“Do you understand what I am saying?” Moiniyar Khan asks me. I am Bidar right now, have come for the sole purpose of documenting the languages spoken here. Without waiting for a reply, he inquires after the languages that I speak.

Tumhari zubaan kya hain?”

“English. And Hindi.  “ I reply.

Aur Urdu aati hain?” he asks. Do I know Urdu? I make a vague motion in the air. The Urdu that I am familiar with appears only in Bollywood music, in the occasional shayiri that my grandparents recite from time to time.

“Bagaer Urdu, khatati samajh nahi aati.”  You can’t understand khatati without Urdu, he says. Nevertheless, he begins explaining this art of Urdu calligraphy by explaining the mechanics of the language that it is written in. He clasps his fingers together, forming an interlocked knot like the pattern at the entrance of the Abdul Faid Khanqah.

“Just like the Roman alphabet, the Urdu alphabet also has 26 letters. A B C – Alaph Bey Pey,” he says.  “It developed out of constantly writing Arabic. Like a joint handwriting, except prettier. And there have been nine changes in the Khatati design since it came into being. “

He pauses. “And there are two types of Khatati. The first one is rooted deeply in Arabic, and is only used for the Qoran. That is known as Khatati suls. The second is Khatati nusk. “

He pauses again, waiting for me to catch up. And after writing it down, I read his words back to him to make sure that I have put them down correctly. I am able to understand his words only in their most basic form- the way you grasp at the gist of an unknown word when you read it in a sentence. I know Urdu as an inherited, diluted tongue because it has been passed down to me only from my father, and the Urdu Moiniyar Khan is speaking is more complex than I expected. Hindi is my second language by miles, but my access to it is like a qanat1 system- speaking it for long intervals creates a flow; makes me more capable of creating depths and discovering words buried inside.  The more I excavate, the more I can revive it. But with Urdu, there is only what there is and no more. With Urdu, there are no words that can be found.

“N-u-s-q-u-e, “Moiniyar Khan says, placing a finger over the incorrect spelling. “Aliph.”  Once he is satisfied with my penmanship, he reaches behind him and pulls out a box as weathered as his fingers. This is what is inside: round bottles of ink, blades, tapering fountain pens, paintbrushes, a rectangular whetstone, pieces of rosy brick. He picks up the blade and it turns out to be a pen. It is the slant that he is after, which writes like a length of ribbon. The blade is sheepsfoot and the paint bottles unscrew in a cloud of black and brown specks.

“They are all spoilt.” Moiniyar Khan says. His ink has run dry, his cutters have blackened. His  daughter brings him a steel container full of water, and he tips it into the bottles, waiting for sludge to form. He says that he used to make the ink by grinding small stones; kankad, but it wasn’t permanent, which is why he shifted to the Camel brand. He takes my A4 cartridge sheet drawing book from my hands and prepares to write something.

Sabse pehle, char line maarna. “ He says. Before starting on the calligraphy, I should draw four lines. He dips blade into ink bottle and draws the pen from right to left four times. The lines fade away before he has finished. The colour is brown- he is drawing with dust.

“The paper is absorbing water.” I observe.

“The pen is more suited to glazed paper.” Moiniyar Khan counters. He picks up another blade and rubs it against the whetstone, evening the edges out.

“Nib ko cut karna padta han. Stone ke upar is tarah karna padta hain.” He says. These nibs you get ready made. Otherwise, you buy and cut.  Slowly, he draws his knees to his chest to serve as a drawing board, and begins again. And in between drawing, he tells me something about his life.

His initiation into the craft began through the self. He had no teacher; he started by copying headings, by tearing out strips of newspaper and working through them himself.

Hum apne khud se seekhe. Koi teacher nahi tha hamara.” He has a book that he used to refer to, but in Urdu, so even when I flip through it, it is of no use to me. He has a book which he has created also. An album of all those pieces of newspaper, of all the verses that inspire him, but that too is in Urdu.

I try out all the pens. Most of them squeak, the ink in them dried up like the water in the qanat. Once, the ink flowed. This was before computers, when wedding invitations were written by hand. Now everyone prints, he says. Everyone does everything digitally. There is no use for him anymore. But this is not to imply that he does not have any work. There was a girl in the community who won a scholarship to drama school. There, she was given the role of the queen of fairies, and her mother was so proud that she got him to make a pink and black tiara for the occasion. He also made a khatati monogram for the Karnataka Charitable Trust, Humnabad district, Bidar. His portfolio consists of verses: yahan se phan khatati ka silsila shuru hota hai. Writings shaping pigeons. Golden wedding cards, with small domes incorporated on top of long stalks. Some of the words he has taken from the Rangin Mahal, and he says that in certain parts of the palace, a split shell was used to carve the inscriptions. I learn that there are tremors that run up and down his arm, which is why he can only teach now. Even what he is showing me is just a demonstration. He is the only one in Bidar who practices this craft now.

Access to a language is constructed like a flute. A hollow rod with holes on the top. A qanat is a system which is basically this kind of technology. A series of interconnected wells.  Technically, it is a structure used to lead trapped underground water from the interiors of hills to expanses of land.  The qanat was brought to Bidar by Mahmud Gawan in the 15th century, and built to transport water to Bidar fort. But it seems that people forgot about it, forgot a thing like that even existed. Recently, the area was being mapped, and when the mouth of the qanat was discovered, no one knew what it was. Most of it was covered in vegetation, and inside, frogs, porcupines and thirteen foot snakes had taken up residence.  The access points were all suffocating and filled with mud. Reeking of disuse.  It had to be dug out again. When I stood inside the qanat, it was like standing inside a vein of the city. Veins collapse when empty, and when people stop reaching for a language, a similar thing happens.  As a child, my father was enrolled in a school where Urdu was the main language of instruction. But he has forgotten pieces of the script now because he never needed to use it again. And that is the problem: that the vernacular is no longer something to aspire to.

I take the pen from Moiniyar Khan and try to copy his strokes. He is willing to teach, but only if somebody is willing to learn. He doesn’t say a word, rheumy eyes following my hand. I try to replicate exactly what he has made. There is method to approach a script, but I am focusing only on getting it to look right.  As I am writing, he says that I can’t learn khatati by just copying it. He tells me how the most magnificent examples of Khatati can be seen in the Abdul Faid dargah, in the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, even at the entrance of the khanqah that I had spotted it for the first time. I know that Arabic is taught in a khanqah, that the teaching at the Abdul Faid khanqah is for free. I know this because the day before, I had encountered a member of the Sufi brotherhood there. Tariqa Hussaini had mentioned that ten years ago, there used to be six maulanas, and all seats used to be filled. Now, the number- of both- has dwindled.

When I finish, Moiniyar Khan looks at what I have done. He has pulled out spectacles from somewhere, and they are perched on his nose. Meanwhile, I look around. His house is constructed out of bricks of laterite, and the holes that make it porous give it the appearance of wine coloured coral. The door to his inner quarters is painted a vivid Persian blue. A neem tree grows at the entrance. There is Panther sewing machine on a table.  An orange rubber duck tucked behind clothes. He is probably a grandfather. There is a pocket sized book which has fallen open on the ground. Phone numbers and addresses are scrawled in it, with an asterisk and a short note under the ones which have changed. The addresses are scribbled in English, the notes under them in Urdu.

This is how language is not like a qanat system: it endures. It finds a form to dwell in. Like water. Dakhini, a language of Bidar, is an example. Once upon a time, it was the Muslim court language of the Deccan. In Bidar, I learned that it had become the most common street language in cities of the South, like Hyderabad, Aurangabad, and even Bangalore, the city of my residence. And in Bidar, I strained my ears to hear it, but whoever I asked – auto-drivers, women washing clothes in enclosures, said that they didn’t speak it.

Until I realised that I was chasing a Dakhini that no longer existed. Until I realised I have already heard some of its forms before. I have heard it echo in Hyderabadi Urdu- a variant so different from the Hindi-Urdu that I know that it might as well be from a different family.  I have heard its strains in the Kannada- Marathi words of the woman who told me to go to the Papnatha temples instead of lurking in her alley. Language, I realised, is a palimpsest. Any representation is not an absolute image, but a work in progress. It holds evidence of all the tongues who have ever uttered it. Even now, it changes: taking words on loan, giving some up; its surface is its depth. Moiniyar Khan might be speaking it right now, which would explain my more-than-usual struggle for comprehension. So need I worry about forgetting?

