beget love. The war – mongers have always scoffed at the peace –lovers, contemptuously calling them peaceniks, and heaping venom at them.

It is not for me to say whether this book is a legacy for the children, I can only say that I have poured my anguish and my despair in this book, and the hope that someday, humanity will realize the colossal folly of being inhuman, and our children can move around without any fear.

War in any form is bad, how can the bludgeoning on innocence, strangulating of juvenile dreams be justified?

Lopa Banerjee: I remember you stating in an interview regarding another book of yours, which Reena Prasad, poet and editor too, mentions in the foreword to the collection: “I did not have to make any conscious effort, these slivers of memory just erupted from the subterranean depths, fitting into the narrative smoothly.” How true are these words about this particular collection of poems? I guess at least some of the poems here have evoked the sense of a vibrant nostalgia of idyllic times gone by as you have depicted a cramped apartment, the hushed innocent sleep of an infant, the anguish of an old woman who had ‘borne many a slingshot’. What part does your memory play here, vis-à-vis the depiction of the metaphorical truth that is a poet’s biggest tool?

Santosh Bakaya: Yes, the nostalgia is always there. Always.

I have had a wonderful childhood, loving parents, who showered us with love, without pampering us.  It is the untrammeled flow, the frothy effervescence of love that can keep the world going. Hatred will destroy this world, making us go back to the Hobbesian state of nature, which was ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Lopa Banerjee: The phenomenal poet Robert Frost had famously said about poetry: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” You have authored two poetry collections, ‘The Ballad of Bapu’ and ‘Where Are The Lilacs.’ Many of your poems have found home in national and international anthologies, journals and e-zines, and also, you have been a featured poet in Pentasi B World Friendship Poetry. Besides, you have received the International Reuel Prize for literature in 2014. As a renowned advocate of poetry, what is your take on these words of Frost?

Santosh Bakaya: Yes, I do agree with Robert Frost, as many of my poems have begun as a lump in my throat, followed by a crushing sense of rampant injustice. The bludgeoning of innocence, the sufferings of refugee children, and devastated mothers, have always brought a lump to my throat.

Nostalgia has always been a part of my poems, nostalgia for the times when it was joy to be alive, nostalgia for the times when chasing kites and butterflies was a serious preoccupation demanding single-minded concentration, and plucking guavas from the neighbor’s garden was the happiest pursuit on earth.

Yes, homesickness has also been a recurrent theme in my poems. Home is definitely where the heart is, so at times, I feel as if I have left my heart behind in the flowerbeds, the rockeries, the terrace, the garden of my childhood, and   I keep revisiting them through my poems.

Although I hail from Kashmir, I was not born there, yet, I keep going back to scrape my roots there, and am happy to find myself still thriving there, under the overgrowth.

Yes, I yearn for a profusion of love in this world so that all the hatred, animosity, ill- will and rancor is buried deep under this deluge. Yes, I am love-sick, forever craving for love to replace hatred.

Let me tell you something, I had gone to Accra, Ghana, West Africa in May 2016 as one of the delegates to be part of an international poetry event, co – hosted by Pentasi B and the Ghana Government and to receive the Universal Inspirational Poet Award. One day, while on a visit to Jamestown fishing Village, a small, poor child, maybe five or six years of age, erupted from somewhere, and hugging me tightly said, “I love you!”

It was indeed a precious moment for me, bringing home to me the power of love.  That poor orphan had nothing to give me, just his eloquent bony arms which spoke the language of unadulterated love.

It is not too difficult to give love, and I have a fervent hope that the white dove flying diffidently in the petrified skies, will one day gain a sure-footedness, and strike a chord in hearts sequestered in hate, and those hate – clogged hearts too will burst into peace songs.

‘Where are the Lilacs?’ is available in Amazon India, Amazon.com, Flipkart and in the website of Authorspress India.

Amazon.in:

http://www.amazon.in/Where-Are-Lilacs-Santosh-Bakaya/dp/9352073320/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488222219&sr=8-1&keywords=Where+are+the+lilacs

Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Where-Are-Lilacs-Santosh-Bakaya/dp/9352073320/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1488222298&sr=8-2&keywords=Where+are+the+lilacs

 

Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet, editor and translator based in Dallas, Texas. She has co-edited two books with Dr. Santosh Bakaya, ‘Darkness There But Something More: An Anthology of Ghost Stories’ and ‘Cloudburst: The Womanly Deluge’, a poetry anthology with 28 contemporary women poets of the Indian origin.

 

Connect, Create and Celebrate in Shirin’s Kitchen – An interview with Shirin Subhani

Michael Pollan in his show ‘Cooked’ talks about how human beings are the only species that cook their food. He explains how cooking is responsible for our evolution because we spend less time chewing because of cooking. While the science of cooking seems very fascinating, I believe that cooking is a very fine art form and our mothers, grandmas, aunts and everyone who ever cooked for us are artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when one of my very good friends Shirin Subhani started a Facebook Page called ‘Shirin’s Kitchen’. She was teaching Indian cooking classes at her home and I found the whole concept extremely captivating. Shirin comes from a Computer Science background and it seemed to me like she was following her heart as she cooked and celebrated Indian Food with her adopted city of Seattle.

