Monday, July 31, 2017

Legacies of Partition




The herbal remedies manuscript


What do people carry with them when they are leaving beloved homes and know them may never return? Ever since I received an invitation to be part of the Remembering Partition event at Godrej Culture Labs, I've been putting stories together asking people I’ve interviewed to contribute to the museum.
A few days ago, I went to visit Madhuri Sheth whom I had interviewed for my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland and she gave me a hand-written Sindhi manuscript on herbal remedies which I packed and couriered to the museum. The manuscript was one of the precious belongings of her father, Udharam. Based on what she told me, here is something about it.
Udharam Holaram Gurnani came from a wealthy zamindar family of Old Sukkur, Sindh. To live an independent life, he left home and took up a job with the railways. Posted to different parts of the province, he lived with his wife and children in quarters provided by the railways. Whenever he was transferred to Sukkur, he would be given one of his father’s houses to live in. Udharam had studied only up to the fourth standard, but he had a wide range of interests – from medicine to spirituality and detective stories – and read a lot. He discussed philosophy with his friends, and his children were often included in the discussions.
Hemu Kalani
In August 1947, there were riots in Quetta and trains filled with fleeing women and children passed through Sukkur. Soon, migrants from across the new border started arriving to settle.  The town, once a prosperous place – a major centre of the fight for freedom, where 19-year-old Hemu Kalani had been hanged for his activities during the Quit India movement – changed fast with reports of looting and violence.
Udharam opted for a transfer across the new border. The family arrived in Bombay by ship from Karachi and lived on the docks for one and a half months, waiting for Udharam to be assigned a location.  Other families shared this plight. They cordoned off areas in unused parts of the dock’s warehouses, for themselves and their boxes of belongings. The government was distributing food, but there were no proper sanitary facilities.
When Udharam was issued posting orders for Achnera, a junction between Agra and Mathura, the family moved there but had to live on the platform for another few months, until quarters were allotted.  Even when baby Neelam, the youngest boy of Udharam and Parmeshwari’s nine children, died on the Achnera railway platform, the family continued to take the hardship in its stride, always conscious that there were others who had suffered more.
It was in 1987, when Udharam died, that his daughter Madhuri Sheth (born in June 1935) came across this manuscript, one of the precious belongings carried from Sindh in the boxes that had survived the months on the Bombay docks and the Achnera railway platform along with the family.  Udharam used these remedies along with healthy foods to treat illness in the family.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Born in the post office

I put this up as my profile photo yesterday because it was my brother’s birthday. It was taken in the late 1960s at High Forest Estate, where Ravi was born, in the Manager’s Bungalow.
When it was time for the baby, my dad called the estate doctor to be on standby while he drove out to fetch Dr Manchi Disawalla who was stationed at the nearby town of Mudis. Dr Disawalla was the best doctor in the district and he and his wife Gool, who was also an excellent doctor, were very good friends of my parents. As the story goes, by the time they got to the house there was no need to keep the expectant father busy arranging for big pots of hot water because the baby had already arrived.
High Forest is a rainy place – second only to Cherapunji, as my mother used to say back then. In the monsoon, clothes wouldn’t dry, biscuits got soggy in about five seconds, shoes would be lined with fungus within hours of taking them off. My dad would come back from the fields with leeches clinging to the long socks he had to wear to protect his legs from them. It had been raining non-stop but the morning the baby was born, after weeks shrouded by clouds, the sun came out personally to welcome him. Besides, it was a Sunday. So they named him Ravi.
And this is how it happened that while I grew up with an unpronounceable headache of a name – in South India the languages do not have a ‘z’ sound –  my brother had one of the most common names in the whole country. I felt awfully discriminated against. My mother once told me that, on a visit to the Mysore Zoo, we had gone to see the tiger and there was a board outside saying that its name was Ravi. Apparently I saw that and burst into tears, in the desolate knowledge that there could never, ever be a tiger anywhere in the world with the name Saaz.
In 1968, my father was transferred from High Forest to another estate, Prospect, in the Nilgiris. Ravi was just five. But High Forest would always stay with him. On his passport, ‘place of birth’ would always be ‘High Forest, Mudis Post Office’; in a country filled with so many thousands of remote places, and so many millions of letter-writers and money-order-senders, a post office was considered the only infallible indicator of location.
Years later, well into middle age, I told this story to a kind person who owns a gorgeous resort not far from Mudis Post Office and he sent someone to High Forest to take photos of the Manager’s Bungalow. The world had changed and so had Ravi’s first home: once elegant and beautifully maintained, it was now in a state of decay. In time I was able to locate two others who had lived in the same house in their time, Denis Mayne and Carolyn Hollis, now ‘back home’ (as it was called in those days) in the UK. I forwarded the photos to them  and they too felt sorry to see its reduced condition. Taking another look at those photos while I was writing this post, I realised with surprise that I had a few photos of the very same parts of the house when we lived in it.