But this is the other problem: we are more concerned with conservation rather than usage, with preservation rather than need. Languages were not meant to be stored. Syntax was not meant to gather dust in a museum, to be rewound and heard through film.   Languages have died, and they die when we leave them no space to grow, when we crush the structures that support them. I, myself, have come here to document the tongues in Bidar, rather than learn them. And we document things to prove that they happened. Things that we consider elusive and short-lived. Things that we don’t think will happen again. Sometimes I wonder if the vernacular is becoming a refugee. Like the Syrian people. Their homes have been destroyed, and they look for a land that can take them in as its own.

Moiniyar Khan pats me on the shoulder. He picks up a wider blade and draws over what I had copied, making adjustments and thickening lines that had shaken. Changes that I could never have made, even by looking. To my eye, both look identical enough.   He looks at me, takes off his spectacles and says “Lekin nakal karne ke liye bhi akal ki jarurat hai.” Even to copy something, you need a measure of understanding.  

“I can teach you if you wish.” He says. “I can teach you Urdu also. Hindi theek se samajh aati hai na?

We let that sentence hang. Even I am not sure at this point.

this article was first published in Offprint Magazine:

  1. A qanat – pronounced kanaat– is a gently sloping underground channel with a series of vertical access shafts, used to transport water from an aquifer under the hill. They create a reliable supply of water for human settlements and irrigation in arid and semi- arid climates.

If you cut out a piece of history and fit it between granite staircases and terrazzo tiles, you may understand what I saw. The powder on the earth is less dust and more spice, and the air is coloured. I put a hand out into the air and watch a swirl of yellow settle on my skin.  There are three hammered iron plates on crumbly white walls, signifying the different trading houses. Orange rust blooms over them. They look sandpapered and sand-powdered, and the names are missing letters- Amreeca traders becomes Amrca traders with a double gap between the r and the c.

When I finally find the crevice that I am looking for, an old man with several wraps of cloth around his head is sitting there. He is a fourth generation spice trader, whose great-grandfather had started the company well before the Partition. There are steel bowls of mustard seeds, rye, methi seeds, toasted sesame seeds and zeera on his table. Behind his chair, white sacks brimming with green cardamom which are bursting at the seams. His name is Harshad Shah, and he runs Banashankari Traders with his younger brother. As his name suggests, he was from Gujarat at one point of time, but his family has been in Bangalore for more than fifty years now.  As he introduces himself, he picks up a handful of black cardamom and pours it back into a bowl.

“These we get from Kerala and the north-east.” He says. “Guwahati, Siliguri. Those areas have good rain.” He sells all kinds of spice from all over India – he does not limit himself; especially not now, when their businesses are in serious eopardy.  The entry of the multi-national corporations has created in his trade an uncertainty that he never knew before. His own business has dropped sharply over the past few years, and he is only able to keep his head above water because of his company’s age.  As if age is the only reason that we deserve respect, he exclaims. He tells me that MNC’s are built to survive losses for seven years, and that much time is enough for small businesses to get eliminated. He narrates an incident a couple of days ago, where a Big Bazaar spokesperson wanted to sell at 103 rupees instead of 102.

“He asked me ek rupay se kya jayega; what difference will a rupee make. Because he is from an MNC, he does not understand what increasing the price with a single rupee can do. Especially something like spice, in a place like Yeshwanthpur market.”

I did not know this then, but Yeshwanthpur market is one of the beating hearts of Bangalore. It is a market that claims to be several centuries old, and it is built in layers, like an onion.  There are the layers, which like brown onionskin, were once living and purple, but now have been blown away with the wind. Then there are the veneers of the most recent-ancient remnants, like the deep purple layers that form the exterior and the inner chiffon haunted by customers who have dwindled over the years. I did not understand his ire until I imagined what would happen if someone wandered into Chandni Chowk Market and tried to establish a dominion there. There is a reason that it has remained this way; has been allowed to remain this way for more than four centuries. It is more than just a place of buying and selling; it is a reminder of something that needs to be preserved.

Behind us, sacks shift. Two brands of zeera are carried in on heavy bronze shoulders. One sack belonging to each of the brands is cut and a handful is poured into two bowls. For a few minutes, Mr Shah busies himself in cutting up pieces of paper and writing the brand names, propping them against the steel like sails on a ship. What is the difference between these brands, I ask. “Nothing whatsoever”, he replies. “But don’t underestimate the power of a brand. A brand name can be the most powerful thing that a company can possess. India, as a country, was known to run on faith and trust; we didn’t give collaterals as a rule. But the entry of the multi-national corporations has changed that, and we merchants are struggling to keep up with the change.”

“But you can’t stop the entry of FDI if the economy is to thrive.” I interject. He slams a clenched fist onto the table.

“No one said anything about stopping them!” He says vehemently. He unclenches his fist and splays it. “I mean that we don’t mind competing against the MNC’s, but it has to be on level playing ground. If there could be a quota system, if the original market was allowed to function, rather than the price being artificially jacked, then perhaps we could have a fighting chance!”

According to him, a compromise has to be struck; there has to be a way for both systems to accommodate each other. According to him, India is in the middle of one of the biggest transitions; from bazaars to barcodes, and because of this, certain words have become strangers to our vocabulary. They still exist, but from an era that that has been tucked out of sight; in footnotes and margins.  He calls himself a merchant, but as a word, it seems so obsolete; especially now, and in the twenty first century, it is remembered only as inheritance and surnames. This is what Mr. Shah bemoans. This is what has changed. But according to him, this is what needs to be brought back, not just because of the jobs that are in jeopardy, but also to preserve India’s brand image.

“These new start-ups think that we are the big players in the market, only because we have been here for such a long time.” He strokes the rings on his fingers. “I am a fourth generation spice trader. But time does not mean anything; and in terms of power,hume bahut aage jaana hai (there is a long way to go).

This article was first published on offprint magazine:


Blossoms is a bookstore in Bangalore. It is located on Church Street, which is a tributary of Brigade Road, which connects MG Road and Residency Road. Church Street is a siphon-off, and takes time to build up into a stream. You would miss Blossoms the first time you see it; one of its outer walls is a vintage Otis scissor gate, a kind of criss -crossed barred elevator door,  the kind that you find in nascent apartment complexes. It has an English signage in red and its equivalent in Kannada in blue. The original store had begun as a two hundred square feet space, the size of a single car garage, and has grown into three stories, measuring three thousand five hundred square feet. It looks like it has expanded on adhoc tendencies; spaces cropping up whenever they are needed as if it is a living, breathing entity; its boundaries ephemeral.

“It is, in a manner.” I was told by a friend who had brought some of her used books to exchange and create a credit account. “Blossoms is primarily a second hand book store. Most of the books you buy have been owned by someone else.” The books she had brought were the data kind; the Guinness Book of world records, the pocket encyclopedias, and even these ones bore an inscription on the page before the index- in Marathi, the tongue of her grandfather.

I first discovered Blossoms as a cavernous opening in the wall.  It was a weekend in July, the time when the Bangalore sky roils and churns into itself and as I ran up the steps and entered it, my only thought was to escape the pouring rain. Shrugging off my jacket, I turned and caught my breath. I was standing at the entrance of a bookstore. Today, a pure bookstore is elusive; they are all becoming a combination of sports equipment and music, but this one was one of those unadulterated dusty, quaint old stores where one finds real gems. It was the kind of place where you expect to find ravens perched on bookshelves and flying out of cobwebs. The walls were a dirty cream, and lined with wooden cases, containing books authored by people I hadn’t heard of, and the centre had tables groaning under the weight of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was like I had entered a different world; worlds, not of bestselling authors, but of obscure ones. Even the sound of the rain had vanished into the background. I picked up a book, opened its pages, and drank in the musty scent greedily-the last book I had read that had a smell like that was my grandmother’s copy of Gone with the Wind. This too, was a copy of Gone with the Wind; except it dated back to 1964 and had ink smudged thumbprints on the sides.

The bookstore was deserted, the counter was empty; something that I was thankful for, because it gave me the opportunity to stroll and explore at my own leisure.  One of the things about stores like Oxford and Teksons is that the people follow you through the aisles; a moment of respite and someone leaps out to provide assistance, making you jump out of your skin, not realizing that perhaps you stopped of your own accord, and not because of a moment of indecision. And even if it was indecision, isn’t that the enjoyable thing? To take a moment and think of what to choose, and the final choice reveals something about yourself, even though you don’t know it. This store seemed aware of it, as it was empty and yet it wasn’t. I walked past authors arranged haphazardly-a Jeffery Archer, Ayn Rand, Irving Wallace, Marion Zimmer Bradley-who happens to be one of my favourite authors of historical fiction. She is best known for retelling the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the female characters, where King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are supporting, rather than the protagonists. She is one who is relatively obscure, because the books that she writes belong in quite a niche area-see what I mean about finding treasures?