Zohra: Shirin, it is a pleasure to be talking to you via Jaggery. Thank you for taking time off your busy schedule and talking with me. Could you start of by telling us about your journey – about how your path led you to Shirin’s Kitchen?

Shirin: Zohra, I am very excited to be sharing my story with your readers. Thank you for this opportunity. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve really enjoyed having friends over and sharing meals with them. When my older son started Kindergarten seven years ago, it was at a very special school where I found myself in a lovely community with wonderful families and loving and dedicated staff. I started inviting other parents and teachers home, and cooking for them. They received my food with a lot of appreciation and love, and it inspired me to cook more.

A few of them were interested in learning how to make Indian food so I started having them in my kitchen and teaching them some of my favorite dishes. As I did this more and more, I realized how much I was enjoying the experience, and so were my ‘students’. Many of them encouraged me to formalize the process more and assured me that there were others who’d be interested in learning to make Indian food. With their loving support and motivation, I started Shirin’s Kitchen.

Zohra: Thank you for that Shirin. It’s quite wonderful to realize that there are people out there that seem to be not only interested in eating food but making it too! Seems like you have a very good community of enthusiastic cheerleaders encouraging you amongst your community. I can see where your passion and love for this comes from. So, what do you love most about what you do?

Shirin: Yes, I am very grateful for all the support and love I have been blessed with!Image may contain: food

I came up with the tag line Connect-Create-Celebrate to describe my cooking classes and the combination of these three aspects is really what I seem to love the most. Connecting with people, Creating delicious and nutritious food together, and Celebrating our efforts by sharing a meal.

I also send people home with little spice boxes (masala dabbas), which include all the needed spices for the dishes they learn to make, including some of my own homemade spice blends and it gives me a lot of joy to put these boxes together.

Witnessing people getting more comfortable with new recipes, sending them back with spices, and then hearing back from them that they’ve recreated those very dishes in their own kitchens makes me really happy!

Zohra: That’s very nice Shirin. You had mentioned to me earlier that one of your favorite food-based novels is Chitra Divakaruni’s ‘Mistress of Spices’. Any other inspirations?

‘Mistress of Spices’ so beautifully captures the essence of so many Indian Spices; as I delve into the magical world of spices myself, Divakaruni’s words are a beautiful inspiration.

I loved her spice-a-day assignment in the story – “Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.”

Recently, I started reading chef Vikas Khanna’s books as well and am enjoying his journey with spices as well. His beautiful cookbooks, descriptions and stories are very inspiring. ’Bliss of Spices’ is what’s on my shelf right now and I am learning so much from it!

I also have a couple of wonderful websites which I like to look at for recipes and recipe ideas, including my favorites – Veg Recipes Of India with very helpful photo instructions for each step and Monsoon Spice, with beautiful photos and stories!

Zohra: Those sound great. Spice-a-day reminds me of Tilo’s Fenugreek Wednesdays. “Fennel, which is the spice for Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people. . . . Fennel . . . smelling of changes to come.” 

On that note, I want to ask you what plans are cooking and what can we smell in the future in Shirin’s Kitchen?

My classes are still new and so far, most of my students have been friends and friends of friends. This has been a great experience and I feel ready now to also welcome new people to my kitchen, people who are completely new to me, and cook with them. I recently started cooking with kids as well and loved that, so look forward to more kids’ classes as well. Currently, I am in the process of completing a series of guest chef classes, where I invited other friends and family who love to cook to come in and do special classes. I get to learn a lot from them too. In my last class, I had my friend Deepa Hazra who taught us Bengali dishes from her hometown Calcutta. She taught dishes using vegetables like Bitter Gourd, Drumsticks and Plantains, vegetables that I don’t commonly cook with. It was a great learning experience to cook outside of my comfort zone. I am hoping that I can do more of these guest chef presentations and also expand my students and my horizons.Image may contain: 3 people, people sitting, people eating, food and indoor

Zohra: That sounds very exciting. I see that there seems to be a lot of planning in your classes. I think there was one time where you did South Indian breakfasts like Idli, Dosa, Wada etc. Another time where you did Rice dishes. Where do you get your class/recipes/ideas from?

Shirin: A lot of class ideas come from people telling me what they want to learn. Others are based on what I think would be fun to teach. Many of my recipes are based on what I’ve learnt from my mother or my mother-in-law. My sons are pretty picky eaters too, so I’ve had to get extra creative with my recipes to appeal to their palates.

Zohra: It is quite heart-warming to see that your family seems to be supporting your venture. I think one time your aunt did a class too.  How do your kids and your husband react to Shirin’s Kitchen?

Shirin: My kids seem to love the fact that I do cooking classes and it was my little one who encouraged me to get going with Shirin’s Kitchen. They love that their friends and teachers are learning to appreciate and cook Indian food and seem proud of their mom for enabling that. My husband is a good cook himself and I am looking forward to doing events with him in the future as well, our very first Date Night cooking class is coming up soon where we will be co-teaching.

