He thought of his wife often. They had been married in great haste, and the wife’s family were promised that he would return soon with riches. She was tall, going by the girls of her age, and she would probably have put on a few more inches by the time she returned- he had been told. She was still angular and bony, and he in particular had been promised that she would fill out by the time he would return. It was her face that he brought to mind on the ship: a pale round face, a narrow chin and a widow’s peak- and the details of Akhilesh’s letters. They were his encyclopaedia, his guide book. With his pen, he circled and underlined things that he thought were important and not to be missed. Constantly reading and re-reading, like there was an exam that awaited him upon docking.

He spent the early days of the journey on the prow, watching the waters of the Arabian Sea flicker its goodbyes at him as Bombay became smaller and smaller.  He was not superstitious, but he had never seen salty, shimmering water in such an expanse. It filled him with awe that there were creatures who could thrive in these waters- a solution that he drank only when he had to throw up. These were poisonous waters that caused a mutiny of the body. This was the thing that the Brahmins feared above all, the dreaded kala pani, that contributed towards the mutiny of 1824 in Barrackpore.  He expected something to happen: for lightning to come out of the sky and strike him, taking away his twice born status. His mother had made him carry a small sealed flask of the Ganga with him to ensure reincarnation even beyond the sea. “Luckily, there has been a death in one of our neighbour’s house, so I could ask them “, she had commented to him. “Otherwise I don’t know who I would have solicited.” She had packed his trunk tearfully, putting his bedding into hold alls- a structure made out of sacking which rolled out like a paint brush holder. She sprinkled dried neem leaves each time she folded the bedding. One of the folds also contained a pouch with all the money he was taking with him. Akhilesh’s father had, along with the letters given him three rupees, pressing them into his palm, and refused to take them back. It was a princely sum, since for one paisa, a child could be educated at the local school.

This is what he had with him: one trunk, woollens. One trunk, his suit and waistcoats. One pair of shoes with laces that his brother had arranged for from Delhi. Some small bags of pickle and chutney that his mother had promised would not spoil. It was the shoes that were stolen away as he slept. He was in his bunk, one arm thrown over his eyes. When he woke, his trunk was open, and the shoes were gone. The shoes that he had practiced lacing over and over with his brother watching over him. His brother, being a military man, was more familiar with laces than anyone could be. As he taught him, he told him stories of soldiers who would crawl on the ground and feel the laces of the soldiers they encountered to determine if they were friend or foe. The British Army employed bar lacing, he said, showing him how to create parallel lines.


He spent mornings on the prow with his bunkmates. By then they had shifted from the Arabian Sea into the Red sea. The direction in which Jerusalem lay was pointed out to him: the holy city of another religion. His bunkmates consisted of a Sikh man from Jalandhar, Huverdas. Another who was from a city in what would become Pakistan in thirty years, but in 1917 was still part of India. His name was Amir, and he had been travelling from Karachi. While Madhusudan was going for law, Amir was going to be an engineer. Madhusudan worked in district courts, and unlike him, Amir did not have to please the British. While Huverdas was headed towards London, Amir was also going to Heidelberg, Madhusudan was delighted to realise. Despite his anticipation, he was nervous, and glad to find someone with whom he could stumble along with. He learned that unlike him, Amir had no fear of the sea, and narrated portions of his childhood where he had gone, bare-chested into Arabian Sea. They celebrated Eid together on the ship, on the evening of twenty seventh of September. Amir had carried with him a handful of rice, and some leaves of mint, which they went into the galleys and pleaded for a cook to let them boil. Madhusudan, used to arguing cases in front of juries, convinced the cook to turn a blind eye for twenty minutes. They ate together- Amir had meat and rice, and Madhusudan had only plain rice.

“Are you married?” Amir asked him, while they ate. The sun had sunk, and the wind was a whisper of moisture in the air. The moon was a silver curve in a sky that continued into the sea.

“Yes. It’s pretty recent.”

“Me too. Ammi arranged a nikaah for me as soon as she could. I’m not entirely sure what my wife even looks like. ” He told Madhusudan that the ceremony took place the night before going to catch the train at Lahore. The only reason that he was married was because his father believed that nothing else could bring him back. The girl in question was a cousin that he had met before, but she was so much younger than him that she had dissolved into the many faces that only reached his knees and shoulders.

“In a couple of months, I am going to start expecting a letter about my first child or something.” Amir shrugged. “My family is pretty manipulative. If Europe is everything I’ve been told it is, then I don’t think I’m going to come back.”

“And your wife?” Madhusudan asked, intrigued at his way of thinking.