I moved up the staircase, past the soft-board holding announcements of poetry readings and musical nights. The space was divided with floor to ceiling cases, and collapsed piles of books lay in the aisles   like hurdles, making it necessary for someone to slow down and reflect.

“I have all these copies on my Kindle.” I overheard a young woman telling her friend as she waved a hand over a shelf of Haruki Murakami. I spotted a 1997 contemporaries edition of Memoirs of the Geisha, the version with the grey cover and the vertical half of a Japanese lady eroding into the spine. There was a Tolkien lying next to it.  It had been some time since I read one; these days, one of my favourite pastimes was to read a book and watch its film adaptation simultaneously.  I had recently completed a Pride and Prejudice marathon, where I tried to sync the dialogues in the book and the film together. I picked up the Tolkien excitedly; there is something compelling about owning a book which has been physically read by others, as if part of their identity has been infused into the pages.  This one did not have any reams of dedication, instead, it had a city name and a date scrawled into it with black gel. Mumbai, 1982.

“Found anything yet?” I heard through a gap in the bookcase. I wasn’t the only one who had retreated into this haunt for shelter. There she was, a classmate, browsing through the classics section with a copy of Dongri to Dubai in her hands.

“What about that?” She pointed at the one I held, taking it from me and rifling through the pages.

“Oh, Lord of the Rings. I really should get around to reading it.” She said.

“You haven’t read it?”

“No, don’t read a lot of fiction. I should start, though. ” She continued to browse through the pages fiercely, as if just by touching the pages she could retrieve their essence. I took it from her with some force.

“It’s old!” I said. “Look at it; you’re going to damage it!”

As I drifted through the bookstore, I wondered, for the umpteenth time, how people could find it in their hearts to give their books away. My grandparents had spent a third of their lives nurturing a collection -since the sixties, the time when my mother was born. They had books in Hindi, Readers Digests dating back to the seventies, tomes of Marxian philosophy. A person’s private collection was like a peek inside their mind; in fact, before I had gone away, I had had a disagreement with my family. They had wanted to give the books away, the collection that we had spent seventeen years building, but I was adamant that they would not, could not, even though I had spent the months preceding college finding online versions of the ones that I could not live without. Each one of them held stories, I argued; the Goosebumps novels were the ones that the tooth fairy left under my pillow, the Asterix and Obelix had been a carefully cultivated project with our father; the Twelve Tasks of Asterix hunted down painstakingly to complete the collection. The Mallory Towers series was special to us because it had been bound together improperly, with page 64 of the third book appearing after page 134 of the second, and we read them like that. Each book holds something of ours within it; I can hardly imagine getting sentimental over an epub or a mobi format. Nevertheless, one of New Delhi’s most eclectic bookstores is closing because the virtual world is slowly taking over. But the process of sifting through shelves and the coincidence of finding a gem is not one that can be replicated virtually. Some of my most cherished books have been discovered by chance. Today, in order to find something new to read, I go through lists on Goodreads, type ‘best new books of 2015’ into the search engine.

“I think I’m going to buy this one.” My classmate said. “Are you taking that?”

“No. ” I said. I already had a digital copy of it. A kindle could not compare to a real, life breathing book, but the memories that lay with this one were not mine. The rain had stopped brewing by then, pedestrians were ducking out of shrubbery and cigarette stalls. I walked to the stairs, waiting for her to complete her purchase. The sky was still grey. She came down the steps, holding two brown packets. She gave me one.

“I didn’t buy anything.” I said.

“I know you didn’t.” she said, puzzled as well. “He said something about a sale, and getting a book– or was it an account? Said perhaps you’d like this one. I didn’t understand him completely though. “

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding. “ I said, and taking the packet from her hands, made my way up the stairs. As I did, I happened to glance inside, and stopped. It was the Tolkien that I had wished for. I took it out, and stared at it hard, before looking up and glancing at the counter. It was empty. The man had vanished; leaving no imprint or sign of his presence. But just before I turned back to mull over things, I could have sworn something winked at me behind a bookcase; a twinkling of the eyes, a slight shine in the dimness.  My friend shrugged at me as I came down the stairs, the brown packet still held in my hands. She nodded at it and then gave me a questioning look.

“Nothing.” I said, putting the packet inside my bag, and zipping it up firmly. “Let’s leave.”

This article was  published on The Indian Economist

ReKindling bookstores

The bus stop has glass encased puppets lining the backrests.  “Dhaatu” reads an overarching green signboard. It is a word of Sanskrit origin, meaning layer, root, mineral, element, stratum.   Some parts of the glass has grey marks on it; like an advertisement that has been ripped off under duress, with its remnants scraped with a knife. But the stop itself is clean, and although the leaves on the bushes are green, the piles under the seats glow copper. The house is just down the corner, two loops of road leading down to the end of a lane.

“Dhaatu puppet bustopaah?” The conductor had said scribbling on my ticket when I tried to tell him that I needed to get down on K.R Road. “Studentaah?”

There are many levels inside the house. Each change is marked with a sticker; an interlocked infinity pattern on a strip of red. Like Aipan, except the feet are turned out and joined at the heel instead of placed side by side.  In Uttarakhand, Aipan is drawn into the threshold every morning; a dab of geru, and patterns of rice flour paste on it. In the modern households, however, this practice has become obsolete, with people preferring stickers, or a pietra dura inlay into the floor, so that it is always present, simmering under the surface.

Anupama leads me over, through the wooden slabs of a double door, each panel broken into sections like a Cadbury bar, each section pierced with a golden knocker. It opens into an arena covered with blue slate. For a moment, there is a pungent, delicious smell mixed with musk in the air. It is the smell of puppets, which are in various stages of construction. The finished models are strung up to cover one entire wall. Anupama has made each piece by hand; from rod to ring to glove to Yakshagaana, and each puppet has its own set of wrought glass jewellery.

“Glass glints on the stage and looks like real jewels”, she says.

There is a sky blue coloured puppet for Krishna, an indigo blue one with dreadlocks and a moon for Shiva, even a splitting Jarasandha puppet, the halves held together with rope. She is preparing for the Navratris, when her organization exhibits through a series of narrative theatre performances. Dhaatu focuses on revival and preservation of Indian art and culture; on delivering traditional Indian wisdom through puppets and stories, and these stories are like coconuts; chunks for those who want to hear adventures of heroes triumphing over demons, and sweet water for those who want something more. Which is why, rather than just expounding on philosophy, Anupama chooses epics, where each story is nestled into another like concentric circles; where there is neither beginning nor end.  She has made over four hundred and fifty puppets so far. On the table, there is a nail hardened into a salmon coloured mixture, tins of Asian paint, completed models, and teakwood powder that is used as a finish. Panchalika lies in a corner; a blue doll that she made eighteen years ago, the doll that started her collection.

We come to a rectangular table, ochre under the filtered sun. A decapitated Durga head sits in the centre. She is blinking all three almond shaped eyes at me.

“A work in progress.” Anupama says. Her name refers to an aspect of Shakti- unparalleled, incomparable. And she looks the part, red dupatta flung over a blue kurta, a black lightning bolt above her red bindi. Black lines traced on the skin under her eyes, and gold on either side of her head.

“The other year, termites gnawed through the puppets, and some of them are more than a hundred years old, “she says, referring to the head of Durga. “This one broke during a performance, so I started making another. It seemed right.” And so it is. In a few months, it will be Navratris; the time when the nine forms of the mother goddess are invoked.  While she is sorting through her work table, she asks me if I have visited the Mysore Palace during the Mysore Dasara; an observance of the Navratris that began during the Vijayanagar period. I haven’t.

“Oh, you must.” She says. “They light it up with bulbs…it’s just incredible.” She picks up a lightweight log which has the beginnings of lines drawn on it, which will soon be reduced with hammer and chisel.

“Shaalmali.” she says. Silk cottonwood. She tells me that in the Rigvedic times, when brides were bidden to their husband’s homes, the palanquin that bore them forth was made of this very wood. It is sacred to Shiva, apparently.

