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Posts from the ‘Essays’ Category

Four Thousand Miles Away, a Book and a French Girl Banished My Daughter’s Loneliness

Anita Vijayakumar

“Mais ce qu’il desirait pardessus tout, c’etait…du chocolat.”

The alluring lilt of French words wafted from under my eleven year old daughter’s forever-shut bedroom door. Two sets of high-pitched giggles followed. It was April 2020 and we were in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Who the heck was in Anya’s room? And why was she speaking French?

The doorknob squealed as I turned it. I slowly poked my nose in, followed closely by my right eye. My stash of Ferrero Rocher, now mostly wrappers, littered Anya’s desk. Her fingers in her hair, her toes rapping against the wood floor, she alternated between staring at a book nearly buried in wrappers and the iPad propped up in front of her. From the screen, a girl with tight blonde curls waved a Snickers bar like a conductor’s baton, encouraging her to continue. Anya bent her head closer to the book and translated. “But…what he wanted…above all was…chocolate.”

“Bien!” the girl cried, then sank her teeth into the Snickers. Ah, I thought, a Zoom meeting. Like a turtle tucking in for the night, I retracted my head, but the girl had spotted me. “Bonjour, la maman de Anya!” she exclaimed. A string of caramel hung from her chin.

I stalled. I hadn’t met any of Anya’s new classmates. Didn’t even know their names. I looked closer at the girl. Bright blue eyes peered out of olive skin. A gold pendant inscribed with calligraphy dangled like a suspended waterfall from her neck: Camille.

Of course! How had I forgotten? The French speaker was Anya’s friend Cami, an 11-year-old who lived in the small town of Sautron, France, four thousand miles away. The girls were struggling through French-English copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and laughing, trying to forget for a moment that outside their windows, the world was sad and still.

But here was the catch: even though the girls had been friends for half their lives, they couldn’t talk to each other. They didn’t know how.

Just eight months earlier, our family moved from Milwaukee to Chicago and Camille’s family moved from Paris to Sautron. After the lockdowns began, the fledgling friendships they’d each begun in their new schools weakened. Text messages dwindled. Neighborhood kids stayed indoors. Their cross-country moves had already shaken the stability of their childhood friendships. The pandemic erased what little was left.

My musical Anya stopped playing the piano. The house no longer hummed with jazz or pop, classical or original compositions. She quit drawing. Paintings on her bedroom walls stopped multiplying. The paints grew hard. My husband bought two paint-by-number kits and asked her to join him. He hadn’t drawn since elementary school. She shook her head.

She laid on her bottom bunk and stared at the wooden slats above her for hours. When I asked how she was, she shrugged, said she was fine. Of course she wasn’t fine. No one was. I heard later that Camille grew quiet. Picked at her food. I could easily imagine what her parents felt on the other side of the Atlantic. At an age when friendships mattered more than almost anything, the girls were desperately lonely. And I could only watch, torn and helpless.

But I had forgotten the courage we muster when we’re young and lonely.

A few months into the lockdowns, Anya and Camille grew tired of being tired. They connected over WhatsApp and opened Google Translate. In a brilliant scheme, they decided to defy the pandemic. Their resolution: to teach each other their native tongues so they could finally talk for real. They ordered their French-English copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, with the help of Charlie Bucket and my not-so-secret stash of chocolate, began meeting every day.

I was overjoyed, but I’ll be honest: Anya’s interest in French was a sham. These French lessons with Cami required dedication to a language her tongue and nasal passage refused to entertain. She intentionally sang the silent t’s. She refused to concede that nouns needed genders. But there’s a reason my daughter sacrificed her Netflix time to race off to yet another virtual meeting. It wasn’t because of the strict quarantine. It wasn’t so she’d have reason to change out of her pajamas every day. It definitely wasn’t for the French. It was for Cami.

Anya is Indian-American; Camille is Guadeloupean-French. They aren’t part of a school exchange and they have the opposite of a shared culture. For all practical purposes, they should never have crossed paths. For certain, they shouldn’t be friends who’ve explored ruined medieval castles, skipped through Italian villas, and are now laughing over unpronounced French letters and uvular trills. So with an ocean between them and no common words, what’s their connection?

I promise I won’t leave you hanging. But first, let’s backtrack two decades or so, to me.

In high school, I had stuff pretty much figured out. I was the dutiful eldest child of Asian immigrants. I didn’t have any brothers, so I was both son and daughter. The pressure of professional achievement fell on my shoulders, as did the charge of maintaining the family’s honor. I accepted the challenge. I knew no other way. I played violin and tennis, made perfect masala tea for guests, rocked my SATs, and planned my entire career. You know the type. That was me.

It was never enough. In college, I’d sit on the Lake Michigan docks behind Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and imagine I was gazing at the Atlantic Ocean. Somewhere beyond that stretch of shimmering blue-gray, beyond the expectations I was both summoned and called to follow, was my entry into adulthood. In the land of Austen and Keats, I would put my head down and study English literature and become a scholar. I had a vague idea that new friendships could expand my worldview, but at nineteen, I was foolish enough to think that was negligible.

As I shook out my tingling legs and trodded off the plane my junior year, the pilot’s voice boomed: “Welcome to Manchester, England, folks! The weather outside is gray and drizzly, but Manchester United has just had their first win of the season against Charlton Athletic!” I knew nothing about soccer, but the pilot’s excitement was contagious. Exhaustion fell off my body like layers of clothing in a Midwestern Spring. I smiled maniacally at everyone surrounding the luggage carousel. They pulled their suitcases closer.

I marched onto the underground train and got off at Oxford Road, then dragged my suitcase half a mile to a Toblerone-shaped dorm at the University of Manchester. The campus had over forty thousand students and I knew not a soul. Perfect. Homesickness had never afflicted me—not during the first fistful of my life in an Indian village as my parents struggled to save money in Chicago and not after I’d been shipped off to a free boarding school for high school so my father and I didn’t kill each other. England was just another step in my maturation. I winked at my reflection in the cloudy mirror and then, laden with books, I marched into centuries-old classrooms, certain I’d soon be worldly beyond compare.

For weeks, I devoured the classics like they were tubs of peanut butter (which in England, I discovered, are relegated to a tiny shelf in the foreign foods aisle). I was soaking up knowledge and dominating my classes. I interacted with classmates for group projects, but outside of those required meetings, I reveled in the head-down research and hyper-focused studies that a Redbrick university demanded. The pressure of my internal drive was appeased; I was doing exactly what I’d come to do. But when I finally raised my head to breathe, I saw all the seats around me were empty.

I ate alone, studied alone, explored the city alone. Everywhere around me, friendships were burgeoning over fish and chips, but I was going it on my own. While accomplishing the goals I’d thought were so clear, an emptiness had grown without my notice. Even peanut butter didn’t help.

As evening descended over the library one October evening, I swore I heard Jane Austen admonish me from the pages: “If you aren’t going to stretch your wings, dear girl, why did you bother to come?” I’d been called out by a ghost; my entire body stung.

I closed my books. Packed up my half-written essay. Walked back to my dorm, picked up the landline, and dialed someone who’d given me their number.

My loneliness gave me courage. It gave me flight.

It led me to Madalitso, a Zimbabwean girl who showed me firsthand how her African passport was scrutinized at all the borders we crossed; I quickly learned the privilege of being American. Her supermodel impression had us laughing so hard we tumbled off the train in Toledo instead of Madrid during our Winter holidays. Straight out of a Hepburn movie, some townspeople at the station grabbed our bags and insisted we join their parade to celebrate Three Kings Day.

My loneliness led me to Silja, a German girl with emotionally-reserved parents who shared her feelings with me more sincerely than anyone I’d ever met, and accepted mine in return.

And it led me to Jerome, a French guy whose compassion for others inspired me to join him in early morning drizzles, handing out sandwiches at outdoor food pantries while telling each other stories of our wildly different upbringings.

Suddenly, the world expanded. I’d thought words were so fastidious, but these new friends showed me it was the variations in language that mattered. We made allowances for jokes that got muddled in translation. We learned expressions that made us wonder why we’d ever said things differently. I learned Germans say “Close the lid, the monkey is dead” instead of “That’s the end.” I mean, really, how do you top that? We partied and ate and traveled and cried. We trusted each other with truths we’d fiercely guarded.

My common thread with all these new friends was English, but our relationships grew far deeper than the shackles of speech. Somehow, we’d found a pocket of space and time where only rudimentary words were necessary. Often, they weren’t necessary at all. No matter our country, we implicitly understood each other’s longing for relationships that superseded a common culture.

I’d started the year thinking my growth would come from great literature. Then a motley group of kids from random corners of the earth dismantled my well-laid plans. These friends, not literature, grew me up.

When my adventure ended, my most valued possession wasn’t a degree from a venerable institution. It was a folded piece of paper clutched in my hand: a return ticket. A golden ticket, much like Charlie Bucket’s, identical to the tickets my new friends also held. Physical pacts to ensure our friendships wouldn’t end. We were young and idealistic, but we weren’t wrong.

Every year or two, these tickets allowed us to gather in a country someone suggested between pints of Guinness in a Florentine bar or a beer garden in Munich. Our reunions were never fancy—we were still hungry students scraping together money for budget plane tickets and youth hostels—but to us, they were the grandest meetings on earth.

Year by year, significant others got added on and fell off, but the core remained. Year by year, we added layers to our shared stories our parents could never hear. Our rental car in France broke down during a raging thunderstorm so six of us slept in a four-seater Peugeot, elbows and knees everywhere, until the pelting rains gave way to a blazing field of white poppies. We got stranded in a ruined castle in Loch Lomond, Scotland, where the the caretaker fed us roasted fox he’d shot himself an hour before. We met each other’s families through our travels. Through their parents’ home cooking and visits to their siblings’ homes, these people became extensions of ourselves.

“Who is this white man doing Bhangra like us?” my cousins marveled when Jerome danced at my wedding in India, then pulled him into their circle.

Jerome had grown up in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France, where the sharp cliffs hurl into the ocean like granite waterfalls. His town was beautiful, he said, but everyone was just like him. At my wedding, he introduced me to Veronique, a woman he met while volunteering. She was from Guadeloupe, an island shaped like a pair of lungs thrumming in the Caribbean. She had a smile that lit up her face like a coastal morning, then spread outwards. It took his breath away. I loved her from the start.

Now, as promised…

Days after my daughter Anya was born, Veronique brought a wrinkled and gorgeous baby into the world. They named her Camille. When the girls were eight months old, we left Anya with my in-laws to attend Silja’s wedding in Germany; Jerome and Vero brought Cami. I felt guilty for leaving Anya behind until I realized European families drive between countries like I drive to Indiana: half a tank of gas and a favorite playlist.

During the wedding, Vero’s milk supply plummeted. Despondent and without bottles, she asked if I could breastfeed Cami and thus not waste the milk I was pumping and dumping. There was no answer but “Of course, yes!” I held her beautiful olive-skinned baby to my chest, giving her the liquid nourishment I knew my own sweet brown-skinned baby would happily share.

The summer our girls turned six, our families rented a countryside cottage in Italy. The humid August air wet us in the morning and left our bedsheets drenched by the time we crawled in again. As the kids all spoke different languages, Madalitso, Silja, Jerome and I worried how our kids would communicate verbally. We should have known better.

We watched them side-eye each other, then run off, kicking a ball through the sunflower fields. The kids were like magnets. They played clapping games, had tickling wars, collected wildflowers. They spoke loudly, thinking it’d be easier for the others to understand.

“Chat!” “Preso!” “Fangen!”

Permutations of “Tag” in French, Shona, and German weaved through the Tuscan air, mingling with the kids’ squeals. None of them needed a translation. As the saying goes, dirty knees are all the same color. Anya and Cami slept side by side the entire week, murmuring words that maybe the other understood, maybe not.

When we met up again two years later, the kids still couldn’t converse, but the first night’s dinner renewed all their past affection, just like it did with us, now the old folks. As Cami and Anya walked hand-in-hand through the Lascaux caves and kayaked down the Dordogne River, I watched them re-enact a familiar scene: shyly reaching out to people so different and new, forming friendships that would take them on journeys they couldn’t yet imagine.

We were supposed to meet up again in July 2020. We’d found a cheap AirBnB for twenty people off the coast of Portugal. The adults would show off our new gray hairs, the kids would section themselves off and laugh about things we could only guess at. The girls were so excited.

The lockdowns began in March. By April, the pandemic’s heavy curtain had fallen. The world dissolved into a frenzied-turned-silent isolation. Our reunion was canceled, the girls devastated. They were already immersed in solitude and sadness from their moves. This fresh loss made them retreat inwards even more.

Until Charlie and the Chocolate Factory brought them back.

Anya and Cami decided that if they couldn’t see each other in person that summer, they’d meet every day over Zoom and wade through each other’s language until they could. When they met in person again, Anya said, she wanted to do more than play soccer and clapping games. She wanted to tell Cami about her friends and school and hobbies and dreams, and she hoped Cami would do the same.

It’s been over two years now. Over two years of Anya scarfing down her lunch and, seven hours ahead, Cami doing the same with dinner before hurriedly logging on. Two years that I’ve watched my daughter, her face shining, run to her iPad and shrug off her loneliness, not caring if she trips over her words for the next hour. The girls gently correct each other’s pronunciation. They snort when they laugh. Their friendship, so improbable in this dark time, is also their light.

Now their isolation is over and they’re back in school making new friends, but the girls still meet on weekends. Anya plays her keyboard for Cami, throwing in the new jazz riffs she’s learned. Cami sings back, her voice deep and full.

Anya’s not sure how much her French has improved. She jokes that her accent sounds like she’s speaking underwater. But when I hear the giggles coming from behind her door, I know their friendship helped her navigate this pandemic in a way I never could. After their meeting yesterday, I told Anya “Je t’aime” and she said “You’re welcome.” I hid my smile. Maybe the girls haven’t covered “I love you” yet. But honestly, I feel that they have.

The pandemic forced them to discover another way to communicate. Word by word, they’ve assembled a vocabulary to share the stories and dreams thirteen year old girls reserve only for each other. In both languages, they know the words “sus” and “yeet” and “flex”—slang I’m probably too old to truly understand. But they also know “mask” and “vaccine” and “quarantine”; they wonder when they can travel safely. When they can meet in person again.