“Would I really care about someone who I’ve never met before in my life?”  Amir picked up an unused spoon and began to rub the back of his hands, deep in thought. Already imagining it in his head. Unlike Madhusudan, he was the first of his family to go to Europe. To them, it was still a mythical land: where dragons might as well exist in tall dark forests. Everything about that world was giant: the machines, the animals, the people. To match him in absurdity, Madhusudan told Amir that his mother had counselled him to manage the cold as much as he could with the woollens that he had. To avoid wearing leather and fur as much as possible–  the priest had told him that suffering was inescapable, and that the body was a prison. Amir thought it was ridiculous, and laughed before stopping to apologize.

“He would rather that you freeze to death instead?”

“I think so.”


In 1917, Madhusudan Chandra went to study law in Germany. He took a steam ship through the Suez Canal, crammed into a compartment with two other people. As he slept at night, his trunk was unlocked and the first shoes that he had ever purchased in his life were stolen away.

It took seven days on the back of a mule to move from the hills of Almora to Kathgodam, from where a train took him to Bombay. It was a long winding route down the slopes, his trunks bumping in the bullock cart behind him. His supervisors at the district office had scared him by telling him that the entire journey would take six months, not counting the time it took to travel through Europe. He learned only later that the passage by ship from Bombay to London was down to less than three weeks. The ship no longer took the U route around the Horn of Africa as Vasco da Gama had done. Instead, it would cut through the Suez Canal. He would have to change his ship in Alexandria and then onwards to Marseilles, where he would make his way to Spain, and London, where his cousin was getting his Bachelors of Arts in Cambridge, and then he would go on to Heidelberg University in Germany. He would leave behind a wife simpler than sheep, an iron willed mother, three sisters, and an elder brother who had joined the Kumaon regiment of the army.

He had asked his supervisor, a Mr Pratt to tell him of the climate in London. Mr Pratt was a person of British origin who had been born and would die in India, but considered himself British because that was what living in a colony meant. “It is colder, much colder than here.” Mr Pratt told him. “At least here, it is warm during the summers.” The only things that Madhusudan had ever worn to keep warm were hand knit woollen sweaters, brown yak-wool monkey caps with extensions that hung to the ears. All of that went into his trunk. His neighbour, also a Madhusudan, contributed a coat at the behest of his grandmother, whom the first Madhusudan had always been respectful towards, listening solemnly to all the stories she had to tell of her childhood. When he went to collect the coat that was promised, she told him another one:  of a time so harsh that the snow leopards came down from the Himalayas. At the end of the story she gave him a kangri – an earthenware pot woven around wicker, which he could fill with hot embers and hold under his shawl. “It is so cold there, it is not possible that they will not have Kangris.” she said. The only place she knew that was colder than Kumaon was Kashmir. Along with hamams, that was how people warmed themselves in that land of ice.

She had been the only person in the community who had supported him when he broke the news that he was going to be sent to Germany. His sisters had little to say- they, whose only journey would be from this house to their husband’s house. Neither did his brother, who as a soldier had taken it for granted that there would be a time when he would to sail seas to fight a war for the empire. It was the neighbours who were appalled. Not just one son, but two who would be unmade as Brahmins! That evening, as they ate with their hands their dinner of roti and kapa, his brother shared with him his worries. They were sitting on mats of nettle, cross legged and facing each other. The only source of light was the chulha that their youngest sister was feeding with bundles of wood.

“Are you sure that you will go, brother?” He was asked by Mrityunjay.

“Of course.” Madhusudan replied. He had dreamed of travelling ever since he could walk. Here was an opportunity to go to see the cities that bred these goras and made them reign supreme. “Don’t forget, our histories are intertwined with theirs, whatever you might say.” He was met with silence. Madhusudan knew that Mrityunjay disagreed with him. They had spoken about this before, and his brother had cautioned him to be quiet. It was not an idea that would go down well with any members of the family, he had said. For although they had joked with each other that the green of their eyes and the white of their skin was a touch of otherworld – the story went that a great grandmother had caught hold of a ghost and refused to let go until it blessed ten generations of the family – the darker (even darker than the spirits that lingered at night) suspicion was that there had been a liaison between one of their own and one of the British. There were no records to corroborate the story, no photographs or drawings. No way to tell that whether it was the man or the woman who had contributed a new colour to the palette. Only this: that their great-great grandfather had been found as an infant on the steps of a temple, and they could not count their lineage beyond him. It was a story that they had been put to bed with so that they could learn about the grace of god. But Madhusudan and Mrityunjay were tall men, taller than any of their peers. They were long boned, slim and angular. The first time Madhusudan had put on the suit that he had been given for work- a sack coat over a matching waistcoat- and marched into the house, his mother had wrung her hands in her sari and called for his brother, to see to this guest who had entered all of a sudden. Even in a panic, she was respectful. After that, he examined himself in the mirror. After staring at his reflection for a long while, he removed the pencil moustache he had cultivated with such pride. Which made him look Victorian. The only dense growth of hair that he had managed on his face. That was another thing that they used to tell each other: that Kumaoni men of their family lacked body hair.