“Not to be confused with sea cotton wood. That’s Hibiscus tilliaceus. It’s used for wood carving, yes, but mostly rope and packaging. “Her powerful arms hand me an example. It is a carved wooden mask not yet painted. Colour makes the difference between characters, she says; just an addition of green into a sky-blue makes a character Rama instead of Krishna.  This is because in India representation is different from reality. Blue skin does not mean a blue hue but rather in-depth activity- seamless and boundless like the sky. Green indicates an affiliation to the environment, and Rama was born to protect Bhudevi; the earth goddess, from plunder. A ten-armed sculpture of a dancer does not mean ten literal arms; it is the flow from one posture to another that is being depicted.

“My homework was done hundreds and thousands of years ago. “ Anupama says. “All that I have to do is production- which still takes me eighteen months at a minimum.”

So why does she do it then?

“Because I love it.” She says, breaking into a smile.  “Puppetry brings engineering and dance together. “She is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, and diverts for a moment to explain the difference between the Pandanallur and Melattur style of the abhinaya; understatement versus intricacy and characterisation. Although her dance teacher was a brilliant man, he was also a poor man, and through the lens of a child, she thought that dancing equated to poverty. She didn’t want to be poor, and she didn’t want to be destitute, and studied science, mathematics and computers in school. “Not to imply that I don’t like it.” She adds. But in her later life, choreography became an outlet. She began to teach dance to women in America.  A space had opened up in her that she had thought engineering could fill, but it didn’t, not completely.  As consequence, Dhaatu was born.

“Grammar is beautiful, “she says, “But when there is no soul, it is not enough. It is not art.” She has spoken about the rasa theory in art, where emotion is likened to tastes, and just like food, art can only touch the heart when these tastes are balanced. She describes rasa as emotion after the ego has been filtered out of it, like the juice collected after the pulp is amassed and separated. They showcase during Navratris because the Navratris celebrate the complete package-; of outer beauty with inner beauty, of outer wealth with inner wealth, of outer power with inner power. When only Prag Jyotisha; external light is present, that is when the fire turns to Naraka .

“Did you know that puppetry was created to communicate the needs and values of society? It dates back to about three thousand years. “

“That’s quite old.” I say.

“It’s ancient!” She exclaims. “It’s the ancestor of all film and television shows. The parent has been surpassed by the child.” She smiles humorously. “No one really watches puppet shows anymore; people prefer serials of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.”

For the second time I wonder why she engages with the art form.

“Because Dhaatu isn’t just blind puppetry. “ She explains. “We aim to represent issues that are relevant in society today; like divorce, or single motherhood. We choose the stories that we enact very carefully.” She is sitting on the stairs now, legs folded under her as she gives me examples, counting on her fingers, before giving up.

“Ten thousand people have lived and followed the same path as us,” she says. “We are never alone.” She tells me that we are not a museum culture; that the reason a museum is such an alien concept in India is because we are a living tradition; that tradition, when offered with reason and logic, is classical.

“This is the age of questioning and scepticism”, she says. “This is what makes the epics classic. They’re full of knowledge; full of fables, and what medium is more apt than puppetry?  The past is still alive today- in a different garb and a different setting, and that is what is known as contemporary.  Like your Aipan. It’s adapted, but the meaning hasn’t been lost. Like people, story forms, dance forms don’t die here; they mutate and branch out and survive.  Pur iti navam,” she concludes; her bindi a fractal of the setting sun. That which is contemporary is new again and again. The root; the dhaatu remains the same. The leaves are the ones that change.

This article was published on The Indian Economist as an Editor’s pick


Shree Shakti Sawmill, Shakti Timber mart, Shree Lakshmi Wood works, Shree Maruthi Wood and Timber, Trojan plywood. The closer Channapatna becomes, the more of them line the road. Channapatna itself looks like pieces put together to form a town; a set of bare blocks which is a work in progress. Some pieces are pink, some are green, and then some still need to be shingled. I am here to meet a veteran artist, who practices the art of lacquerware and wooden toys. The threshold of his house is marked with lines of kolam. I knock thrice, and then when there is no answer, I rattle the latch for good measure. He opens the door in a lancet of black, wearing a dhoti and some stripes underneath it. A red vermilion dot in the centre of his forehead is encased in a circle of yellow powder, and it matches the border of his dhoti.

“I started when I was twelve.” He introduces, ushering me in, not wanting to beat around the bush. Part of it is because I am holding a diary as long as my forearm and struggling. The other reason is because he is in the middle of something; he holds a sharpened tool in one hand, and the fingers of the other are curved with an invisible object between them. There is a fug inside the house and with the sun, I can see wispy, smoky tendrils. Noticing the discrepancy for the first time today, he leaves the door open and flaps his hands around to disperse the air. I duck, trying to make it look like I was dusting some debris off my hair.

“I have been practicing this craft for fifty one years and apprenticed more than three hundred people,” he confides. His age, then, would be in the domain of the latter sixties. His name is K. Kenchaiah, and he runs his own handicraft business in a town that can trace the origin of this art to Persia.  As he speaks, his hand opens in a mudra to reveal a spinning top that leaves blurs of its imprints. He stops it, turns it around and then spins it again; this time the crown strikes the ground. He is demonstrating that it works both ways, but I disagree. There is a reason that the spindle exists. My childhood was spent trying to convince my father that a top was not meant to be spun on its crown.  He would nod his head seriously, and the moment I gave it over, he did it again. There is always more than one way to do something, he would say, trying to make a lesson out of it.

One of the tables has glasses, bottles of paint and browned water. An incomplete toy, half glossed, and the other half with a matte texture lies next to a pen-stand with red flecked paint brushes exploding out of it like a rocket. Kenchaiah pulls out a model of a orange-coral Hanuman frozen in leaps while carrying the Sanjeevani Mountain on his shoulder. It is adjustable, he says, pulling out a gilt painted gada and fitting it into a clenched fist, adjusting a mukuta on the head. He makes a movement, and the sculpture splits into two halves. I won an award for this, he tells me. Certificates frame the walls; some accolades are as old as 1979 and show him with a full head of black hair and a moustache that greys only a little bit. He picks out something else to show; a container designed as a birdhouse.

“You can put chocolates inside”, he says, opening and closing the lid to show me.  The birds on the ledge flap with the movement. It is cushioned with newspaper, ready to be gifted.

“For Obama’s children,” He adds. His face splits into a smile, and he is only half joking. He helped to make the set of fifteen lacquerware toys presented to the President of the United States during his visit to New Delhi this year. He helped to make the Karnataka Tableau displayed at the twenty-fifteen Republic Day Parade; the Channapatna Toy float that won the third prize in the Tableaux category. He has won many awards for his work; in 2002 he was presented with a State Award for his contribution to the craft. The wall opposite the certificates has folded up steel railings and lengths of nylon forming a pallet. I suppose you don’t get this good without making some sacrifices.

There is a crunching, whirring sound and a yellow bulb lights itself above the blocked-in window. Kenchaiah gets to his feet and picks up a log from his worktable. The bars on the window act as a rack for his tools. He selects one with a fluted end and begins to chip away at the bark. When it is suitably tapered, he inserts the end into the lathe. He beckons me with a finger so that I can see how he does it. “Adjust maadi” he says.  The log begins to turn round and round, so fast that I could mistake it as being static. Kenchaiah places the blade of a chisel against the wood, using it like a vegetable peeler, and peels away the rest of the bark as if it were a carrot stick. A cream, naked cylinder emerges from under the textured brown. I want to do that too; I imagine it would feel just like peeling off a dried skin of fevicol.

“Aale mara.” He says, smoothing the surface so that any consequent points are blunted. Ivory-wood. It is easy to see why; the colour is off-white, with the barest tint of yellow. Outside, a collection of logs become a part of sunlight and return it, blinding the eye.

He selects a finer chisel and presses the tip against the grain, and a circular cross section separates out, shrinking until it is the size of a paisa. He varies the pressure and position of the blade to undulate the log making it bulge and cave in; making it voluptuous. A shower of white shavings soft enough to be chocolate sprays out. White and cream and yellow curls are everywhere; on the ground, on my face, sticking to his left breast like they are part of his skin. “Agarbatti stand.” He says, when I ask him what he is making. The surface of the wood is warm due to the lingering effects of friction. He pulls out a strip of vegetable dye, which looks like a piece of coloured wood, and it is hard enough to be. But when he puts it against the agarbatti stand, the heat melts it, and a rim of red appears and thickens. My mouth falls open in delight. It is like magic. I can see the circles of colour appearing one after the other, and deepening, thickening to form rings. He replaces red with green for the belly, and bands of olive begin to wrap themselves rapidly around the bulge. When he chooses black for the cross section of circle, just a touch of a millisecond transforms it into a painted pupil. The dye is a cousin of fast burning wax; it melts immediately and condenses immediately. The top of the strip is still gooey, and he extends a sliver from it like cheese from a pizza, and drops it into his mouth.

