You can find me in a museum now. But my first residence was the mind of Carl-Arne Breger. He was a Swedish Industrial designer who became famous for object design. He envisioned me in painted and chromed metal- as a foldable cup, with an underlying hot plate from Rorstrand Ceramics. My insides in galvanized stainless steel and a pistachio green cuboid as a base. Length: forty centimetres, width: forty-four centimetres, height: forty centimetres. I changed lives, got embroiled into a discussion between genders and even created a whole new food culture.
You may have heard of me.
I am the microwave oven. But more specifically, I am Carl Arne-Breger’s Cupol Microwave Oven for Husqvarna. An attempt at revolution. In Carl’s mind, I was shaped curiously. I was half of a sphere; modelled on a cupola. Almost like an embryo. My date of birth? 1969. I was his brainchild, created for the Swedish company Husqvarna. It was the children of my brother-a 1967 Amana-who are the shape that you are most familiar with now; the hollow box which is now a fixture in so many kitchens.
As our shape evolved, our function devolved. We devolved from what is considered to be the thought process of the predominantly male engineer. We did go through a brief moment where we were celebrated as state of the art technology, and then were relegated to product, commodity.1 Let me translate that for you; from seen, we became unseen. Like those landline telephones. We’ve hit rock bottom now- an unremarkable appliance that you won’t even think about twice. That means my generation is obsolete. Don’t believe me? I was pinned on Pinterest into ‘Images: Retro circa 1960’s 1970’s’.
My brethren started to get stocked on shelves at a time when women started going back to the workforce. We are a product of revolution, yet we haven’t revolutionized much. We were created as a promise for male buyers2, but that promise didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. How do I know this? Well, the Industrial revolution eliminated the work of men (and children) – but left the domestic quarter, which was, and is, predominantly the realm of women, untouched. I mean, sure, now we allow women to cook in bulk, and children use us to heat up the leftovers, but that’s the thing: cooking. Women are still cooking. We reduced menial work, but not the time spent on the task. Manual cooking has not been eliminated, and our ownership has done nothing to encourage men to involve themselves in the process. In a 1970’s microwave oven television commercial, a man helping in the kitchen is made light of: “It makes the cook’s life easy. Of course, good help is still hard to find. ”
I’ve seen the marketing campaigns, and it’s overwhelmingly the happy housewives next to us; the well- coiffed, heeled women pulling out copper coloured roasts and describing how we made life easier for them, especially now that some them had paying jobs. “Supermoms”, those women are called. 3 I know that when we came into the market we were considered dangerous because we use electromagnetic waves- high frequency radio waves to excite the molecules in food. Our waves are not strong enough to genetically alter food, or make it radioactive, but people are afraid of big words. (Honestly, you should start calling cell phones microwave phone because that’s what they are, and seeing that most of the people in the world have them installed semi permanently as an ear-piece, maybe concerns about cancer and radiation poisoning should be redirected.) And then the companies were afraid that we won’t sell, so they marketed us through association and perception – the soft, non-threatening female population. We were created as something that men would buy, but we spent all our time being handled by women. Picking up the mannerisms of people you are constantly surrounded with is a very real possibility, and we decided to change our gender.4
But no one was using us to cook! There was one woman who used us to vary the amount of spice into different portions. She cooked the curry on her stovetop, divided it up into bowls, and used us to assimilate different quantities of chilli in each portion. That’s it. No one used us to- what did the advertisements say? Bake a potato in 5 minutes? Crisp bacon in 90 seconds? Cook a 5 pound rib roast in 35 minutes? I may look like something out of which a Thanksgiving Dinner is produced, but my nieces and nephews are too… well, square, for anyone to entertain thoughts of roast chicken and turduckens. The other day, a group of foreign exchange students were exchanging the hacks of easy, effortless, inexpensive meals. 5The Asian girl was explaining how she was using me to cook rice in a bowl. I was simply not prepared for the shocked outburst of the gathering. One girl –Indian, I think- just flat out refused to believe that I could be used to actually cook something. Another girl narrated how her father had tried to cook an egg in a microwave, and it had exploded inside. I could almost unscrew my bolts out in frenzy. And I had once been described as ‘The greatest cooking discovery since fire’. I mean, some people in Sweden have started hiding cash inside us.