“I am leaving for Delhi soon.” His brother said.

“I am leaving for Kathgodam in a month. “

“You know that our mother is looking for a woman for you?”

Madhusudan shrugged. “I don’t really care.”

“It is for a year, no?” Madhusudan nodded. Then: “Madhu, you must think. What if something happens there? You are the fate of this family. What if you fall sick? “

“I will be able to do so much more for this family after I return. I will be able to arrange for marriages for all our sisters. Our fortunes would change overnight. This is the only way to win in this country.” He paused. “I think it will be an adventure.” He outlined for Mrityunjay the route that he would take to Germany, the ships that he would change, the train that he would take into central Europe.

“Besides, Akhilesh is there. He has written about London to me.” From under his mat, he pulled out a few folded letters that his cousin in Cambridge had written to him.  “Look what he writes…Here. London is incredible. I have never seen anything like it before. In India, you could not believe that such a place exists. Since you asked me about the education, I will restrict myself to only studies, because writing everything would fill up a book. Oxford, where I am studying history, is full of the greatest minds. The most famous philosophers, writers, even prime ministers of Britain have all walked the halls that I am walking…” Madhusudan folded and unfolded the piece of paper, skimming the lines. “Here…As per your second request, I spoke to some of my lecturers about Heidelberg University, and it is one of the oldest universities in Europe, and no less prestigious! It is on a river called Neckar, Necker, in southwest Germany. I am told that there is a church there, a Church of the Holy Spirit, it is called, which is as old as the city itself, and a stone bridge with a city is known for. Heidelberg is one of the warmest regions of Germany. I have written to my father to give you some of the letters that I had sent him when I first came here. They have some descriptions of the weather, the place, the temperature….” Here, Madhusudan folded up the letter and looked at his brother.

“I am as ready as I could be,” he said.

 “Then God be with you.”

Siri Jattre
The Siri Jattre: the annual celebration in honour of the goddess Siri, which takes place during the first full moon of the harvest, and is attended by masses of women, and is believed to be curative. The women take the spirit of the goddess within them, and emerge from the trance, healed. Because of this, the women attending the festival have increased over the years. It is a whole cultural festival: with attendees, participants, drums, and dancing, and typically takes places in temples known as Alades: the ancient shrines for the local land spirits, which are flanked by fields of paddy.

Laterite and the Goddess Siri
There is an event in the Epic of Siri, where Siri curses the lands belonging to her husband to lose their fertility. I began to associate this curse to the presence of laterite. Laterite is a soil that exists in abundance in Tulu Nadu, and reduces the surface fertility of the soil because it disqualifies its ability to hold water. But it allows water to collect in the form of an aquifer within the soil, which contributes monumentally to fertility in the long run. I began to think that the real curse is that the land began to be termed as a wasteland, despite its multiple uses. Since the background of the curse is a succession battle, rather than rendering the ground barren, Siri changed the nature of the land itself, which made people need to re-learn it. Therefore, it was a curse only for those who viewed the land as an inheritance, rather than something living and breathing. The piece was born out of musings regarding how someone would learn a land again. How would you respond to the changed texture, the changed flora? How would you begin to test the grass, and mould it to your measures? And how would the nature of the land affect the kind of animals who live on it? From a perspective of biodiversity, animals such as the Great Indian Buzzard, and the grey wolf thrive in lateritic grasslands, and are are becoming extinct as the grasslands erode. Mythologically speaking, it could be Siri’s curse which gave rise to this aspect of the landscape.

Descent complete hd cleaned
Since Siri is a goddess of the land, and the series was about establishing a connection with the landscape that is otherwise not explicitly stated, I could not ignore the mythology of the land itself. According to the legends, Tulu Nadu was created when Parashurama flung his axe into the ocean and asked the waters to recede. While underwater, Tulu Nadu was a kingdom of snakes. I postulate that instead of the waters receding, and the land being reclaimed, the water sunk into the levels of the soil, rendering it one of the most fertile belts of the world. This would also explain why the Western Ghats are a hotspot for snakes today, since they never really flowed away with the water. And since Siri was born from the earth, with her patron god as the Naga form of Bermer, it is possible that she counts the snake in her line of descent.  The inspiration for the structure of this piece was a cross section of the soil.