Zohra: Very nice. Basically you are not only bringing the whole of Seattle together but your family as well. Great work Shirin. Tell us, as I am very interested to know and I am sure our readers are as well, as to how non-desis react to Indian food? Do they find it easy/hard to cook? Do they enjoy the process or get overwhelmed sometimes?Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, food and indoor

I love how much people seem to love Indian food! The different vegetables, the spices, the completely different ways of cooking the same dish, the colors, the flavors, the smells, all of it makes for a wonderful and fun experience.

Sometimes people do start off a little intimidated, especially by the number of spices involved but my job is to make them relax, help them see spices as friends and learn to pay attention to and trust their senses. One of my challenges is that I don’t measure things typically and my students are often used to exact measurements so look for those. Encouraging them to add a pinch of this, a handful of that, and taste and adjust as you go can be hard at times, but they do slowly lean into it and end up getting comfortable with the idea by the time they are done.

They come in thinking they might find it hard, and are often pleasantly surprised with how easily they are able to follow recipes and cook up something delicious. I’ve often had people sitting down at the table, taking a bite of the food and going, ‘Wow, did I really make that?’

Zohra: Wow Shirin, that is so wonderfully put – “help them see spices as friends and learn to pay attention to and trust their senses”. I am sure there are many experiences and things that happen in the kitchen. Any interesting anecdote(s) you want to share that happened in Shirin’s Kitchen?

A couple months ago, I was setting up for a class where two of my students were going to be folks I had never met before (friends of a friend). It was almost class time and I was running terribly behind. It had been a somewhat chaotic morning with the kids and my kitchen was in somewhat of a mess. Typically, I have everything all neat and tidy, stations all set up, and chai and snacks ready at the table before folks arrive. On that particular day, I was far from ready when there was a knock on the door.Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people sitting, people eating, table, food and indoor

I took a few deep breaths and decided to embrace the chaos. Instead of apologizing, I welcomed the two ladies with, ‘I have a special treat for you today. You’ve already seen my kitchen picture perfect on Facebook, here you get to see the behind the scenes version, the setup process in action!’  The women had big smiles on their faces and told me to relax and take all the time I needed to setup.

They were in their sixties, friends for 35 years, having met each other because their kids were in preschool together. ‘Our kids got over us but we never did,’ they shared. Between lots of laughs and loving conversation, I got my kitchen all sorted out and set up and probably served one of my best cups of chai that day! They loved the entire experience and never having cooked Indian food before, embraced the new dishes and touched my heart with the openness and excitement with which they paid attention to and enjoyed every small thing. I have stayed in touch with them and look forward to having them back in my kitchen soon!

Zohra: What a fun story! Shirin, I read some of the reviews that people who took your classes left on your FB page and have gathered that you have come up with a very creative structure to your class that starts with chai and ends with a meal. Typically, how many hours do you spend on a class? Could you explain more about what happens in a typical class? Also, I would love to know what your favorite snacks/dishes are?

You remember the tag line I mentioned earlier – Connect, Create, Celebrate? That pretty much defines the structure of my classes.No automatic alt text available.

Each class typically run up to 4 hours long. The session starts with everyone sitting around the table and connecting over a cup of my adrak chai and other munchies, usually comprising some of my own favorite childhood snacks. As folks sip their chai and get acquainted with each other, I familiarize everyone with the dishes they will be cooking and answer any questions they may have. I ask folks to pick the dish/dishes that jump out at them and choose what they would like to make. By themselves or with a partner, they then start creating. Doing all the prep and then all the cooking, each person is responsible for their dish from start to end, with me watching over and guiding as needed. Once all the dishes are made, we eat a meal together, enjoying the fruits of our labor! As we eat, I introduce them to their masala dabbas and each spice in the dabba that they will be taking home with them.

As for my favorite snacks and dishes, they seem to keep changing all the time but some of my all-time favorite snacks with chai are Parle-G and Bourbon biscuits. I have to be careful with them because I can easily finish entire packs, dipping them into my chai one at a time! I love any dishes that are paneer-based, Saag Paneer is something I can eat all the time, especially with Zeera Rice. I recently learnt how to make Paneer Makhmali and really enjoy that as well. And of course, any kind of Raitas are right up there among my favorites also.

Zohra: Thank you Shirin for that wonderful tete-a-tete. It’s amazing to see what all you are doing and the kind of experiences you are having in Shirin’s Kitchen. It seems like you are bringing together so many people (and your family too) in sharing the happiness of making food that you love for the people that you love. We at JaggeryLit wish you all the success as you move forward, and I hope to do an interview with you after you are finished establishing Shirin’s Kitchen Empire. I look forward to speaking with you again. Good Luck!

Shirin: Thank You Zohra, this was a great opportunity for some pause and reflection. Hope your readers enjoy reading about my adventures.

