Of finding masumiyat in Istanbul


I began reading The Museum of Innocence in 2011. That is the year it was gifted to me by my faculty in my j-school to go with my Certificate of Distinction for “Excellence in Magazine Writing”. I was amused. Mostly because I did not expect such a category of award existed while I was studying and learning journalism (although magazine writing was one of my chosen electives in the second semester). And the other reason for my amusement was to realise that I was probably the only student who got a fictional book as a gift. Every other awardee was given a non fiction book that narrated stories from a significant historical period or even the do’s and don’ts of journalism and such like.

As I stood proud of my achievement and holding the heavy book (the edition I own is over 750 pages long), I read the name aloud for the first time. Orhan Pamuk. I had never heard of him before. The cover of the book depicted a fun family/friend outing in a vintage car. The size of the book did not worry me as much as the thought that this just might be yet another historical narrative of a lost empire, civilization or culture. I was wrong. Or maybe not? I am yet to figure out. I have been reading this novel since the day I got it. Since 2001.

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My copy of the book which has been with me since 2001. The novel was published in 2008.

When I say I have been reading it since then, I don’t mean I read a paragraph or a chapter every day. But I have been cautious of taking my own sweet time to read, learn, absorb and live the words weaved by Mr. Pamuk. Frankly, I have never read anything else by him (I bought My Name is Red a couple of years ago only to recommend it to my cousin even before beginning to read it; she was in need of exploring a new author at that time and I figured I, at least, had the comfort of The Museum).

So in the year 2011, Pamuk officially entered my life. My dear friend Raghuram later told me several stories about Turkey, Istanbul and the personal and literary life of the author. Raghu had already devoured some of Pamuk’s writings, Snow being one of them, and was constantly pushing me to finish The Museum. He often expressed jealousy for not owning the book himself and wanted to hear my thoughts about the book before he purchased a copy of his own. He also, often, scolded me for taking so long to read a novel critiquing my reading abilities and taunting my so-called desire for literature and arts.

I still don’t know why I have taken so long to read this book. It has surely nothing to do with the fact that it is uninteresting in any way. It also has nothing to do with the fact that Pamuk’s literary reputation has been affected, albeit slightly, with accusations of plagiarism. Every word. Every scene. Every plot of this text is so rich that when I reach an interesting point in the novel, I shut it and move it aside. When I shared this with Raghu, he simply used to guffaw.

The dedication of this book reads To Rüya. Raghu later told me that Rüya, in fact, was Pamuk’s daughter’s name and the word means “dream” in Turkish. He also taught me how important it is to read the dedication page of every book that one reads as it is a valuable insight into the persona of the writer. Again, it was Raghu who educated me about Pamuk’s well-publicised relationship with Indian authoress Kiran Desai. Raghu was full of such fascinating literary gossips and mesmerising tales (quite resembling Pamuk’s writing, now when I think about it). Shortly after narrating these stories, Raghu passed away in 2012. And thus began my long hiatus from The Museum and Pamuk.

In the last 4 years, I have made some progress with the book, although I have been even slower than before as reading it cause a surge of emotions in me. Nevertheless, I continue to enjoy the story and how Kemal and Füzun’s relationship develop in the course of the narrative. Since hearing about Istanbul from Raghu and now having read about the social transformations in the city in The Museum, I have always had a fascination to visit the city some day. I have had countless dreams about a city I have never visited, which is surreal even for a dreamy person like me! And I have had cravings to go back to Istanbul: a place I have never visited even once, in the first place.

Today, this dream (or reality) has come true. The universe conspired in a crafty way, I must say. My work, my activism and my passion for what I do in my personal and professional life has landed me in Istanbul to attend a 7-day long forum. While I am excited about what is to begin soon, I am elated to land in a city I have had a supernatural connection with. And this connection began exactly a few hours into landing in Istanbul: I finally visited the Museum Of Innocence or Masumiyet Müzesi. Yes, an actual museum of innocence that Pamuk created in conjunction with his eponymous novel.

The museum and the novel were created in tandem, centered on the stories of two Istanbul families. On 17 May 2014, the museum was announced as the Winner of the 2014 European Museum of the Year Award.