Ascent of the goddess Siri
Siri being a land deity- or having this affinity to land, specifically, grain, made me look at where she is located within the larger Goddess pantheon. She isn’t, or rather, there isn’t a lot of information about it, especially since she is very firmly rooted to this area. I began to look at Siri being this very local form of Parvati. But since the worship of Siri predates the worship of Shiv and Vishnu- with Bermer, her patron god, being an ancient nature form of Brahma, the major pantheon was possibly formed by using commonalities in the various local pantheons, and coming up with a general form for all of them- more like a concept, by disassociating it from the context- which in this case, is the Tuluva region.  Tigers, for example, are a pan Indian symbol of divinity, however, there are multiple of tigers and gods abounding in Tulu Nadu. Additionally, the place where she disappears (and gives birth, in the narrative) to become a mayi is today, a lotus pond . The lotus is another very general symbol of the goddess pantheon: all the Goddesses are depicted as holding it in one of their many hands. The lotus also establishes a pan-Indian sense, as opposed to a flower which would be more locally rooted: like the areca nut, which is a local symbol of divinity.  I postulate that Siri had two births: one, out of the areca nut, and the second, when she was reborn as a member of the pan Indian Goddess pantheon. 

Presence of Siri-1
In this piece, I wanted to pay homage to the orality of the Epic of Siri. For thousands of years, it has been passed down only through song form.  It is also a working song, sung by women in the fields. I began to think that therefore, the air also, is part of the landscape. The scene depicted is takes place during harvest-time, and the women interspersed within the narrative are engaging with the end. Another aim of this piece is to also convey the ripeness and lushness of the Tulu landscape. 

The Tulu Otherworld jpeg
Where the Tulu Nadu Otherworld characterises frenzy, and lawlessness, and a breaking down of the rules that exist only in domestic civilisations. It is full of supernatural beings: the  bhutas, who are the local land spirits and a threat to domestication; the female spirits, who heal themselves by feasting on carcasses of animals, the half human-half animal creatures who exist in many worlds at once.

Body of Siri
Where the Tuluva countryside constitutes the body of the local Tulu goddess, Siri. The countryside extends along the south west coastal belt of India, including the Western Ghats, and consists of crops like paddy, coconut, areca nut trees, and isolated groves of bamboo. The imagery that I wanted to communicate was that of a central goddess rising from the fields, since the way goddess enter society in India is cyclical. They rise, and then go back to where they came from: typically the sea or the earth. Also, in India, there exists a relationship between land and bodies. In Hindu mythology, the world was created by portioning the body of Purusha, the cosmic man, and I began to think how this logic could be applied to local gods, whose worship has boundaries. Perhaps for local gods, their bodies would be the extent of the area that they are active in; where they are believed in. For Siri, this area is the countryside of Tulu Nadu.

zubaan ke beej

She had been waiting to go home for years now.  She couldn’t wait to see again, the valleys of Punjab, the blackbucks roaming through the wheat fields, the cantonment in Dilli that she had been born in.  She came back the way she had been carried away: through foot and on bullock carts, with descendants of the people who had packed their belongings in pots when they were ordered to move to Daulatabad in 1327.

The zubaan ke beej, the seeds of the language, were sown in the pahadi rastas of eleventh century Punjab, when Arabic and Persian met for the first time. She spent her infancy known as Ordu, after army camps. But she was also born in a bazaar, formed when traders simplified their languages to understand each other. She would expand and contract depending on who poured in during invasions. Though to be completely accurate, it was the Sufis of the north who were responsible for who she became. They were proficient in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and adept at picking up other tongues, and as they made their way into the Deccan, it was in their mouths that the languages first mixed.  Once in the Deccan, she absorbed herself into the landscape, and sprouted as Dakhini, or Dakkan ki zubaan. She was shaped by Braj Bhasha, and matured in laterite blocks, basalt basins, and dry tropical forests. For her, Urdu was the base, to be topped with Kannada, Telegu and Marathi words.

In the Deccan, she resided in teachings of the Sufis, Kadam Rao Padam Rao, and Mohammed Quli Qutb’s Shah’s poems. Masnavi or, couplets of poetry was created in her honour. She was spoken in markets, in homes, and even by kings. She was alive in the songs sung by women when they spun silk and ground millet at the stone- the charkha namas, the chakki namas.  They sung that as they turned the chakki, so they would find God. At the spinning wheel, they sung about how if their bodies were mere spinning wheels, their tongues were the rim of the spinning wheels, and their breath was the thread.  When sung by married women, she became the suhagan nama. Accompanied by beats of the dholak, they used her to compare their mother-in-laws to hot chilli peppers.