For those interested in what’s happening in Shirin’s Kitchen, please be sure to like her facebook page:  Shirin’s Kitchen Facebook Page 

 

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Craft of Writing: Interiors and Interiorities

One of the things that has always daunted me in writing is the description of ordinary spaces, and how to use them effectively without being bogged down by unnecessary detail. A love story on a deserted island with coconut palms and roaring seas (excuse the cliché) would be a thrill to describe, but those aren’t the scenarios in which daily life plays out. An office cubicle, a playground, a dining table where a child eats her cereal on a school morning, the restaurant at the heart of a small mid-western town—the sort with the clapboard exterior, the rows of tables with faux-wood veneer borders, the cushioned chairs, the perky waitress, the laminated menu. Ordinary as these are, they can become dramatic spaces in the hands of a careful writer. Elizabeth Strout juxtaposes the mundane locations of Crosby, Maine, the small town where her stories unfold, with the restless interiorities of her characters. In “Olive Kitteridge”, her Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, Strout describes the nondescript interiors—of the restaurants, churches, hospitals and neighborhoods that American readers are all too familiar with and which sometimes suffer from a heightened sameness, by introducing particulars of a location into the scattered thoughts of a character, so that a single image evokes a known world. We have all read stories where the mood of a place underlines the mood of the characters occupying it—either by echoing it, or opposing it. Strout does this particularly well. She embroiders epiphanies, doubts and musings—the revelatory aspects of character—with the most mundane details of routine and locale.

Patty Howe poured coffee unto two white mugs, placed them on the counter, said quietly, “You’re welcome,” and moved back to arrange corn muffins that had just been passed through the opening from the kitchen. She had seen the man sitting in the car—he’d been there well over an hour—but people did that sometimes, drove out of town just to gaze at the water. Still, there was something about him that was troubling her. “They’re perfect,” she said to the cook, because the tops of muffins were crispy at the edges, yellow as rising suns. The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad…

The screen door opened, banged shut. Through the large window, Patty saw that the man in the car still sat looking at the water, and as Patty poured coffee for an elderly couple that had seated themselves slowly into a booth, as she asked how they were this nice morning, she suddenly knew who the man was, and something passed over her, like a shadow crossing in front of the sun. “There you go,” she said to the couple, and didn’t glance out the window again.

(From the short story “Incoming Tide”, in the collection, Olive Kitteridge.)

These paragraphs introduce us to the character and her setting—a breakfast joint in Crosby, Maine. Where an average writer might waste words creating the sense of space that Patty occupies internally (in her mind), and externally (at her job as a waitress), Strout captures her in the act of pouring coffee into two white mugs. We, the readers. know white mugs and coffee, and corn muffins. With three simple and ubiquitous images, we know where she is, and what she might be employed as. We return now, nudged gently by Strout, to Patty’s mind. The man in the car is unknown to her, and to us, so what is there to do, but have her make a comment to the cook, about the beauty of the muffins—yellow as rising suns—a nod to the time of day (morning), and the goodness of the food, and the woman, Patty, who is handling it. She is sad, which makes her sympathetic, and this heightens the dramatic tension of her being troubled by the man in the car.

The scene consists of a screen door, a large window and a booth—three objects that signify again, the kind of restaurant. It serves breakfast, and is not upscale. And just as she greets her customers, the realization dawns. She recognizes the man and it is not a happy recognition. In two paragraphs, Strout not only delves into the character’s mind, but makes her eminently human (she is kind, she is sad about something, she is frightened from having recognized the man). Most importantly though, she drives the story forward by piquing our curiosity and our concern. Who is this man, and what is he to Patty Howe?

All it took was some deft and brilliant interweaving of a state of mind with telling details of space and gestures, for a new character, Patty Howe, to unfold and shine through.

– Mary Ann Koruth

Tete-a-tete with Gayathri Krishna of Bhoomija

Bhoomija meaning ‘born of the earth’ is a Bengaluru based Performing Arts trust that was started in Aug 2012 with a clear mandate of making the finest performing arts accessible to all audiences. It is the brainchild of Gayathri Krishna and is a trust that includes Anjali Joshi and Archana Prasad. In a span of 5 years, Bhoomija has become a well-known name in Bengaluru and has exceeded expectations in its mission of showcasing the rich heritage and variety of performing arts from around the world in India, and taking Indian music and dance to world venues and festivals. They have done close to 125 shows with maestros like Padma Vibhushana Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, Padma Bhushana Vikku Vinayakram, Padma Bhushana Prabha Atre, Bombay Jayashri, TM Krishna, Roysten Abel, Aruna Sairam, Malavika Sarukkai, Ranjani-Gayatri, Abhishek Raghuram etc.

I caught up with Gayathri recently and she passionately spoke about, what she calls her daughter, Bhoomija. Here are some snippets of our conversation.

Swapna: I have seen you in corporate meeting rooms, then in the corridors of Ranga Shankara as Arundhati Nag’s able right hand, and now as the torch bearer of Bhoomija. You seem to have come a long way. What drove you to walk this unique, and largely unheard of path?