The narrative and the museum offer a glimpse into upper-class Istanbul life from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The novel details the story of Kemal, a wealthy Istanbulite who falls in love with his poorer cousin, and the museum displays the artifacts of their love story. According to the website, the museum presents what the novel’s characters “used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”

The collection, which includes more than a thousand objects, is housed in a 19th-century house on the corner of Çukurcuma Sk and Dalgiç Sk.

(source here)

You get a free entry into the museum upon showing a page from the novel where they stamp your entry in the shape of one of Füzun's earrings

Showing this page from the novel gets a free invite into the museum. The stamp resembles the shape of one of Füzun’s earrings.

Since I have still not read the novel entirely, as mentioned earlier, I was careful not to ruin the experience by checking objects in display from chapters I hadn’t reached reading yet. Almost each of the 83 chapters from the novel are displayed in a box with an audio guide narrating sections from the novel in Pamuk’s voice as well as telling the story of how a particular chapter or plot was conceived. You miss the line between fact and fiction as you view the countless hairpins that Kemal has carefully preserved of Füzun’s. The surrealism of it all comes alive as you hear the sound of a boat paving its way on The Bosphorus as a voice narrates excerpts from the novel about Kemal’s anguish.

I clicked several images while I was there but unfortunately they all got deleted owing to some error on my mobile phone. But I am not upset about it at all. The images are imprinted in my mind and I know this is an unforgettable experience. As I write this blog, an array of emotions and feelings are rushing through my veins. The words. The objects. The characters. The ambience. The floor. The voice. The recreation of my imagination as I devoured this novel diligently since 2001. And the magic of a love story that I am now too afraid to finish reading, lest the joy be over. I end with a quote from the last chapter of the novel (which, now, I have partly read out of curiosity): The Museum of Innocence will be forever open to lovers who can’t find another place to kiss in Istanbul. 

Of hunting and devouring erotica


When I was working on finalizing my dissertation topic during my Masters, I was quite apprehensive about what I would choose. I knew that the topic I was about to choose would eventually be something that I would be voluntarily giving two years of my life to. It had to be exciting, interesting, and maybe even controversial to keep me glued and engaged. Sex was an obvious answer that fulfilled all these criteria. And since I had graduated specializing in literature in English, erotic literature emerged as an option I was more than happy to pursue.

While I knew that it is contemporary erotica that I wanted to focus on, the reason for stressing on writing that was recent was to test how much I could relate to the contextual realities. It is only after I finalized my area of research that I began hunting for writings around sex, preferably fictional writings, in English language emerging from South Asian countries. Of course, it was much more difficult than I had imagined. This wasn’t romance or tragedy or even tragicomedy. This was erotica coming from a land that looked at sex as a tabooed, sinful and hushed subject. Of course, this is also the land that gave us the ‘Kama Sutra’ and the Khajuraho temples. It is this hypocrisy in allowing some and dismissing other manifestations of the erotic that I sought to address through my research. And my first hurdle began in looking for the texts.

A visit to the bookstore resulted in judgmental looks, sniffed remarks and, eventually, ‘Fifty Shades…’. Some bookstores proudly offered me newer translations and versions of ‘Kama Sutra’ again, while some others simply refused to entertain my preposterous demand. A simple Google search came to my rescue. I discovered Tranquebar Press whose four volumes of erotica had emerged in recent years*. Each of these anthologies consisted of fictional pieces penned by writers from South Asia. I was relieved as well as surprised at its easy presence and access on the web but complete ignorance among bookstores (I am talking about two years ago, maybe things have changed now). I ordered all four volumes online and I was more than happy to devour them for the (ostensible) purpose of conducting research. While the genre of erotica is burdened by several challenges — not being seen as ‘literary’ enough, charged of being cheap, trashy and pornographic (the thin line between what gets constructed as erotic and acceptable, and, pornographic and dismissive remains a crucial question to explore), accused of objectifying its characters, especially women—the books that I read as part of my thesis writing were both brave exceptions and happy clichés.