I think it was Ruth Cowan who said that women stopped using us to cook because it was too much of a pain to open us, take things out, stir them and put them back inside. Also, she postulated that most of the things that we made tasted terrible. Well, the micro wave was used to spot Nazi warplanes on their way to bomb British Isles; our principle wasn’t really to make things delicious, Ruth.
There aren’t a lot of me around; not unless you count the rounded ones with the lift-lid. But my box shaped nieces and nephews have become so common that they are renewed constantly, and consequently dumped with the slightest excuse; one door half-unhinged, with birds of carrion circling in the sky. Some of them have been selected for organ donation, but it’s really arbitrary. I suppose it depends on who bought them in the first place. Some people sell them to Goodwill, and they are harvested for glass and metals which would be toxic to the environment. Some people just put them on the Defrost mode, shut the door and they end up in a black bag in a garbage truck. Some people cut the vacuum tube, and our bodies end up in landfills, and then we rust and decay for generations, just like every other abandoned electronic gadget; and we’re not that dangerous as they come. But since we don’t procreate the way humans do, it would be nice if parts of us would still circulate around. You have no idea how hard it is to see entire wastelands of corpses which can still be put into use but aren’t, and with new of us constantly factory generated. Just because I don’t follow any religion doesn’t mean my afterlife should be selective. If growth is just a secondary spin off which reveals an architecture that is already configured6, then my manner of growing is in the different ways that I am able to be used. Growing allows people to bridge the gap between the now and the then; hence, if I am now used as storage for cash, maybe instead of being ashamed of it, I can take pride in it. In traditional Hindu systems, the human life is divided into four periods, where each period focuses on fulfilment and development of the individual, where the individual does profoundly different things7until they finally renunciate life. Why is this not relevant for me? Why can I not leave life one step at a time instead of clearly demarcated boundaries of life and death?
Museums are one of those curiously grotesque structures that blur that boundary, actually. And I would know. I’ve been in Röhsska for ________ years. We’re housed in this semi-conscious, semi-alive state. We’re not like one of those Viking ships in Vikingskipshuset på Bygdøy, which have been dredged up from the bottom of the sea and are quite literally wrecks. All of us are usable, but we’re not used to do anything. This affects my integrity, and the integrity of the materials that were used to make me. Humans were given a heart to pump blood, lungs to pull and push out air, legs to wander the earth, arms to bring things close to them. Bodies are tools. They are made to be fixable, to be picked up and dusted off until they are unquestionably beyond repair. They were not made to be framed in bones. If the beauty of a design is in its function, then I am the ugliest thing in the world.
- Cynthia Cockburn, Susan Ormroad, Gender and Technology in the making (Sage Publications, 1994)
- Cockburn, Ormroad, Gender and Technology in the making
- This is a conclusion that I reached after watching 7 commercials about the microwave oven from the 1970’s. I also looked at several posters that advertised certain abilities of the microwave oven.
- Verbeek, P.-P., and P. Kockelkoren. The Things That Matter (DESIGN ISSUES. 14, no. 3: 28-42, 1998)
- This was a discussion with some fellow exchange students about our different food cultures.
- Hallam, Elizabeth, and Tim Ingold, Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts, 2014
- Alban Widgery, The Principles of Hindu Ethics (International Journal of Ethics, 40(2): p 232-245, 1930). The Ashram system is one facet of theDharma concept in Hinduism, where the human life is divided into four periods; that of student, householder, retirement and renunciation. It is also a component of the ethical theories in Indian philosophy, where it is combined with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), for fulfilment, happiness and spiritual liberation.
“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; 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 he would drink away all her 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 is prevalent only amidst 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 women of a lower social status who were unable to break free of the clutches of society, despite the many stories out there that contradict it. I only paid attention to the scandalous stories in US Weekly, Filmfare magazine; 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 when leaving a husband who doesn’t pull his weight?