Gayathri: Well, it is a journey that began long back. I have always an attentive and appreciative audience. Right from a young age, I used to go and attend all possible plays and theatre shows that happened in Bengaluru. My career at that time was largely based outside India. But whenever I was in in India, I ensured I caught up on plays. And, I have this habit to go back stage after the play and appreciate the performers.

This was the time when the play Nagamandala was staged by Arundhati Nag and Shankar Nag and as always, I went up backstage and met them too.

A few years later, after Shankar Nag had passed away, I read an article by Sowmya Aji which said Arundhati Nag’s dream is crying for funds. Excited that such an initiative had been thought of for the cultural scene of my city, and appalled that the dream may not materialize because of lack of funds, I immediately reached out to Arundhati, made a little contribution and requested her to make me a part of the team. To give credit to her, she remembered me from those backstage interactions. Though my contribution was quite small to her overall vision, it was well appreciated by her. And that began my journey with Ranga Shankara.

Things eventually changed at my end and I moved back to Bengaluru for good and got further involved with Ranga Shankara. Today Ranga Shankara is the one of the leading theatres in India hosting both national and international plays of repute.

Bhoomija, on the other hand, focusses on the performing arts space. It all began with one of the children shows that we had curated at Ranga Shankara. The show was over and I had just stepped out in the lobby where I saw a few young children exclaiming in joy while interacting with artists. Those children never knew about the concept of live shows and were mesmerized by the artists and were touching and feeling them to make sure they were for real! That was my moment of truth. It dawned on me that, if let go, the roots will get uprooted and we will completely lose touch with the performing arts heritage of our country!

So, that sowed the seeds for coming up with a platform that makes the finest performing arts accessible to all audiences, remunerative for artistes and sustainable for the organizers. And Bhoomija was born to showcase the rich heritage and variety of performing arts from around the world in India, and taking Indian music and dance to world venues and festivals.

And today, I am so glad to share that we have done close to 125+ shows in a span of 5 years and all of them were very well received and appreciated.

Swapna: Apart from the diminishing focus on our culture, the passion for performing arts also seems to be the core driver for you. So where were those seeds sown? How was your childhood? Was it spent entirely in the lap of art, music, and theatre?

Gayathri: Well, yes. I hail from a family of musicians. My father, Vidwaan HN Krishna, was a musician who used to regularly perform. He would be someone who would be constantly singing and hence music ran in our lives. My home used to constantly resonate with discussions on swara, tala, shruti, raga, kriti etc. and thus music became an intrinsic part of my life. While I did not take to music as a profession, I did become a discerning listener.

Swapna: Performing arts is fairly well defined in our country, especially in the south of India. Yet Bhoomija, since its inception has made a mark. Your first show with Bombay Jayashri was a super hit. Subsequently you have done many shows. What differentiates Bhoomija?

Gayathri: My vision is to bring the best to the masses. I want best of the artists to perform for the widest of the masses, so that the art form seeps in and gets entrenched into our society and does not run the risk of uprooting! Our culture must sustain for generations to come.

That said, I also want people to listen/see, what I call in common terms – superstar artists – at an affordable price. All our shows were priced at Rs.300 per seat. While I am constantly advised that I should increase the ticket price for stalwarts who perform for Bhoomija, I do not believe in that. I cannot deny the sustenance pressures, but for them I work harder. And with now GST in play, we have further reduced our ticket price to Rs.249, but that is fine.

Another differentiator is that contrary to the normal shows, our shows always have a narration by the artist. This narrative ensures the show is holistic and the audience is involved and connected. We have experimented with unique formats that have worked very well. For example, a show titled – Different Tongues, One Heart Beat – was done by Ranjani Gayatri that had songs from 13 different languages. And the show was well received and highly appreciated. Artists like to perform for a receptive audience, and we want the audiences to experience the lyrics, story, melody, music or visuals all in a format that appeals and connects.

And finally, all the costumes used in our show are stitched in Khadi. I strongly insist on using khadi and organic textiles. Going back to the roots, back to where we all come from, back to our earth.

Swapna: Children, and motivating them to take up performing arts, seem to be another critical core in your vision for Bhoomija. Motivating children to take up classical music/art forms has never been an easy task. More so in today’s times, where gadgets take more precedence and western forms of music are more influential. At times like these, you managed to set up initiatives like JackFruit, Manganiyar, Carnatic Choir, Youth Carnatic Orchestra etc. curated by stalwarts like Jayanti Kumaresh, Bombay Jayashri, Vikku Vinayaka Ram etc. Tell us something more about it.

Gayathri: Children are my core motivators. They are the key to continue with our traditional art forms and it is our responsibility to make them aware, appreciate, experience these and eventually engrain it within their own core beings. Jackruit series, Manganiyar Class Room, Youth Orchestra are all group initiatives where artists put up a show with the children.

So now we have a largely solo pursuit, now transformed into an ensemble that is enabling the students to get a different feel of the art form. Students are generally attached very closely to their gurus, and they rarely get a chance to perform with other gurus.

Our idea is to see if we can, while the musicians are young enough to be able to, get together for an ensemble show, with a maestro who is willing to work with them. Also, we give these productions a theatre director who brings in the aesthetic and fun elements, to make the concert into a proper show.