Friday, June 30, 2017

For lovely M on a special birthday

Jewellery made with precious metals and stones is one of the most popular traditions of India. In my father’s community, the Kanara Saraswat Brahmins, it was a custom for married women to wear diamond earrings set in gold in a traditional pattern with seven diamonds each. Those earrings, like other jewellery given to a young woman who was getting married, were family heirlooms. As time went by, the world changed and so did family structures and traditions. In the early 1980s, I inherited eight of my grandmother’s diamonds. Since they were special, I had them set in a four-diamond pattern so that I could wear them all together. However, it turned out that I didn’t care much for the way the pattern sat on my ears. So for years they lay in my cupboard, unused. One day in 2005, my jewellery was burgled. I lost a lot of precious pieces, each of which had special memories. I felt sad and decided to give up wearing jewellery. Then one day I saw my grandmother’s diamonds lying neglected in the corner of a shelf and realised that I should give them the respect and affection they deserved! I had four set into a bangle for myself which I began to wear all the time, and continue to do. And I decided that when the time came I would pass them on to the girls in the family on special occasions.
Smt Shantabai Savur
As one such occasion approached, I began thinking about the box I would gift the solitaire nose-pin in and came across this picture of my grandmother in which she is wearing the seven-diamond earrings. I got it printed and set into a gift box. The box looked so beautiful that I made a few extra boxes and took one as a present (but with no diamonds in it!) for my aunt Sushila.
Sushilakka was born on 8 March 1928; I went to see her a few days after her 89th birthday. When she saw the box she was overwhelmed with emotion and kissed the photo, gazed at it lovingly, and could not speak for a while. Then she told me that the photograph had been taken in Masulipatnam when her father, an officer of the government’s revenue service, had been posted there.
It was 1938, and a ‘famous’ photographer from Baroda visited Masulipatnam. The Collector, the Chief of Police, and many of the other important people of Masulipatnam sat for family photographs and portraits. Naturally my grandfather did too, and this is a portrait of him and his family taken then.
Bhavani Shankar Rao Savur (1900-1961) and Smt Shantabai
Bab (Ramanand), Gopal (later Dr Gopal Rao Savur),
Sushila (later Mrs Tirkannad Sushila Amrit Rao
Gul (later Mrs Gul Raghuvir Dhareshwar)
The photographer then told my grandfather that his wife had the most beautiful profile he had ever seen; there was only one other woman whose profile was as beautiful and that was of the film star Sadhana! He asked my grandfather for permission to take her photograph, saying he would be happy to give him copies with no charge. “Of course Papa agreed!” Sushilakka said. This is the family photograph taken on that occasion: Bhavani Shankar Savur and Shanta Savur are standing and their children Bab (Ramanand, my father), Gopal, Sushila and Gool are sitting.
Sushilakka could not remember the name of the photographer but promised to think and phone to tell me later, when she remembered. She did tell me that years later, in the 1960s, she was living in Baroda with her husband and two young children and her father wrote to her, reminding her about the photographer and suggesting that she pay him a visit, which she did. She and her family received a courteous welcome and he remembered her well. In fact, he even mentioned her mother’s perfect profile and spoke of it admiringly all those years later.
I was moved by the story, and eager to find out more. It turned out that Masulipatnam is a place of historical importance, a trading port on the east coast of India used by the Dutch, the British and French. This engraving is from wiki: “View of Masulipatam. Anonymous. From Philip Baldaeus, A True and Exact Description of the most Celebrated East-India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel”.
Masulipatinam is still a port and fishing harbour, but it is now called Machalipatnam. It is still famous for the Kalamkari block-prints on textile. A blogger, NP Prasad, writes that this was the place from where the Golconda diamonds were exported for centuries, along with other interesting facts about the place when he/she visited. Read more here. There are also photographs of the place, which make it look very interesting, on this link. They made me want to find a way to ask my grandfather about the place he lived in in 1938, the people he knew, the work he did, and his ideas about various things and his aspirations for his life.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Art in a Pune veggie market, again

