മുല്ലപ്പൂ മണമുള്ള പെൺകുട്ടി

This story was written as a submission for the art installation Jasmine Awning (മുല്ലപന്തൽ) to be displayed at the Gender Bender festival 2018 to be held on 22-26 August 2018 at Max Mueller Bhavan, Bangalore. Gender Bender seeks to explore gender as a concept, discourse, concept and art itself.

പകൽ അവളെ കണ്ടാൽ അവളൊരു സാധാരണക്കാരി. അമ്പലത്തിൽ പോകുന്ന, ചുരിദാറിടുന്ന, മീൻകൂട്ടാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള, നിങ്ങളേപോലെ തന്നെയുള്ള ഒരു സാധാരണക്കാരി. പക്ഷേ, ചീവീടുകൾക്കൊപ്പമാണ് ഈ പെൺകുട്ടി ഉണരുന്നത്.

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This is where.

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സന്ധ്യ മയങ്ങുകയേ വേണ്ടൂ അവൾ ഉണരുകയായി. പശുവിൻ പാലിൻ നിറമുള്ള അവൾ പൂമൊട്ടുകൾ പോലുള്ള തന്റെ കണ്ണുകൾ പതുക്കെ തുറക്കും. ഉറക്കച്ചടവോടെ മടിപിടിച്ച് കണ്ണുംപൂട്ടി തിരിഞ്ഞുകിടക്കും. വെളിച്ചം കയറാത്ത വിധം പകുതി വിടർന്നൊരു പൂച്ചയുറക്കം.

അവൾക്ക് ഇരുപത്തിമൂന്നോ ഇരുപത്തിനാലോ വയസ്സായി കാണും. തിരമാലകുട്ടികളെ പോലെ ചാടിത്തുള്ളി നടക്കുന്ന മുടിയാണവൾക്ക്. കുറ്റിമുല്ലയെന്നാണ് എല്ലാവരും അവളെ വിളിക്കുന്നത്. പേരിൽ ഇല്ലാത്ത അധിക്ഷേപം വിളിയിൽ ചേർക്കാൻ ആരും മറക്കാറില്ല താനും.

രാത്രി വാതിൽ തുറന്ന് അവളെ അകത്തേക്ക് വിളിച്ചു. മന്ദസ്മിതം പോലെ സുഗന്ധം പരത്തുന്ന അവൾ പോകാൻ തയ്യാറാവുകയാണ്. ഇതാ, തൂവെള്ള പല്ലുകൾ കൊണ്ടൊരു മൂളിപ്പാട്ടും പാടി അവൾ ബസ് സ്റ്റാൻഡിലേക്ക് നടക്കുന്നു.  

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Bubbleman. Most fun @central park!

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വാതിലിൻ അകത്ത് ഉപയോഗിച്ച് വിരസമായ മുറിയാണ്. അലങ്കോലമായി കിടക്കുന്ന കട്ടിൽ. അതിന്മേൽ ഒരാൾ കഷ്ടിച്ച് എഴുന്നേറ്റിരിക്കുന്നു. ലേശം കീറിയ മുഷിഞ്ഞ ലുങ്കിയാണ് വേഷം. മേൽക്കുപ്പായമൊന്നും ധരിച്ചിട്ടില്ല. മുഖത്ത് താടിരോമങ്ങൾ ചാണം വിതറിയ ചീരത്തടം പോലെ ഉത്സാഹത്തോടെ വളരുന്നു. കണ്ണുകളിൽ മടുപ്പ്. പത്തുമുപ്പത് വയസ്സ് പ്രായം കാണും. ഇടത്തരം നിറം. മേലനങ്ങാത്ത ദേഹപ്രകൃതം. കൈയിൽ നോക്കിയാൽ മടുപ്പിന്റെ കാരണം പിടികിട്ടും. കരിമ്പനടിച്ചപോലെ കൈമടക്ക് നിറയേ മരുന്ന് കുത്തിവച്ച പാടുകളാണ്.