It took me a long time and a journey across an ocean, but I learned that when all the noise of my teenage years were stripped away, what remained was Madi’s humor. Silja’s candor. Jerome’s humanity. The girls are smarter than me.

Anya has already discovered Cami’s sweetness. Cami already feels Anya’s grace. They’ve already learned that the friends we let in matter far more than the words we let out. They’re stretching their wings.

Loneliness gave them flight, too.

Anita Vijayakumar was raised by her grandparents in India until she (re)met her parents in Chicago at age five. She found her father’s old typewriter and spun her new English words into new universes. Anita obtained a Creative Writing degree and became a psychiatrist. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and has publications in River Teeth, HuffPost, The New York Times, and others. She is querying a novel about mental health and identity. Twitter: @AnitaV_K

An Intimate History of loneliness

Shatakshi Whorra

My grandmother passed away last year just after Lucknow summer had hit its peak. Even before grief and mourning could grip my mother, she was fazed by guilt. Perhaps if my mother’s onset of grief could have coincided with the arrival of monsoon, a certain plentitude of those torrential months making accommodations for her sadness — she would have mourned a little easier. There is something cathartic about the benevolence of seasonal showers as they envelope entire cities. Heavy laden clouds as they take over the horizon, the city briefly stops in its tracks and we let ourselves mimic nature. We turn inwards, make room for a silent, slow-moving surrender, and permit painful remembrance to take over us. It’s mostly true that “a good rain knows best when to fall.” I wish it would have been so for my mother.

Her mourning was anything but seamless. Her grief swelled in her chest, without any respite. Two years after Nani’s peaceful death, my mother’s self-condemnation has been unforgiving, she’d complain: if only I could have done more. My mother and grandmother had drifted five years prior to Nani’s death. Throughout this period of distance between them, my mother could not bring herself to offer genuine care to Nani, even when she was ailing. As the years passed, there was no reconciliation. When Nani passed away last year, it hit my mother— it was too late.

Nani at mom’s wedding. 26th October, 1990.

There is something oddly satisfying about guilt’s incredulous desire to self-flagellate. For my mother, I wonder if her self-inflicted emotional turmoil was the only repentance she could offer. Despite my countless attempts at consolation, her insistence upon her personal failing was relentless. I imagine guilt to be a pit from which escape is impossible and that is where my mother had suddenly found herself.

In the last couple of years before Nani passed away, she neither had any long-standing ailments nor excruciating physical pain that was debilitating her. Her pain was internal— it rose from something seemingly covert and therefore she along with her affliction often went unacknowledged and misrecognized. She took less and less space as time went by. My grandmother, Bela, didn’t say much, she didn’t move around much. In her stillness, she wasn’t ever grimacing nor seemed perfectly happy. Over the years Nani’s stalemate of emotions became characteristically her, her most identifiable trait now, she came to be infamously known for it. In the home, around Nani, this stagnating air of silence allowed her to be both present and absent.

For the last ten years every time I visited her, she was always seated on her wooden chair,

the kind you’d find in a classroom designated to a teacher that marks their authority. In her patriarchal home, however, there was very little space for Nani to assert her own needs. Her desires would always come second to that of her husbands’ and sons’. When we would talk about Nani, my mother very often expressed how scared she was of the men in the family and the callous dominance with which they had treated her. It’s no wonder that it was easier to become reticent than it was to claim her rightful place as an equal member in her marital home.

Nani’s stone-like existence could have easily been mistaken by an unaware guest for a peaceful state or a leisurely slouching, but it was in fact painfully lonely. The people who had known her, whether in the latter or former stint of her life, knew better. Even though there wasn’t any open acknowledgment, they had known that her slow-moving silence and her withdrawn demeanor could not be reduced to a temperamental flaw. My mother tells me about her grace and the manner in which she would carefully curate herself. These acts of care, towards her body, allowed her to express her individuality which faded as her husband and her sons’ needs took precedence. There was never a diagnosis, never a name to this eroding self. My grandmother was not merely suffering from pangs of loneliness. Her deterioration over the years was as personal as it was overwhelmingly systemic. I see this onset of loneliness in her life not as a personal failing, but as something that stemmed from the unequal relationships that had been slowly consuming her.

I started thinking about loneliness more deeply after devouring Olivia Laing’s collection of essays, The Lonely City in the summer of 2020. It was the perfect book to be read in the context of a surreal pandemic in which we had started to live; social isolation had become the only potential means to our survival. With Nani’s demise and the feeling of isolation that I had been experiencing in the pandemic, Laing theorization was a timely intervention.

Laing contends that loneliness invokes a pathological response in the other which isolates the lonely individual further. Freida Fromm-Reichmann, a German psychologist who is woven into her text, elaborates upon how isolating the experience of loneliness is in itself for the individual because of the inexplicability of the condition: “Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.” In an effort to avoid re-experiencing the pain of loneliness, Laing suggests that it becomes difficult to recollect what it felt like to be lonely in the first place. This state of loneliness is also often viewed as a “taboo state” that induces repulsion.

In thinking about how lonely my grandmother was, I found the resemblance between the onset of disease and loneliness to be revelatory. In ways similar to a disease that invites bias perhaps because of lack of awareness or that it was misjudged to only affect an already discriminated population, as was the case with AIDS in the US— loneliness too like an affliction “seems destined to cause others to turn and flee”. The immediate response in both cases is often repulsion. When I read this in Laing’s book, I realized that I too was guilty of this. I had kept a distance from Nani, and later even from the people that I had met in college, who seemed to be without friends. It had induced that desire to flee, to abandon their company. Admittedly, I feel ashamed of my unkindness, as Laing does too. But her reflection gave greater clarity as to why I remember always having felt that Nani was sick in the absence of actual disease. As a child, my grandmother’s self-imposed quarantine in her wooden chair and family distancing themselves from her resembled too much of a serious illness. And in doing so, everyone in the family eventually started to believe that Nani had some elusive disease that could never be diagnosed. This often aroused both pity and disgust that led to her being “separated” and “exposed” at the same time.

Loneliness is both ordinary and extraordinary an experience. Having affected almost everyone to some degree, it is befitting of a normal human experience. Yet, what makes it so compelling, so extraordinary is the incredulous demands it makes upon us. It invites shame, making admissions of it rather difficult. The chronic nature of the condition is that loneliness begets itself, reproducing in the body of the host. It latches onto feelings of shame and isolates the bearer further. When this is compounded with the prejudices of one’s caste, class, race, and gender, the isolation is crushing, a stigma that simply cannot be gotten over or dealt with as Laing rightly says by simply going on. Loneliness becomes purgatory, it seems inescapable.

Laing writes: after an experience of loneliness both the damaged individual and the healthy society work in concert to maintain separation. The more withdrawn Nani had become, the more severe her isolation became. Everyone around her who would both see yet unsee her became both witnesses and collaborators in her loneliness. Laing further claims in the context of artists who were dealing with crippling loneliness in their lifetimes, “You can’t think about people like Darger, or Solanas, for that matter, without thinking too about the damage society wreaks upon individuals: the role that structures like families and schools and governments play in any single person’s experience of isolation. It’s not only factually incorrect to assume mental illness can entirely explain Darger; it’s also morally wrong, an act of cruelty, as well as a misreading.”

Nani was married off when she was really young, seventeen, I think. My grandfather was demanding and dismissive of her needs. By the time the twilight years of her marriage had set upon her, she had become half the person she was. Stuck in a patriarchal setup, jostled between the needs of her husband and sons, her capacity to voice her displeasure stiffened, seriously affecting her mental health and inducing the subsequent onset of loneliness that came with her struggle. I wonder about her, whose state in her latter years was often justified with a statement, “Unko moh chhut gaya hai”, she has lost all her worldly desires. What would it have meant for her to have lost the desire for a favorite thing, for her dreams to slowly become vacant, for the skeleton of desire to pile up in the privacy of her closet? What did it mean for my grandmother to drown out her fantasies in the face of her wifely and motherly duties that left very little room for her, an erasure that signified a bigger loss— the lonely art of losing oneself. This is where she perhaps had found herself in her last days.

In the end, however, Nani had found an unlikely friendship in her nurse with whom she had forged the ritual of eating cut fruit together. Neatly cut slices of apple would be shared between them, one for nani, the other for nurse, till the plate was emptied of fruit and only stems and seeds would remain. Nani, who hardly spoke to anyone, had in the last years of her life experienced a lot of joy in this intimate exchange. My only hope is that it at last brought her solace and the companionship she had always craved for.

Works cited

Laing, Olivia. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. New York: Picador, 2016.

Shatakshi Whorra currently teaches English at Nirmal Bhartia School in Delhi. She enjoys working with students and creating an empathetic classroom so that young people can unapologetically learn to be themselves. She is actively working on her new year resolution of ‘read more, write more!’. As a writer, Shatakshi enjoys playing around with genres, mixing her poetry with her prose and vice-versa. She is based between Lucknow and Delhi. She has been previously published in Gulmohar Quarterly, Alipore Post and Feminism in India.

The Hand-painted Signs of Jaffna

Kayo Chang Black

It was a balmy December evening in 2019 when my husband Derek and I arrived in Sri Lanka. After picking up our luggage and cat at the airport, we headed to our new home in Mount Lavinia, a beachy suburb south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Even in December, it was t-shirt weather in the subcontinent. The night air in Colombo was denser and more humid than we were used to in Hong Kong, where we had lived for seven years. Though we could barely make out Colombo as we drove through the dimly-lit city, we were excited about discovering a new country.

Sri Lanka is a small, tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, south of India. It’s dubbed the “tear-drop of India” due to its shape and proximity to its much bigger neighbour. It’s a famous travel destination known for its world-class beach resorts and ancient mountains, an abundance of blue sapphires and cinnamon, and a rich history as a trading post dating back to the 16th century.

We moved to Sri Lanka from Hong Kong because Derek was offered a job as a dean at a design university in Colombo. We were exhausted from the fast-paced life of Hong Kong. The political situation also drained us— the ongoing conflicts between the government and the protestors who demanded the scrapping of a controversial extradition bill and the preservation of the city’s autonomy. By the time we departed Hong Kong, antagonism between the militarized police and the young demonstrators turned our neighbourhood into a battleground of road closures, violent clashes, and tear gas. We wanted a slower and more peaceful life and snatched up the opportunity Sri Lanka offered us. The university also gave me a teaching position where I guided students in completing their undergraduate research projects.

Each morning, we rode a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride from Mount Lavinia to Colombo for work. Our driver darted through heavy traffic in the congested capital as we sat in the covered back section of the wagon. To have a conversation, we shouted at each other due to the incessant honking and the roaring of ancient engines surrounding us. After work, we rode home chasing the sunset as the packed local trains passed us by, overflowing with passengers. Each car had several men hanging off its doorway, sharing a single hang bar. As soon as we got home, we changed into our flip-flops and wandered to the beach, less than five minutes from our apartment. We parked ourselves at our favourite beach bar, Jojo’s, to have a sundowner with our friends, who also lived in Mount Lavinia. Then, we had a candle-lit dinner at Sugar Beach, devouring deviled chickpeas or black curry over rice. If we were in the mood for western food, we ordered burgers with fries or fish and chips. After filling our stomachs, we strolled home hand-in-hand under the moonlight, listening to the soft murmur of the waves crashing against the beach.

Three months after our arrival, Sri Lanka went into a strict COVID-19 lockdown. What started as a weekend curfew extended to a 10-week house arrest for the whole country. Derek and I couldn’t leave our home as Sinhalese-speaking soldiers armed with AKs patrolled the area, ready to arrest anyone who broke curfew. We navigated grocery shopping through Facebook groups and relied on Netflix for our entertainment. Each day at sunset, we climbed three stories to our rooftop to watch the orange disc of the sun fall into the horizon. The blue-turquoise water was so close we could see the foamy waves rolling onto the beach, yet we weren’t allowed to dip our toes into it.

In mid-May 2020, the government finally lifted the curfew, and we decided to go as far away from Mount Lavinia as possible. Our first Sri Lankan getaway was to Trincomalee—a city on the northeast coast, about 275 km (170 miles) from Mount Lavinia. It took us eight hours to get there by car on two-lane local roads with heavy traffic. It was there, in Trincomalee, where Derek and I had our first taste of Hindu culture in Sri Lanka. Unlike the middle and southern parts of the country where many Buddhist Sinhalese lived, Trincomalee has a large Tamil Hindu population with a distinct culture and cuisine. We stayed in a gorgeous resort and visited the Koneswaram Temple, an ancient Shiva temple located on the awe-inspiring cliff facing the aquamarine sea. Unlike the serene Buddhist temples in our neighbourhood, where a giant, white Buddha statue greeted worshippers, Hindu temples were brightly painted with red, blue, green, and yellow with intricate sculptures of various gods and motifs jutting out of gigantic complexes. We were in love. We wanted more. We decided to visit the heartland of Hindu and Tamil culture in Sri Lanka for our next trip: Jaffna.

Jaffna is the northernmost city in Sri Lanka, about 350 km from the capital. It’s geographically and culturally close to India—only about 220 km to Tamil Nadu, the most southern Indian state. Jaffna was a vibrant Hindu city that became the flash point of the civil war. In 1948, Sri Lanka became independent from British colonial rule but there were sporadic conflicts between the Sinhalese government and the members of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant separatist group fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamils in northeastern Sri Lanka. The clash between the two group escalated on July 23, 1983 when a Sinhalese mob attacked their Tamil neighbours to avenge the thirteen soldiers killed at the hands of the LTTE. The mob looted and torched Tamil homes and businesses in Colombo, and the chaos eventually spread throughout the country. A week later, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people had been brutally murdered, thousands more displaced. It was this massacre in the Sri Lankan capital that ignited the bloody twenty-six-year civil war.

As a result of the massacre and the subsequent civil war, many fled Sri Lanka to the UK, Canada, Singapore, and Australia, creating Tamil diaspora communities worldwide. Many Tamils, however, couldn’t relocate and stayed in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, effectively creating enclaves. Throughout the war, Jaffna was inaccessible as the military guarded it with multiple checkpoints. Physical separation further divided the ethnic groups.

When we told Sinhalese friends our intention to visit Jaffna, some shook their heads. “Don’t go,” a friend said, “Jaffna is very dangerous.”

However, others were curious and wanted to come along. “Is it strange that we want to go to Jaffna with foreigners?” another friend asked, “if I were to go there with other Sinhalese, something bad might happen.”