“Khayega bhi toh kuch nahi hoga.” He says to my curled lip, chewing and swallowing. Have, he invites. Have some. It’s just vegetable dye. So I extend a few fingers and pull out a dribble of green. It is not sticky at all and not entirely unpleasant to the tongue either. Our Adam’s apples bob together as the lathe whirrs.

Before motors were invented, toy making was a different art, all hand carven and hand melted. The form would be made by slicing pieces from a chunk and sandpaper would finish it off by softening the edges. The art is not dying, but adapting itself to time. Obama’s visit has only fuelled a demand for the lacquerware. But there are other arts which are unable to adapt for many reasons. One of the employees at the Museum of Folklore in Ramnagar is a member of a tribe called the Neel Garara Pada. This tribe is a community of singers; the tradition passed down from parent to child, and Mallaya volunteered to sing a song for me in Kannada. These past seven nights leading to Shivratri, it is all that he has been singing, he told me. The bhajan he chose- Manteswamy is much in the style of ‘you are like this, and you are so great that you did this’. His voice seemed in auto tune; as if there was a backing vocals track running parallel to his music. The only accompaniments he opted for were snapping fingers and a tapping foot to keep the beat. He was eager to sing, almost as if he doesn’t get enough chances to. Encouraged by my applause, he asked to sing another; this time, in praise of Nage Gowda, the man who set up this museum of folk art. He made up the verses impromptu and wove them into melody as he sang, and he sang like it was a song rehearsed over and over and committed to memory. This is part of his learning; much like a student of Carnatic music learns how to construct tanas out of thin air, but it takes years and years of practice, and at the end of the passageway if there is no reward to be reaped, then naturally the art will die out, except in the cases of the jingoistic. But folk art is important because it reminds  of a journey – of traditions that our ancestors used to practice that means something else in the new world.  Kolam, for example, is now known as a decorative pattern on the threshold of homes, often interlocking in a double infinity to keep evil spirits out of homes. However, it began as a way to feed insects and stop them from coming into the house-an act of charity, and the powder was rice-flour coloured with vegetable dye, much like the strip in Kenchaiah’s hands.

“Now” Kenchaiah says, “Watch this.” He unwraps a dried, skin coloured strip of Thale. Thale, I write down dutifully. “No, no,” he says. “Thale. It is Thale”, with an emphasis on the ‘L’ sound. The leaf was wound around the window bar. He folds it and holds it against the wood as if it were a whetstone. It is the leaf which is the difference between gloss and matte. Palm is also used to insulate-I briefly remember seeing a mound of coconuts covered with palm fronds on the way to Channapatna.  Kenchaiah uses the leaf to smoothen and to lop away any offending pieces of dye that have blobbed on the side. He finishes by drilling a hole into the black, and uses a gouge to separate the finished piece from the rest of the raw log. With a thunk and a dusting of powder, it falls into the palm of his hand.

“Look.” He says. He reaches over for a packet of Om Shanti Om Flora Agarbatti and lights it. Instead of sticking up like a ramrod, the incense slants slightly on its stand. Already the tip has begun to crown and reduce with white ash. The pillar of cinder is breaking, and he thinks to touch it, but at the last moment pulls back his hand and uses his calling card instead; a fluorescent yellow with a length of green on the bottom. It reads: Sri Ganga Parameshwari Handicrafts, with his name and number on the corners. The edges begin to singe and distort as they come in contact with the ember.

Yelahanka is a green suburb of Bangalore. Ideal to live in, ideal to study in- so people say. They don’t mention the power cuts, or that there are precisely two affordable places to eat in. They don’t mention that the closest shopping arena is an hour away. But instead of a panoramic viewpoint, let us focus instead on the linear settlement parallel to the Yeswanthpuram Railway tracks. It has been building up for ages now; generations of people from Andhra Pradesh have fled to Bangalore because of the lack of availability of jobs back in their hometown. Or that’s what they say. Running is such a commonplace activity, so much so that what does it matter if they are running towards a better life, or running away from persecution? Within the community from Andhra is a smaller subset of people who weave with silk and cotton and jute, transforming them from raw fibres to threads, and then saris of exquisite detail- and it only boosts the economy of Yelahanka.

They have converted the bright orange, neon green, and blue (a blue that matches the concave of the sky) houses into their little factories. The factories are not compatible with the steel stained, marble floored, smoke-puffing images; instead of open spaces there are corridors so thin that just a single person can venture forth at a time, openings on the sides, rickety staircases that creak with every footstep, shaking a shower of spiders and cobwebs on the already dusty ground, and more corridors and enclosures- where looms are housed. The click-clack of the looms is a common sound to hear around that area, even comforting, because it is a sign of life in a deserted community of a deserted suburb. Shops and auto-stands have sprung up around these weavers; carts of coconut sellers with coconuts ranging from palm green to olive green, ready to engage in a tongue clacking bargaining session. Occasionally a train ambles past, screeches, or tries to, to a halt, and travels about a hundred metres before it complies with the dictionary definition of stopping.

I push the door and it creaks open. The half rotting lemon and pungent red chilli that are strung together on a thread drop down from the top rail and oscillate in the sudden wind. Before entering I glance quickly at the ground to see if there are any chappals lying around that can provide an informative social influence. I see none, and proceed, therefore, in my orange and blue Nike shoes. The clacking sound of the looms is almost deafening; it is omnipresent, despite the fact that the looms are housed only in two out of the four enclosures, and none on the second tier of the house-factory. I see a stout woman in a rippling ochre sari who, from afar looks soft and placid and seems to be overlooking some work and giving instructions to an employee at the loom. The employee in question is wearing a white vest, and various black bristles run from his navel and stop just before his neck. Drops of perspiration dapple the back of his neck and a teardrop of sweat hangs tantalizingly off his nose.

She sees me and makes her way. Suddenly I am struck by my own idiocy; this isn’t Delhi, it is Karnataka. Who knows if we have any mutual ground in languages? But in heavily accented English, (I heave a breath of relief), we manage to communicate and get the idea across that a school project requires me to converse with her on cotton and jute threads. She shakes her head. This is a silk factory, it turns out. I ask her if she knows the whereabouts of a cotton sari factory. She doesn’t. Alright then, I say. Silk it is. Have at it. It is a sultry day, and to top it all, I am wearing a black polo-neck full sleeved tee shirt. Not dressed to acquaint myself with the heat, you see.
She leads me up the staircase. There, the balcony protrudes slightly over the wooden floor, as if it wanted to hurl itself into empty air, and in the attempt, has frozen in mid-flight. Deliberate, she tells me. There was barely any space in the first place, and a person of ample girth like her – she pats her belly with a guffaw- needs ample space.

Inside the enclosure is a diorama of threads. In a corner, there is a hexagonal wheel-structure that is refining the fibres into a single thread of consistent consistency. To give me a clearer view, the lady pulls out a strand of the refined thread and twirls it in her gnarled fingers with careless ease. The fibres they get from China, apparently. On the side is a network of white threads pulled taut by two wooden frames, one vertical and the other horizontal. The threads are like steel lines and thin as cobwebs. The lady provides a swift commentary in the back. (She has already told me her name is Jyeshtha, the third month in the Hindu lunar calendar, and her parents didn’t have much imagination) The threads are going to form the warp. I run my finger along one and promptly cut myself, staining the thread a light shade of pink. Feeling like Eklavya’s cousin, I turn with an apologetic expression, and hold the finger up like a maut ki ungli, the finger of death. Jyeshtha shudders, and runs to the thread, inspecting it. A drop of blood, like a blob of garnet hangs from it, and she shudders once more, reaching into the folds of her sari. She produces a pair of scissors with wickedly sharp blades, moves as if she is about to cut the arresting thread, and then stops, inspecting the pattern instead. She puts away the pair of scissors with a sigh.