ആ മണം ഓർമ്മയിൽ മാത്രമാണോയെന്ന് സംശയിപ്പിക്കും വിധം രാത്രി ചെല്ലുന്തോറും അവളുടെ മുല്ലപ്പൂമണത്തിന്റെ വീര്യം കുറഞ്ഞുകുറഞ്ഞ് വരുന്നു. അവളെ കാണുമ്പോൾ അയാൾ ചിരിച്ച് അടുത്തേക്ക് വിളിക്കുന്നു. ആ മുല്ലപ്പൂമണമുള്ള പെൺകുട്ടി കർമ്മഭൂമിയിലേക്ക് ഇറങ്ങുകയാണ്. തന്റെ കൈകൾ കൊണ്ട് ആദ്യം അയാളുടെ നെറ്റിയിൽ തഴുകുന്നു. പിന്നെ അയാളുടെ കൈതണ്ടയിൽ സൗമ്യമായി പിടിച്ച് വിദഗ്ധമായി അയാളെ കട്ടിലിലേക്ക് ചെരിച്ചു കിടത്തുന്നു. പിന്നെ അവരുടെ കണ്ണുകൾ പരസ്പരം സമ്മതം ചോദിക്കുകയായി.  

സമ്മതം മൂളിയ അയാളുടെ കണ്ണുകൾ പതുക്കെ അടഞ്ഞ് ആ അനിവാര്യതയ്ക്കായി കാത്തുകിടപ്പായിക്കഴിഞ്ഞു. അവളുടെ മുഖത്ത് ചെയ്ത് തഴമ്പിച്ച പ്രവൃത്തിയുടെ സ്വാഭാവികതയാണ്. സുഗന്ധങ്ങളെല്ലാം അപ്പോഴേയ്ക്കും വാടി ഉതിർന്നു വീണിരുന്നു.

ഇളംചൂടുള്ള വെള്ളത്തിൽ മുക്കിയ തോർത്തുകൊണ്ട് അവൾ അയാളുടെ തുടയിലും മറ്റും തുടച്ചപ്പോൾ യൂക്കാലിപ്റ്റസിന്റെ മണം ആ മുറിയിൽ നിറഞ്ഞു. വിലക്ഷണത കൊണ്ടയാൾ ശ്വാസംവിടാതെ കിടന്നു. അവൾ മല്ലിക. നൈറ്റ് ഷിഫ്റ്റ് നേഴ്സായി ജോലിനോക്കുന്നു.

News Update: My First Story In Print

My first story, On Her Own, is coming out in print! You can pre-order the anthology at helterskelter.in/newwriting/vol6 and get some really cool artwork free!

On Her Own is the story of Thangam, an aging matriarch who lives life on her own terms. She often jokes that she will keep Death waiting till her chores are done. But does Death know to wait? Will Thangam have the last word?

It’s been nearly two years since I got into writing full-time. Though there have been many small wins over the months, this Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing Vol 6 is the most tangible. My first blogpost-worthy accomplishment.

Since Jan 2017, I’ve written a collection of 10 short stories that I would like to call ‘On Her Own’. These are stories about everyday women who are both damsels in distress and their own knights in shining armour. My stories are about self-discovery, self-reliance and self-assertion.

Last month, I got another great piece of news. Singapore-based publisher Kitaab International will publish my story, “For Chikki’s Sake”, in their anthology, The Best Asian Short Stories 2018. It should be out later this year.

Taking time off to write has been great for me. It has given me the opportunity to discover dramaturgy and explore theatre with the Malayalam adaptation of Girish Karnad‘s play Nagamandala that was staged at Rangashankara in May 2018. As a result, I am now working on a feminist utopia play based on Sultana’s Dream. It has also given me time to pursue writing a web-series.

Most of you know that I also write children’s stories for my nephew Zayne. Cambridge University Press has published one of these stories, Zayne’s Day With The Sun, in two editions of their English course book as a part of their national curriculum. They have now picked up another story, Zeeboy Builds A Robot for publication in October 2018.

I am very excited to share my little joys with you. Now back to emailing publishers!