And it also has a few more significant advantages – a) Artists are enthusiastic about a format like this. They are game and they love this format of imparting and sharing. b) We are able to identify the child prodigies. Quite a few of these kids have found pedestals to further grow. c) The children get a taste of the art form presented differently that their own guru. They also get to interact with other students of classical music, make new friends, have fun and collectively learn. Their music awareness goes beyond what they knew all the while and opens the world for them. d) Last, but not the least, the sheer joy of seeing these children perform is immeasurable.

Not to forget the fun that, I and the artists, have in teaching them, making them rehearse, planning their costumes, keeping them interested and eventually seeing them perform. Each of our performances have been highly successful and has left an impact.

Swapna: Bhoomija has just completed 5 years. We have seen a diverse set of musicians, performances, and collaborations on stage and each one of them have been successful, wonderful and most importantly mesmerizing. And our Bengaluru audience seems to be lapping it all up! Whether it is individual performances by superstar artists or collaborative shows like SamMohanam, Rajasthani Folk by Roysten Abel, or the recent Karnataka Sufi songs Manteswamy Kavya, each of them seems to be hand-picked and curated with a purpose. What is the purpose, or in corporate terms – the strategy, behind it?

Gayathri: Couple of things that have driven us at Bhoomija so far – senior artists, well thought out performances, unique themes, and wonderful collaborations. And audiences enjoy these collaborations that are deep rooted yet differently presented.

And let me also tell you, artists love to collaborate. They love to interact with other artists and work together to create beautiful pieces that not only bring out the best of both the art forms but also give an enthralling experience for the audience. Very similar to the Crème da le Crème or Hot Chocolate Fudge ice cream. While Vanilla is the core, you enjoy the add-ons to feel sheer bliss.

Each of these shows that you talk about, whether it is SamMohanam, Shabad Dhun Lagi, Rajasthani Manganiyar or Manteswamy Kavya –are all either unique collaborations or delightful rooted flavors of our country and people must listen, enjoy and revel in their beauty.

Swapna: Going global is always the mantra for all things Indian. You opened the world for Bhoomija and took it to Syndey, U.S. and even China. What have been your experiences there? Have you been able to paint an Indian narrative that is based on our rich culture and heritage to the world? And what next in the global arena?

Gayathri: We wanted to take Indian classical music to world music centres. So, the concerts in the main venues of Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall. The diaspora enjoyed these experiences immensely.
But what still holds us in awe at Bhoomija is our China experience. Bombay Jayashri was just nominated for the Academy Awards and we tied up with a festival presenter in China for a six-city tour concert tour with workshops. We ended up with 4 workshops with each workshop having about 300 participants. It is a significant feat that so many people wanted to learn the nuances of Indian Classical Music and were willing to invest that kind of time to get oriented to it. I find something like this so beautiful and touching – the fact that people are keen and lap up an opportunity that comes their way to learn about something so alien to them. And the power our music must enable something like this.

Now, we are on a mission of bringing the best of the world to Bengaluru. We are planning to build a performing arts centre that will bring together some great talent from around the world in its design and execution. Hopefully, we will be able to pull this together soon. The centre will be named after MS Subbulakshmi, as our tribute to the best known trailblazing performers of India. So, till then, enjoy our shows, and motivate Bhoomija to work towards its two-faced purpose of reconnecting with our roots, and building a world class theatre here.

Swapna Narayanan is an author of short stories and poems currently based in Bengaluru, India.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories – A fantastic tribute to a son.

I was introduced to Salman Rushdie in 1981 via his second novel Midnight’s Children and recall mistaking it for a children’s book. After 7 years in 1988, I heard that Salman Rushdie had written another novel called Satanic Verses and the President of Iran had issued a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s head. Apparently, the author had written some stuff that hurt the religious sentiments of some people, and as such Rushdie was condemned and judgment passed for that ‘crime’.  Rushdie went into hiding for a few lines he had written, and his life was never the same again. I longed to read the book, but I think it was banned in India at that time.

Years later, when I chanced upon a slim volume of his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I picked it up mistakenly thinking that it was a book of Short Stories. It turned out to be a book that Rushdie had apparently written for his 9-year-old son, Zafar whom he used to narrate bedtime stories to. I guess he realized that the made-up stories were quite amazing, and he decided to write the novel incorporating all the elements of a bedtime story and much more!

The novel starts off with an adorable dedication from Dad Rushdie to Son Rushdie:

               Z embla, Zenda Xanadu 

              A ll our dream-worlds may come true.

              F airy lands are fearsome too.

              A s I wander far from view

              R ead, and bring me home to you.

Fairy lands are fearsome too, warns Rushdie and goes on to prove just that with this book.