None of our Sinhalese friends joined us.

In July 2021, Derek and I took the train to the Tamil capital. However, unable to read the schedule correctly, we accidentally booked the slow, local train. Also, instead of opting for air-conditioned first-class, we booked second-class because we loved the idea of opening a window, sticking our heads out of it, and snapping a picture (we saw travel influencers doing this). At first, the breeze through the open window made the ride comfortable. From time-to-time hawkers entered the car to offer snacks, from bags of peanuts to deep-fried doughy snacks filled with meat to wash down with sweet milk tea. However, 100 km before reaching Jaffna, the train broke down. The unbearable, stuffy air in the car mocked the ceiling fan’s feeble efforts to bring us relief. So we got off and watched a handful of workers repairing the engine.  Two hours later, the train shunted forward.

As we neared Jaffna, we noticed the shifting landscape. Thick, mountainous jungle with lush vegetation gave way to sparse, brownish fields, broken up by estuaries where flamingos perched. Another distinct feature was the palmyra trees dotting the barren environment—a type of palm tree specific to the region. The Tamils dry palmyra leaves and weave them into baskets and mats, turning their sap into sugar or arrack, a type of liquor.

Twelve sweaty hours after leaving Colombo, the train pulled into the train station—a charming, colonial-era structure with squarish, white columns engraved with flowers and Hindu motifs. Before the civil war, the train station was one of the busiest in Sri Lanka. By 1990, train services to and from Jaffna halted, and the rail company abandoned the station. When the war ended in 2009, the station was restored to its former glory, re-welcoming passengers.

Jaffna was just as endearing as its train station—a city that stood still in time. Though many buildings were destroyed during the war, others stayed in a time capsule without outside influences. Most of the buildings were one or two stories tall; many were concrete or brick block buildings. Cows, considered sacred in Hindu culture, roamed freely within the city and grazed on whatever grass they could find. We walked around the city’s main market, where hawkers sold everything from fresh fruit to baked goods to hand-woven palmyra baskets to vibrant sarees. As Derek and I explored, I looked up and saw something spectacular. “Look, Derek!” I shouted and pointed at a coffee shop sign. “It’s hand-painted!”

Caption: A Hand-painted Sign in Jaffna, 2020. Photographer: Derek Matthew Auxier Black

It was a beige sign in dark forest green Tamil letters with mustard shadow and red English and Sinhala letters with thin blue outlines. Its simplicity and authenticity captivated me.  Unlike the digitally printed vinyl signs lit up by colourful LED lights elsewhere in Sri Lanka, the hand-painted signs in Jaffna were made decades ago with love and care and full of character and artisanal charm.

A few shops later was another hand-painted sign. “Saravandas Multi Trader,” it read. On the left-hand side of the board was a picture of Murugan, the Hindu god of war, standing in front of a peacock. Next to it was another hand-painted sign, “Rajah & Co.” The shop was closed, so I couldn’t tell what it was but based on the picture of fish caught in a net on the right-hand side, I assumed it was a bait or seafood shop.

I walked around the market, pointing out the different signs as Derek snapped photos of them. Derek, a typeface designer, design educator, and self-taught photographer, was also smitten with the hand-painted boards. Every so often, we also saw newer shop signs printed on vinyl, not so different from the ones in Colombo.

“We should capture these before they’re all gone,” Derek said as he pointed to a new advertisement. “It looks like there’s a digital revolution around here too.”

“Let’s make a book of the hand-painted signs of Jaffna!” I said.

And this was the moment The Hand-painted Signs of Jaffna came into existence. We decided to make a book with all the hand-painted signboards we could find in the city.

We visited Jaffna four times in 2020, and each time, we noticed a few missing signs. We worried that these relics from the past were disappearing. Though the horrific civil war and the blockade of Jaffna ensured their survival into the 21st century and yet, modern technologies are threatening their existence. In addition to photographing all the signs we could find in Jaffna and its surrounding villages, we geo-tagged all the handmade treasures. Even if they eventually get replaced, vintage hunters and sign enthusiasts can still see the originals and where they were located on Google Maps.


Shortly after we decided to make this book, Derek and I roamed around a different part of Jaffna, away from the main market. We stood in front of a ceramics store with a stunning illustration of a weirdly proportioned bathroom set and realistically painted tubs of adhesive cement. Our heads tilted up, eyes glazed over, and our mouths slightly ajar. As we pointed our phones toward the sign and snapped pictures, a man came to greet us.

“Hello,” the shopkeeper said with a confused look. He understood innately that we weren’t shopping for a new bathroom set.

“Hi!” Derek replied. “We love your sign!”

Apparently, “hello” was the only English word the shopkeeper knew. He didn’t understand a word Derek said, so Derek pointed at the sign, grinned, and gave the shopkeeper a thumbs-up.

The shopkeeper turned around, looked up at the thing he’d probably passed by every day for the last decade and had zero second thoughts about, then returned his gaze to Derek and me, more flummoxed than ever.

Derek pulled out his phone and typed “we love your sign” in English and translated it to Tamil. The man studied the text, still puzzled. Derek typed, “who painted it?” and showed it to him. The shopkeeper gave us another look and went back into the shop. We saw that he got on the landline and assumed he was calling someone to get the information we wanted. We waited for a while but finally realized he wasn’t coming back. He couldn’t comprehend what these strange foreigners wanted with his sign. But one thing was for damn sure— he wasn’t going to sell us a new toilet that day.

We went back to multiple shops and tried to communicate with the shopkeepers using Google Translate. However, we hit a wall every time—it seemed that no one in Jaffna had the time or patience to deal with a couple of weird foreigners who weren’t interested in buying something. After visiting several shops, Derek and I realized we needed help. Besides photographing the signs and creating geo-tags on Google Maps, we also wanted to tell the stories of the artisans that made them. So, we needed to identify the makers of the signboards and speak to them.

The next day, we talked to the manager of our hotel. He was friendly and took the time to connect us with some painters. He even came along with us to meet with the artisans to translate. However, upon meeting the artisans, we realized that they were different types of artisans—we met lorry painters and temple painters, who were fascinating in their own right. But they were not the ones who created shop signboards. The hotel manager did his best to help us, but he didn’t understand that we didn’t just want any painters— we wanted ones who specialized in the shop signboards.

After spending more time in Jaffna, we realized that the signboards were not just beautiful objects— they also told stories of the city. Therefore, we needed to enlist help from someone from the culture who also understood our intention for the book: to learn about Jaffna through the hand-painted signs. Our aim is to capture and preserve them on camera, analyze them visually, and write about them. Ideally, we needed a translator of language and culture and someone who knew the city and could drive us places. Luckily, we met Rajeevan, a Jaffna-based tour guide and driver. He was a handsome Tamil man in his late 30s who spoke fluent English and Sinhala. Towards the end of the war Raj worked for the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). He first worked as a dispatcher in Jaffna, alerting aid workers about potential bombings and other dangerous situations. Then, he moved to Colombo and worked as a data administrator. Through his work, he helped to reconnect many displaced families. After years in the capital, he returned to his home city to try his hand in tourism. Excited by our project to preserve the culture of his beloved city, he agreed to help us.

Raj told us that people were confused about our fascination with the signs because they saw little value in the objects and the people who made them. Like their Indian neighbours, Sri Lankans, both Sinhalese, and Tamils, were bound by caste systems. For Jaffna Tamils, kammalar is the term for the artisan class, which includes blacksmiths, brass workers, carpenters, sculptors, and goldsmiths. The sign-making painters are not explicitly listed in this group, but the consensus is that they were a part of this service caste who depended on the landowning and wealthy caste for their survival. Though the boundaries of the caste system have been blurring in recent years, the hierarchy still exists. Therefore, the Tamil society doesn’t value the kammalar caste even though their work is essential for a functioning society. This is reflected in how dismissive the folks we met were of the shop signs and why they couldn’t understand what Derek and I saw in them—relics from the past and a lens into Jaffna culture.

On our next trips to Jaffna, we met several sign painters. First, we met Thasan, whose work for the hardware store with the charming bathroom set we absolutely adored. When Derek took out his phone and showed a picture of the hardware shop sign, Thasan nodded, his smile shy and uncertain. He was surprised that a couple of foreigners would be interested in his handiwork. Derek and I, on the other hand, were ecstatic. It took us so much effort to find him, and it felt surreal to be face-to-face with a man whose work we admired. Thasan retired several years ago and his son-in-law, Shankar, took over the sign-painting job. However, in the last several years, fewer and fewer people are commissioning hand-painted shop signs so he supplemented his income with house painting jobs.

We also met Bavan, who painted an incredible watch for a repair shop. When we knocked on his door, he answered wearing a pale yellow button shirt, a sarong, and sleep in his eyes. When Raj told him why we were there, Bavan lit up. He buttoned up his shirt and invited us to sit on his porch. His hair was mostly grey, his teeth stained by decades of cigarette smoke and beetle nut chewing. He had steady work as a sign painter for over thirty years but has retired due to poor health. In his raspy voice, he told us of the prestigious artisan award he had won while pointed to a plaque on his wall.

Thanks to Raj, we were able to access the inner world of Tamil culture and its sign painters. We met many people of Jaffna who added a rich layer to our experience in learning about the history of the place and the hand-painted signs. Now it’s up to us to offer the rest of the world a glimpse into the colourful, complex, and resilient city of Jaffna through our book, The Hand-Painted Signs of Jaffna.

Kayo Chang Black is a Taiwanese Canadian writer exploring hybrid identities, global citizenship, and the intersection of cultures. Her librarian career brought her to the U.A.E., Bahrain, and Hong Kong. After one year in Sri Lanka and another in the U.S., she relocated to Taiwan. She is the founder and writer of Parampara, a storytelling jewellery brand. Read her work in The Normal SchoolHerstry, and Sunspot Literary Journal. She is on Instagram @kayochangblack

Navigating the Labyrinth of Privilege

Arpita Gaidhane

I live in an India far different from the one that I was a child in. Yet, it’s not so different at all. The prejudices that have always lurked at the shadows of society are now strutting around confidently, backed by governance that took the British strategy of ‘Divide and Rule’ to heart. Noam Chomsky recently commented, “[Islamophobia is] taking its most lethal form in India, where the Modi government is systematically dismantling Indian secular democracy and turning the country into a Hindu ethnocracy, with almost 250 million Muslims becoming a persecuted minority.” (Meenakshi, 2022)   

The story I want to tell you takes on new urgency in light of the rampant abuse of privilege all around me. This shadowy, ephemeral, powerful thing that is ‘privilege’ is so difficult to pin down when it floats, almost always, in the seas of intersectionality. So it is that I explore the only life that I have complete authority over – my own.  

I belong to the middle class of India. In India’s demographic, this makes me financially privileged. I have a master’s degree. This certainly makes me privileged in that I am able to make informed decisions through research. I am also queer, neurodivergent and an artist in a country becoming increasingly specific about who is welcome as a citizen, and who is an outsider – definitely underprivileged in the freedom these aspects of my being can afford. Given this dance of privilege in my own life, I begin to pen down my experiences. Yet, self-doubt lingers – where do I begin? 

Doubting myself has many sources. There is intergenerational trauma, an inherited gift for me to resolve as best as I can in my lifetime. Perhaps I can start there. I come from two different castes. This is a big deal in India, never said out loud, yet quietly lurking in the background. School textbooks pretend like caste doesn’t exist, and so did my parents. I grew up thinking that the fights at home were random – never understanding the cultural gaps that generations of lifestyle differences can create. I certainly never foresaw feeling threatened in an increasingly fascist Hindu nation in the third decade of my life.  

The doubt also comes from my identity as a third culture kid. I grew up in various countries, and never completely identified with any of them.  As a twelve-year-old, I struggled to comprehend the disgust that a white classmate flung at me for the colour of my skin. Much later, at university, I still didn’t understand the racism coming from a teacher, who, instead of offering constructive criticism on my Ph.D application to another university, told me, “if I were the one reading this essay, not only would I reject you, I would ask that you never apply again” (I actually did get accepted). Yet, sneakily, the racism entered me as doubt of my own self-worth.  

Belonging to the highly educated middle-class of a fast-globalising India brought with it the doubts and confusions of privilege. Witnessing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Me Too’ movements over social media made me question what privileges I take advantage of; how do I help redistribute the power that privilege brings? 

Yes, this self-doubt is a good beginning for my story. In my experience, cruelty often begins in self-doubt, and without the shield of self-compassion, becomes a sharp blade of hatred and disgust against whoever it comes across. I didn’t really understand this when I was twelve and listening to that white boy. Now that I do, here are some stories from the past few days. 

Flowers for your god, sharp words for you 

I rejoice in living in a small locality on the outskirts of Bangalore, where vendors still make the rounds selling flowers, green vegetables, and miscellaneous doodads. In a small locality, people know each other by name and by habits, for better or worse. Since I recently moved to this locality, there is still a sense of wonder and adventure when walking by strangers’ homes. On morning walks, I often chat with the lady who sells flowers, as she smirks at my partner and I “randomly meandering around” in her words. 

The other day, she asked me if I had sarees to give her, and I happily called her over. As a child, I had often seen people giving away old clothes when someone came asking. I remember noticing a smugness in the giver, and a sense of resigned humility in the receiver. It was not a transaction of equals, where a person with excess was simply moving their things to a place of greater use and need. Somehow, ego stuck in its ugly nose, and I hated witnessing that experience. I was determined to engage simply as a human being.  

 When the flower lady came home, asked for tea, it was my pleasure to offer it to her.  

“Why do you need such a big house?” she asked, looking around my modest, rented apartment. For work and for life, I explained. From there on, the questions kept coming –  

“Why don’t you have a picture of your family deity in your altar room?” My altar room is a mish-mash of stones, shells, feathers, a mushroom, Buddhist Tara, the Muslim Hand of Fatima, and Hindu Saraswati among other things. It is a sacred space that embodies my syncretic faith in nature and the best of humanity. The intrusion into my personal beliefs, alongside the imposition of her faith on my practice made me deeply uncomfortable.  

This conversation would have been challenging for me in the best of circumstances, and here we were, speaking in Kannada – which is only a tertiary language for me. I was struggling to keep up. 

“Why aren’t you giving me more sarees?” Because some of them come from my mother and grandmother and I want to honour their stories.  