Researching A New Direction

I have no background in theatre. As a student, I have been part of four plays because they were all mandatory. The first one was called Seasons (circa 1995), a massive production that literally involved the entire school, where I was one of the dozen or more dressed as winter. My memory of that event is of Amma working overtime to make a cotton and pearl hat as mandated.

In middle school I was one of the ministers in the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I had lines but I was also in a hideous orange costume. When we got to high school, I was a villager in a play about the Narmada Bachao Aandolan. Finally, in college, I herded sheep to the manger of  baby Jesus in the Nativity play, yet another compulsory event for hostelites in the convent college I attended.

What is Dramaturgy?

So when I was asked to be a dramaturge in a professional production, I had my doubts. For starters, I didn’t know what a dramaturge was or does. I promptly googled it.

I liked the second definition better. Made me sound important and mysterious like you couldn’t put a finger on what exactly I do.

I’ve been told that traditionally the functions of dramaturgy were split among the various departments of the play. So a costume designer would research about the time period, a set designer would look into the setting and the director would handle themes. It’s only recently that  productions have begun to see dramaturgy as an editorial role requiring a dedicated resource.

Plot

The play was Nagamandala by Girish Karnad. Directed by Sunayana Premchander for KathaSiyah theatre group, as a part of the Indian Ensemble‘s Director’s Training final showcase, this was going to be in Malayalam and staged at Rangashankara! The way she explained it, I was to help with setting, context, themes, relevance and language.

Nagamandala is a play about Naga the snake who transforms into Rani’s abusive husband Appanna, to love her. We wanted our version to be a play about Rani choosing to love a snake over her abusive husband. To achieve this we had to deconstruct Rani as a plot device who things happen to and redevelop her as a character with agency.

Location

Set in Kerala, I could go down two roads. There are two popular centres of snake worship in Kerala: Mannarshala temple in Alappuzha and Pambumekkatu Mana in Thrissur. Being from Thrissur, I chose Pambummekkatu mana for familiarity. Within Thrissur district, Puthenchira village was chosen for its proximity to Pambumekkatu. There are other reasons to stick to Thrissur. Kodungallur Bhagavathy temple, within 15 kms of the mana, is known for its powerful female goddess. Peringottukara, a centre for black magic with a Kuttichattan temple, is only 30 kms away.

Time Period

Once the location was decided, time period of the play had to be tackled. The original play was first published in 1988. Sunayana and I stuck to the same time period, but after a whole lot of research starting before the turn of the century. Matrilineal marumakkathayam and joint family systems made seclusion of Rani difficult. Landowning pramaanis made a justice-rendering village panchayat obsolete. We were clear that we wanted our protagonists to be upper caste (as in the play) since we didn’t feel comfortable superimposing our sensibilities over a lower caste or tribal community or appropriating their traditions on their behalf.

Themes

Themes that resonated with us were sexuality, stories/magical transformation and patriarchal community. We felt strongly that Rani needed agency to assert her need for love and sex. Her sexual desire could not be confined to sexual exploitation or sexual violence. Like Appanna, she too had the right to choose sex over fidelity. Stories suspend disbelief and help change perspectives. Stories have as many versions as there are tellers and need to be told to be heard. It is therefore important to tell stories of women’s lived experiences and their concerns. In these dystopian times it is also important to cultivate multiple points of view. We believe that community needs to rebuild the habit of debate and dissent to arrest the growth of the “with us or against us” rhetoric.

A poster for the play Nagamandala

Relevance

The discussion about women’s rights is evolving in India. In the last five years since the Delhi gangrape, conversations about women’s rights have focused around sexual violence against women. But we are still not discussing sexual behaviour and sexual desire of women. Last week of May when this production was first staged coincided with the death anniversary of Kamala Das, an author well-ahead of her time. In 1977 she wrote unabashedly about female desire in the autobiography My Story, a theme when revisited in the 2018 movie, Veere Di Wedding, still made news.