But by the time she returned, three hundred years had passed since Alauddin Khilji’s conquest. There had been more wars, more structures erected and crushed. And as she blew around the spaces that she had once known, her euphoria began to ebb. The cantonment had been replaced by a tomb and a garden. She was no stranger to tombs in the middle of gardens, but this structure didn’t strike her as home. Oh, they were still domes and pillars and niches and lattice work. But suddenly she would encounter an arch where there shouldn’t be one. The material was smoother and polished, difficult to sink into.  It frightened her because it was like meeting a doppelganger: someone physically the same, but differently nuanced, whose sole purpose was to haunt her. Even the elevation of the landscape was different. Instead of rising like a table, the ground was folding itself to prepare for a mountain range. And suddenly, there were white people who bore the smell of the sea, who spoke yet another tongue- a clipped speech that resided only in the mouth, instead of rolling out of the upper palate and throat.

She thought about all the things she had done to get back home. She had changed her name several times, each one a subtle shift in her identity. Because she passed through Gujarat, she was briefly known as Gujri, and as she approached Dilli, she became Dehlavi. Then they called her Hindawi – because she was like Hindi, but not exactly – courtesy of the tatsam Sanskrit that Telegu and Kannada had imparted to her. She was also referred to as Zaban Hindustani: the common man’s tongue. On the other hand, the Urdu that she had left behind had grown up to become Rekhta, a severely Persianised form, and polished beyond recognition. More suited than her by far to compose verses in. According to Rekhta, they barely shared syntax now; they had nothing else in common. Rekhta belonged to the likes of Amir Khusrau, would belong to Mirza Ghalib, while Dakhini was like a parent embarrassing her child by her coarseness.

If Dakhini would be an instrument

Dakhini had thought the land would remain ba-dastoor; unaltered. That it would lie in wait to receive her. But the soil did not allow her to percolate anymore. Back in Dilli, no one wanted her. She had still held on to the Old Punjabi, the remnants of what happened when Arabic and Persian combined, but to the people of Dilli, she was a strange corruption. They forgot that she had once been Ordu; a grandmother to the language they now spoke. But they did treat her as if she was obsolete. As if she was already an artefact.  Like the way the Homo sapiens would have treated the Neanderthals. The bagpipes to a violin. They thought she was earthy, crude and primitive. They had already begun to call her Qadim Urdu, old Urdu. And then the country split, causing her vocabulary to divide. They called it Diglossia, although for her, it was a personality disorder. Holes were wrenched out of her and transplanted somewhere else. Today, she is barely even considered a language, and relegated to be a dialect of Urdu, when it should be the other way around. She is the older one; the one who became stable enough for extraction, at a time when Dilli was so plagued by invasions that no language was able to form entirely.

If North-Indian Urdu would be an instrument

Language is the invisible conquest. It is obtained without wanting, received without asking. Today, Dakhini is a lehja, or an accent. She resides in the ‘aan’; a suffix that indicates plural, in the nasalisation of the rains, in the aspiration of consonants, in the condensation of long vowels.  In the ‘naako’ instead of ‘nahi’, in the ‘bolat’ instead of bolata, in the ‘ya’ suffix to indicate past tense- the dhundhaiya instead of dhunda. In the absence of idioms and proverbs that the Urdu of the north is a treasure trove in.

Therefore, it’s difficult to grasp her. She was born out of adaptation, and she cannot help but adapt, cannot help but slip into different forms to protect herself. To do what she could not in the north. Today, there are many different kinds of Dakhini spoken, depending on the region. There is the Hyderabadi-Dakhini, which influences Bidar- Dakhini, except Bidar-Dakhini contains an influence of Kannada. She is spoken in Bijapur, and, around the peripheries of Maharasthra, she has a strong influence of Marathi. She still resides in the Deccan, since her homecoming was never completed. Today, even the people who speak her do not know that they speak her, and with each passing year she seeps through the the laterite, collecting in aquifers formed by slices of basalt. The way water collects in underground wells, waiting to be discovered. She hasn’t run dry; she just no longer spills into the landscape. But those that have deep roots can never be blown away, and so, she continues to spread over the South, adopting more and more words, broadening her reach, and enfolding more languages within.

First published on Offprint as :