“I don’t have too many clothes,” I said, “I don’t like shopping.” (Not to mention wanting a downscaled minimal lifestyle, all too complicated to explain to most people in any language).  

“Sure”, that smirk again, “those who can afford it don’t want it, and those who can’t, are always looking for more.”  

She was happy that my body size is similar to her granddaughter’s, although she reproached me with, “you’ve become fat recently.” 

I have spent so much time reading and writing about ecology, body shaming, religion, capitalism, greed, and yet in this conversation, I was mute. She kept deriding me, I kept nodding, smiling and offering tea.  

It took me multiple conversations with friends, and solid introspection, to understand why – I was dehumanising her. I was disrespecting her humanity and ability to engage in intelligent conversation because I was buying into the same ideas of post-colonial capitalistic privilege that were driving her judgments. Rich means smarter, English-speaking means better, more is always desirable. These were the ideas I grew up with and have been struggling to get rid of (clearly there is a long way to go).  

Yes, I am privileged to belong to the Indian middle class, to have a master’s degree and speak English fluently, to have traveled to different parts of the world as a child. At the same time, there are other parts of me that are marginalised. Brown, mixed-caste, queer, neurodivergent. During the conversation with the flower lady, I felt as though my struggles don’t matter. The flip-side of living in the grey zone of spectrums is noticing so much erasure and pain. I often mask my neurodivergence and queerness in spaces that feel unsafe. The payoff is coming home safe, but tired. It means feeling inauthentic and undeserving of love, because the pervasive social narrative doesn’t permit being attracted to different genders, or having a mind differently wired than the neurotypical. So much of my time is spent cultivating permission and self-compassion so that I am able to contain my own emotions and not let them lash out on others simply because they have no place to go. 

Where the flower lady was concerned, though, I had hit a blind spot. Because she is less financially privileged than I am, I was automatically deferring to her beliefs. She was erasing and unseeing my struggles, and in absorbing her judgment, so was I. She was seeing the outward appearance, and imagining it to be the whole. By not standing up for myself, so was I. 

Healing from racial trauma, still them and us 

A few days later, when the incident with the flower lady was still poking at my insides, I was part of a support group and a workshop – both diverse, international environments on Zoom. 

In the support group, I was shocked into silence by the amount of space that white men chose to appropriate, never considering that stuttering silence might mean that marginalised folks were gathering courage to speak up in a mixed-race room. At the end of the session, a gender non-binary participant mentioned that they had so much to say and had been waiting their turn, but it was too late by then. These gaps are blatantly visible to the coloured eye. Did the white men see them too? 

In the workshop, the white facilitator mentioned paying ‘taxes’ as reparation for centuries of racism and land theft. I am delighted that she embodies the sentiment to repair racial trauma, but you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, as Audre Lorde put so beautifully (Lorde, 1984).  

Illustration by Adwait Pawar, 2022

During the session, a discussion about defining resilience came up. Multiple people spoke of their interpretations, and yet, I felt like the facilitator singled out my definition of ‘resilience as determination’ as an example to come down on the racialized-capitalistic perspective on resilience as grit and endurance. There was no space to discuss how a child of the colonies might have inherited such a definition from generations lived under colonial overlords – not in a workshop about trauma, not in a space with a majority of white participants. Not even in a session where, once again, it was the white man who took up the most space, simply uncomfortable to wait in silence for quieter voices to emerge.  

These moments took place early in the workshop, and I was so triggered that I could not find enough space to name my discomfort. From that point on, I kept noticing that the facilitator seemed to be working through some agitation of her own, and I was activated. Thankfully, the workshop taught tools for handling trauma, and I was able to observe my feelings while also staying present to the session.  

In observing my discomfort, I was able to realise that I have a personal arsenal of ways to self-soothe; that I was not sitting in a scholastic environment where the teacher knows all (as is taught in most of the Indian schooling system; again, inherited from our colonial overlords, the British, alongside the exalted Guru system of India’s “golden past”). In finding compassion for myself, I was able, finally, to find compassion for my facilitator as well. 

This time as well, it took me a few conversations and deep introspection to understand why I was so activated in the session. My intergenerational wounds around racism were surfacing, and I was not able to see clearly through the red tint of my trauma. The white facilitator had mentioned that she was working through a difficult past, that she continues to grapple with her own traumas. Yet, somewhere inside me lurked the resentment of being underprivileged – as a white person living in a first world nation, she was supposed to have it together, it said. 

While I feel that there needs to be more acknowledgement of historical oppressions and the trauma thereafter in spaces of mixed identities, I also appreciate that it gets complicated. As human beings, we grasp the sense of feeling unsafe intuitively in groups, and such conversations need to necessarily take place in safe spaces. It is a slow process. I know, for example, that in the workshop, I was seething with trauma-induced resentment underneath my calm exterior. 

How different was this resentment from the behaviour of the flower lady? Was she unseeing my reality from her own trauma? Had she been triggered by some past experience or traumatic memory when she entered my home? I realized that I can never know what anyone else has been through. 

 The whole conversation played out in a new light for me. Was she really picking on me, or was I perceiving a racialised threat from my own past? Who am I to judge healing and reparations of any sort? We do live in a money-oriented world and financial reparations may mean a lot to the community she engages with. Whether or not it does, it is not for me to judge at all.  

Shame and guilt coursed through me in the new light of understanding. It is true that I did not demean the facilitator like the flower lady demeaned me outwardly, but my thoughts had been judgmental and reductive. Lover of spectrums that I am, it was easy for me to see how, unchecked, thoughts can turn into speech, and speech can turn into action. I could see clearly that there is so much power I have access to that I am still unskilled to wield. There is so much power others are dismantling and redistributing, that I have been unable to appreciate due to my own old wounds. The journey is long and convoluted. 

Where do we go from here? 

Having said that, I refuse to be defeated by the guilt and shame. Call me an optimist, but I do feel that painful experiences can be conduits for incredible growth and community via difficult conversations. I am bleeding on this page, showing up naked in the hope that my baring and sharing of personal experience can invite more explorations on the squiggly entanglements of privilege.  

In the last week, I faced a difficult conversation while sharing social media posts about Islamophobia. It felt as though the other person was asking why I, as a Hindu person (an assumption based on my name’s Sanskritic root), would want to oppose the ban on Hijab in educational institutes. She never said it directly, but the anger and hatred towards ‘them’, the Muslims, was palpable.  

It is my sincere wish that she finds her way to her own mirror and realizes that the labyrinth of privilege is never simple. She may be unwilling to give up her own Hindu privilege in the scenario of the Hijab row (Abdulla, 2022), but privilege is a delicate and tenuous thread that can be twisted in a second. I know this from constantly engaging and speaking of my own currents of privilege and underprivilege. 

After all, who can I speak for, but myself? And speak I must, for we are in a time of great uncertainty; and uncertainty means opportunity, to create new paths towards flourishing. It is my contention that we have to go through the mirror, acknowledging our own thoughts, speech and action, in order to find the clarity and transparency of compassionate, courageous community.  

No mob or institution can stand in the way of clear-thinking community that is committed to transformation towards a kinder and more inclusive world. 


Arpita resides in the spectrums between binaries. Her writing, painting, and music all enshrine hope for a world that embraces diversity and inclusivity as natural. Her writing weaves through her inspirations – nature, body, mind, philosophy, science, mysticism, art and politics. Arpita’s writing is rooted in personal narrative to reflect the only expertise she can ever authoritatively claim – herself. 

Chai time

Archana Ramesh 

“Here is your medium dirty chai tea latte,” the friendly barista squawks to the customer next to me. I bristle visibly as if she’d cursed at me. My immediate physical reaction can be chalked up to a few things: 

It’s six on a Monday morning and I firmly believe certain pitches and intonations should be avoided at that time. 

Chai tea latte is redundant as anyone who grew up in a South Asian household knows. Do you call it pomme apple pie?

Credit: Photo by Ayaneshu Bhardwaj on Unsplash

I can’t stand the smell of chai.

In my house, chai was made twice a day without fail. My mother and father engaged in the ornate artistry of permeating cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger into boiling water, whisking in milk until it turns the color of sand, with none of the sense of urgency exhibited at a Starbucks. They drank it at a temperature that I usually associate with second-degree burns. 

I tried my hand at making chai a few times, but my mother made it clear I had no natural knack for the endeavor. Since I never drank chai, I likely couldn’t appreciate the nuance of the extra cardamom pod or spill of sugar in the roiling pot. When I was ten, it was just one of the many ways I disappointed my mother. 

My father always made the morning cup. This was controversial. A newly acquired friend who came over for a sleepover whispered to me over our morning cereal, “I can’t believe your dad is making chai for your mom. While she is in bed. And then taking it up to her while she’s in bed. That would never fly at my house.” I couldn’t tell if she was more disturbed by my mother’s behavior or my father’s. But I did sense this was a non-traditional scene in an Indian household. To my fourteen-year-old eyes, this fit our household dynamic. My devastatingly beautiful and fiery mother and my coolheaded if timid father; my mom the spice, my father the milk. 

My mother made the weekday afternoon cup of chai and drank it alone. My father would be at work, while as a homemaker my mother had her afternoons for her quiet savor. I would come back from school to the redolence of chai still hanging low in the air, like my mother’s presence. At twelve, I wished to come home and find both absent. I wanted to read fashion magazines, talk to boys, and talk about them with my girlfriends. Instead, with my mother home, I knew I had to do my homework, after which I could go play with my friends only until it got dark. And talking to boys was out of the question. After all, the neighborhood ladies were watching. And I knew I had to make my mom proud. Or at least not give her any reason to be ashamed. I had to be good, smart, and virtuous. The weight of her edicts blanketed me like the dense and pungent aroma of her favorite beverage. The spice in the chai, that’s my mother. 

Why is a smell so closely associated with my childhood so discomforting to me? Shouldn’t I find the familiarity of the smell, the making of chai, grounding? At fifteen, having immigrated from India to the United States, I didn’t appreciate that my parents still clung on to their daily chai ritual, like they did so many other traditions. To them, it was an homage to home. To me, it was making my life difficult. This was before golden lattes were the latest health craze. The white kids in North Carolinian suburbia, who already looked at me like I was out of place, weren’t going home to the smells of cardamom and ginger. They went home to the clean smells of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – the smell of freedom and fitting in. And at a time when belonging seemed more important than comfort, my parent’s unswaying and painfully ethnic routines felt more like a bear trap than a lily pad. 

At nineteen, I took a one-way trip from home, and never turned back. Cities, countries, continents – I traversed all the boundaries that would help me shed the smell of home. The edicts, the what-would-so-and-so-think; I wiped hard at any reminders of home that lingered. I needed a fresh scent. I became a coffee drinker, which I could never once try at home. Coffee tasted like adventure; its bitterness fortified me. I drank coffee in Turkey, in Austria, in Sri Lanka, in Italy and everywhere else I could. I was out in the world, I could drink coffee, and I could be anything I wanted to be. 

 But no one tells you freedom isn’t truly free. It asks for something in return. Without the traditions I begrudged my parents, I was like a kite without a string, floating transiently with no sense of direction or cause. Out in the world, with no whiff of home on me anymore, I was lost. “Be careful what you wish for, because you will get it,” my mother once told me. I had wanted to shrug off any scent of comfort, culture, and connection so badly, but what was left of me then? I could do whatever I wanted to do. But what did I want to do? 

At twenty-five, I looked for partners who would travel the world with me. From the beaches of Nicaragua to the castles of Scotland and everywhere in between, we hiked mountains and went deep sea diving, stopping for coffee in between. But now scentless, I was lost in the scent of others. I had fought so hard to leave my anchors behind, in mortal fear of being weighed down, that I found myself at sea, on a dinghy, waiting for a rescuer. Again, I had gotten what I had wished for. These partners, these co-adventures, these rescuers, travelled the world with me, but when we were home, on the couch, sharing a morning cup, or really doing nothing at all, we didn’t know who we were to each other. I didn’t know who I was to myself. 

Even while the smell of chai is one I have yet to love, when I go home these days, I find something comforting about the ceremony. My father, now retired, also makes the afternoon cup that he takes over to my mother as she sits on the timeworn grey couch in our living room. My diplomas from college and graduate school bedazzle the wall behind her. Her beauty lingers behind creases on her forehead and neck that have stayed behind even as her overbearing worry about securing my future has dissipated. My father settles into the chocolate-hued grandfather chair next to her. Our dog, knowing the ritual as well as them, waits to find his place in my father’s lap. They sit in silence for the most part, other than a few exchanges about things mundane to my ear. 

I wonder how much of their thirty-seven-year marriage was fostered by the intimacy of this simple routine amidst the chaos of their immigrant lives raising two children. I now find it beautiful the way my father always makes the chai for my mother, a small gesture for the ways she put her life on hold so he could have a career, and his children could have a present mother. The piquant aroma of chai drifts over to me, offending my nose, but I ignore it in favor of the sight of my parents, healthy and together, savoring the spices of their childhood as they hold them in their hands a thousand miles away from home. Maybe I was in the cup too, the tea leaves that inked through the water, nothing on their own, but with the spices and the milk, they made a tasty cup. 

Archana Ramesh is an Indian-American writer who loves combining her zest for exploration of the world, and of the self. As an immigrant and third-culture kid with a hyphenated identity, Archana likes exploring questions about belonging, identity, and transience through fiction and non-fiction writing. Her essay ‘Somewhere in Between’ was runner up in The Preservation Foundation’s 2021 non-fiction contest. 

‘Where do we belong?’: Exploring the absurdity of partition through selected short stories of Sadaat Manto Hasan

Junaid Shah Shabir

 The partition of the Indian subcontinent was an iniquitous act that created a humanitarian crisis at a very large scale and led to the perpetual division of people along seemingly irreconcilable communal lines. This study explores the absurdity and incongruity of partition through two short stories Toba Tek Singh and The Dog of Tithwal by Saadat Hasan Manto. The essay reads the two works as a depiction of absurdity and madness on the part of the executioners of the partition and portrays its dark and inhumane side. These works of fiction satirize the act of partition and showcase caricatures of the people who planned and paved the way for the implausible splitting of a community. These writings also elicit the reader’s shocked response to the absurdity of partition which forced people to choose nations when they had no idea why such choices were important, or even, how to choose. In both stories, ordinary human beings are made unwitting perpetrators of crimes, fighting a war of which they have little understanding.  