At any rate, for Shehnaz, there is not a single day she can take off. She lives everyday on the basis of the trash that she collects; her 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 has friends whom she interacts with, like Naseema. Naseema’s husband looks out for Shehnaz’s sons outside the community , yes, but still…she trails off into a silence. You have to understand, she says. Although we live together in one area, we don’t do things together, we don’t contribute to other households. There is quid pro quo, yes, but every family fends for themselves, regardless of how many members it contains. 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, surprising her as 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 to their villages. 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 good and all 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, and she often sews for Naseema, but it is strictly speaking, not recreational. Besides, 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 you 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 a 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 as she relates an incident from her childhood, 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.
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 is 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 can’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, is as smooth as a practiced evasion, and 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.
This article was published on Offprint magazine
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:
I went to Ramgarh this year. The Nainital Lake pooled in the centre of the hills. In the mornings, it is a sight to see, with the sun breaking over blue waters, the surface smooth as poured glass. There are boats anchored with rope at the bank. The colony around the lake is mostly wooden structures of markets. The road was crammed with cars and trucks. The ones driving up the hill were carrying metal and PVC pipes, bags of concrete dust, and the ones coming down carried peaches, apricots and pears in sealed boxes.
Two years after the floods, this region has finally had a good year .The year before; I had visited Satoli, a village tucked into a pine forest whose economy functions on production of herbal products using apricots. The flesh was used for shampoos and gels, while the kernel was cracked and its insides went into scents and oils. Deep into June, the apricots were still small, green and hard, and the people I was staying with told me that it had not been a good year; that the last year it had been very difficult to make ends meet. Even the local berries, the kafal and hisaloo had not ripened when they were expected to. The lady’s name was Bhagwati, the same as my great grandmother. Her daughter’s name is Geeta. Like materials, names are also recycled in Uttarakhand- I came across an uncle’s name twice at a contractor’s office. One of them was pushing fifty, and the other was not yet twenty.
“Malla Puran and Talla Puran, “they laughed.
“Road contractors from cities do not understand the mountains.” Malla Puran said, when I asked him what he thought about the floods and landslides that occurred two years ago. “They cut into it and then we have to suffer the landslides for years.”
Apartment complexes are coming up higher in the hills. Unlike the Neemrana hotels, which work around a principle of postmodernism – they restore and reuse old heritage sites, like fort palaces and British Bungalows – these apartments are brand new and constructed like gated communities to replicate the style of the plains. The vernacular architecture style of the hills is not just purely for aesthetic reasons, it is also to maximize heat and protect when earthquakes occur, since slices of Kumaun are bounded by lines of tectonic disturbance. This area also lies in the catchment area of the Indo-Gangetic plain; and therefore the informal unit of measurement used is nali. In the local dialect, ‘Naula’ means a natural spring of water, and one of it comes out to approximately 220 square metres. In Kumaun, they are considered sacred community property and have a common design. They are closed on three sides, and the fourth side is open which has steps leading down to the tank. In the 1900’s in the Dwarahat Township in Almora, there were 3600 naulas, but now the number has reduced to 36, which have only a perennial supply of water. Deforestation and unnecessary road construction has been called to blame here as well; neither allowing the earth and rivers to build up their water quantity, nor providing a barrier during times of torrential downpour. Often when the rain falls, it carries away things with it; debris, houses, people.
I began to sight pinecones as we went higher up. The area I was staying in was in the middle of the market area, houses built in hill style- wooden, small openings, and small shuttered windows. From this point, the hill breaks off, and a splendid panorama of the hillocks can be seen. At night, spots of light condense in the valleys and snuff out with elevation. The Writer’s Cottage, where Rabindranath Tagore wrote Geetanjali, is part of this property. It is, my mother told me, like the house she had lived in in Wellington, Ooty. Stone with moss peeping in from the breaks, a flower garden in the front yard. Clusters of ruby berries hanging from leaves. And from where the hill breaks, the orchards, thick with peaches. I had plucked a few orange and red berries last year – being from the city, the very action was a novelty. The kaafal had worms in them and made us sick- made a lot of the volunteers sick. The chickens too were sick; they had not produced as many eggs as they were expected to. Because of that, Bhagwati was unable to host as many volunteers as she normally did; because they fed them from vegetables from their garden- and their garden was not producing. A few steppes below their farm, the ground was being blasted and leveled to prepare for a road.