Language

Since I revisited some of the content I found objectionable and played around with the ending, there was a fair bit of rewriting and translation. Since some of our actors could not read Malayalam, the script had to be transliterated into English. Some of the usages in the Malayalam translation by C. Kamaladevi were too formal and had to be changed. These changes from formal to informal in keeping with the times, were the most interesting. Sunayana was keen on having the actors use the sing-song Thrissur dialect with its peculiar colloquialisms. Since I didn’t want the dialect to overpower the performances, I had to find ways of making universal changes to dialogue than overusing well-known Thrissur phrases like “enthootu, kdaave, kannaaali, ishta etc.” Some of the universal changes I used are below. These were applied in all instances.

Languages changes for dialect

To help actors internalise thrissur slang, I shared with them interviews of T G Ravi and Jayaraj Warrier who speak a more everyday thrissur dialect. To highlight how over the top it could be, I also shared videos from Malayalam movies where the likes of Mammooty and Mohanlal have spoken in Thrissur bhasha.

Learnings

The most exciting part of the experience was sitting in on the rehearsals. To be closely involved with the script and to then watch the actors flesh out their movements and characters and use the rather frugal medium to communicate was exceptional. The ability of language and dialect to add texture to the character and layers of meaning to the context is powerful. I was drawn to the possibilities of theatre. I had not anticipated how chaotic a play production would be. But I was amazed at how calm the director was in the face of obstacles. She knew exactly what she wanted, which made the madness palatable.

Through the whole process, I felt the need to understand theatre and dramaturgy better. To explore dramaturgy in future, I believe the journey should begin with reading up on theatre and watching more plays. In Bangalore, that means travelling all the way across city where the play costs less than the roundtrip. In terms of future projects, I guess the key would be to work with compatible directors who share your sensibilities and who you share a mutual trust with. Another takeaway, at least as a fledgling dramaturge would be to work on concepts that you are naturally drawn towards.

A Daytrip to Meet Some Senior Pooches

For those who don’t know me, I adopted Max nearly two years back when he was 11.5 years old. He has since grown to become the very center of my life and love. Max is not the only old person in my life. My grandparents (only my grandmother is still alive) have been a big influence on me. To everyone who continues to ask why I adopted an old dog, I say, “for the same reason we keep our grandparents around. Because you don’t just throw people out because they are old”. I always assumed that my logic was simple and straightforward. But then I visited CUPA’s Geriatric Centre.

One Saturday morning after breakfast, three of us decided to daytrip down the highway to meet some senior pooches. I had heard about CUPA’s Geriatric Centre from Chintana Gopinath’s Instagram post. Located in Mylappanahalli, 12 kms off the airport road, away from Yelahanka, the centre is an unassuming plot of land with a line of tin sheds hugging the perimeter. There, toddling around the trees live 42 old and abandoned pooches. As you park outside the main gate, you can hear the excitement in their barks. Enter the main gate to the compound and the search party has its front paws on the second gate and fence, figuring you out.

“Oh yes, these are heavy petters!”, they declare.

Indies or pedigrees, these old timers haven’t heard about your personal space. Some jump up to greet me. Others are rubbing up against my legs. A third group can sniff Max on me. But they know you are here to pet them and they intend to make the most of it.

“Team, bring out your best puppy faces and get ready to tailwag. Easy targets approaching!” Ammu the socialite announced.

The three of us on the visit carried biscuits and medicines. Needless to say, the biscuits were inhaled. They disappeared without a trace! I tried to save some for the laggards but without a lot of success.

“Enough with the formalities. Sign the books, let’s get on with the main event already”, Lalitha, the matronly Labrador egged us on matter-of-factly.

Dot, the most daring of them came up and asked to be petted. Seeing how willing we were, the others joined in. Soon demands were being heard.

“You have two hands! Why don’t you pet two of us at once?” That was Shadow.

“Ufff…why do you keep tickling my ears? Here, pet my back… Ok now, rub my chest.” Scare was getting his money’s worth.

An hour and a half later, when my hands began to hurt, one by one, they went out to the yard and found themselves spots to lay down and take in the warm sunlight of the damp June afternoon. In no time, they were fast asleep, dead to this world.