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55) is the most significant cultural icon in the world of Urdu short stories. Influenced first by writers like Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw and Victor Hugo (whose works he translated into Urdu), Manto has also been compared to Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence, O. Henry for his magnificent craft of blending realism and symbolism together to chronicle the social and political happenings of his time. Since he belonged to the Progressive Writers Association, it is obvious that his pen wouldn’t have romanticized or painted the narration in colours; rather he produced art that was true to life and depicted the social and political realities of the times he lived in. His themes were largely social, before the partition of the subcontinent, when he would debunk the hypocrisies of the society that he lived in by talking about what was otherwise seen as taboo. He exposed the pretences and moral standards set by society by exposing social restrictions in his writings. Soon after partition, Manto could not help but vehemently criticise this inhumane act of bifurcating a big nation into two and butchering the collective consciousness of the people into two unjustified halves – the ‘us’ and ‘them’. While not slipping into simple narrations of facts and incidents, Manto skilfully brings forth a different perspective that not only acquaints readers about the collective trauma suffered by millions at the time of partition but also lets his readers dive into the psychological realm of his characters to depict the hidden realities which historians could not showcase. His stories are timeless and are still of crucial importance for scholars in that they help in “generating an understanding of the significance of partition violence, not in explaining a ‘holocaust’ . . . but in touching its complex topography, in reading its silences” (Severns. 200-201). Perhaps there can be no other way of commemorating this legend than quoting his own epitaph that he wrote some months before his death, to mark his grave: 

Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing… under tonnes of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greatest short story writer; God or he. (Sandhawalia: 2015) 

Manto’s writings criticise as well as resist the idea of nationalism that had gained pace in the then- Indian subcontinent. Manto possessed a rare gift of imagination that allowed him to create timeless fiction which would interweave human emotions with political and social appraisal in such a profound way that readers are always left in awe. Urdu literature has witnessed no other short writer who could create characters that are true to life and portray the dark side of human consciousness while maintaining an artistic distance.  

Toba Tek Singh (1955) displays Manto at his artistic height. It would not be a mistake to call the story one of the best political satires of all times which not only makes the reader aware of the insanity of partition but also engages them in the very action of the tale. To use a lunatic asylum as a microcosm of a nation to bring forth the insanity that the people of the newly formed countries were driven into and satirize the insane act of partition showcases Manto’s craft and talent. He uses the lunacy of the inmates to mirror the lunacy of the external world and employs characters from different walks of life –ranging from a farmer to an engineer – to add different dimensions to the story. The main character Bishan Singh is a symbolic representation of the loss, pain, heartbreak, confusion, and chaos experienced by the people who helplessly witnessed their motherland being torn apart. He symbolizes both the people and their mental state simultaneously. In a very few pages, this iconic piece of literature reveals the psychological effects of partition, the arbitrariness of borders, the madness of the act and the helplessness of people.  

First published in 1987, The Dog of Tithwal is yet another masterpiece of Manto that uses symbolism and imagery to depict yet another disastrous effect of the partition which was the loss of identity and sense of belonging. While in Toba Tek Singh Manto shows the insanity of partition through the lens of the ‘insane’, The Dog of Tithwal portrays the savage and brutal face of man when unmasked. Set in the mountains of Tithwal (between India and Pakistan) in “pleasant” summer days, the story is a microcosmic view of the hatred filled confrontation between the people of the newly formed states. The Indian and Pakistani soldiers are frustrated at not being able to kill each other even though they exchange firing for hours together on a daily basis as they hunker down, waiting for the slightest sign of trouble. This frustration and thirst to spill blood makes them kill a friendly dog who is caught between the two military posts of opposing countries and struggles to find companionship with one of the two military groups.  

Wrapped in heart wrenching episodes, Manto employs natural imagery in The Dog of Tithwal and communal harmony at a microcosmic level in Toba Tek Singh to convey the message of the commonality of human beings. In Toba Tek Singh, the inhabitants in the asylum are the epitome of community brotherhood and harmony where people of different religions coexist peacefully. Manto uses this community inside the asylum to frame an opposing mirror image of the world outside the asylum that was hell bent on dividing humanity on religious and communal lines. When this rigmarole of partition left the inmates in chaos and confusion, one inmate climbed a tree and fixed himself on a branch. On being asked to climb down by the guards, he declares, “I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree” – when fed up with worldly chaos and bewilderment, man seeks refuge in the nature to which he originally belongs. The organic connectivity between people of Pakistan and India is further brought out in natural imagery. The weather which “was extremely pleasant”, the air “that was heavy with the scent of wildflowers”, and the nature that “seemed to be following its course, quite unmindful of the soldiers hiding behind rocks” was shared not only by the soldiers serving two different nation states but also by the people living in those states. By reminding men of the nature which they share and find refuge in, the story ridicules the unfounded act of partition in the very first paragraph. Manto, as a vocal social critic, viewed not only the idea of partition as irrational but also called the people supporting and helping divide a nation into two either as criminals or just mad. The ‘insane’ Bishan Singh in Toba Tek Singh is one such example of a person who stands in stark contrast to the ‘sane’ people outside who proclaim themselves the rightful cartographers and proceed with dividing people on communal and regional lines. Manto packs the agony, suffering, trouble, perplexity, stupefaction, trauma, and devastation caused to people by partition in this one character. As Foucault notes in Madness and Civilization, “madness creates its own meaning in an attempt to find the truth.” (Foucault 30). The characters in many such stories of partition have to necessarily go through ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’ to explore truth and remain sane amid chaos, disarray, and pandemonium. Bishan Singh, who is later famously called Toba Tek Singh, holds up a mirror to a vile and self-serving society. In his poem ‘Toba Tek Singh’ the famous Urdu poet Gulzar rightly says: 

I’ve to go and meet Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan at Wagah 

I’m told he still stands on his swollen feet Where Manto had left him, 

/He still mutters: Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain 

I’ve to locate that mad fellow/ Who used to speak up from a branch high above: “He’s god He alone has to decide – whose village to whose side.”1 

In The Dog of Tithwal, Manto employs the symbol of a dog to expose the pent-up sense of anger and frustration of soldiers who are waiting to wage war on those who were their brothers just days before. The brutal treatment of the dog by Indian and Pakistani soldiers portrays the helplessness of the people who had to go through unthinkable trauma due to partition and its ensuing violence. The story throws light on how innocent and naive people were first compelled to don an imposed national identity and later asked to prove this forced identity. The work also ridicules those who wanted to thrust identities on naïve people and enjoyed unleashing terror and madness upon them. “‘Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani’, one of the soldiers observed.” Manto calls the act of partition a game which the people at the helm of affairs enjoyed playing at the cost of human lives, and that led to a huge psychological trauma borne by innocent masses:  

It soon became a game between the soldiers, with the dog running round in circles in a state of great terror. Both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh were laughing boisterously. The dog began to run towards Harnam Singh, who abused him loudly and fired. The bullet caught him in the leg. He yelped, turned around and began to run towards Himmat Khan, only to meet more fire, which was meant to scare him. ‘Be a brave boy. If you are injured, don’t let that stand between you and your duty. Go, go, go,’ the Pakistani shouted. (Manto. 24) 

The dog is a symbolical representation of the confused people who struggled to make sense of partition but were still caught up in a quandary when it came to decide which ‘country’ they had to show loyalty to. For many who wanted to stay but were forced to migrate or wanted to migrate but felt compelled to stay behind, the decision was heart wrenching. 

While history can only convey superficial events, art dwells deep into the human psyche to bring out truths which cannot be factualized. Manto blends facts with realistic fiction to document the depth of human suffering caused by the partition of the subcontinent in a way that historians have failed to do. According to Sandhawalia, Manto “crafted stories that gave more immediate and penetrating accounts of those troubled and troubling times than most journalistic accounts of partition. He excelled in capturing the human dimensions of a nation being butchered in the name of religion”.  This just makes us ask whether Manto was a better historian. 

Both these stories, like all other works of Manto, evoke pity, fear, and despair in readers as the characters not only criticise the foolishness of the partition plan and execution but also resist the act of being split by an external agency against their own will. Throughout Toba Tek Singh, Bishan Singh keeps on asking ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh?’ which is relatable to every single person affected by partition and can be interpreted as people seeking their identity and place. At the end, Bishan Singh resists the soldiers’ urge to pin him down and dies in no man’s land, with India on one end and Pakistan on the other. Similarly, the dog in The Dog of Tithwal, kept running between both borders, not unlike the humans who were as confused and traumatized.  

The literary responses to the partition of the Indian subcontinent are major sources to revisit partition politics and violence. Manto’s short stories are inarguably some of the best portrayals of the pain and horror of this painful chapter. His fictional narratives draw our attention to the tremendous impact of psychosocial suffering caused to the masses during and after the act of partition that remains underexplored in historical and journalistic accounts. Fiction stands true to life and depicts reality in ways that not only acquaint the audience with what had happened but forces them to shake the fragile walls surrounding their comfort zone. 


  • Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Tavistock Publications, 1971. Print 
  • Manto, Saadat. Kingdom’s End and Other Stories. Translated by Khalid Hassan. Verso, 1987 
  • Sandhawalia, Jasmine. “Manto’s undivided people & divided us.” The Tribune, 05 Sep. 2015, Accessed 09 Oct. 2021 
  • Severns, Keith. Witnessing Violence: Perspectives on Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s “Khol do” and Rajinder Singh Bedi’s “Lajvanti”. Annual of Urdu Studies vol. 13 (1998). 

Junaid Shah Shabir is just an ordinary human being with extraordinary ambitions. He is presently pursuing graduate study in English Literature at NM State University, USA. Through the short fiction and poetry, that he seldom finds himself writing, he tries to speak truth to the power and bear witness to the plight of ordinary people in contemporary occupations and political conflicts. 

All That Remains

Revathi Suresh

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

— Marcel Proust

For the last few months I’ve been carrying my mother and father around with me in two galvanised trunks. I’ve moved into a new/old house in a new/old city, and there’s nowhere else to store them. Someday, I hope to move them into sturdy steel cupboards, safe and secure, away from pests.

Upstairs, my husband has a packed roomful of his father’s family and work life. There are trunks and trunks of the stuff. Then there are things his sibling has secreted away in her own sturdy metal boxes. There are two cupboards that hoard documents and a massive sideboard whose doors I don’t have the courage to open because I don’t know what might tumble out. A peek tells me that it’s wires and cords that must have been attached to some obsolete electronic item or the other, then there are more photo albums, more paper and other remnants of past lives; plastic sackfuls of important memories that won’t reveal themselves no matter how hard you stare at them or how long you think about them. What is this piece of paper with these numbers and names scrawled all over it? Can’t imagine what but I’d better keep it anyway, just in case; just in a case; just in cases.

I too have my share of just-in-cases. Not too much but just enough to make me pause and ponder every now and then. What is this diary with all these mail ids? I don’t recognise any of the names but I’ll hang on to it because who knows. Then there’s a folder full of yellowed and torn off pages from here and there. They must surely be important, that’s why I have hung on to them for so long. At least I try to confine myself to folders (nice cloth-covered ones) and paper bags (plastic is not for me and so bad for the environment).

There are some photographs in the trunk where my parents are stashed. I carefully selected them from albums and stacks that were thrown open to their daughters after they passed—so soon, one after the other, barely two months apart. I grabbed at them greedily and picked out as many as I could so that I now have duplicates, even triplicates. I prefer the monochromes over the colour, of course. More aesthetic and, well, aged though I cannot seem to recollect the contexts at all. Even in the ones where I’m there, I’m too little to recall anything about names or places or why the picture was taken. But it’s great that I have these photos with me now and the thought that they are all safe in that steel box is comforting. I’m not sure how much time I’ll be able to devote to them from here on but at least I have them to go back to and revisit them never.

In my husband’s case he lost both his parents when he was barely out of his teens so he’s been hanging on much harder, much longer.

Why do we find it so difficult to let go of the past and why do we memorialise the material? Speaking for myself I don’t think I’d like to live on like that after I’m gone, as big and small  objects tucked away in cupboards and other lonely places. And now that I’m here, in this old house I don’t know how to reconcile material memory with hazy images from my past.

I used to live in this house, this city, twenty years ago. My parents lived upstairs, helped me take care of my children, a three-year old and a newborn. I’d fought postnatal depression, not knowing that there was such a thing as that, struggled with being home-bound, having my life scrutinised, criticised; I had strived to be there for my children even as I tried to sustain a fledgling attempt at freelancing. Every now and then I staged small acts of rebellion: went off to watch a film with friends; refused to make myself available to guests; passed like a ghost through days filled with silence, not wanting to talk to anyone at all.

Photo credit: the author

And now, here I am again. Memories, long buried, hit me in waves everyday—at times I frolic in them, at others I go under. Sometimes it’s not even moments and scenes that I recall, but emotions and feelings that linger like a bad aftertaste. I’ve had relationship-altering quarrels here, altercations that reshaped the course of my life, leaving me with changed perceptions of myself and others, and a pain so deep that it stings even to glance at the empty apartment upstairs.

I usually avoid going there but when I absolutely have to, I walk through the empty rooms briskly, shaking off the sounds of old voices calling and babies crying, of gentle admonishments and harsh scoldings, of hysterical laughter and uncontrolled tears, of whispered remonstrations and shared sorrow. Images bounce off the walls like I’m watching someone else’s life play out. In the shadows I see my father loading the washing machine, watching over workmen cleaning the sump, walking off to the shop; my mother calling from the balcony to switch on the motor, summer sweat clinging to her face, a baby to her hip; a sister leaving for office, face set and aloof, uniform impeccably ironed; a little girl getting ready for her first day at school, standing obstinately in front of her grandfather, refusing to hand over the remote while Cartoon Network blares in the background; a baby crawling around with a piece of chalk, drawing many-legged insects all over the floor (“Poochi poochi,” he mutters in delight).

When I return downstairs I dig through the photos in my mind and look for the people who are no longer there. But the faces I see are not my mother’s and father’s, withered and grey. The people who lived upstairs, I must have known them and they me, but I see only strangers. And now that they are gone, I feel I am a stranger too.

Revathi Suresh is the author of two novels about young people, Jobless Clueless Reckless, and its stand-alone sequel In Now & Then. She’s an avid reader of detective fiction, and when she’s not chasing villains and murderers via her favourite crime novels, she builds stories in her head that she tells to herself at bedtime. Her writings, reviews and stories have appeared in The HinduDeccan Herald and The Bombay Review. 

