Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Urban poetry

 The metro station is familiar territory but it is cold and impersonal. It’s all shining steel, hard stone and bright lights. It is also arms, legs, heads, hair, skin, breath and sweat. But it is here that some fleeting moments of sheer beauty are created by chance. Right here, in the spaces between bodies, stone and metal.

Walking into this cavernous underground labyrinth stuffed full of flesh and things, I am drawn to this couple. Their hands are moving, but their mouths only just. It’s as if someone filtered out all the noise and what is left is pure communication – stretched mesmerizingly thin around them like the rainbow-surface of a soap bubble. And in this bubble around them the space seems to expand with each gesture-for-word. Theirs, I realize, is a silence, which in the absence of words is more than just a lack of sound. It’s an abundance of calm. They talk without speaking. And all around them are words being spoken, yet nothing is being said.

And then there is me.

Smiling like a fool, overjoyed at this urban poetry being written a few hundred feet under the earth, set to music by trundling trains of gleaming silver.

So what is it about a mundane metro commute and two people talking to each other in sign language, that is so unspeakably poetic? It’s like a missed heartbeat in the racing pulse of life in the city. Exhilarating, this precious pause.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

To Kill A Mocking Bird (is a sin)

Its some sort of rite of passage in itself. The reading of To Kill A Mockingbird.

"Shoot all the bluejays you want, but it is a sin to kill a mockingbird"

A novel authored by Harper Lee, it tells the story of Jem and Scout  - two young white children growing up in the 'tired old town' of Maycomb County, Alabama. Their father Atticus Finch - an upright lawyer but simply Atticus to them - is a paragon of virtue in no small way. One summer, he is appointed as the lawyer for a 'coloured' man accused of raping and assaulting a young white woman. Meanwhile the children are preoccupied by their mysterious neighbour whom they call Boo Radley and try to tempt him out of his secretive lair, not knowing that when it does happen eventually, so much would have changed.

I read the book many years ago, when I was still in school. What I remember most is not the unfair trial of Tom Robinson and his steadfast defense by Atticus Finch. It is the ominous yet timorous figure of Boo Radley and the vivacious Scout. While the book is set in a time when racial discrimination was at its peak, the issue of race is only one of the strands of life and all its glaring contradictions that inform the actual story. The story of Jem and Scout.

I recently had the chance to see the film version of the novel directed by Robert Mulligan, with Atticus Finch played famously by Gregory Peck.

It is Scout - Jean Louise Finch - who leads us through the narrative. As the events unfold in Maycomb County the children observe all this from a place of innocence but also, of the kind of understanding that only children possess. The kind of simple cold logic that can prompt cruelty but can also unseat prejudice. From their eyes - from Scout's in particular - we encounter all the characters. We 'get into their shoes and walk around in them'.

Scout, her brother Jem and their spindly little friend Dill have been well-cast. Dill is pitch-perfect when you factor in the the little nugget of information, that the character may be based on Haper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. even Robert Duvall in his small part as Boo is arresting. But the real reason for anyone to watch this film is Mary Badham, who plays Scout with incredible charm and uncanny confidence. And it is a difficult part to play.  For Scout is no girl. At least she does not seem to care much for the conventional physical trappings of a girl She makes her discomfort apparent when she appears in a pretty little dress, having been forced to shed her overalls and plaid shirts for school. How will Scout's tomfoolery stack up against lace and gingham? One only needs to watch her gait, as she strides up to little Walter Cunningham, arms swinging, hands fisted and brow furrowed, to realise that Mary Badham's Scout will not be undone by some silly little dress.

Some of the moments between Scout and Atticus are crafted with great dignity, making them especially poignant. Atticus is put on the spot by his daughter as she demands to know what will be left to her if her father's pocketwatch is to be Jem's. Atticus says, with the slightest hint of grief but just enough melancholy, that her mother's pearl necklace and ring, are hers to keep if she chooses to have them. Scout is reassured. And as Atticus is left with his own thoughts out on the porch swing, we hear Scout asking Jem a million questions about their mother.

The strength of the relationship between father and children is that nothing is hidden. Atticus never tries to conceal the ugliness of the world from them and in return they never leave his side when push comes to shove. It is the kind of mutual respect that is rarely there between an adult and a child. And Atticus listens to his children when he could just hear them. He sees them when he could merely look at them. His defeat in the courtroom is particularly hard on Jem. In the film, Tom Robinson is led away and all we see, as the courtroom empties, is a view of Atticus Finch from the high balcony where the coloured folk sit alongwith Jem and Scout. He simply clears up his desk. The shot remains wide. And a man trying to do the right thing is left alone with his lofty ideas of equality and fairness. And it is lonely on the side of righteousness. Much like when he must shoot the mad dog and face its madness alone, but also rid the town of it.