Uttarakhand’s political instability is parallel to the frailty of its mountain ranges. It has been fifteen years since the state was created, yet the average tenure of each chief minister has been two years. The carnage at Kedarnath has been termed a human tsunami. Despite that, no lessons seem to have been learnt. Development is still irregular. Stone is still imported from the plains and used to construct on ground that is used to underground shifts- and it creates a cycle when floods occur; paving and smoothening a path so that rocks and rivers can follow unhindered. Some of these rocks create barriers and form lakes; like the waters of the Ramganga. Other rivers, like the Mahakali, eat at chunks of houses, causing them to collapse like cards. At the time of the floods, it had been six years since the Uttarakhand disaster management authority conducted a meeting.
In Irish mythology, a geis is an idiosyncratic taboo, usually placed by women upon men, and if violated can result in misfortune. The most famous geasa are the ones laid on Cu Chulainn; the Hercules of Irish sagas. He was bound to never eat the flesh of dog, nor refuse anything offered to him by a woman, and conflict between the two eventually led to his demise. A geis can be as arbitrary as “On the day you walk under a banyan tree whistling a song about the stars, you will lose your superhuman strength.” Or it can be as realistic as “When you cut down a tree to build something made out of iron and steel, your end is near .” It is worrying because the earth is personified as a female entity, because natural catastrophes have become more common, because many environmentalists believe that we have crossed the line from where we could have turned back; from where the land could have begun to heal itself. In 1947, the Kumaun and Garhwal regions of Uttarakhand had 80 kilometres of road. Today, the length exceeds 35000 km, and there is a bleed of sedimentary rock every few klicks on every route. Although the Himalayas are steep, they are also young, weak and fragile-and what holds the soft rock together is the sal, the pine, the oak, the conifers. They are being converted into agricultural land, felled to create space for settlements, uprooted so that the mountain sides can be blasted into.
But the atmosphere in Uttarakhand is not that of despair. A frozen hope has settled on the landscape. A cloudburst over Jammu and Kashmir in July resulted in flash floods near the Amarnath Yatra base camp, though all the pilgrims were reported to be safe. The increasing vulnerability of the mountains is no deterrent to the millions that descend upon it each year .Perhaps they believe that it is impossible for the disasters to get worse. That after the cataclysms, it can only improve, because the world operates in peaks and troughs. The land will recover. People will be rehabilitated. Houses will be replaced. The economy will flourish. And bedu pako bara masa; the berries will ripen year round.
This article was published on The Indian Economist as a Home page feature
“Why do you like textiles so much?” I asked Manjusha. She was captivated by a black sari with pink diamond shaped embroidery; running her fingers up and down the pattern. Sashiko is a form of decorative reinforcing stitching from Japan.
“It’s visual logic.” She said. “And so tactile at the same time.” This pattern was a geometric variant of sashiko; with the cross section of a warp and weft thread forming an individual squared point. Like a pixel, I thought. I had studied the basics of computer programming in high school; iterative structures, and lines of code outputting similar patterns. In coding, if there is an error in logic, you have to scan each line, scrutinize each semi colon, and print out every step to see where you went wrong. But weaving is material; what you do is what you see and what you see is what you do.
“I suppose you can say it’s easier to debug,” she said, pulling out a photograph on her phone, a picture of half finished embroidery on British tweed.
“Look. a b a a b.” She pointed out the rhythm between the stitches and the blank spaces. “I go in vertical lines, and then I stitch it again horizontally.”
What Manjusha was describing was a simple explanation of the way a loom worked.
There are two parts to a loom; the weft and the warp. The weft is the horizontal threads and the warp is the vertical threads, and it is the weft which is woven into the warp. The rhythm of the warp subsumes the rhythm of the weft; it is within the pattern of the vertical threads that the horizontal threads work.
Like a nested for loop, I began to think. I had been introduced to the for loop in school, and one of our first assignments was to use it to create triangles and pyramids through an arrangement of stars. There also, there were two main variables, with the loop controlling the horizontal pattern working within the confines of the vertical pattern. I began to wonder if a for loop was a mathematical representation of a weave. Whether the beginning of coding had its threads (excuse the pun) entangled within ancient looms.