Chasing Crimson

Biaas Sanyal

The colour crimson runs like ink across the city of Kohima. Azaleas, the hue of sun-struck rubies, bloom on its porches and balconies. Red Naga shawls dot the cold grey streets, wrapped around women’s waists. From tall branches, bright rhododendrons throb like the heart of the bloody insurgency that raged in the region for over sixty years. Numerous crimson wounds, from battles old and new, stand tall and proud in the monuments, monoliths and memorials strewn across its streets.

On my first and only visit to this striking, wounded city in January 2019, my head was a swirl of crimson even before I’d arrived. Kohima is perched atop the Naga Hills in the northeastern corner of India, at a height of more than 4000 feet above sea level. There’s only one road to get there from the nearest airport, and it’s hours of dust and gravel. I, for some reason, had chosen a little, rickety car for this purpose. Pabino, a stocky Naga man with jet black hair matching his eyes, had convinced me it was a good idea.

On the ride up along the foothills, big yellow bulldozers were clawing out the bellies of the Naga Hills. A two-lane highway was coming up. Fat clouds of ochre dust billowed around me. “The hills here are very soft. The soil comes off easily”, Pabino said, clutching the steering wheel. He spoke a few words at a time, a polite confidence in each of them. Dressed in a blue suit and grey cap, Pabino was a retired insurance agent who drove tourists from Nagaland’s only airport in Dimapur to the capital in Kohima where he worked as a tour-guide. As the car wobbled over the stones, I worried. It was a rattle away from breaking down.

Up ahead, a soldier in fatigues, an AK47 slung over his shoulder, flagged us down. A rusty sign behind him read ‘Police Check Post’. It was the first of several Indian Army checkposts on this road. The soldier, a young Naga man in his twenties, walked over to my window. Anxiety plucked my stomach. I had never seen a gun so close. Pabino leaned out, offering a smile. “From Calcutta”, he said on my behalf in the local Nagamese. I scooped out a greenish slip of paper and held it out. Everyone entering Nagaland, including Indian citizens, needed to have an Inner Line Permit to visit the state. I’d gotten mine after three trips to a dimly lit office in Calcutta. The soldier stepped back and waved the car through. I felt a small wave of relief. Pabino was unfazed, eyes back on the road. Men of his own generation, and those after him, had been shot down in the forests and villages we were passing.

For more than six decades, the Nagas have fought for independence from the Indian Union. After a brutal counter-insurgency operation, insurgent factions, rife with their own rivalries, signed a defining peace accord with the Central government in 2015. While official figures state that about 3,000 people have died in this conflict, unofficial figures put the toll at about 50,000. In the last fifteen years, there’s been peace, or some version of it. The forests are now quiet, beating only with the crimson hearts of blooming flowers.

“Next time, you should come during the HornBill festival,” Pabino piped up, as we drove deeper into the hills. “That’s when it’s really fun.” Home to sixteen Naga tribes –- each with their own distinct language, culture and traditions — Nagaland attracts visitors to the Hornbill Festival held every December. Over the course of ten days, the festival hosts stalls for Naga food and handicrafts, special events with ritual dances, music and songs, wrestling matches, archery displays, chilli eating contests and even a beauty pageant.

During my visit, the only thing on show were the billboards from last year’s HornBill festival. Photos of Naga men and women, dressed in exquisite shawls and ornaments, welcomed incoming vehicles at the mouth of Kohima city which in January had gone back to its everyday life. Roads were potholed, electricity was undependable and water was always in short supply. Inside the city, the Khedi bazaar, where silkworms, snails, crabs, larvae, fish and meat were sold, was shut. Soldiers lounged at the market square, buying cigarettes, keeping watch. School children walked past them in handsome yellow blazers, oblivious to the guns in their midst. Pabino waved and smiled at acquaintances on the road, clearly happy about having an off-season customer. I looked for something crimson at the shops, only to find brooms, ropes, detergent and buckets. The swoosh of crimson returned only for a moment when a traffic policewoman, in a crisp blue uniform, slowed cars with deft waves of her hand. Pursed around her matching blue whistle, were a pair of crimson lips.

Crimson azaleas at the front porch of Alder Retreat, Forest Colony, Kohima. Image credit author’s Instagram Stories archive, 25 January 2019

Past the narrow grey streets, a wall caught my eye –- a mural painted with red Naga shawls, a different pattern for each tribe. “Back in the day, you could tell a man’s tribe, village and position, just by looking at his shawl,” Pabino said, glancing at the mural. “Of course, nowadays the young people don’t care to know much”.

Pabino’s daughters studied at Delhi University and visited Kohima only on holidays. I told him about the popular Naga restaurant in Delhi I had once visited that was always bustling with patrons. “Where can I eat a traditional Naga meal here?” I wanted Pabino’s recommendation. He blinked. “I eat my meals at home. I don’t know much about restaurants.” I didn’t know what to say.

The red-roofed guest house where I was to stay stood at the edge of town, surrounded by dark green hills on one side. On its porch, a row of wide-eyed crimson azaleas shone. After helping me with the bags, Pabino lingered. “Trek tomorrow morning?” he asked, his thick black brows rising expectantly. I nodded. We exchanged numbers and then, he was gone.

At the reception desk, two teenage girls, polite to a fault, wrote down my details. One of them showed me my room. It smelled of pine and opened out to bright green trees. I suspected I was the only guest there.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. My bones were cold and the room was too big, too quiet. The pitch black night stared at me from the window. I watched as two circles of light drove down from the top of a dark hill and disappeared behind its back. Crickets chirped. The heater hummed. And then, out of nowhere, a loud BANG rang out in the night. I bolted up, checked the lock on my door. Was that a gunshot? I tried in vain to go back to sleep.

Breakfast, the next morning, was toast, eggs and coffee. Chill-hop floated from the reception desk. I asked the girls about the shot that rang out. They seemed unfazed. “It’s nothing”, Azine, the younger of the two said. “Someone must have been hunting.” Before I could ask who or what, Pabino, turned up, as promised. He chatted with the girls at the reception, humouring them with some silly joke. His laugh, a high-pitched schoolboy laugh, upturned the corners of his eyes. I was struck by the ease with which they spoke. Pabino and the girls spoke to me in English. But when they spoke to each other, it was in Nagamese, a creole invented to ease communication between the sixteen tribes of Nagaland who, surprisingly, do not understand each other’s language. Hearing them talk, I was surprised to hear a few familiar words. Pabino clarified that it was probably because Nagamese borrowed from Assamese which in turn had similarities with my native Bengali. Pleased to have found some common ground, I stepped out into the cold, sunny day.

The trek to the top of Mount Pulie Badze, a walk through a wildlife sanctuary outside Kohima city, revived me. Pabino and I ambled up the forest trail, pausing to read Baptist quotes hung on the trees. The view from the top was magnificent. Unfolding in every direction were rolling green hills, behind which were blue, and then gray, mountains. The air was crisp, and the sun shone bright. Pabino pointed out the little villages sprinkled on top of each hill. I clicked a hundred photos, all of which I later lost.

On the way down, at the base of Mount Pulie Badze, I was happy to see a gathering of people from the nearby Jotsoma village. Preparations were in full swing for a picnic. Women, with crimson shawls wrapped around their waists, trooped in with cane baskets. They had foraged vegetables, herbs and flowers from the forest. The men were roasting a big fat pig to brown crustiness. Water boiled in large pots over wood planks. Children ran around, screaming in glee. I remembered that it was Republic Day, a national holiday. But there was no flag in sight. Just people getting together to cook, eat, drink and chat under the bright blue sky overlooking a beautiful set of rolling green hills.

I stared and stared. All I wanted was to be invited over. No one took much notice of me. Pabino went up to talk to two men wearing red woollen jackets with black and white motifs. I hoped he would broker an invite for me. Didn’t they want to show an outsider their way of life? Wouldn’t they want me to be part of their tribe, even if it was for an afternoon? He came back looking pleased. “They were the leaders of the village council. I told them about the growing garbage problem at the top of Puliebadze. They’re going to look into it.” My face fell. He hadn’t even broached the subject.

I ate lunch alone at the guest house. But before I could finish, a small, round plastic tiffin box arrived at my table. It was stuffed with fried green mung beans and shredded pork, tossed with flecks of a crimson chilli, possibly Naga mircha. Pabino had sent it.

I spooned out the beans, wondering how tribes became nations and if nations should become tribes. As I ate the first mouthful, sirens went off in my brain. My tongue was on fire. Naga mircha is one of the hottest chillies in the world. My nose burned, eyes watered. In the blur, shawls became flags, wounds became flowers. I couldn’t speak. Nothing made sense. Azine came by with a glass of Zutho, homemade rice beer. It was cold, frothy and sweet, the perfect companion to the fiery red chilli. As the zutho cooled my throat, the colour crimson reappeared, this time, hot and flaming on my tongue. I was overwhelmed. I had not expected that crimson, in my mouth, would taste so much like kindness.

Biaas is an independent writer, researcher and producer. She lives, works and shape-shifts between Bombay and Calcutta.

Interview with Dr. Tahera Qutbuddin

Interview by The Jaggery Essays Team

The oral tradition is vital to Arabic literature and culture. Dr. Tahera Qutbuddin’s new book, Arab Oration: Art & Function focuses on women orators in multiple contexts and across history. A 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award prize winner for Arabic Culture in Other Languages, Qutbuddin’s book was praised for its exceptional familiarity with classical Arabic literature. Originally from Mumbai, Tahera is a professor of Arabic Literature at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in the University of Chicago. She has been awarded a fellowship by the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to work on a book titled Ali ibn Abi Talib: Life, Teachings, and Eloquence of the Sage of Islam.

The Jaggery Essays team interviewed her.

What got you interested in oratory as a literary genre, particularly in the Islamic context?

TQ: Classical Arabic literature has captivated me since my childhood in Mumbai – where I encountered Arabic first through the Quran and through the lessons taught by my father, Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin, and through the typically Indian cadences of the chanted poems recited in community gatherings. I was drawn by the deep wisdom in these texts, and also the sheer beauty and tempo of the language.

Although spoken as a mother tongue by a miniscule few in the subcontinent, Arabic has been for a millennium, and continues to be a living and thriving language of India. I’ve written an article on Arabic in India several years ago, and continue to work on this aspect, especially with regard to the heritage of my Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, and the Arabic-Islamic writings of its savants, and now, alongside English and Bohra Gujarati, of the powerful and timely online lectures titled Majalis al-Hikma (Assemblies of Wisdom) of Syedna Taher Fakhruddin.

When I started working on Arabic Oration: Art and Function, I dived into the texts of these 7th century speeches and sermons and found that one of the most compelling things about them was their consistent rhythm, which no scholar had previously analyzed. I then read a lot of Orality Theory and the theory of “mnemonics” (rhetorical devices that aid memorization) and connected the two. The orations were produced in a largely oral culture, where, in order to have your words remembered, you needed to speak in pulsating rhythms that the brain could easily retain, in vivid, graphic images that the mind would capture and hold, and in pithy maxims that packed a powerful punch. I’ve always been drawn by the power of the word, and these texts were just marvelous examples of this formidable medium of oration.

About 12 years ago, I started working on a book on the sermons of Imam Ali (the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the first Shia Imam, the fourth Sunni caliph, renowned as the sage of Islam and the master orator of Arabic eloquence). In trying to get an analytical handle on the vast and complex source material on Ali, I began reading up on oratory, the major genre in his oeuvre. To my surprise, I found almost no diagnostic writing on the early oration. I first wrote what I thought would be a quick piece on the subject, which turned out to be a hundred pages long, and it was still far short of doing justice to the enormous treasure trove I felt I’d discovered. My initial research on oratory thus morphed into a full ten-year project that was hugely challenging but fulfilling on so many levels. It culminated in the recently completed book. Now I’ve come back full circle to the project on Ali’s sermons, and I feel that Arabic Oration has enormously strengthened the analytical toolbox at my disposal.

While the tradition of oration does have religious and aesthetic functions, your work also highlights women’s use of the genre as silence breaking. How were women placed within the tradition as orators themselves? 

Women’s orations are an anomaly in our corpus, but the few cited in the sources are particularly powerful and stirring pieces. Although no women in the first two centuries of Islam were caliphs, governors, or (with one significant exception) army commanders, a number of them had distinctive stature and commanded the respect of their male and female peers. Deriving their authority from kinship to the Prophet and the early caliphs, they orate in moments of unusual distress. Drawing heavily on the Qur?an, they chastise, berate, and declaim. Even though few, they stand shoulder to shoulder in their artistry and impact with the most eloquent speeches by men. I have a lengthy chapter in Arabic Oration on women’s orations, in which I have included examples of women’s orations and analyzed them in some detail. I’ve also written an article entitled ‘Orations of Zaynab and Umm Kulthum in the Aftermath of ?usayn’s Martyrdom at Karbala: Speaking Truth to Power’, in which I have analyzed the power and eloquence of the orations of these two granddaughters of Prophet Muhammad.

From the early Islamic period, a cluster of women’s orations has been compiled in a unique medieval anthology of women’s orations, poetry, descriptions, and repartee entitled Bal?gh?t al-nis??, (Women’s eloquent verbal productions) by the 3rd CE century author, Ibn. Ab? ??hir ?ayf?r. Interspersed with other literary materials attributed to women, the anthology records the reports and texts of a total of twelve orations given by eleven female orators.

The form also seems to not only be an aesthetic category but an archive of the society and the social body that existed at the time. Could you familiarize our readers with the times a little?

The oratorical materials discussed in this book are from the last fifty years of the period prior to Islam, and the first two centuries at the beginning of Islam, thus, from the end of the 6th to the beginning of the 9th century CE. Over the two hundred years of the period under study, the cultural parameters of society saw major shifts. Some moves were gradual, some more rapid. Key impulses for change were the advent of the new religion of Islam, the shifting political climate from a tribal to an imperial ethos, and from a nomadic to an urban setting, and most significantly, the gradual transformation of the literary culture from an oral to a written one. As generation after generation of orators exhibited new sensibilities of literary taste, and as social, religious, and political mores changed, there was an accompanying and noticeable degree of evolution in the characteristics of oration.