Then there was Benji. Some sort of furry terrier, Benji had a nasty temper. Chikkalingaiah the manager, had warned us to stay away from him. Just like Maxubee and Ammuma, he was unfriendly. Both of them liked to be left alone and let me hug them because, well, they didn’t have a choice! Benji was just like that. He lay on the bench with such ease that I assumed it was his spot. Earlier, while the others crowded around asking to be petted, he had disdain written all over his face. Once the eager lines fell away, I couldn’t resist babytalking Benji.

“Whoosh my good boy? With dat grumpy face? Whoose that furball Benji? Is that you? Are you my Benjiboo?”

He ignored me. My companions warned me not to touch him. But Benji stole my heart. So I touched him. And he snarled at me. Maybe next time.

The place is run by Chikkalingaiah and his two aides. Their love for the dogs is not physical. There isn’t a lot of touching or babytalk. But you ask him any of his dogs’ names and he will stare at them for 20 seconds before responding, Scare, Shadow, Dot, Blindy, Ammu, Latha, Lalitha. The facilities here are basic. They are fed everyday. A doctor visits twice a week. But they could use more food, treats, petderm shampoo, furglow, neurobion etc.

I block out what their lives would have been like if this shelter didn’t exist. But I think of the people who abandoned these lovebugs just because of their age. Or their parents. They will turn old too. Everyone must. How can people not see that?

These are depressing thoughts. What can I do to make people think differently about our old four-legged friends? I don’t know.  But I know what I am going to do. I am going to go back there till Benji loves me!

Finding One’s Way Through the Home in the Forest

This article was first published in The News Minute on 26 Feb 2018.

Books: Speaking To An Elephant & Walking Is A Way Of Knowing

Authors: Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi

Publisher: Tara Books

There’s a running joke in my family. How Amma would visit my brother in boarding school in Kodaikanal. At a time before maps and mobile phones, she would take a taxi and use a tree lining the highway as a landmark to turn towards Kodaikanal. Who uses a tree as a landmark? What if they cut down that tree?, would be the refrain.

Madiyappan, the adivasi elder in Walking Is A Way Of Knowing, has the best comeback, “That’s how I find my way in the forest—by using everything I have—eyes, legs and hands.” In time, as Google maps have gained popularity in India, they too have adapted to Amma’s very Indian sense of direction. They’ve moved from ‘head south east’ to ‘take a right at the SBI ATM’.

Speaking To An Elephant and Walking Is A Way Of Knowing are two books of a complementary collection of stories from the Kadar adivasi community in south India. Retold by researchers Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi with exquisite art by UK-based illustrator Matthew Frame, these two 2017 books are based on stories narrated to the authors by the Kadar elders.

Kadars, literally “people of the forest”, are a small adivasi community who live in the Annamalai and Parambikulam hills bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though originally hunter-gatherers, they no longer live deep in the forest and have been relocated to permanent settlements on the edge of the forest. When the British began using the mountains for tea plantations, some Kadars became their forest guides.

Today, some of them who still live off the forest, guide tourists and scientists through their home. The others have found work in plantations or the plains but continue to live near the forest.

While Speaking To An Elephant is a collection of five short stories from the Kadar forest, in Walking Is A Way Of Knowing, Madiyappan, a Kadar elder, shows an urban youth around his home—the forest. The fables in Speaking To An Elephant deal with themes around benevolence, gratitude and co-existence. Kadavul, the creator, in these stories is portrayed as a benevolent father who gives generously but also disciplines.

It also involves an origin story that answers the question, why do grasshoppers hop around? It’s fascinating how the grasshopper is always the antagonist in fables across the world. Remember the grasshopper that spent the summer singing while the ants stocked up for winter? Similar is the story of the tortoise and the birds. Isn’t it captivating to find a version of this tale of the talkative tortoise who wanted to fly in the Indian Panchatantra, Greek Aesop’s fables, African tales and now also in the stories from the Kadars?