There are many great things about the film. The title sequence is easily one of the best, setting the scene for what the film will really be about. Anyone who feels the film is a pithy testament of racial discrimination, needs only to watch the opening titles to understand the true meaning of it. The scenes with the children trying to penetrate the Radley property are tense and quite scary. I have a feeling had I been all of 10 years old while watching this film, Boo Radley's shadow would have done some serious damage. The film changes tone when you least expect it. Scout's hilariously clumsy ham costume is suddenly transformed into a death trap when they are accosted on their way back from the Halloween pageant at school. The humour that precedes the scene when the children are attacked, makes the violence even more horrific.

The 'black' characters are thinly imagined and remain peripheral at best. Save Tom Robinson who is allowed a moment in the courthouse scene. But I was only really disappointed at the flimsy characterisation of Calpurnia - the housekeeper at the Finch household - who I remember to be a definite force in the book. Perhaps if Cal had depth in the film, it would have added great value to the underlying narrative about race.

The issue of race is oversimplified no doubt both in the novel and the film. But it is incidental to both. The real discovery is not that Tom Robinson died in vain or that racism clouded the truth and overtook justice on more than one occasion. That is a given. The real discovery is that Boo Radley is really Arthur Radley. That Jem and Scout find compassion where they thought they would find only suspicion and fear. That truth does not always triumph but it is much better to be truthful. That people are victims of circumstance and the greatest tragedy is that everyone has their reasons. That childhood is fleeting and growing up is painful.

Atticus Finch says to Arthur 'Boo' Radley in the end 'Thank you Arthur. Thank you for my children' And you know then, that though Atticus may not have known it, he is grateful to Boo for much more than saving the lives of his children.

Later Scout looks out on her street from the Radley porch and its a whole other view.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

If less is more...

If less is more, more or less, do you want more or less?

There are certain questions that come up inexplicably, without invitation and make their home in the recesses of one's mind. While some of these questions border on the absurd some others are inevitable and universal. And anyone who says they do not know of them is lying.

What do you want?
How much do you want?
What do you need?
How much do you need?

It was an economics class and then a history class in school that I was first introduced to the terrible twins - wants and needs. That it was to be an eternal quest for some sort of amicable reconciliation between the two,  I could not have known back then. Karl Marx knew it but I didn't.

"I need you. I want you. Oh baby. Oh baby." 

Human greed is a peculiar thing. And by greed I mean real, unbridled avarice of the most material kind. It is peculiar because while human beings take to it willingly and with gusto, its prospects are from the start bleak and pessimistic. For while greed is an endless cycle of acquisition far beyond what need dictates, it is still desperately incapable of providing fulfillment. The cup of greed is never full.

"I'll make him an offer he can't refuse"

So why hasn't the 'less is more' philosophy become a life-choice instead of just an oft-quoted aesthetic principle? Is it narcissism - a firm belief that we are the centre of our own universe and everything must indeed gravitate towards us? Is it the curse of the information age to stare every day at an image of ourselves reflected on multiple screens  - only  prettier, fairer, richer, happier, thinner, sharper, cooler, more fun, more adventurous and more unlike our real selves?

"You talkin' to me? There's nobody else here."

Everyday we accumulate things. Surround ourselves with objects and noise - the noise of other people accumulating and acquiring more than us. The noise grows with every tweet, every post, every update and becomes a cacophony until the original voice in our head is barely audible. A mere whisper.

What do you want?
How much do you want?
What do you need?
How much do you need?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Work and an Explanation of sorts

Everyone who has a blog knows what a blogging slump is. That's what seems to have plagued me. There seems to be a lot to say just no right combination of words to say them with. Of course I know that sounds like the cliche of all excuses. My mother would credit my insatiable appetite for sleep, my father likes to blame general laziness and incurable procrastination. But I say "It is infinitely better to shut up, than to sound like a stuttering fool." We live in shrill times, full of information-noise. I don't wish to add to that chaos.

So bear with my silence for a wee bit longer.

There is some new work to show. An educational teaching aid to explain the concept of the seasons / months in the context of the Indian 'Hindu' Calendar. The seasons in this case are not Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter but more nuanced divisions that respond to slight changes in weather that subsequently influence the rhythm of life in some parts of the country. Although one realises that these so called seasons are no longer as easily recognised in the course of the year thanks to a changing climate the world over, it is interesting to note the keen connect between life and nature that these 12 months or "Baarah Maas" indicate.