Earlier with its home in the Arabian Peninsula, the geographical compass of Arabic oration widened exponentially with the coming of Islam. Especially with the Muslim conquests in the mid-7th century, the Arabic language spread from the Arabian Peninsula to present-day Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Persia, Central Asia, North Africa, and Spain. To a greater or lesser degree, it replaced other local languages. Mu?ammad’s lifetime had been spent in Mecca, then Medina. After his death, Islam spread with the Muslim conquest of the neighboring Middle Eastern lands, and a new culture emerged with Arabic at the focal point of the linguistic stage. New garrison towns were founded, with a mosque at the center, populated initially by the Arab Muslim warriors. The major camptowns were Kufa and Basra in Iraq, Fustat in Egypt, and Kairaoun in North Africa. These, alongside the capital cities of Medina, Damascus, and later Baghdad, became the hubs of religio-political and cultural movements, and they are also the main locations for speeches and sermons. This was also the time when sectarian divisions began to crystallize. Iraq was a nexus for Shi?a and Kh?rijite rebellions against Umayyad authority. Early in the Abbasid period, the Kh?rijite movement mostly died out, but while the Shi?a movement saw major schisms, it also gained strength and following.

The intellectual milieu likewise saw major developments. The question of leadership was initially one of the central theological issues. Later, although these inquiries were still politically grounded, the purview widened to address divine nature, the origin of evil, and free will versus predestination. Proto-Sufi ascetics appeared, especially in Basra. The collection and authentication of hadith and historical reports became prime concerns. Jurisprudence became a vital scholarly endeavor, and jurists emerged as a stalwart power bloc in the Abbasid empire. These developing disciplines also impacted the content and practice of oratory.

During this period, we find the seeds of what were to become the political, legal, financial, and chancery institutions of Islam. An increasingly complex administrative system evolved, with dimensions ranging from the military, which was involved in ongoing battles; the economic, which first developed to address the distribution of booty; the educational, expanding with impetus from captives who brought new skills; and in subtle ways, the missionary, taking the form of Qur?an reciters who spread out across the newly conquered lands. The conquests produced a vibrant, cosmopolitan society.

What are some major changes you have seen in Arabic literature over the years? What do you think is the path forward in oratory, its practice and theoretical formulations? 

Arabic literature spans fifteen centuries and many continents. It all started in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century with the cadenced orations and powerful poetry of the semi-nomadic Arabs. This was a tree-trunk that grew many branches and gave many fruits over time. Arabic literature has always influenced other cultures—some say the translations made by 10th century scholars of ancient Greek wisdom into Arabic, which were then translated in Spain into the local Romance languages there, sparked the European Renaissance in the 14th century.

It has also been continually influenced in turn by other cultures. In the past two hundred years, the imported literary forms of the novel and free verse have taken root in the Middle East, and Arabic writers have combined these with their own heritage to produce visceral poems and sophisticated novels that give insight into their reality on the ground and their hopes and their dreams. The Nobel-prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is well known worldwide.

The Library of Arabic Literature, of whose editorial board I am a founding member, has produced lucid English translations of around 50 texts of premodern Arabic literature, and it is a wonderful place for English readers to start dipping into these riches.

As for oratory, I’ve written a chapter in Arabic Oration on the influence of early oration on contemporary Friday sermons in the Muslim world. There’s been good work done by many of my colleagues on modern preaching, including studies by Lisa Wedeen, Ofra Bengio, Charles Hirschkind, and Patrick Gaffney. For medieval times, Linda Jones, Paul Walker, Jonathan Berkey, and Daniella Talmon-Heller have written important books. I refer the reader interested in medieval and contemporary Muslim preaching and oratory to these seminal works.

As someone who herself has her roots firmly placed in many locations and cultures including India, Egypt and USA, how do you see the role of migration and exchange in literature and culture? 

One of the most important things to improve relationships between two groups of people, in my view, is to understand each other’s culture as this highlights unique characteristics, but also common human goals, and a wonderful way to do this is by reading their literature.

My late father, through his educational foundation Qutbi Jubilee Scholarship Program (QJSP), endowed an institution for academic conferences to promote harmony between communities within India, and between India and people of other lands. He called this initiative “Taqreeb,” which is an Arabic/Urdu word that means “to bring closer.” Its aim is to highlight exemplars of harmony, and doctrines that promote harmony, especially within the religions and traditions of India. I am a co-director of QJSP’s Conference Initiative, and we have organized such conferences in recent years in collaboration with JNU in New Delhi and the University of Kolkata, and we hope to continue with them and with others.

I feel the Sheikh Zayed Award reaches for the same goals. My own SZBA award is itself an embodiment of these aspirations of harmonious cosmopolitan cultural exchange—an Indian-born, Gujarati-speaking woman, now teaching at a US university, awarded a book prize by the United Arab Emirates for a book published in English, in Europe, on classical Arabic literature!



Interview with Fahim Irshad

Interview by Sneha Krishnan

When I first saw Aani Maani at the International Film Festival Kerala 2019, I was hooked. The director, Fahim Irshad introduced his film to the audience saying, “This film was made with friends, and not funds, so give it all your love.” I was struck by the simplicity of the filmmaker and the story he narrated his film, fraught along socio-political fault lines in an unnamed town in Uttar Pradesh. It begins with a girl, her family members gradually joining in. The girl is playing a game locally called Aani Maani, twirling and reciting the rhyme Aani Maani, Aani Maani, nani ammi badi sayani peeti doodh batati paani. Aani maani aani maani raat ko mahke raat kee rani (Aani maani, aani maani, my dear grandmother you are innocent, you drink milk but call it water. aani maani aani maani, the night jasmine blossoms during the night”. We follow the story of Bhutto, who runs a food joint where people throng to buy meat kebabs.

The film is as much a story of Tarannum, his wife, as much as it is about Bhutto. They are recently married after Bhutto is released from prison after seven years for a crime he did not commit. It is the story of his daily struggle for his family’s upkeep, and how a seemingly inconsequential political decision fractures the fragility of relationships and precious lives. The film premiered at the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) Film Festival in 2019 and went on to win the International feature film award at International Film Festival Kerala 2019. I caught up with the director, Fahim Irshad when the film was screened at the 11th Indian Film Festival in Bhubaneshwar in January 2020. This conversation is part of an interview series with talented filmmakers, both emerging and subaltern, belonging to different parts of India and narrating stories which are set apart from the mainstream.

Tell us about yourself, Fahim. What’s the meaning of your name? How has your journey been, from a boy from Azamgarh to making your first feature length film?

My name means intelligent, in Persian-Arabic with the root in Faham, which means understanding, and Fahim means knowledgeable. My father was very fond of Persian, so he gave his children Persian names. My life in Azamgarh was fairly simple, growing up.

Azamgarh is infamous for being politically active and for its ‘goondagardi’ (gang wars), but I felt that this is the picture that I saw painted in the media and the films. In our childhood, we hardly had any access to films, but we were exposed to several thinkers and writers emerging from Azamgarh like Kaifi Azmi, Rahul Sankrityayan, Hariaudh Singh Upadhyay and Shibli Nomani. They were traditional keepers of knowledge in Azamgarh but somehow the wider world hardly knew about them, besides few scholars of Urdu and Hindi literature.

When I went to Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, the world cinema to which I was exposed opened up a new portal for me. I realized the potential and power that human stories had to touch people’s hearts and I wanted to create that magic as well – to evoke emotions in the audience.

Your debut film premiered at MAMI in 2019 and won the best film award at IFFK. You also won the best director award. Yet the film is not open to the general audience. How can the general public view the film?

If people call me, I will take my film to their home, all they need is a DVD player. If they cook and invite me for food, I will go and show them the film. Because, releasing the film is not in my hands. I was able to write it, and somehow make the film, along with my team. Now, where possible, we are screening the film at various festivals such as New York Film Festival 2021, where we participated virtually. Usually that generates word of mouth publicity. We screened at various campuses such as IIT Bombay, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Calicut University and Kozhikode College. The reception was really good. However, since COVID-19 halted all our plans, the producers thought of getting the film on an OTT platform which would get a wider audience, but that process is taking up a lot of time.

Aani Maani is a love story, but at the same time it’s also a deeply political film. It doesn’t comment on it but depicts it as a matter of fact. Was it a conscious decision for you?

Firstly, we belong to a community that has become depoliticized, and secondly you feel responsible towards those who suffer from hardships and are marginalized, in fact those whose lives are rarely shown in films. Hence, I make a conscious decision to tell those stories, to show their humanity. But at the same time, it need not be propaganda, or preachy. Even if I cannot be objective, while writing it’s necessary to show these stories in a way that connect with the audience’s experiences. I hardly saw people like me or my family in popular films. Tell me how many Muslim friends or colleagues do you have? How do the films you watch represent their lives? I feel mainstream films hardly show stories from our communities, and when they do, they are just stereotyping us and present a vilified version of our lives.

What is your process of writing, scripting and film making?

For writing, I follow characters that grow within me, based on what I have seen, or who I have met. Then I think of what the opening and closing scenes of the story would be. If I hold these two strands, then I feel the urge to write the story through the screenplay, along with dialogues. There is no need to write a 4 or 8 page summary. If you have the screenplay, these summaries can be developed later on. I just go with the flow. If it’s written in the first instance, then you have the material which you either like or you do not like. That’s what happened with Aani Maani. Everybody was keen to shoot the film once they read the script. I didn’t get any feedback on what further work was required on any aspect of the script to make it better. I will be careful here onwards to not get carried away by my emotions and will rework my script and improve it further. I am in no hurry. For my second film, I want to ask questions, be more assured, become aware of traditional rules and techniques while rewriting to avoid becoming an amateur, but also retain my story’s innocence. I have learnt to appreciate to take it slow and be patient with the painful process of pre-production.

That’s my process. Of course, there are also constraints that an independent filmmaker has to work with, as financial and other resources are required to produce a film.

I am interested to know how much of yourself and your life experiences are included in the characters of the film.

Films have inspired me a lot. Sometimes, I am lazy. It takes a lot of effort to make a film. Then I become lenient with myself, and think that I don’t have to push myself too hard. That’s when I indulge and watch other films. Then, I feel I can also make such films. I see a classic like Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky and wonder if I have the capabilities to make such films. In recent years, I saw the film Marghe and her Mother by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and I think if I had worked a bit harder on Aani Maani, and watched this film, I could have made a more powerful film. I just don’t feel content after winning the best debut award, I also want to win the Golden Peacock, maybe open my film at Cannes one day. I like watching films on the Second World War. I saw Jojo Rabbit last month, I feel in my past life I must have been a Jew. I love every film which has been made on the Holocaust, it leaves me with this feeling of connection and inspiration. There’s something there, maybe we all get bullied, and fear confrontation, so when I see films that show taking up a stand against oppression, sometimes without violent confrontation, I connect with them.

In Aani Maani you show that love and compassion could counteract oppression in its own way. That’s how you take the fight forward.

To cleanse anything, you can use clear and clean water, you cannot use dirty water to wash away the dirt. That’s the fundamental thing, people are compassionate. Society operates on that, maybe people show themselves to be something else in the exterior, but compassion is inherent within us, so films should speak about these aspects. When people see such films, then there is an impact.

Will you be tackling such political issues in your next film? Will there be a sequel to this one?

There is not going to be a sequel. The films that I will direct will always be political. Even if the films are not political upfront, there are political connotations in the work that I am interested in, there is no escaping it. I am not an escapist, I would like to depict the issues we all face in my films. I want to make films with innocence but which retain a political color in them.

What were your inspirations in creating the various relationships in your film?

My focus was not on showing equal relationships. I wanted to show how these familial relationships are important and visible. When you find concepts such as better halves, it’s always about husbands and wives. It’s not about a man chasing a woman or the other way around. I was interested in the idea of love after marriage. That’s what I wanted to show: how do better halves make sense of the world together? In our society, we have not seen married couples showing love for each other. I haven’t seen my parents getting romantic, or holding hands, and saying ‘I love you’. The current generation is not like that. They are expressive. Love before marriage is still not easily acceptable, people do not favor it much, especially in North Indian communities and families. Then I felt at least it should be alright to love openly after marriage. That’s also missing in our society. So, I went looking for examples of such love in religion and scriptures. I found inspirations of love between husband and wife in our religious texts. The morality that we have constructed has only caused us more harm, and if you make claims that these moral standards gain credibility in religion, it’s not all true. Helping out in the kitchen, cooking together and men doing household tasks, we hardly see these examples in our homes. My father never helped out my mother in those days, but nowadays I see men making some effort to help their wives.

In the case of Bhutto, there was an economic aspect as well. He cannot afford another cook for his kebab shop, so his wife helps him out, and that’s how they both prepare for the shop together.

The film is an excellent portrayal of love, and the performances of the cast are gaining much appreciation. How was the process of working with a new cast, and since they are also your friends, how instrumental have they been to the creative process?

After scripting, I narrated the film to my friends – Farrukh Seyer, and my cameraman, Shailendra Sahu. When we were casting for the wife’s role, we were doubtful about Priyanka who plays the female lead. We knew she had to work hard on her performance and getting her Urdu diction right. Finally, I took the call, because both Farrukh and Priyanka had a good chemistry between them, having known each for several years. We did some acting workshops and they both enhanced their craft. To improve her diction, we had someone coach her. Even Neha, who played the sister, comes from a different background but she was able to get a good grip on the nuances of living in a village and playing her character. I am thankful that the right set of people and team came together to make this small yet important film.

Lastly, what drives you Fahim? What do you want to be known for?

I think the crises we face today – be it social, economic or political – we all are looking for relief. For me, I find respite when I write, when I develop an alternative world with my characters. I believe we are facing these crises because our current system has turned people to become greedy. I want to fight that – let’s just be content with where we are, like Tracy Chapman warns us all in her songs, ‘Don’t be tempted with the shiny apple’. The more examples we see of people who are resisting this temptation, maybe through my films or writing, the more I will be able to see it as my small contribution.

Dr. Sneha Krishnan is a researcher, poet and writer. Her poetry, essays and stories have been published in The Conversation, Helter Skelter, Analogies and Allegories, Indian Poetry Review, Gulmohar Quarterly, Belongg, Jaggery Lit, Feminism in India, Medium and The Wire. She teaches Environmental Studies at Jindal Global University, India.