The story is quite simple. Young Haroun’s Dad Rashid Khalifa is a story teller who lives in a sad city(everyone who lives here apparently has sadness engulfing them and their lives). He brings cheerfulness to the city by making up extraordinary stories and narrating them to it’s inhabitants, diminishing their sadness for a short time. For this reason he is pretty famous in the city and is almost always center stage narrating his fantastic stories. He lives with his wife Soraya and son Haroun. Everything seems hunky dory in the Khalifa household and little Haroun is happy as a lark in the sad city. However, unbeknownst to him and his father, his mother gives in to the sadness of the city and decides that she’s had enough of the Khalifa men and runs away with their neighbor Mr.Sengupta leaving behind a letter where she explains that she prefers his unimaginative reality to her husband’s imaginary make-believe world. After that incident Rashid is unable to weave stories anymore. He goes from being the ‘Shah of Blah’ and ‘Ocean of Notions’ to being unable to proceed beyond – “Ark!Ark!Ark!”

A pretty sad tale till this point in time it looks like. I thought it would be a mop fest from this point onwards with the child blaming himself and the father falling into a depression. But then, you are suddenly plunged into a land of fantasy and imagination as Haroun chances upon a water genie who has come to cut the supply of stories to Rashid. I re-read the part again to make sure that it was a genie and not a technician from the cable company that Haroun chanced upon! You see, I am not a very big fan of Sci-Fi or Fantasy fiction. I like realism and stick mostly with memoirs and realistic fiction. But I really wanted to finish my first Rushdie novel and continued reading. Am I glad I did!

Haroun blames himself for his dad’s misfortune and decides to help his dad out of the predicament. The story proceeds as he comes to know from the water genie Iff, that Rashid has unsubscribed from their service and the genie had come to take care of the cancellation. From then onwards, we are treated to a fantastic spectacle as Haroun takes a trip to the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup to clear the error of being unsubscribed from the Sea of Stories. The choice to name the lands with Gup (conversation) and Chup(silence) seemed like pure genius to me.  No wonder Rushdie is considered a genius, because he is!

Haroun is taken to the land of Gup where all stories originate. There are the seas around the island of Gup. But we have the land of Chup whose leader Khattam-Shud (The End, nothing but the End) is hell bent on destroying the sea of stories – the sea of stories from where storytellers get their goods from. Quite a neat concept, right? I was enthralled by this book. Though it is targeted towards children as young as 9, there are many, many layers to this book. There’s politics, there’s indirect references to the fatwa, there’s philosophy so deep that I had to take a couple of minutes for it to absorb in my psyche. Consider for example the following:

“Haroun was Lucky; but luck has a way of running out without the slightest warning. One minute you’ve got a lucky star watching over you and the next instant it’s done a bunk.”

This to me represents Rushdie’s life before and after the Fatwa. I can imagine the red carpet being pulled off your legs as you are getting ready to receive your award.

There are also references to the modern world which I find applicable even in 2017. I firmly believe that some writers can foretell future, Rushdie seems to me to be one of them when he writes in the book that came out in 1988 –

“In the sad city, people mostly had big families; but the poor children got sick and starved, while the rich kids overate and quarreled over their parents’ money.”

Rushdie manages to keep the story very interesting and the flow rapid by incorporating humor and introducing unique and likable characters with regularity. The characters include a mechanical bird called Butt, who Haroun picks to be flown to the land of Gup with Iff the water genie. So basically, Iff and Butt are Haroun’s companions. I am sure the children would find that quite enthralling.

There’s a horde of lovable and not so lovable characters in the book who keep on making appearances and disappearances. One of them is Bolo, the Prince of Gup land. He is a young man who is in love with Princess Batcheat, who had managed to get herself kidnapped by Khatam-Shud. He is quite comical and stupid and does not hesitate to lead his people to war for his own selfish purpose. He reminds me of our leaders today, especially one who do it for far less honorable things than love. I leave it to your imagination to figure out who Rushdie might have been referring to so many years ago as he writes –

“What’s that you say?” shouted Bolo, leaping to his feet and striking a dashing and slightly foolish pose. “Why have you waited so long to tell us? Zounds! Proceed; for pity’s sake, proceed” (When Bolo spoke like this, the other Dignitaries all looked vaguely embarrassed and averted their eyes).

Continuing in the vein of addressing today’s issues, Rushdie does touch briefly on the concept of women’s issues as he writes –

“You think it’s easy for a girl to get a job like this? Don’t you know girls have to fool people every day of their lives if they wanted to get anywhere?”

That’s the heroine of the novel Blabbermouth who disguises herself as a man to join the army of pages of Gup land. She delivers some brilliant lines during which Haroun develops a crush for her. Lines such as:

“You think a place has to be miserable and dull as ditch water before you believe it’s real?”

There is dissent in the army of pages when war is declared against Chupwalas to rescue Batcheat. The Gupees are quite relieved that Princess Batcheat is not around to bother them with her continuous talk and worse still, her signing. They grumble among themselves as to why Prince Bolo must rescue Batcheat and Mali the gardener who helps Haroun says –

“It (the reason) is Love. It is all for Love. Which is a very wonderful and dashing matter. But which can also be a very foolish thing.”