Here are some of the illustrations I came up with. Ignore the typos in the text pls.

cover page

Worked with Room To Read, India once again. And got to polish my Photoshop skills, which before this project came along were rudimentary at best. 


Monday, January 25, 2010

Taste of Salt

A short story written a while back after a visit to a fisherman's village in Nagapattinam which even 3 years after the tsunami, resembled a ghost-town where time had stopped the day the wave hit shore.

“More fish?” asked Nagamma, ladle full of fiery curry poised mid-air.

“No, I’m full”.

Murugan pushed away the half-eaten plate of food and rose to wash his hands.

Walking outside he savoured briefly the sound of his sleeping daughter. Her tiny frame lay curled on the mat, sleeping the deep sleep only children know. A smile played at the corners of his mouth.

  Nagamma watching from behind her pot of rice knew it well. That smile tinged with sadness. It had come to rest on her husband’s face ever since the waves had come to their village.


Murugan balanced himself in his boat. He gathered the net and planted his feet. It had to be just right. Otherwise the net would land in the water with an ungainly plop instead of the graceful splash. The water was the deepest blue edged with gold from the rising sun.

But something was different that morning. A strange current kept rocking the boat, throwing Murugan off balance.

“Amma, let me cast my net so I can feed my children?” he addressed the sea as he often did.

 But that day she was in no mood for his entreaties.


 A year had passed since the Big Wave roared and claimed the fisherman’s village.

The boy had been sleeping outside. He would fall asleep on the sand after Murugan set out with the others, and awaken on their return. It was a ritual adored by both father and son.

That morning the waves reached shore much before the boats.

“High as palm trees. Loud as a ship” The survivors would tell camera crews and journalists again and again.

“My child”

“My mother”

“My family”


 “Murugan, the waves came and took everything!”

 Distraught, Nagamma clung to her husband who had become stiff as a tree. The only life left, streamed from his eyes.


Loss echoed through the village, down the highway, over the borders, through the television and into the ears of philanthropists. They came in droves to the little-village-that-was.

“We will rebuild it. No more huts on the beach” the Minister declared before his chopper sped away.

His audience returned the triumphant enumeration with mute stares. The new rehabilitation housing colony was to be set up 3 km away from the sea.


Murugan lay on his mat beside Nagamma staring at a hole in the thatch roof of his home by the beach.

“Why don’t you try to sleep Muruga?”

“I won’t be able to hear the waves Nagamma. Smell the salt. Or feel the sand in my house.”

Waving off a fly she closed her eyes.

“You weren’t there” she said. “When it happened, you weren’t there.”

Murugan was silent. He was listening to the distant rumble of the waves. In a few hours he would get up and push his boat into the water.

Turning on his side, Murugan stroked Nagamma’s forehead. She twitched slightly.

“I have lived as a fisherman as long as I can remember. And it is the only life I know how to live” said Murugan sensing his wife’s anguish.

“Do you know what I see each time we bring our boats ashore? I see land as I have never seen it before. Each day the waves have wiped the sand clean of yesterday’s battles. You will see. Tomorrow the sand will be free of yesterday” He said gently.

 “Get some sleep Muruga. The day will break soon.”

A solitary tear rolled down a fisherman’s sun-worn cheek and left the taste of salt in his mouth.



Monday, January 18, 2010

Greens are Good For You

I got to work on two fun projects last year. An informative book about plants and trees called 'Hari-Bhari' by Nirantar was one of them. Nirantar has a great track record as far as illustrations go so I was more than happy to work for them :)  These are just some of the illustrations that I made. I have always had a soft corner for all kinds of flora so this was right up my alley. 

Second fun project....coming up soon. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Life Less Ordinary

Its been too long. 

But I suppose sometimes you just don't have all that much to say. And that too can be a good thing. 

I often find myself at a loss for words when people ask me that most innocuous of questions "What's up?" And I rummage through my mind for a coherent, robust answer worthy of this eponymous query. Sure,  I can tell the rhetorical what's-up from one of those probing, searching, investigative ones. But the discomfort I feel at the latter is becoming something of a social handicap. 

And I have never been more acutely aware of this handicap.

For this I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of that wonderful warm shiny gooey thing called facebook. My friends (facebook friends that is) all seem to have highly exciting lives peppered with occasional drama, lots of fun times and most importantly a definitive road map of where this exciting life is going to take them next. (Explanatory status message coming up...) 