Speaking to an Elephant with its rich and intricate illustrations captures the dark and dense undergrowth and wildlife of the Indian tropical rainforest. Just like the unexpectedness of the jungle, the fantastic swatches of design popping out at the turn of every page adds to the fantastical quality of these images. These sketches of the flora and fauna, Aamai the tortoise, Ongal the hornbill and Pithakannu the leopard add surprise and intrigue to the narrative. Most interestingly, human figures seem to be missing from these representations, perhaps indicating that the jungle, unlike the rest of the world, is not centred around humans.

I found that there was a lot to discover in these drawings, the more attention you paid them. In true Tara books style, each of the five stories are also bookended by mesmerising black and white full page illustrations. In case you didn’t know, Tara books in their own words “is pushing the boundaries of the book form”. To them design is not an embellishment; it is basic to how a book creates meaning. Though it seemed whimsical to me at first to have such a heavily illustrated book, once I entered the forest through the first page, the illustrations transported me to that sticky hot tropical jungle where the breeze is busy playing among the treetops.

Both the books mix indigenous words with the English text quite unapologetically. While most of them make sense contextually, the tougher ones are reinforced in English. To the presumably urban reader already in unfamiliar terrain, this adds another layer of unfamiliarity.

The second book, Walking Is A Way Of Knowing pays tribute to the Kadars’ oral traditions of storytelling passed on from elders to the next generation around the evening fire. Kadar elder and expert forest guide Madiyappan, his uncle Krishnan and his cousin Padma share with the young visitor their stories of the forest—stories that inform their way of life.

Though more dramatic and philosophical in content, it does have its light moments. Madiyappan talks about spirits of his ancestors as casually as he does of the foul-smelling leopard’s poop or Krishnan of his wish to turn into a fragrant cinnamon tree when he dies. It’s a story for adults and for children. It’s a story for anyone who wants to know the forest. When asked how he finds his way in the forest, Madiyappan says that “knowing the path itself is not enough”. What he means is that one also needs to know the lay of the land. The forest is ever-changing and unpredictable and one needs to think on one’s feet to survive. Padma adds, “Good forest people are curious, we constantly explore”.

In finding their way through the forest, they find new paths which they then share with others so that together they can “add to the map of the forest”. There are many such instances of sharing one’s knowledge and living in harmony with nature. One of the underlying threads across the book is that the forest has everything for man’s need but not for his greed.

The book is dreamy and magical with beautiful descriptions of the forest. It winds its way through the life of the adivasi in the forest, talking about survival skills, how to collect honey and other forest produce, about common animals and plants and their characteristics, the bounty of nature and its seasons. Stunning illustrations show the Kadars at home in nature, getting on with their daily routine, fetching water and collecting frankincense.

Walking Is A Way Of Knowing manages to demonstrate the meandering nature of folktales beautifully with Madiyappan’s stories digressing ever so gently like a forest trail before eventually getting back to the answer. Madiyappan says that the forest is a “storehouse of smells”. Outsiders use books to understand the forest so they understand things only by sight. But most of the adivasis cannot read, so they use all their senses, their entire bodies “to hear the stories of the forest”. That’s my biggest takeaway from these two books. To be receptive to the world; to listen with all our senses. Especially in these trumpeting times. On days when the world gets me down, I see myself entering the forest again and walking with the Kadars.

Travels Through South Indian Kitchens: A Japanese Architect’s Travelogue Cookbook

This article was first published in The News Minute on 05 Feb 2018.

Book: Travels Through South Indian Kitchens
Author: Nao Saito
Publisher: Tara Books
Pages: 194

Buy this book here

If I had to sum up Nao Saito’s travelogue cookbook Travels Through South Indian Kitchens (published by Tara Books) in a single word it would be ‘simple’. The premise is simple. Nao, a Japanese architect and designer, attends a Tara Books workshop in Tokyo. She gets invited for a three-month residency at their publishing house in Chennai. When she moves here, she decides to discover the place and its people through their kitchens because the kitchen “is not just a fixed physical structure—it is also fluid, shaped by the way in which people use it”. She begins this culinary travel by visiting the kitchens of colleagues at the publishing house and then expands it to their friends and so forth.