Tea? She asks me with visible effort. I, of course, apologize profusely, which mollifies her, but only slightly. I wonder why she hasn’t kicked me out already. Southern hospitality means taking a lot from your guest, it seems.
So she brings me a cup of hot, sweet tea, and glowers at me with hooded eyes. The sound of the cup clinking against the rings on her fingers fades away into nothingness, just like the cinnamon flavoured steam of the tea becomes aromatic air. The silence is awkward, particularly because Jyeshtha is no longer radiating geniality. I ask her where she is from. Andhra, she says crisply. Land of architecture, culture and history. I contemplate asking her why she chose to come to Yelahanka, but in light of recent events, decide against it. Lack of opportunities back home, probably. I search for another question. But maybe it’s time for me to leave? I end up asking her: What do you do? (A ridiculous question, I think at the moment)
We weave dreams, she says. Oh? Is that a special kind of fabric, I ask. A sapna fabric? A Sapna sari for Sapna Stores? I vaguely remember a brand of saris in Delhi that deals in ostentatious (a euphemism for dodgy) silk fabrics with the aforementioned as its catchphrase

I surprise a laugh out of her. No, she says. Definitely not. We weave real dreams.

That’s beautiful, I murmur. I have never met a weaver of dreams before.

How does one manufacture dreams then, I ask, as a logical successor to her statement. (All that I know about the subject is what is contained within The BFG.) We weave saris, Jyeshtha tells me. I understand that, I say, but how are you able to capture air and thoughts and make them into something tangible? We weave on a loom, she says, clearly not comprehending that I do not comprehend her. As comprehension dawns on her face, she stretches her arm out. Come, let me show you, she says and points towards a bolted door shrouded with curtains. I turn, following her finger, and hear muffled rhythmic thumps. Through a slit of translucent slate, I see copper bodies in diaphanous white saris, copper bodies with muscles that send ripples across the skin, oiled black hair pinned at the nape of the neck, chiselled forearms gripping cuboids of wood. They move in a rhythm, forward-backward, together, as if all of them are rowing a single, gigantic boat. I get up and press my nose against the slate. A shuttle moves; they are weaving fabrics that ripple with colour, a ripple that is felt more than it is seen, like the tints that you see in a silk sari.

Are those dreams, I ask slowly. Jyeshtha nods. It must take an awful lot of time, I say. Why do you not use power looms instead? It would save so much of time, and you do not seem to have a dearth of them. Well, she says, turning over my question seriously, it is the satisfaction that is lost. You are a writer; you should understand when I talk about satisfaction.
How does she know this? Never you mind, I just know, she says as she reads my face, not stopping the torrent of words. Would you rather write down your thoughts with pen, or have a scribe who notes them down, she asks. Obviously I would prefer penning down my own thoughts. Precisely, she says. Every one of those fabrics has a story. We weave and ply our craft because of an inherent love for it. Do you think you are the first person who has questioned our ways? Some traditions are best left untouched.
I sense that I stepped on a nerve. Yes, I know what you meant; Jyeshtha says impatiently, her demeanour discouraging further questions. (If she smoked, I could imagine a trembling bidi held between her trembling fingers.) But I am still curious. How do you weave images from people’s minds, I ask her. There are people who have written fantastic pieces resounding with thought out of something that is based on a dream, and there are others who have been driven to the grave by them. She shrugs, settling herself back on her chair, like a bird smoothening ruffled feathers. You dream what you are, she says. You dream what you want, and you dream what you don’t want. Our duty is to present these …options; you might call them, to you. You are the one who must choose wisely. Many don’t.

“Our?” I say. Of course, she says. Once we were widespread throughout South India. (Few know about it now though, she mutters under her breath) Have you ever heard of the Kanjeevaram sari, she asks. I nod. Well, it used to be a very special kind of sari, she says, with a bittersweet sigh. But the craft dies out as we move further in time. Kanjeevaram saris are still renowned for their beauty, and ridiculously expensive to boot. I can’t see why, when their beauty is just skin deep. She pauses for a while as she travels backward. It was one of ancient India’s most renowned crafts, she says, as she relives a better, brighter time. Our process was to weave and release, like fire lanterns into the sky, and some people would catch them, some wouldn’t. People see what they want to see. Well, that hasn’t changed, she shrugs. Out of all the things that had to remain static.

I let my eyes flit over the room. Curtains, mats, the whirling fan. The door, slightly ajar, with wind blowing in leaves and wisps. The purple embroidered cushions against which I lean and the seashell pink sofa that I sit on. I am struck by a sudden thought. Are they all dreams, I ask suddenly, jerking my head towards the curtains. You noticed, she says, the closest she comes to approval directed towards me. Yes. Some of them are.

How do you know when a dream is finished then, I ask her, looking at the finished products interspersed in the surroundings, hanging off rods, framing the ground. We don’t, she says. Then how can you separate the fabrics out, cut them up into these curtains and mats? That would make the dream…I stop in my sentence as I realize that the very word I was going to use is a perfect description of a dream. Distorted, she says. Abrupt? That was the word you were looking for, isn’t it? Dreams are both. They have to be, she says. The process demands it. Weaving is like …she casts her mind around for a word. Writing, she decides. Weaving is like writing; using perhaps the only analogy she thinks I am capable of imbibing. A weaver weaves with threads to tell a story, a writer weaves with words, she says. When a weave isn’t tight and even, what do we do? We unpick it, and re-do it. Every stitch is a dream, and every stitch a complexity in a dream. Don’t tell me that it isn’t similar to what writers do. I gasp a laugh. She’s got me there for sure. And as for when a dream ends, she continues, aren’t all dreams part of the Great Dream, a blink of the Great God’s eyes?

The Great Dream? A blink? Maya, she says. Life. Weaving is life. She picks up a leaf that has fluttered onto the ground. Look at this leaf, she says, twirling it in her fingers so that it catches the light. At a glance, you see a single vein running through it, dividing it into half. But when you look closer, you see the vein branching out into other veins. Look closer and you see more branches. Every individual is so myopic that he sees only the most obvious detail of the surface. But his life is a single thread on the loom that intersects with many other threads. Our lives, therefore, are not solely ours. Cut one, and you change the course of the pattern. Move one, and a new pattern is formed, to an extent even the weaver cannot foresee. But, then, how is it possible to see all, she reflects, darkly humorous. After all, (she quotes) Varuna has but a thousand eyes, Indra a hundred, and I only two.

Her ochre sari ripples with purple as she falls silent. Purple. I say it aloud without meaning to. Her expression changes from wistful to suspicious alacrity. She gives me a squint eyed sly smile. You see it, she says in a tone of surprise, more a statement than a question. The ripple? I’m not blind, I say. You would be surprised how many people walk around with their eyes closed, she tells me. People see only what they want to see.

“I am not a Bangladeshi” affirms Shehnaz as we prod her about her birthplace. She readjusts the pink dupatta over her head as she speaks- the wind pulled it off, revealing oiled, jet black hair, coiled into a knot on the top of her head. She is from New Delhi; born and brought up in a Muslim household, from the Ghaziabad region, the thirty-sixth sector. This year, she ruminates, she will complete eighteen years of marriage. We congratulate her, because that is what you do. For many of us, venturing into the stormy turbulence of first loves and relationships that threaten to crumble like a brittle marigold biscuit, eighteen years is a big number. But she seems too young to have completed eighteen years of marriage; she cannot be beyond thirty surely? I do not yet see any lines on her face. But we do not question, because how do you phrase a question like that? She sees it on our faces, because she tells us that she was married when she was twelve. Custom, she says. And anyway, she left her husband six years ago, and hasn’t heard of him since.

She smiles at us then; in the snatch of her smile, there is a glimpse of paan stained teeth. We sit, stunned, or rather, the lack of anything to say. We bite our tongues, and cringe at our inadvertent blunder. But Shehnaz doesn’t pause. He was a drunk, she says nonchalantly, and would drink away all my money. Conceiving a child doesn’t make a man a father, she says. Three sons, she has, and he wasn’t there for even one. What was the point of staying with him, she asks?

There is a deep rooted, but nevertheless, incorrect belief that domestic violence and such is prevalent widely only amidst the lower class women. I know now for a fact that it isn’t true-and also the evidence before my eyes pleads otherwise. I always thought it was the women of a lower social status who were unable to break free of the clutches of society, despite the many stories out there that cry to contradict it. I only paid attention to the scandalous stories in US Weekly, Filmfare; the flashy posters that grabbed the eye, and the headlines that screamed it. It is known as the availability heuristic; retaining information that supports an already preconceived notion. Besides, for people who already have so less, what is there to lose on leaving a husband who doesn’t pull his weight?