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While conducting my research, I divided these stories on the basis of themes. But the one theme and aspect that I had a keen eye for was that of sexual fantasies and the kinds of sexual fantasies that these fictional worlds not only allowed but also gratified in a justified manner. Interestingly enough, ‘Blue’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka, which doesn’t claim to be heterosexual (and neither is), has scope for sexual experimentation and fantasies only in those stories that move out of hetero normativity. Marti’s ‘Room 1716’ is the story that describes lesbian fantasies of the protagonist, while also incorporating the use of a vibrator (a sex toy) to enhance the sexual experience—a privilege otherwise not given to other heterosexual couples in this anthology. Again, it is in ‘Me and Ms J’, a story about lesbian desire, where the protagonist fantasies a sexual relationship with her teacher. Sexual fidelity takes a hike in Shehan Karunatilaka’s Veysee which is a story about a married man who seeks sexual pleasure with a sex worker. There isn’t much light thrown as to why he seeks sex outside marriage but the story does present a view of Sri Lankan society and its perception around sex. The country is represented as one where sex is available ‘freely’ only if you possess good looks, good money and power. Of course, sexual fantasies are not limited to the realm of the man. In ‘Undercover’, Ameena Hussein narrates the story of a married woman trapped in a physically and mentally unsatisfying marriage. This story brings in the element of sex as an avenue of escape when coupled with exploring sexual desire outside marriage.

In ‘Blue’, sexual fantasy is linked to either homosexuality or tasting the forbidden (in the case of ‘Undercover’ and ‘Veysee’). ‘Close, Too Close’ (The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica), on the other hand, gives immense space to fantasies. Perhaps in keeping with the stereotypes associated with the queer world being bold, daring and experimental (the flip-side being unnatural, shameful and confused), ‘Close, Too Close’ has employed and given space for several sexual fantasies, including using a vibrator, dreaming of intercourse with a minor boy (inter-generational sex), queer games, conference sex and threesomes. Perhaps, unconventionality and varied fantasies go well with the definition of what it means to be ‘queer’ – weird. People play queer games (‘All in the game’), a middle-aged gay man –fantasises about having sex with an underage Kashmiri boy (‘Dreams and Desires in Srinagar’), two women engage in conference sex (‘Conference Sex’), a gay man and a straight feminist (as she calls herself) engage in a threesome with a seemingly heterosexual guy (‘Screwing with Excess’).

In ‘Alchemy’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, ‘Mouth’ by M. Svairini explores the many sexual fantasies, including those that may be categorized as queer, set in the context of sexual role play and orgy. Stylistically, the story stands out in its use of several literary tools like analogy and personification. Participants involved in the orgy are all named after specific erogenous zones like the mouth, the cunt, the cock and the ass. The choice of the body part is extremely interesting and perhaps even deliberate in being both accurate and ambiguous at the same time.

In ‘Electric Feather’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories, Sheba Karim’s ‘Heavenly Ornaments’ explores the shame and dangers associated with being public or open about one’s sexuality or sexual desires. This shame gets doubled if it is that of a woman and more so if that of a single, deserted or divorced woman. Concepts of purity and impurity are highlighted. Another story that was striking was ‘The First Time’ by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s that traces the coming of age of its protagonist, Aditya, a twenty-seven-year-old advertising executive, who goes through a journey of sexual discovery. It narrates the journey of its protagonist from his dorm days, when he accidentally enters a room of two boys helping each other masturbate. Disturbing as it may have been to him, Aditya longed to replicate what he just saw as the pleasure that he observed in the two boys seemed genuine and true. However, later, he understands, through watching porn, that masturbation was not the only way of attaining sexual ecstasy. The story is not only significant in foregrounding sex education and sexual education; it also highlights the importance of one’s peers in shaping (almost permanently) one’s attitude towards sex.

It is interesting to note, here, how something deemed as private and intimate is actually shaped in one of the most public and open fashions – in peer group discussions, by hearing about it from friends and acquaintances and by observation in popular culture and social media. This is exactly why this genre gains importance. Erotic literature serves a culturally and socially significant role not necessarily in opening up sexual possibilities for its readers but by giving that required space for the reader to embrace and be comfortable with his/her sexual desires – something that is otherwise openly denied in accordance with social dictums. Erotica may or may not question normative ideas about sex and sexual experimentation. However, in its very act of talking about sex in the most direct and detailed manner in a deeply prudish and hypocritical world, it plays a transgressive role.