Another word I would use to enhance my single-word summary would be ‘delightful’. It is delightful in its simplicity. The artwork is minimalist. Saito uses simple line drawings of swings, kitchen equipments, coconuts, vegetables, jasmine garlands and other kitchen sights to enrich her narrations. Being an architect, she draws out the floor plan of every kitchen she visits, sometimes musing over the impractical use of space like the kitchen sink tucked away in a corner beyond reach. “Indian kitchens are not concerned with practicalities”, her hosts respond.

How many kinds of kitchens can there be in South India? Turns out, a lot more than we realise. Saito chronicles 22 kitchens beginning with her own, in the guest house she is put up in. “I turn on the gas, but the stove doesn’t light up”, writes Saito, a stranger to the concept of lighters. The idea for this book comes to her as she stands shocked in her kitchen on her very first day in Chennai, surrounded by a variety of spices and lentils. She goes on to visit traditional domestic kitchens, a girls’ kitchen and a bachelors’ kitchen, a Chettinad kitchen, a school kitchen, a “power-cut” kitchen of Tsunami survivors and most interestingly a kitchen without cooking among others. Even as a South Indian, it made me appreciate anew the diversity around us.

At first, the book threw me for its premise was a stranger writing about kitchens I am familiar with. It seemed like a convenient excuse of a book, narrating anecdotes from kitchens of colleagues. It took me a while to grasp that this is exactly how we understand the world. We maneuver from our own points of reference through a bridge of commonality over baffling cultural anomalies to finally reach a place of acceptance. Saito’s master stroke is her perspective. She brings to the local reader a fresh set of eyes to review our way of life — an introspection.

It’s not everyday that one finds a travelogue-cookbook with not-so-special recipes. Almost magically, the author manages to remove herself from the centre of the plot. Not all dishes are made especially for her visit. In many instances, Saito seems to drop by, showing the household in its natural setting. Modern cooks will definitely identify with some of the short-cuts the hosts use in their kitchen like a pressure cooker sambar where all the ingredients are pressure cooked together like a one-pot dish. This way of condensing many processes into one gives Nao faith that she too can cook Tamil food soon. And it gave me faith that cooking need not be a herculean task.

However, I found two chords of dissonance in this book. Saito’s use of initials in place of names of her hosts, possibly to maintain their privacy, was jarring. Using their full names could only have added to the richness of the text. Also, the kitchens she visits are not representative of all the regions of South India, choosing to focus mainly on Tamil Nadu and its cuisine.

In her travels, the author includes home cooks from different castes, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and marital status including a bilingual and a bi-racial couple. The effects of these parameters on the use or disuse of ingredients and preferred ways of cooking are hard to miss. The most interesting kitchen she visits is the “Kitchen Without Cooking” where a sprouts salad is being made. There, when asked if she prefers raw food, Nao’s host says, “Not really. I’m simply not interested in cooking”. I was struck by how matter-of-factly Nao establishes that kitchen need not just be a place for cooking in traditional terms. It gains focus also because of how central kitchens are to the South Indian way of life. In narrating stories from a variety of kitchens, Saito shows the reader that your relationship with your kitchen is your own to create.

The recipes themselves are pretty basic like sambar, chutney, puttu, kuzhi paniyaram, maavu and filter coffee, but the stories that lead up to them and the author’s musings make for interesting reading. In every kitchen, Saito also outlines the implements used along with measurements. Ammi the stone grinder, arivalmanai the traditional cutting and grating tool, puttu kutti for making puttu are all illustrated to capture the reader’s imagination. It’s delightful to see what catches her eye. She is taken by the idea that South Indian cooking is not confined to our kitchens. Cooks often chop vegetables in the living room and eat while watching television.

We realise how different we are from the narrator when Saito observes with surprise the use of hands in cooking and eating. She talks about the closeness of a teacher feeding a child with a fractured arm. Even in shared kitchens and large scale kitchens, the use of hands as a measure reminds her of the distance between her hosts and her. In these differences, she manages to find connections to Japan and Finland where she has lived for a while.