Art Mandai 2017

Last year, Gauri Gandhi called some Pune artists together to sit in Mandai, Pune’s historic vegetable market, and exhibit our wares along with the vendors there. The event went well and it was a great experience.
In January 2017, the Art Mandai Group participated in the Pune Biennale at Let Art Work Gallery, with the theme Gauri suggested: Merawala Blue. We worked on a piece each, in our particular shade of blue. I had a terrible time, and painted a series which turned out to look so unappealing that I was in despair. At the last minute I went fishing … and, repetitive but true … up came Today’s Catch. I was away, interviewing for Ability Foundation, and missed the launch of the show and a spectacular performance by the inimitable Ruve Narang who is not just a writer and painter but a dancer too. Just a few days later it was time for Art Mandai again.
Art Mandai has two main purposes:
  • to integrate with local spaces and local communities, and 
  • to bring art into the mainstream, to people who avoid museums and galleries as restrictive or intimidating. 
Ours is a diverse group, with painters, sculptors, ceramic artists, masters of large installation, graphic wizards and more. One of my most favourites is Prabhakar Singh, who works with pieces of scrap metal and turns out evocative, lifelike figures (such as the ones seen here to the left and right).

One principle the Art Mandai Group follows is low pricing, so this year one of my products was a series of limited-edition plastic placemats incorporating an image of previous work along with a poem written for it.
I realised later that this was the first time my art and my writing had come together. Until then they had been quite separate, with the process of naming the pieces as the only point of contact. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bear with me, read my vagina monologue



V Section


These days, private parts are going public in a big way. Apparently, Indian medical bodies are busy preparing workshops to teach surgical techniques that make female genitals 'aesthetically pleasing'. Apparently, hordes of women are lining up, urged on by ardent sexual partners. You can get glossy botoxed throat and cheeks, a nifty nose job, an uplifting boob job, tummy tucks, thigh trims and now fall off the assembly line with a cute ‘Barbie’ vagina.
There’s going to be some injections, medication, and chopping out and stitching up of bits. There’s going to be a period of healing during which excretion will make you screech like a tortured person in a bad movie, and (worse!) a period of sexual abstinence. But at the end of it you will have a specially enhanced vagina at which you can gaze in admiration until your neck gives way.
All the hype put me in mind of something that happened a few months ago. Getting off the Deccan Queen at CST, I walked to Churchgate, knapsack on my back, for a meeting. It was a nasty hot Mumbai day, and I took a less-used route to escape the traffic and people shoving and kicking on the streets in their usual pleasant Mumbai way. Enjoying the trees, the sea breeze and heritage buildings that lined the road, I gloated that friends with whom I once frequented this path must now be trapped in their chauffeur-driven AC cars heading to frantic schedules; a walk like this out of their reach forever.
It was satisfying but I felt strangely let down. Something was missing! Near the end of the day, long after the dear DQ had dropped me home and I’d had my dinner, I realised what it was. WHERE were all the roadside creepy crawly guys who stand and stare, whistle, make suggestive gestures and contort facial expressions to express awe and lust?
After tossing and turning all night worrying about where they’d disappeared (Slapped by feminists? Locked up by the righteous Mumbai police? Reformed by reading Twinkle Khanna?) I woke to the awful truth. They could see, from a distance, that I was an office bearer of what my friend Falguni colourfully describes as The Bye-Bye Club.
The Bye-Bye Club is not a group of women who are saying regretful bye-byes to their youth or despairing the slackening of vaginas gone disgustingly droopy. It is that brazen lot you see shouting loud bye-byes across streets and cinemas and coffee shops across the country. Shameless hussies, they are wearing ‘sleeveless’! As they swing their arms in farewell gesture, the flesh of their upper arms is swinging too, flapping back and forth as they call out, “Byeeee!”
These are women who have long made peace with the orgasm. For them, pleasurable sex is not about size or a tight fit but having a partner who understands the value of patience in working towards a shared experience. Some have crossed that hot-flush divide; they have already started snoring in their sleep and in a few years, if all goes well, they will be farting too.
What if I had walked from CST to Churchgate AFTER getting the designer vagina surgery done? Would the oglers have reappeared? Considering that I would have been mincing along with loud screams at each step, if they came it would have been to help me cross the road. So if you aren’t going to do a vagina operation for a roadside romeo, who would you do it for? I would worry. If your man wants your vagina to look like a baby’s, he’s a man you must never leave alone in a room with a little girl. Besides, a vagina is the human body part which wins the Guinness world record for having the highest capacity for expansion. (Show me a man with genitals the size of a baby’s head and I’ll show you a man with elephantiasis.)
The truth is that a man who wants his woman to get her vagina altered is a man so accustomed to the warm embrace of his own fist that he’s lost contact with what a real vagina feels like.
First appeared in Pune Mirror 8 Jan 2017