*The anthologies I studied were as follows:

  • Joshi, Ruchir ed. Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press, 2009.
  • Hussain, Ameena ed. Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2011.
  • Karim, Sheba ed. Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2012.
  • Meenu and Shruti ed. Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2012.

All these texts have published erotic stories in the form of prose, poetry and graphic art. The contributors are from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This post was originally published on TARSHI‘s E-magazine ‘In PlainSpeak’ here.

My journey with Gabo


I have rarely read romantic stories. I shy away from them. I find fiction in the area of romance making me uncomfortable. I rarely pursue them. More importantly, I don’t trust them. But Gabo is an exception. His words, the power that they ooze…these are unforgettable and it’s nearly impossible to not be affected by it. My first Gabo encounter was during my graduating years as I read Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The sheer genius of this man reflected in the title itself. The story of a death that has already been predicted. A novella set in Colombia, it was my first insight into Latin American culture. Its people, their complacency, their guilt, their secrets, their magic and their reality (often the same). There was violence in the name of love. I was intrigued and craving for more.

Instead of picking up another novel, I picked up his autobiography instead:Living to Tell the Tale. Somehow, it seemed more important and necessary to read about his life, his journey, his pursuit of love and career. His personal anecdotes were so interesting, I never bothered to explore any of his other writings. Or perhaps I wasn’t ready for any of it. Until one day, a friend suggested Memoirs of my Melancholy Whores. Again, what a mesmerizing title. It was the last novella penned by him and that intrigued me enough to give it a read. As I stood at the bookstore hunting for Gabo’s not-so-famous novella, I finally struck upon a beautiful cover on a thin book, whose first lines read: “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” I was sold. The book costed a bomb (it was an imported edition and no second-hand edition was available) and I paid the price anyway since I knew that somewhere, somehow it was going to be worth it. And I wasn’t wrong. It is, till date, one of the most beautiful, gorgeous, honest and spectacular stories that I have read in my life.

After having Marquezed (almost permanently) this time, I pondered over the next novel. They all praised One Hundred Years of Solitude. But I still had my doubts. At a flea market, I bought News of a Kidnapping. Again, one of his lesser known writings hoping to read a little less fiction and a little more reality. But before I could begin reading it, a dear friend recommended Love in the Time of Cholera. My skepticism towards romance and love stories still prevailed and I casually dismissed his suggestion. This was followed by a statement he made that I will never forget: “If you want to know what love is truely all about it, read this. Everything else is crap.

I had enough faith on Marquez and my friend to believe in such a persistent claim. I went to the second-hand bookstore that very weekend and purchased a copy for myself. I spent the next four months reading Love in the Time of Cholera. I usually don’t dwell so much on a book (unless it’s excruciatingly boring). And this was quite the contrary. But I wanted to absorb and swallow every word of this novel. It was pitted as the quintessential bible for all lovers and for all those who hope to fall in love. It deserved that extra pamper. And it was worth it in every way.

My copy of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and News of a Kidnapping are the only ones that continue to live on my bookshelf. I gifted my copy of Memoirs to a friend. Memoirs holds the record of being the oft-repeated gift as far as books are concerned. I have gifted it to six of my friends. I continue to gift it to those who still haven’t read it. My copy of Love in the Time of Cholera is currently with a friend who claims he is in love and I felt he needed to read Gabo’s advice on this.

There is magic in his name, there is magic in the words he weaved. He lives on bookshelves. He breathes in people who are in love. He talks to his readers. He questions their beliefs. He is not dead. Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez lives on.

No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had.

Originally published on Campus Diaries.

Of reading erotica and extended debates


So, basically, you’re reading porn?” More often than not, the question is followed by judgmental chuckle or shocked horror. For someone who is researching on erotic literature, one must simply get used to the idea that an encounter with prudishness coupled with shrewd hypocrisy is an everyday reality in our beloved country. On one hand would be those who would pronounce my shamelessness on having voluntarily chosen this topic, while on the other hand would be the same lot highly curious to know if erotica is really being written and is available for purchase.