At any rate, for Shehnaz, there is not a single day she can take off. They live everyday on the basis of the trash that they collect; their daily bread depends on it. Plus, being a woman, there are always dishes to wash, vegetables to cut, food to cook, trash to segregate. She is relatively new, and the people in the surrounding societies do not know her, so she loses out on the extra five thousand rupees that she could earn as household help. What work do you do, we ask. Everything, she replies. The poor cannot afford to be choosy, she says. Besides, her sons used to go to school, but she took them out because she needed the money. Remember, there is no man in the house, she reminds us gently, and they do have to eat.

Perhaps the lack of a man in the house creates problems. She and her friend Naseema interact, yes, but still…she trails off into a silence. You have to understand, she says, that group activities are not the way of the community. There is quid pro quo, yes, but everyone fends for themselves. Even the trash that we saw, although scattered within the community, has some logic to it. Each mound belongs to a different family. We had walked up behind her when we entered the community-surprised her when she was washing dishes. There, on the skin between the nape of her neck and the arc of her kurta, were three pink welts rimmed with blue that ran down her back and threatened to impinge upon her neck. They looked as if they had been inflicted by a belt made out of leather. We ask her gently about it, in a roundabout way. Perhaps you fell into some shrubbery? There are a lot of prickly plants around, dried branches with extensions like knobbly fingers. No, she says. There is nothing on my back. She denies the existence of these wounds.

There is another dwelling in the settlement. There, the people are relatively well off because they work as field hands when they go back. But they are not good people, Shehnaz says with a shake of her head, almost dislodging the dupatta again. She tells us about an altercation that had broken out between a man from that dwelling and one of her sons. Naturally she had to intervene. My mind goes back to those welts. Perhaps the absence of a man in the house does have its negatives, despite the fact that her aadmi used to drink, and I suspect, perpetuate domestic violence. I feel like applauding her for leaving him, but what is the point? Feminism is all and good but it hasn’t made her life any easier, and how many Gulabi Gangs can exist, especially for itinerants? Despite biased thought, the fact remains that it is easier to exploit women of these conditions, because who can they tell? It is almost as if beatings are a predominant part of life, so leaving an abusive husband is mostly a question of choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. She chose the sea, because although it is turbulent at times, it can also be counted upon to be tranquil, while a drunken husband can always be counted upon to be a menace.

The cold hard fact is that they don’t have much- apart from their thoughts. Being alone with your thoughts is dangerous ground. Socrates was executed. Others were beleaguered by society. But what about those who in their time off, can do nothing but think, because they do not have the resources to submerge their thoughts under layers of junk? And what if no constructive solution can emerge from these thoughts? I asked Shehnaz about her recreational activities, asked her if she likes to sing. On one of our first interactions, she graced us with a baul song- “The golden hearted bird”- a song about longing and separation. She declined that thought. Sewing is something she likes to do too, but it isn’t recreational, strictly speaking because there are always hand-me-downs that need to be equipped to size; and it has already been established that it is every man for himself.

Being lonesome with your thoughts when you don’t see a brighter future can put one into a very dark space indeed. Shehnaz told us quite plainly that the poor cannot afford dreams. It is not as I had thought then- a child of poverty does not require a fertile imagination to escape daily drudgery. Dreams just make the grounding harder, Shehnaz says, and they cannot afford it. I wonder if she is talking about the dreams or the subsequent fall. After all, it is not a young girl’s dream to grow up as an itinerant; to wash dishes and mop floors for a living. It is not a young girl’s dream to live in a ramshackle house made of cloth and tin and bamboo and a leaking roof, to have three children whom she can barely provide for.

I ask her if she misses her home. With a smile on her face she talks about the rain that threatened to flood their village on an annual basis- and succeeded too. She moved because of gang violence in her desh; there was an altercation when a few members of the gang poisoned the water supply. People dropped like flies, she remembers. Her village was excluded because the elders guarded the boundaries. But when they returned after a prolonged absence, all she could see were torn remnants of huts, splinters of wood and corpses. The topic of death leads her to the topic of injury, and she tells us about a snake that she had stepped on in her girlhood; a cobra that she had mistaken for a coiled rope on the ground. These memories flood back to her in a gush as she speaks , and as she links it to her inability to educate her children, she breaks down and bitter tears start coursing down her cheeks! Tears well up like relentless waves and she buries her face into her dupatta. We sit, startled, helpless before such unexpected grief. We could not have been more shocked if she had suddenly started disrobing.

Through hiccups and occasional catches in her throat, I make some sense of the incoherent words that are pouring out like a torrent; a waterfall from which the boulder has been removed. What was the point of it all, she cries. What was the point of marrying a drunk, what was the point of having children when the bleak future holds for them a life no better than their mother? Out of her three sons, perhaps only her eldest who just entering adolescence is destined for a slightly better life; she plans to teach him driving. He is still a bright eyed young boy harbouring dreams, and she fears that he will eventually become hard and bitter and curse his mother for not educating him, when her sore heart cries out that she would if she could, but she couldn’t!

Many of these villages impinge upon Maoist territory. Shehnaz says she is from Delhi. But from her stories emerge a far different world; a world where the sea laps upon the land, of fish and nets, of running feet and perpetrated violence. Even the words she uses to draw us into her story contradict their meaning. Their dialect, you see, is different. While Bengali is a language of shells and seas, Bangla requires one to force out a sound by placing the tongue between the teeth.
But then I think: how do you differentiate between a single land of composite culture by drawing a line across it and dividing it on the basis of religion? Language breaks up into different dialects as one proceeds along a road, it is something that happens. But she would feel culturally similar to a Bengali rather than a Marathi or a Gujarati, I should think. And for Shehnaz and Naseema, what do borders matter? For them it is just a bit of Bangla scoured away by the rain; a slight camouflage provided by the falling water.

They do not broach the subject of land or belonging; unless they stray into it inadvertently. When they realise it, they switch subjects, which, although is as smooth as a practiced evasion, fools no one. Makes one think- what information is so important that they won’t hint at it, even when unguarded? Their words, however speak far more than they realize. Shehnaz tells us with barely a tremor in her voice that there used to be Bangladeshis in the community, two or three, but they left some time back. She is from Delhi, she affirms yet again, tapping herself on the chest. Perhaps she even believes it now. After all, if you say something enough number of times, you start to believe in it – and nothing is harder than the pain of not knowing where one belongs. They have been forced to alienate themselves from their motherland and live in a nation that doesn’t accept them. Shehnaz spoke of how for many years she has not felt joy. Her wishes still include a cow or two that would eventually grow into a herd. A pakka house; one made of concrete, with a roof that isn’t buffeted by the wind as easily and frequently as their lives are.

She wipes her face with the back of her hands. I look at her callused palms and wonder how many tears it holds. She still waits to reap the fruit of her work. The stacks of plastic and newspaper around her flutters as she cries, as if moved by the very force of her grief. It is bound up, ready to be sold. I wonder if they should use it instead, to make a thousand origami cranes.

The man rolled his cart slowly down the street and placed it in front of a shop. Moments later, he wheeled his cart a few more stores down after he was told, in histrionic Kannada, to get the hell out of the way. As the owner of the chai shop questioned him, what did he think he was doing?  Mournfully, Balvishnu moved his cart over in front of a store that had been shut down with steel bent like a Japanese fan, and began to set up. His was a variant of the Bombay 99 Variety Dosa- a chain that was frequented mostly by hungry college students because the pizza dosa’s he made were nutritious (alright, maybe not that) and delicious, and if one closed their eyes, they could almost imagine chewing the cheesy topping of a thin crust Dominoes Pizza. Some even claimed that he could create a pineapple like flavour from ingredients that were nowhere near pineapple; but it was like the claim that human flesh tastes like frog legs – to make the idea seem more palatable, if not appealing. They were inexpensive, so when a student of limited means consumed a dosa; it wasn’t combined with that sense of regret doubly over. When something has the ability to satisfy, one’s experience of it should leave one completely fulfilled; and thus, he provided big helpings while pricing them reasonably.