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The secular Sanghi

On this day in 1997, Vishnu Shahani died. His widow, Rita Shahani, would write:
He had not been ill. There was no warning. No intimation. There was no goodbye. When I woke up that morning, he was gone. 
Years later, I worked with Rita to bring out an English translation of the (Sindhi) book she wrote after Vishnu’s death. As we got the book ready for press, Rita died. It was a shock. Her daughter, my dear friend Madhavi Kapur, launched the book a few days later on 23 November 2013, a tribute to both her parents Rita and Vishnu.
Tragically, less than six months ago, we lost Madhavi too. For many of us, the pain of that loss will always remain.  
Madhavi resembled her father Vishnu in many ways, specifically in her strong principles and commitment to social welfare. At the core of Vishnu’s identity was his commitment to Hinduism. Today the Rashtriya Seva Sangh (RSS) is perceived as a fundamentalist organization: inflexible, chauvinistic and with a capacity for violence. Vishnu, a dedicated Sanghi, was open, caring and devoted only to truth and the betterment of humankind. 
While Madhavi’s biggest contribution is in education and she is remembered with love and gratitude by her thousands of pupils, she is also well known for her unwavering stand towards secularism in India. On one occasion, she took a Pune housing society to court because they refused to accept a Muslim neighbour. She won the case, the Muslim family moved in to the building - and very soon they were accepted by their neighbours and integrated.
Thinking about Madhavi today, I wanted to do something that would have made her happy. So I uploaded Rita's book and you can click on Tales from Yerwada Jail to read it if you want. 

Tales from Yerwada Jail
At bedtime every night, Vishnu Shahani’s two young children refuse to sleep until he tells them a story from his time in jail. Vishnu’s stories embody a spirit of adventure, and the youthful excitement of overcoming a powerful and oppressive enemy. He speaks of personal involvement in the Indian freedom struggle, without a trace of complaint against the hardship he faced.
After Vishnu’s death, his widow, Rita, interviews others to get a fuller picture. She finds that the perception of each participant in the family’s history varies slightly. She pieces the versions together, allowing the differing interpretations to coexist.
Time has moved on, and while Indian democracy has survived, memories of the movement for freedom against Imperial rule have receded. The names of Gandhi, Nehru and just a few others, are remembered. Through the story of the Shahani family, this book honours the struggle and sacrifice of thousands of ordinary families in the 1940s.
Tales from Yerwada Jail also tells of the little-known contribution of the Sindhis to Independence, and their struggle to find livelihood and new homes after Partition.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

No thank you, nothing for me

So a few days ago, I happened to be walking down New Bond Street. Posh shops with people standing outside saying, ‘Try this! Try this!’ and handing out free cosmetics. I kept going and the chant continued, ‘Try this! Try this!’ After walking a bit I started replying, ‘No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.’ One guy said, “Try it! It’s free!!” I said ‘No thank you.’ He said, ‘Are you sure? Take it!’ I said, ‘No thank you.’ He said, ‘Ok, what do you use?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He replied, in alarm, ‘Nothing! WHY?’ So I was thinking, why do I use nothing? Why? Why? And I told him, ‘Because I’m a Buddhist!’ No sooner had the words left my lips than I was stricken with utmost guilt! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, what would my dear departed mother have felt to hear that! What a betrayal of her patriotic Hinduism!! We don’t believe in the caste system. We believe everyone is equal. But we’re Hindus! Yes, we’re Hindus! We don’t do sati. We’re fine with widow remarriage! My parents actually did ‘kanyadaan’ TWICE for me!!! And my dad’s final cremation rites were done by his daughter (me)!! But we’re Hindus. We never go to the temple – ever, ever. Actually, we do go - but only as tourists. All our worship is done at home, in private. Often in secret. But we’re Hindus! We don’t do pooja – ok, once a year, on Diwali! But we’re HINDUS. We don’t call it ‘karma’, we call it Newton’s Third Law of Motion (each and every action has an equal and opposite reaction). Still, we’re Hindus. All this was going on in my mind and the man said, ‘Ohhhh!’ and he bowed low and said, ‘have a nice day!'