As part of my research, I’m expected to do textual analysis of erotica and to do that, step one would be to read it. While my topic may sound exciting and interesting (it is, indeed), there are several challenges that I, as a [woman] researcher, face. Firstly, I can’t be reading erotica anywhere and everywhere, like any other piece of writing. It’s one thing to read Marquez’s Love in the time of cholera on a railway platform; it’s a whole other thing to read The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin in a local train, where people leer at the book cover that proudly flaunts the naked back of a lady. Much as we’d like to avoid saying it, we do judge people by what they are reading and books by their cover. It won’t be very “pleasant” and “decent” of me to be reading a book entitled that has the picture of a lady in a sari sans her blouse smoking away to glory, to begin with. Now, whether I read erotica for my own need for seeking pleasure or for a more “legitimate” purpose of researching extensively on it is, frankly, nobody’s business.

One of the many research questions that I’m looking at is the subtle line of difference between what gets constructed as erotica, and thus, by extension, aesthetically appealing and hence justified for consumption (at least by a certain section of society—the so-called “educated” ones) , and pornography casually and conveniently associated with something that is dirty, cheap and trash-worthy. Much has been written about feminist debates surrounding porn and how feminists stand completely divided on their stand, which itself has changed over a period of time. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon are one of the most obvious and vocal voices of anti-porn feminists who recognize porn as an exploitative industry and categorize it essentially as demeaning to women and something that should most definitely be banned. Most common arguments against porn includes glorification of rape and sexual assault, objectification of women, catering to the male fantasy, degradation of women in their representation, child sexual abuse and perpetuation of serious misogyny.

The other side of the spectrum has feminists who rationalize pornography as a celebration of women’s sexuality and depart from the aforementioned views. They see it as a platform for feminist expression and advocate for what they call feminist porn (and they insist that the word is not an oxymoron). Ellen Willis who is credited for having coined the term sex-positive or pro-sex feminism argues that [feminist] porn gives an opportunity for women to explore their sexuality and provides that rare space to articulate and achieve those hushed sexual desires and fantasies. This feminist revisiting of porn is linked to the feminist critique of censorship and borrows from the basic notion of freedom of expression that ought to be encouraged and not protested against.

In the light of these historical arguments that are primarily American in their location, let’s place the recent verdict of the Supreme Court of India that has proposed a ban on pornography from the Internet, the argument being that it is one of the chief facilitators of increasing violence against women. Going by past events, common sense would tell us banning something simply ends up increasing its sale or productivity. Ban a book? People would be more than curious to [illegally] download its e-version. Ban a movie? It’s all set to become a box office hit. As far as banning pornography goes, it’s hardly possible for that to happen given the fact that it’s a large scale industry in itself and there are several ways of accessing porn.

A ban is essentially a curb on the freedom of expression; in this case, that of art and content. Feminist porn, as claimed by feminists who support pornography, seeks to revisit porn and the things that it is accused of. One of the reasons why I decided to research on erotica is because it is a genre of literature that was never taught or, rather, brushed aside. Much like any other genre, erotica, too, has a lot of scope for women’s writing. A similar case may be made for porn that isn’t demeaning to women but seeks to revisit and reclaim it as a medium of feminist expression. What porn (much like media ads on beauty products and cosmetics for both men and women) has done today is create unrealistic standards of fantasy, promoting objectification and perpetuating gender violence in this process. Feminist porn and photography seeks to correct this by “challenging dominant conceptions of sexuality and power”.

Let’s look at the audience that consumes porn—openly and/or clandestinely. India is deemed as a country of sexually frustrated men (a generalization that is used by some to justify increasing cases of rape and molestation). We even have ministers watching porn during the proceedings in the Parliament. But porn is also consumed by women, whether or not they may be sexually frustrated. Those who watch/read porn have their own set of reasons for doing so.  India Today sex survey claimed that in 2006, a large percentage of women emerged as viewers and the figures are only increasing over the years. The survey that also sought to understand the lives and minds of women in small town India reveals that at least 30 per cent of them has watched a porn film at some point and at least half of those saw one at least once every couple of months.

That porn is a medium of women’s exploitation is still an acceptable and factually correct argument. But I’m yet to understand how its ban would reduce violence against women. Do those who rape and molest do so after having watched a couple of graphic pornography and learned the tricks of the trade? Isn’t the problem more in the mindset of the person who commits a crime that is essentially about power and not sex?