“This is made on a pit loom,” explained the lady at the Gujarati textile stall. “The pedals are in a pit dug into the earth, and it leaves the hands free to work on the weft.” The kurtas and stoles are created in the tangalia style, where geometrics – mostly variations of diamonds and triangles- are created through dots. Each dot is white thread wound around an individual strand and then cut off, so that it becomes embedded in the weave. She brought out a photo album with glossy, film encased pages describing how the textiles are created. We asked her what would happen if a mistake was made, because this didn’t look like a weave or a knit that could be unpicked; it didn’t even look like a weave because each dot extended only over a single pixel.
She flipped it over and pointed out the underside of the cloth, confirming that it truly was a weave. “Well, we try not to make mistakes. “ She said. “It’s really difficult to fix. “ This is the debug quality of textile; a system.out.print()function after every step, ensuring that you have to mend your error if you want to proceed. Phulkari, the embroidery style from Punjab, is known for its precision because each thread is counted; and the strands are fine, as fine as spider web. The cloth formed is known as malka; a combination of cotton and muslin, and it keeps its tension because it is taken directly from refining to spinning; it is not wound into bales.
“You can take my card.” She told us, handing us a white rectangle. “We’re really trying very hard to revive the art, and if you’re interested then we can even come to your college and hold a workshop or something.”
When students go to villages to learn textile craft, it is the mathematics of it that they are learning; a different perspective on logic. The kullu shawls of Himachal Pradesh also operate within diamonds and sashiko patterns, but pixelated, with step-like edges that appear on borders. Iterations are counted, making it labour intensive, and the money that the artisans receive is not enough to cover the physical and emotional toll. This is a reason why such crafts are dying and the weavers are moving on – either to contemporary motifs, or to urban cities. In phulkari, the peacock has emerged as a favourite because it is easy to make. But traditional tribal motifs are symmetric, geometric and repetitive in nature, which means that there is a formula that generates them. Coding and weaving interact because the property of cloth is that it is comprised of continuous small elements. Looms and computers, therefore, are similar in the sense that both are algorithmic environments for creative work with patterns.
In ancient times looms were worked by hand, and therefore, there was a limit to the complexity of the structure. Joseph Marie Jacquard recognized that weaving, although intricate, was also reiteration, and a mechanism could be developed around this idea. He introduced the eponymous Jacquard loom with the punched card system to control a series of operations, making it an ancestor of data entry and programming. When I studied agro fibers, I combined jute and cotton threads on a hand operated loom with levers. Each lever acted like a Boolean variable; either it raised the warp thread, or it didn’t. Like binary code, there are only two types of information that it works with. It means that when you are weaving something, all that you have to decide is whether the concerned warp thread is to be lifted or not. According to Dr. Ellen Harlizius-Klück, this makes the loom the oldest digital machine and that is why this information can be stored as a hole in a card.
Puran Chandra is from the Mandi district in Himachal Pradesh. He uses sheep and yak wool as raw material and the colours of grey, ochre, brown, puce can be seen in the shawls he has woven.
“Hamare hi hain; hum hi palte hain.” He said. They are all his sheep, and he undertakes the rearing, the shearing, the combing, the spinning himself. And the promotion of his craft also; he comes to Bangalore for ten days during the monsoon for dastakar purposes. If one looks carefully, the patterns formed by main weave are similar to the pattern on borders, similar to the pattern formed by the tangalia. The stylistic elements are the same, but have been permutated and combined and then permutated again to yield something that is distinctive and ethnic. Like the Pochampally ikat-a material known for their intricate geometry. The technique began as threads knotted (ikat) and dyed before being woven together. Elements are common to many world cultures, yet it originated separately in independent locations. It often requires multiple rounds of tying and dyeing. They too are expensive; priced so high that the makers of the fabric are unable to afford them.
“Hamara kharcha chal jata hai.” Puran Chandra said. “Thoda kheti bhi karte hain.” They manage their expenses, but they farm also, to earn extra. In a world where everything is a click of a button away, time becomes currency. But the digital is not an invention of technological modernity; instead, a very ancient concept with roots in history and culture.
Photo credits: Manjusha Muthiah.
This article was published on The Indian Economist
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