I used to be one of those people in the pre-facebook era. Figured out, with much less self-doubt and anxiety about where everything is going to end up. Now here I am, wondering what will be while the rest of the world is sending me live updates of lives being lived (or so the facebook messiahs would have me believe) 

Never has the phrase "Get a life" seemed more ironic. Because now, you can! 

The cup of life that is social networking is always on the up and up, never rock-bottom low mixing with the dregs of yesterday. So when one stares into it , rarely do you get to see rock bottom. But when you do hit rock-bottom - and everyone does at some point - even a lame little "what's up" will make you want to punch someone in the face. 

Sometimes I have to shake myself out of the ennui of keeping up appearances. Its not the harmless banter that bothers. Its the feeling of constantly being sized up. The whole idea of living your life like a roster of what you did-who you met-where you went.  It might be worth asking then - "How would you live your life if you knew no one was watching?" 

Its unsettling - this feeling of living your own life as if you had been for the longest time, merely an opening act in a great variety show. Always on the outside, waiting for the show to start. Stealing a glance every now and then at the audience from behind the red velvet curtain. And while we stare diligently at cursor on screen, tomorrow becomes today becomes yesterday all at once. 

And I worry more at this than my seeming lack of ambition, goals and road-maps-to-a-better-life..... because how will there be nostalgia, if I cant't even remember living? 


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

10 X TEN

So here's the thing. We all need some creative CPR once-in-a-while. I know I do. My friend Nammo - co-conspirator of all things fun - had this great idea to create collaborative pieces of digital art. And that's how 10 X TEN was born. Check out the poster to find out how it works. If you want to sign-up just email us or leave a comment with an email id so we can get back to you. We're also figuring this out as we go along so please bear with us if it sounds a little sketchy at the moment. But the basic principle is - 1o people create 10 pieces of collaborative art.

Interested? Sign up! :)


A light went out yesterday. A bright, shining radiant beam of light. It seems a moment ago, that it was there. Strong and warm, with no sign of a flicker. And just like that, it began to dim. All those who had felt its comforting glow, felt something draining out of their own heart. It ebbed to a single point of light......and then there was nothing. In its place, was heaviness. A weight that bore down on everyone. But there was no darkness. Even in the absence of that beautiful beam of sunshine, there was no black cover of dark. There was instead a glow - feeble at first, but steadily growing strong. Everyone watched it slowly throb with life. those who thought they had forgotten the light, began to remember again. They found they could vividly recall the raidiance and the illuminating joy of its presence. And as memory was called to serve, the glow became brighter and stronger still. Then they knew - those who had loved the light - that this glow would be there forever. It would be with them no matter where they were. And when the sun warmed their soul, they would rememeber their own little piece of sunshine that had lived for too short a while. But one that had blazed so bright a trail that she would glow forever. All they had to do was remember. And they did.

Monday, July 27, 2009

जागते रहो

इस काली रात में एक आवाज़ अगर है तो वो है उस चौकीदार की छड़ी की ठक ठक । उसकी पतली टांगें जो देती हैं उसकी छड़ी का साथ, लम्बा रास्ता तय कर चुकी हैं। मेरे घर की खिड़की से उसका यह रात का सफ़र रोज़ नज़र आता है । रोज़ वह पीपल के पेड़ की तरह बंधा, गाँठ-भरा शरीर साइकिल पर बैठ कर मेरे घर तक आता है। दुबला, लेकिन बांस जैसा सीधा वह चौकीदार रोज़ मेरी गहरी नींद की खातिर अपना घर छोड़कर मेरे घर की रखवाली करने आता है। उसे देख मैं सोच में पड़ जाती हूँ । उसके चेहरे पर खिंची संकरी लकीरों पर गौर करती हूँ। और मन ही मन उससे सवाल करती हूँ - "चौकीदार तुम्हारे घर पर पहरा कौन दे रहा है? तुम्हारी बिटिया जो सपनों में अपने बाबा की साईकिल चलाती है, उसकी नींद का ज़िम्मा किसने उठाया है?" मुझे जवाब नहीं मिलता, सिर्फ रात के अँधेरे में गूंजती उस छड़ी की ठक ठक और कभी-कभी वो दो शब्द; वो पहरेदारों, चौकीदारों और रात के रखवालों का नारा - "जागते रहो!" अब नींद से भारी मेरी आँखें बंद हो रही हैं । "पर चौकीदार कहीं तुम्हारी खुली आंखों पर नीदं का साया तो नहीं ? होशियार। इस अँधेरी रात को जो तुम्हारी आँखें घूर रही हैं, उसी रात की परछाई में छिप कर दो अनजानी आँखें तुम्हें पढ़ रही हैं। बस, यहाँ तुम्हारी पलकें झपकीं, वहीँ इस सोए हुए शहर की नींद टूटी। हर रात की तरह क्या इस रात की सुबह भी तुम्हारी छड़ी की दस्तक पर आएगी चौकीदार ? हाँ। बस कुछ देर और। तब तक, जागते रहो। "