Now, if you will excuse me, I have three volumes of erotica to finish before I end my day. Thank you.

Picture courtesy Google Images

Picture courtesy Google Images

This post was published in The Alternative, an e-magazine that strives to make social good an everyday practice 

Of the pink city and its [literary] heritage


I have always wanted to go a literary festival (it’s struck off my To-Do list now). Just the idea of literary and festival put together intrigues me and makes me curious if such an amalgamation is truly possible. Arguably, the Jaipur Literature Festival is one of the most popular and sought after fests that people throng to every year since it began in 2008. A trip to Jaipur from Mumbai can be heavy on your pocket, given the sheer distance between the two cities. But I’m traveling on low-budget this time, which can be both fun and challenging. The fun part comes from the amusement of having survived on low cash; the challenge, of course, is how to manage in a cash-strapped situation. But the company of a woman with entrepreneurial skills helps immensely. And so with our little baggages of clothes and confidence, we head to Jaipur to be one of the many audiences this year of the JLF.

We’re fashionably late in our arrival. Late not just in terms of our train running behind schedule but also in terms of the lit fest that started a day before. But we know there are plenty of things lined up for the next couple of days. Our priority first is to make sure a roof above our head and one that doesn’t burn a hole in our pockets. The Dharamshala came to our rescue. With the tariff being as low as Rs.180 per night, we figure we have enough to splurge on other extravagances. We celebrate by having a wonderfully sumptuous brunch—mooli paratha and some masala maggi to go with it. We frown at the dripping oil but that’s the price you pay for taste apparently.

We decide to head to the venue to briefly figure out what the jazz is all about and make our plans accordingly. There’s a session on depiction of women in Bollywood that I want to attend, due to begin in a few minutes. After much negotiation with auto drivers (we pretend  we’re pros and know the route by heart…of course we don’t and the only thing we’ve figured from Google map is that Jaipur is circular in its topography), we reach Diggi Palace. As a huge crowd ushers inside, I am forced to wonder if all of them really are literary enthusiasts or is the large number a result of the fact the entry is free at JLF. Whatever the case may be, an audience makes an event successful, right?

At the entrance of the fest

At the entrance of the fest

We head to the Front Lawns for the session only to find it occupied. There’s barely enough space to stand. We listen for a few minutes until we decide to explore the venue further and come back if we hear something interesting. A discussion on Munni badnam and Fevicol isn’t too pleasing anyway. There’s colour everywhere. In the shamiyana, in the tents, in the turbans some ushers wear, in the stalls that sell indigenous items and handicrafts. We explore the “festival” part of the lit fest as we window-shop stalls (most of which are way beyond our budget even if we were unhappily employed). As I hover around, I absorb each face in the crowd. There are familiar faces—some I have seen before, some I’m trying hard to remember where and some I most definitely wish to avoid. I eavesdrop at conversations. I hear someone nudging a friend to buy her that exclusive junk jewellery at display. Rs. 1500, I make a mental note. Another complains her Ray Ban shades broke this morning and she’s really upset about it. That’s about Rs. 3,000, screams my oh-so-bourgeois brain. An old lady says she’s looking forward to getting her book autographed by Ms. Shobha De as she adjusts her Van Heusen bag. Is that from Khan Market, I wonder. I look at my own innocent bag (a gift from a friend who attended the Kabir Festival in Mumbai) and smile in amusement. I suck at math but I’m quick as a cat when it comes to such calculations. Well, I revel in my duplicity.

As the sun sets, the weather gets cold(er). I realize I have been divorced from Delhi winters for three years now and hence lost touch with it completely. I regret not having worn my socks as I shiver around food stalls that refuse to sell any appetizing item for less than Rs. 100. Math again. Damn! V and I decide to “indulge” in  some pasta. Mediocre quality, meagre  quantity. We are left craving for more. We head back as we have a long day tomorrow—quite a few interesting sessions lined up. We stop by at a shopping complex (the one we made a note of while on our way to Diggi in the afternoon) and hunt for something “Jaipuri”. It isn’t exactly a flea market but at least there is scope for bargaining—an art V is so much better at. She purchases a couple of colourful shawls and a Jaipuri block print cotton sari for me. I’m already excited to wear it. Before heading back to our Dharamshala, we stop at the roadside omelette guy to put our unsatisfied stomachs to rest. Our night ends with a “Regular Thali” (Rs.40) consisting of chapatis, dal and aloo. We crib about the oil again as we snuggle inside our blankets for the night in the hope we aren’t bitten by bed bugs. And we’re spared the horror! :->