The book is not however, relegated to only fantasies and dashing characters. A good writer not only piques and exercises your emotion, but also makes you think and Rushdie manages to do that quite wonderfully even in a book meant for young kids.

It is interesting how Rushdie tackles Khattam-Shud, the villain in the story. His description shows what sort of contempt the author held for attempts to silence him. I wish political leaders, dictators, presidents, CEOs etc. do not pick fights with writers because the writers can do much more with their words than these powerful people can do with their power.

Rushdie describes Khatam-Shud as –

“He is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech.”

Khatam-Shud never makes an appearance until towards the end of the story, but his brooding presence is felt in every page. It is like he is hidden between each page you turn. One builds up this image of him being magnificently and monstrously menacing. But it is an anti-climax when the cult master as he is referred to makes an appearance. In his first meeting with Khatam-Shud Haroun’s thoughts are as follows –

“That’s him? That’s him?” Haroun thought, with a kind of disappointment. “This little mingling fellow? What an anti-climax.”

Haroun asks Khatam-Shud why he is trying to take the fun out of the world by trying to put an end to story-telling. The reply he gets is haunting.

“The world, however, is not for Fun. The world is for controlling. Your world, my world, all worlds. They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why.”

Rushdie intersperses these strong and profound statements with some flippant ones to keep the pretense of this being a children’s book going. For instance, there’s stuff like

P2C2E – Process to complicated to explain, which is used generously in the book.

Dull Lake – Reference to Dal Lake in Koch-Mar (play on the word Kashmir) which apparently means nightmare in local language!

A poster is support of candidate Buttoo that goes something like

“WHO’S THE ONE FOR YOU? – NOT JUST ONE, BUTTOO!’

I can imagine the children going into peals of laughter at things like these though they might have glazed over at some of the things earlier. And a child’s laughter is one of the better things about the world and Rushdie manages to bring that out a lot with this book.

I loved the book. I loved how Rushdie used some words from the Hindi Language to cleverly bring out the intrinsic peculiarities of his characters. I loved the pace of the book which sometimes left you breathless and overwhelmed with its huge repertoire of characters and its speed. But as Rushdie says:

‘Speed, most Necessary of Qualities! In any Emergency – fire, auto, marine – what is required above all things? Of course, Speed.’

I would recommend everyone to read this book. It is wonderfully descriptive and manages to draw a picture of the fantasy land with its Plentimaw (Plenty Mouth) fishes, pure blue sea of stories polluted by dark viscous liquid manufactured in Chupland, Mudra the Shadow Warrior and of course the lovable amongst them all, the heroic son Haroun. I would highly recommend the book for the simple but evocative language throughout the novel. But I would mostly recommend it for you to understand the genius of Salman Rushdie without the aid of a Midnight’s Children or The Satanic verses. It is also wonderful that Rushdie borrows heavily from Hindi to name almost everything in the book and I loved the play of the words. Each time a new character or place was introduced, it would bring a smile to my lips.

The real reason however I would exhort you to read the book is to understand that there are many ways of telling a story. Rushdie does not resort to maudlin tales to bring across the bond between a father and his son. Even though the foundation is built on a shaky start, he demonstrates that a fantasy tale can build emotions and sentimentality without the help of drama and tears. I particularly got misty eyed, every time that Rashid discovers that Haroun is going above and beyond the duties of a son and says to him whenever he finds him helping out bravely in a precarious situation:

“Young Haroun. You surely are the most unexpected of boys!”

What a wonderful tribute from Rushdie to his son. Truly, remarkable.

This Winter’s Warmth: Pashmina


Nidhi Chanani’s debut graphic novel Pashmina released last month and it is not just a “must-read”. It’s a must-experience. The story revolves around a second generation Indian American, Priyanka “Pri” Das and her unique coming of age journey, one that is not familiar in the current narrative. Even though it is aimed at younger readers, Pashmina resonates with older readers as well.

From learning to drive with her mom to spending time with her aunt and uncle to traveling around an imagined India (with Pri’s guides: an elephant named Kanta and a peacock named Mayur) are just the start to Pri’s adventures. As Pri travels to present day India and reunites with her Mausi and Mausa, questions about her own identity are answered. Goddess Shakti, as a character, is subtly present at the beginning and prominently towards the final pages. The presence of a desi dialog and other cultural markers (especially food) make Pashmina a part of the familiar for South Asian audiences.

An automatic favorite line, “Have you ever eaten a mango off a tree?”

Pashmina captures vividly through its diasporic threads what matters: family (blood and chosen), community, longing for homeland, faith, true independence, and mother-daughter relationships. Chanani’s art, especially the pages in color, is powerful. Bright color combinations and the artistic choices present in the illustrations all contribute to a magical, happy, and overall, positive piece.

Pashmina, in terms of representation of South Asian art and literature in the U.S., is a wonderful addition.

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You can order a copy online – Amazon link + working coupon code “DELIGHT”. In case the promo code is not working anymore check this page: https://www.dontpayfull.com/at/amazon.com.

Follow Nidhi’s art on Instagram @nidhiart or on her website: https://everydayloveart.com/