He was not from the State of Maharasthra or Karnataka. He was from the southernmost State of Tamil Nadu; though he had not gone back for ages. The Tamil alphabet was still written on his tongue though, and it accented every word he spoke of Hindi and Kannada, giving away his origins. That black steaming stove that was placed horizontally on his cart was where he made paper thin dosa’s; he heated that blackened cuboid by fanning coals under it until they swelled scarlet. He then flicked water onto that blackened cuboid, watched the drops evaporate, and wiped it with a reasonably clean cloth. Then, with the dexterity of someone who had been doing it for years, he took a glob of batter from a steel bowl and began to run it in concentric circles on the stove. It steamed and sizzled. He had a number of dosas on the menu; but his favourite was the Mysore dosa; the one that he cooked with tomatoes and beetroot. Beetroot was there mostly for the colour; and it stained his already purple fingers a deeper shade of magenta, and made his teeth look paan stained.

Balvishnu had moved to this area to ply his trade quite recently; in fact, just two days ago. It had taken a lot of jugaad to get a spot right here in front of a stationary shop, which was always populated by students. On the very first day, a girl in a red kurta had approached him after exiting the shop, carrying cylinders with a very white nozzle. She spoke Hindi in an accent foreign to him, but she spoke it well, and after looking through the menu, hesitantly decided on the masala dosa; tapping the plastic with an index finger speckled with peelings dots of blue and red. She ate the dosa with her fingers, like French fries, licking off the chutney slowly. She was not used to eating such fare; any self respecting south Indian would have polished off that lake of chutney within the first few bites, and immediately, belligerently, demanded more. But she didn’t. She finished eating, and then, handed over three ten rupee notes. He didn’t think that he would ever see her again. But the next afternoon, she was at his stall again. This time, she hadn’t arrived at his stall from the stationary shop. No; she had walked twice down that road; his eyes had followed her, as it was difficult to miss the lime green bandanna that tied back her hair and an interesting shawl -like apron thrown across her shoulders. She had marched up the pavement, and down the pavement, and looked around. There were other stalls and restaurants around; one sold chaat; bhelpuri, panipuri and the like. But although she stopped in front of them contemplatively, that was not what she was looking for. And then, she had caught sight of the stationary shop and marched over. She was his first customer for the lunch period of the day. She ordered the masala dosa without even looking at the menu, seeming to be in haste. Halfway through the dosa, she asked for it to be packed; and although that wasn’t custom, he pulled out a foil box and foil wrapper and deconstructed the dosa so that it wouldn’t be a mess the next time it was opened.

After the weekend, Balvishnu was setting up stall when he felt a shadow fall on him. He raised his eyes to see the same girl, this time in a kurta as yellow as one would wear on Diwali, with a border of red umbi’s; teardrops. He could predict her order, he thought. She looked through the menu again, and he saw her mouthing masala dosa with her lips. He reached at his batter. But then, her eyes scrolled downward, and she tapped a bitten fingernail on something lower down on the menu. A paneer dosa, or a pizza dosa, he thought.

“What it is a Mysore dosa, Mysore dosa kya hai?” She asked him hesitantly.

“Aapko khana hoga.” He said a grin on his face. “You will have to try it.” She paused, not looking at him.

“Okay, one Mysore dosa.” She said, handing back the menu to him. He began his whole process of flicking a few drops of water onto the steaming black stove and wiping it. He spread the batter in concentric circles on the stove, added a dash of mashed masala potatoes, and sprinkled the fare with onions, chillies, capsicum and tomatoes; squashing them to a pulp using a wooden pestle. He caught her attention by holding out a plate of grated beetroot. She looked back at him questioningly, raising her eyebrows.

“Beet?” He asked; his fat fingers ready to thrust that plate under back under. She paused. She nodded. He could bet anything that she didn’t know what it was; or that its presence in her food didn’t affect her one single bit at all.

As the beetroot created that rich purple masala, he felt proud of his expertness, all of a sudden. This task was so simple to him that he could do it with his eyes closed; while trying to solve a complicated sum of integration in his mind, while reciting Tamil poetry. He often did that at night, when he missed his family, and his homeland; the rich red of the soil; the coconut trees, the smell of Marina beach in the evening. The first time he had expressed these feelings to his roommate, his roommate had told him: but even this is reasonably close to the coast. Well, Balvishnu said, reasonable is not near. And besides, this is the west, and that is the east. What was that saying in English? East is East and West is West, and never the two shall meet!

He rolled up the dosa and cut it into five slices using the back of the square steel handle. He heaped them onto a steel plate with a plastic covering, and doled out chutney with his own hands; one orange, and one white, the one with coconut was the one she preferred. She began to eat; the tips of the notes poking out slightly from her wallet; one hand waving occasionally near her mouth, fanning herself as she felt the heat in the food. He had forgotten to warn her of the green chillies in the dosa. Water filled her eyes, and she placed one hand on her hip, and looked at the sun.

“Mirchi hai, Madam, is it spicy?” he asked. She nodded smiling, wiping tears from her eyes, and resuming eating. A slight hint of a smile revealed pearly white teeth and purple gums the colour of beet. She looked at the menu as she chewed slowly, feeling with her tongue to avoid any chilli shaped pieces.

“Balvishnu.” She read out, looking at the menu. Balvishnu looked perplexed. Every word on the menu was English, except for the subheading of the menu- it was written in the Tamil script. It was his name; it declared his ownership over this cart. He looked at her.

“You are from Tamil Nadu; aap Tamil Nadu se hain?” She asked.

“Haan, aapko kaise pata, yes, how did you know?” he asked her, curious. She smiled.

“I’ve lived in Chennai for fifteen years.” She said to him. “I can read and write the language. Regrettably, I cannot speak it. “He stared at her in incomprehension. She, with her tilted eyes, green to the tip, and black, black hair like the crab holes in the sand was from his homeland?

He asked: Unghala peyar yenna?

She said: Alexandra. He repeated it after her, unable to pronounce it, or grasp any syllable of that alien name. She tapped her chest when she said that however, so he couldn’t mistake it for a word from her own language.

“I’m from Germany.” She said. “Well, my dad is anyway. But I love the Tamil script. It’s home to me.

He smiled, then. “Yes, there is something about it, isn’t it?” Alexandra nodded; the glimmerings of a wistful smile on her face.

That was the last that he saw of Alexandra. She never visited his stall after that. He asked about her; her looks were too different and too defined to be missed. He learned that she had been part of a group of students who painted murals on the walls; and got on a bus everyday from a suburb of Bangalore to Avenue Road. That explained the painted fingers and the interesting way of dressing. Just the other day, he had spotted a young boy with a circle of steel dangling from one ear, and a safety pin impaling an eyebrow. When the boy turned his profile towards him, he noticed that half the head was shaved. Business next to a stationary shop provided for interesting characters; that was for sure. Nevertheless, there was a certain warmth in the cockles of his heart now. Somehow, Tamil Nadu didn’t feel so far away now. How could it be, if a German girl knew about it?

A few days later, he was walking down the end of the road. People had been buzzing about the deviant artwork that some youngsters from a fancy school had painted on the wall. Disgraceful, the women with the gajras in their hair muttered. Shameful, said the old men who had conducted business in Avenue Road for nearly quarter of a century. To say that this was art? There were black houses with feathers- ugly as sin, and a gigantic jellyfish with every colour of the rainbow, and a Masakalli mural featuring that bollywood starlet, Sonam Kapoor. Personally, Balvishnu didn’t feel that the work was too bad; he could see that there was skill involved.

But he couldn’t appreciate its’ significance. What was he, but an ordinary dosa maker on one of the biggest commercial destinations of India? Modern art was alien to him. Besides, he didn’t really feel anything when he saw Sonam Kapoor stare at a pigeon like it was the answer she had been seeking for for eternity. Nor did it affect him if the houses had been rainbow streaked, and that gigantic jellyfish black instead.

And then he encountered “Tamil Nadu” splashed across the concrete in red and blue and green with a thick, undulating outline of black.

Except, that it wasn’t in English. If it had been in English, he wouldn’t have been able to read it so swiftly; being only a fifth class pass in the subject and that too scraping past by the skin of his teeth. No, this was written in the most beautiful and elaborate script he knew; the Tamil script. He was speechless. One hand crept up and clutched the collar of his checked shirt, open at the collarbone. Was it too much to hope that that German girl was responsible for it? It could have been made by anyone else from Chennai who was missing the sultry weather.

He approached, appreciating the artwork. There, on the corner, was a smaller word written in Tamil. He leaned in to investigate it. What did it say? Al-leks-and-ra, he said slowly. Alexandra. So that was her name.