Day 2 for us is pretty jammed. We have a couple of sessions to attend today and I’m looking forward to hear Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speak. It’s a session entitled ‘Rogues, Reviewers and Critics’. Quite an experience to hear them talk and debate. I make notes as a diligent audience trying hard to remember all the literary criticism I studied in my graduating years. It feels like a million years ago. We then head to a session on ‘The Language of Literature’ and I’m enthralled by some of the points that Ambai makes. I wish my mother were here to hear her speak. As a reader and admirer of Tamil literature, she would have been mesmerized. As the session ends, the announcer states that the venue for the session by Rahul Dravid has now been changed. My heart skips a beat as those words sink in. That Dravid is going to be here was completely off my imagination and expectation. I barely noticed that in the four-day event schedule. I have no idea how I missed it. I decide I have to attend the next one; there’ no way I can miss it.

V and I head outside Diggi to hunt for food. We barely have a map or location in mind as we board the cycle rickshaw to the nearest “circle”. We turn into typical dogs as we sniff melted butter and cheese. It’s perhaps one of the most arousing smells ever for me, personally. We stop at Jaipur Hot Breads—a discovery worth cherishing. It’s a land of butter, cheese, cake, pies, breads, garlic and cookies. It’s paradise for V and me. We hog like pigs as our stomachs dance in ecstasy. I’m more energetic than ever to “meet” Dravid now. To avoid the rush, we decide to reach the venue a good 30 minutes in advance. Of course, in this process, we forget that we belong to a cricket crazy nation. As we head to the front lawns, we spot around 30,000 people already awaiting the session to start. My heart sinks.

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V, unlike me, doesn’t give up so easily. We fight our way through the crowd and manage to grab enough space for us to sit on the ground and leer at whoever comes on the stage. It’s not just Dravid but joining him is yesteryear’s actor Sharmila Tagore, cricket critic and historian Suresh Menon and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. Who cares? I can’t stop staring at Mr. Dravid. The session is quite lively, though completely diverted from the topic that was to be discussed in the first place. I don’t mind that as (personal) questions are directed at Dravid on his life after retirement. It’s as if someone fixed a hanger inside my mouth: I can’t stop smiling. As the session ends and people hog him for an autograph, I wonder if I should get one, too. I decide against it for two reasons. One, I believe I shall interview him some day. Two, I’m not sure how useful his signature would be. What would I do with a piece of paper that has RD’s sign on it? Why would I want anyone’s signature for that matter? (unless on a blank cheque, of course)

With such stream of thoughts, I stand outside the ladies bathroom with V’s bag as I wait for her to return. Maybe I’d be interested in getting a writer’s autograph, I continue to muse. I’d definitely be interested to look at a writer’s handwriting. That would be thrilling, I infer. Lost in these thoughts, a woman with a very familiar face asks the way to the loo. I direct her as I stare at her with my piercing eyes. I leer at her face for over three minutes before I finally manage to speak.

“Do I know you? You look very familiar and I have a feeling I have seen this face before.”

“I doubt that. I’m a writer.”

And I know it right then. She is Meena Kandasamy, a writer whose works I have closely followed, admired, read out to friends, forwarded to acquaintances and relentlessly pursued on social networking sites after being in awe of her poetry and her writing. It’s hard to believe it’s her. I had always imagined her taller in my petite bourgeois brain. We talk for about five minutes. I request for her autograph. She obliges. I’m overwhelmed. V pulls me away as I contemplate what just happened.

MK's valuable piece of advice for me :)

MK’s valuable piece of advice for me 🙂

We head to Johri bazaar for our much-needed city outing. It’s a colourful lane of artisans, masons, goldsmiths, silversmiths and roadside shops for stationary and anything fancy. Apart from jewellery, almost everything else interests my eye. Both V and I share a common love for books and stationary. While books are getting expensive, stationary is no far behind. Nevertheless, we do end up buying a bunch of notebooks made of hand-made paper (called ‘Bahi’) that look absolutely stunning. We’re happy with our purchase and I mentally visualize my monthly pass-book that has no space for credit and has all the space in the world for debit.