The Year that Was: Life, Art and Feminist Axioms

Simran Chadha

Perhaps not as furiously as the raging pandemic and certainly not as demurely as the silent passing-on of Aishwarya Reddy – the young woman who went into the dark night without as much as a whimper[1]— but talk regarding the unsuitability of Meera Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s magnum opus certainly prevails, in chat-rooms and otherwise, across the country. Literati expressed surprise that a sensibility that gave the planet a movie of the stature of a Salaam Bombay could produce something as frivolous as Nair’s adaptation of Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Furthermore, the babble iterated that Nair’s portrayal of India and Indians seemed rather extreme, false and completely cut off from reality. What was missing in these discussions was the fact that when Seth’s novel first appeared in print, more than a decade ago, it was celebrated more for its resuscitation of the canon of Indian-English literature, and Nair’s movie, in 2020, had given it a new lease on life. Clearly there appears to be a disconnect between the India of the fifties as set in word by Seth and Nair’s 2020 viewers.

As per the verdict, Nair was declared her guilty of racial prejudice and also an obnoxious aping of western accents by the characters of her adaptation. These moreover were seen as liberties that she as director had taken with the novel. Now while ‘fidelity’ to the original has long been discarded as criterion for judging cinema or at-least following NYU professor Robert Stam’s dismissal of its efficacy, the same does not hold true for audience-reaction, which evidently continues to hold sway. In this regard none would dispute the jubilatory reception awarded to Satyajit Ray’s depictions of the India of the fifties particularly the Indian/Bengal village in some of his films. While this earned Ray pride of place with the masters of world cinema – Godard, Fellini, Orson Wells and such like and also rescued Hindi cinema from being subsumed by a consumerist Bollywood tag it also offered to the western eyes at Cannes an India they were most comfortable with –one that agreed with discourses facilitating colonization. Not that Ray was on the side of the gooras but his films offer a voyeuristic display of the grueling poverty of rural India while the absolutely brilliant cinematic aesthetic renders palpable the inhumanity therein. Decades down the line such versions of India continue to prevail, take for instance Danny Boyle’s long-shot of the opening sequence of Dharavi in SlumDog Millionaire or the much-acclaimed class-divide thematic as touted to acclaim by Arvind Adiga in The White Tiger.

Seth’s A Suitable Boy on the other hand is contextualized against a lesser known India- the India of the Brown Sahibs – a class of upper-class Indians reared as per Macaulay’s A Minute on Indian Education – a class, British in all matters except the color of their skin. Nair faithfully adheres to this and hence the British accents! For instance, Lata’s brother intones a perfectly clipped, anglicized version as the Queens lingua franca as would be the case with most of his ilk but has never set foot beyond Indian soil. His embarrassment when he admits this to Harish— who in the final instance is the suitable boy— accrues not on account of intonations alien to the local landscape but on having to admit the absence of an Oxford pedigree. The contemporary critic as audience appears to have missed this point altogether confronted as they are on a daily basis with a variety of accents by Gen X through internet forays into distant lands.

As regards the charge of racial prejudice levied against Nair on account of her portrayal of Lata’s mother’s muslim-hating predilections, need we be reminded that this was a generation who had witnessed Partition firsthand, an event where women were mercilessly pilloried on account of their religious affiliations? Even as much as a cursory glance at the research of scholars such as Urvashi Butalia and/or Ritu Menon would testify the veracity of this understanding. Lata’s mother, however tutored be the affability of her inculcated social mannerisms clearly carries the scars of Partition and while this does not justify her rudeness towards Kabir it is in keeping with the realist frame deployed by Seth for the telling of this story. We have here the portrayal of human nature with all its possible flaws and fallible imperfections; and so, in the final instance Lata chooses Harish, over Kabir – clearly a soulmate !! To many this affords fresh insight into the character of the fictional Lata or rather into the deceptive cunning cleverly cloaked under what now stood exposed as but a façade of innocence. But then, the act of choosing in itself does appear to be a progressive step for Indian womanhood considering choices are normally dictated to Indian women and their compliance taken for granted, particularly in matters such as marriage which involves the carrying forward of lineage. The educated and liberal-minded Lata treds the path well traversed and does not split hair regarding the irrationality of her mother’s Kabir/muslim paranoia. In a volte face, she just chooses Harish, and it appears that all has ended well. But then, has it really?

In the final instance, Lata has been an obedient daughter after all and it is with this that Seth presents before his readers and Nair before her viewers the crux of the problem besetting Indian womanhood. Obedience, submission and compliance, as represented by the fictional Lata of the fifties continue to be the hallmark of well-bred India womanhood and Lata, in the eventual count has proven her mettle regarding these traits. My contention is that this investment in obedience, submission and compliance continue to exist in an unbroken continuum from Seth’s fictional Lata to the flesh and blood, real-life character of Aishwariya Reddy — the second year BSc (Mathematics) student who took her life for sadly she was way too obedient, way too submissive and way too compliant. Snuffing out her existence was the only recourse this young lady could fathom, given her situation – poverty, a pressing loan procured by her father- a motorcycle mechanic in Bangalore- for her education and bleak chances of repaying it following the economic backslide caused by the pandemic. Guilt regarding the financial burden her family was enduring on her account was augmented on receiving the dictate issued by the college authorities to vacate the subsidized student accommodation. Aishwarya knew that she could not possibly afford board and lodging in the city. The choice before her now was to drop out of college and procure gainful employment. However, for a stellar mathematician such as herself this was a fate worse than death and she chose the latter. Speaking up for herself, questioning the unfairness of the demand to vacate the hostel room did not even present themselves as viable courses of action to this young lady reared as she was under the tutelage of respectable Indian womanhood as defined by obedience, submission and compliance.

Aishwarya played by the rules; she believed the myth to be the reality— the reality of a patriarchal world wherein patriarchy is determined not by gender alone but the conduct of those in authority. The learned professors of her institution failed to take this into account forgetting that compliance with authority is the first myth that feminism shatters. Had they applied this textbook awareness to the young lives coping with the reality of a pandemic perhaps Aishwarya’s tragedy could have been averted.

  1. A sophomore pursuing a degree in mathematics at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for women in New Delhi, Aishwarya’s body was discovered hanging by a ceiling fan in her parent’s two-room apartment in Bangalore city. Her suicide note read: “If I cannot study, I don’t want to live”, referring to the bankruptcy the family faced on account of the pandemic. ?

Dr Simran Chadha is an Assistant Professor with a Delhi University college. She curates, publishes on and teaches courses in postcolonial south Asian literatures in English, Film theory including adaptation of classical texts into Hindi cinema and Women Studies. Her most recent publications include an article entitled “Refugees and Three Short Stories from Sri Lanka” for Rodopoi, Amsterdam and a short story “Autumnal Leaves” for Muse India. Dr Chadha lives in New Delhi with her three children, two daughters and Pepper.


Rachael Bates

‘DON’T WANNA BE AN AMERICAN IDIOT!’ A bullish boy chants loud in my face. I am older than him, but we are at that age when boys, overnight, grow taller than girls. His thick cheeks spread into a smirk. I try to ignore him but he can tell I am fazed.

I am one of the few American kids in an international school in south India. The majority of students are Indian, but there are Koreans too, plenty of Australians and New Zealanders, a few Ethiopians and Nigerians, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, people from Thailand and Japan, even a boy from Qatar. I must not forget Brazil, Nepal, Bangladesh, Germany, and the Philippines. Since the school was founded by a group of English missionaries, there is an ample number of Brits too. The boy keeps singing, belting out Green Day’s lyrics to a tune of his own.

‘I’m not even American!’ I say in my American accent and stomp away to join a game of British Bulldogs convening on the flat school roof.

But I am American. My passport tells me so. I was born in Georgia, Peachtree City. I am told that my parents planted a peach tree in the garden behind the house to commemorate my birth. I do not remember the house or the garden or the tree –my family moved to India when I was three years old. Every so often, I wonder if the tree grew tall and strong and blossomed green and orange with fruit, or if it withered when we left, without anyone to tend it. Or perhaps it neither flourished nor failed, but managed to eke out an unlikely existence, developing into an odd shrub or merging with the foliage around it, becoming something else entirely. Unrecognizable.

A friend and I hunker down into our seats at the back of the history classroom. She is half-half, as we used to say. Her father is an Indian man from Andhra Pradesh, and her mother, a full-blooded American. My friend, caramel-eyed and chocolate-skinned, murmurs low into my ear, ‘I’d say it happens to me at least once a day.’

‘Same here,’ I say.

We are whispering about how often we are made fun of for being American. The teacher reprimands us for talking and we turn our attention towards the blackboard and begin taking notes on the Industrial Revolution in England.

I learn about European history, and I learn about the World Wars, and Gandhi and Indian independence. But I am taught very little about America—I am in an English pioneered school in India after all, and what country is concerned with history that is not its own? I know little about the country that people shame me for belonging to.

Small hands, small upturned faces, we are small vessels to be filled. My siblings and I smother our grandmother with hugs. We adore her and cannot wait until she shows us what she has brought from the land across the sea. America is packed into her suitcase, and we do not taste America very often. We settle in the living room, kneeling around her floral hard-case like miniature devotees. The suitcase is unzipped and sweets are piled out. M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces, chocolate chips and marshmallows. We eat them slowly, over the next couple of months, savoring every piece, letting the chocolate melt on our tongues. We hide them from our mother who has an insatiable sweet tooth. We act like the sweet things are sacred.

When I am young, America is a mythic land of milk and honey. We leave India to visit relatives every other summer. Stepping off the airplane feels like stepping into another world. The electricity stays on all day and all night. Clean drinking water gushes from every faucet in a house. People follow traffic rules and the roads are clean and smooth. No one honks their horns unless they are very angry. I look for stray dogs and cows and goats, but there are none roaming the streets like there are in India. The supermarkets are most wonderful of all with their endless aisles of food. A land of plenty. Sane. Clean. Put together.

I am seasoned to India’s chaos, the caterwauling horns, the maddening smells that make me scrunch my face against a waft of sewage one moment and fill my lungs with tandoori chicken the next. I am used to waking up at night when the electricity fails and draping damp towels on my hot skin to cool off. I am used to potholes, stray mongrels, and open-air markets where whole carcasses of animals hang dripping in the sun. I am used to eating with my hands rather than a knife and fork.

I live in India for fifteen years. Wherever I go, locals ask if I am enjoying my visit. I always say that I like India very much, but I live here, I’m not a visitor. Few white people make their home in India, unless they work for the army, the consulate, or as missionaries—like my parents. Indian culture and society are knit together so closely that there is little room for outsiders to fill. In the markets, in the streets, in the movie theatre and the shops, I am always referred to as ‘ferengi’: foreigner.

After I graduate high school I leave to go to college in America. No one stares anymore, there are white people everywhere. But I seem to have little in common with them save the color of my skin. People eat M&M’s here with abandon. Though every candy I once desired is but a dollar or two away, I realize sugar is sinister despite its sweetness. The burgeoning girths of Americans mark an overindulgence that is wildly out of place in my conception of the world. The sweet tooth of my youth vanishes. I remember watching an old woman scrape rice off the platform of a train station in India, her gnarled fingers placing the grimed kernels in her mouth. I watch American students fill up their plates with food in the university dining hall, eat a bite and throw the rest away. Wasting food in India is forbidden. I feel like a ferengi more than ever.

I become a theatre major because I am good at being other people. I am good at accents, especially Indian ones. I am drawn to the art of becoming someone I am not. Surely, this is the way to thrive: to have the skill set to adopt whatever persona is most appropriate or beneficial to any given scenario. After six months of college life in America, I begin to feel an emptiness and a craving for India and the person I was before I left. Now I don’t know who I am or what I want because I am so many things and therefore, so few.

Rehearsing for a show one day, a friend on the set says she would do anything for a Twinkie.

‘What’s a Twinkie?’ I ask.

Her eyes widen and her mouth opens. She has a sort of feline beauty about her, with slanting eyes, and full lips laminated red with lipstick. She wears a fur coat that collars her neck in its softness and her hair is dark and piled high on her head. I think of her as a poster child for the Roaring Twenties, she has the flaunting air of a flapper in the way she moves. Her face is the painted mask of astonishment that so many people wear before and after her when I let my ignorance show.  She laughs and I laugh along with her, half-hearted.

‘Everyone knows what a Twinkie is! It’s made out of…well, I don’t know, but it’s gotta be the most iconic American treat ever,’ she looks around the room, and others nod their agreement.

‘It’s sort of spongy, and it has cream inside,’ someone pipes up.

‘You still have a lot to learn about America, huh?’ she asks me, knowing a little about my background. My shoulders lift into a shrug and I smile, but not with my eyes.

I visit my grandparents for a weekend and I make Indian food all day. I let the cumin seeds pop and sizzle with crushed garlic. I add garam masala, a mixture of coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and chili. Turmeric stains my fingertips bright yellow. The heat of the spices catches the back of my throat making me close my eyes and cough. For a moment, the aroma takes me back home.

Back to the hullabaloo of India. Back to the afternoons my mother and I spent wandering through the marketplace, pressing mangoes and guavas between our fingers to feel for soft spots. After filling our bags with fresh fruit and vegetables we would venture forth to the meat aisles, holding our breath when we passed the fish stalls steaming putrid in the sun. Sometimes our grocery bags became so heavy that my mother decided we needed a break before ferrying our burdens back to the car. We would make our way along the muddy walkways until we found the coconut wallah. He would hack open a swollen coconut with his machete and hand us a straw. Taking turns, we would drain the cool, clear liquid.

While the chicken curry bubbles fragrant on the stove, I ask my grandmother if she has any methi. a pungent spice used in many Indian dishes. She raises an eyebrow, “what’s methi?”

‘I only know the Hindi word,’ I say.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines foreigner as a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own. I was born in America, a country not my own, and I come from India, a country other than my own. Outsider, alien, stranger, outlander.

Ferengi. Though it is a slightly derogatory word, its utterance moves my mouth into a smile. I burn sweet-smelling incense that loops lotus and jasmine into the air, while I listen to my favorite American artists sing songs with their lilting voices. Emmylou Harris, Tracy Chapman, and Patty Griffin never felt far away, even when oceans swelled between us. The shelves in my kitchen are lined with Indian spices and a vibrancy of non-Indian ones too. Call me ferengi, it is my name.

Rachael Bates was born in America but grew up in India. She recently graduated from Berea College with a degree in English Literature. She currently lives in Exeter, England with her husband. Her work has been published by Glass Mountain, Stove Leg Media, and The Preservation Foundation.