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Midsummer Mayhem: storms, broken trees and other such unearthly pleasures

the late bloomer: Rajpur Road, Civil Lines

"The rain fell like applause"

- Signature by Michael Ondaatje (From the Cinnamon Peeler)


Delhi got the sound and light show it deserves.

No. I’m not referring to the one at Red Fort set to Amitabh Bachhan’s baritone or the one at Purana Quila narrated by Om Puri. (Ironic isn’t it – that the fort built in a time of excess gets the decadent voice of Bacchan while the crumbling, deeply neglected Old Fort has its story told by his doppelganger Puri – just a thought)

Coming back to what I was saying. We were treated to three incredible albeit short-lived thunderstorms in the span of two weeks. And what drama it was - certainly worth the wait. Sepulchral clouds on the horizon, swirling dust, winds that made light of even the mightiest Neem and raindrops that felt icy on sun-baked skin. Thunder sounded a preliminary warning and people scurried like ants, looking for cover. The rumble set the stage with a fantastic drum roll. Whooshing gusts of wind threatened to spirit away trees, birds, things and people alike. Lightning that scared the bejesus out of me with its white whip cracking across the night sky. Even hail that fell like marbles out of tin box!

And finally rain. Delicious, smelling-of-earth, soak-you-to-the-bone, redeem-the-month-of-may kind of rain.

But for me the best part is when the grand show is over. The time when the damp air and sweet smells filling it can be imbibed without prejudice. When people (some people at least!) survey in shock and awe, the arboreal carnage across the city. Huge branches, entire trees, piles of leaves, flowers, pods and nests litter the roads. A fitting homage.

I got to take in the sights on my regular rickshaw ride from the metro station back to my house. The road is particularly beautiful winding up from Shamnath Marg flanked by the pristine white façade of the British built Maidens Hotel, rising up towards St. Xavier’s and the Governors residence and finally ending at a junction framed by Oleander and Jarul trees. Near the hotel, a tall eucalyptus tree had been felled by the storm, and a small army of men and women were at work trying to clear the road. Most of the leaves had been turned to mulch by the speeding vehicles. A happy accident in my opinion because the whole place smelled divine – aromatherapy in the most unlikely fashion!

Further ahead, near the beautiful St. Xavier’s school, a massive branch of Neem had broken off. Almost half a tree. As the rickshaw pulled past the giant green bush on the road I caught a glint of steel underneath. A silver Esteem barely visible, seemed to be resting, virtually unharmed under the canopy. The next day the whole thing was gone – stripped for daatun and its medicinal leaves and bark I bet – or for firewood. I remember soaking in a bath of neem leaves when I was down with Chicken Pox as a kid. To my mind, it’s the closest I’ve come to a spa treatment till date. I’m telling you – Cleopatra might have bathed in milk but I’ve had itchy sores healed by a bittersweet broth of leaves.

Anyway, the rickshaw ride had many more sights for me to savour. The purple flowers of Jaarul, magenta Bougainvillea trellis over a wall, the wet red brick building of B.M. GangeSchool and finally the flaming Amaltas (laburnum) tree in my own house compound. When May began, I was worried. The Amaltas tree I loved to watch, was still bare. In the rest of the city, they had already begun to show off their dangling yellow bunches. This one was bald except for a few new shoots. I thought the mindless pruning of its branches by the neighbours had finally been its undoing, as I had often feared. But as it turned out I was being paranoid. It was just a late bloomer. And like all late bloomers, when it finally did come into its own, it outdid all its golden siblings across town. I should’ve known – our family has a real thing for late bloomers.

These things – part of nature’s very own Cirque du Soleil - invoke in me what I imagine to be the closest thing to religious fervour and passion. A constant reminder that it takes so little to lift ones spirits. For me it takes a dash of good weather and a smattering of crushed eucalyptus leaves put together with a burst of yellow laburnum.