Our gigantic purchase!

Our gigantic purchase!

Day 3 is highly “literary”.  William Darlymple, Jason Burke, Kishwar Desai, Sandip Roy, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amit Chaudhuri, Anjum Hasan, K R Indira and Pavan Verma, to name a few (I’m too tired to hyperlink all these names. Kindly Google, oh curious soul!).
It’s a lot to take a single day. From talks on writing about love and longing to historical trajectory of a now war-torn Afghanistan to re-imagining the Kama Sutra: our poor brains are saturated. Tomorrow is the last day of the fest but we decide to give it a miss. We are yet to do some tourist-y stuff: visit the Hawa Mahal.

Colours splattered on the floor!

Colours splattered on the floor!

The palace is an experience in itself. It’s a paradise for those interested in historical architecture and photography. As I click pictures from any and every possible angle that my humble cell phone allows, I promise myself I’ll be back in this city again to explore more of its colours and not just pink. :- )

Of Shakespeare and other conspiracies


WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (April 23, 1564-April 23, 1616)

My affair with William began when I was in ninth grade and our syllabus had recently been revised so as to include his plays . Until before our batch, Shakespeare was a part of English in school only from eleventh grade. We were doomed. Or so I thought. I always believed we were too young for the “complexities” that William had to offer. Until Julius Caesar happened.

In a bid to familiarize us with Shakespearen language, our English teacher asked us to memorize Marullus’ speech in Act I Scene 1. We were compelled to do so to save ourselves from failing.

Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?

The entire speech is 23 lines long and, yes, each one of us mugged our hearts out.
But I gave particular emphasis on You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! while practicing in front of a mirror at home. Saying them out loud made me feel like a real actor. Such was its power.

I thoroughly enjoyed studying Julius Caesar. In fact, thoroughness in understanding that play is what guaranteed a better percentage in English in my tenth boards. I was so engrossed at everything that it had to offer–murder, plot, conspiracy (such an enchanting word!), characters and of course, the dialogues.
Beware the Ides of March, said the soothsayer. And there was an eerie ring to it, conveyed so well in such less words. Only William could have done that.

Picture courtesy Google Images

When I decided to pursue literature for graduation, my friends and family told me that William was now my God and I should be worshiping him. They weren’t incorrect, really. We read, analyzed and critiqued three of his plays, each from a different genre–tragedy, love story, comedy–in one year and he occupied almost 20% of the “English” section of our college library.

One reason for this blatant domination is, of course, his unparalleled success. He is said to have penned thirty-seven plays, 154 sonnets and several other long poems. Wikipedia tells us that “his plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.” If that isn’t a measure of his success as a playwright, what is?

But for me, William was enchanting not because he was part of mainstream, canonical literature and neither because he was a well-known, obvious face of Elizabethan drama. He was enchanting because of his sheer talent of weaving such interesting, intriguing and often thought-provoking stories tightly structured in the form of a play. Even his stage directions were so perfect and apt that one could not deny that he put some serious thought to it.
Some of his plays were so good that I never enjoyed reading them. They were meant to be seen in performance, not read for a 100-mark paper.
As You Like It
, a comedy, is one such play that employs the theme of role-play and deals with very pertinent, contemporary issues of paternal lineage and country life.

My favourite, of course, will always be Othello. A tragedy par excellence. A plot par brilliance. And I believe William put his heart and soul into the characterization of the infamous Iago–the epitome of evil.
I am not what I am spells out pure evil, mischief, treachery and betrayal—all of which Iago represented. I regret not having been able to watch it in performance but I was lucky enough to catch the movie version of it– Othello (1995) in English and Omkara (2006) in Hindi (an adaption). But nothing can beat the pleasure of devouring every single line penned in the original text.

I can go on about so many of his other plays–each a gem of its own–but I’d probably need another decade to justify the brilliance of each of them.
More importantly, I’d need to read them all first. 😉

Disclaimer: A heavily edited version of this write-up was published in a daily in Madurai