She discusses in detail the times when most kitchens come alive — during festivals. She captures the festivities of Christmas preparations with a family making fried sweet kal-kals and the early morning hustle and bustle of sweet and savoury pongal-making for the eponymous harvest festival of Pongal. The conversations and anecdotes by themselves make this book recommendable. In true filmy style, her bachelor hosts tell her the story of how everything in their kitchen was acquired from a film set! In a relatable tale, the same set of bachelors describe how they were vegetarians till they moved to Chennai but took to eating eggs everyday because they are easy to make.

One of Saito’s trips out of Chennai is to the south-eastern fishing villages of Velankanni, destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami. To her surprise she discovers that everyone in Velankanni knows of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. One of the grandmothers she meets says, “People in Japan must have had a terrible time, just like us! […] When it happened to us, we had help from all over the world. I wish we could help the Japanese people like others helped us”. As readers, we are as stunned by the grandmother’s generosity as is the author.

I recommend Travels Through South Indian Kitchens for how it makes you notice the obvious. Most of the recipes are everyday affairs, things many of us would know without a recipe or have our own recipes for. But it’s the perspective of a stranger from a faraway land looking in that makes us sit up and take notice of the peculiar ways in which the kitchen rules our lives.

It’s the openness with which she accepts a culture unknown to her that makes this a goodread. With its quirky illustrations and jotted instructions, it’s one of those books I will never forget I read.

Buy this book here.

Published by Cambridge University Press

One of my stories for children, Zayne’s Day With The Sun was published in Cambridge English national curriculum (CBSE and ICSE) course material by Cambridge University Press.

It’s been in the works for a while now but I finally got my hands on a copy this week. Since this is the first story of mine to appear in print (although it’s in a textbook), it’s infinitely more exciting than I imagined. Here’s hoping 2018 brings me many more published stories! Wish me luck 🙂

Children’s Story: Zayne’s Day With The Sun

The sun was shining on his face. Zayne crinkled his eyes shut and wondered what the sun was doing in his room!

Wait a minute. WHAT’S THE SUN DOING IN MY ROOM?! said Zayne sitting up in bed!

Yes, it was true. This Sunday morning the Sun had risen in Zayne’s bedroom. Now, too excited to sleep, he jumped out of bed shouting ––LOOK AT THAT!

The Sun himself was just getting warmed up for the day and his soft rays had filled the room. Zayne’s face glowed slightly in its warmth. He had even forgotten his dreams.

“Be right back, Sun”, hollered Zayne as he rushed to the toilet to brush his teeth. BRUSH…BRUSH…OOOH, AAH, EEEH…BRUSH …BRUSH!

By the time he was done, the Sun had slid up the window and was shining brighter. Zayne smiled up at the Sun and his clean teeth sparkled bright! SPARKLE SPARKLE SHINE SHINE.

Zayne looked around his room. If my teeth are shining bright why isn’t my bed, my table, my toys and my books shining, he thought as he drank his glass of milk. GLUG GLUG GLUG GLUG and…DONE!

Ah, because it’s not clean! Right away, he made his bed, arranged his table, lined up his toys and dusted his books. WHOOSH, SQUEAK, DUST, CLEAN.

Sun, who was watching Zayne clean, threw down his rays on the room. And MAGIC! Zayne’s bed, his table, his toys and his books shone and sparkled, just like his teeth. TWINKLE, TWINKLE.

Good work little boy, said the Sun! A job well done!

I know how to make my arms and legs shine too, shouted Zayne as he headed to the bathroom for a shower. SHOWER…BUBBLE …BUBBLE …SHOWER!

When he got back from his bath, the Sun was bouncing off the white walls of his room ready to make him shine. And shine he did! BRIGHT and BRILLIANT!

Quickly, Zayne ate his breakfast and settled down for a day in the Sun!

Book Review: Show Up and Work

 

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Growing up, I was an absolute sycophant to Chettan, my elder brother. Four years older and sent away to boarding school, he was the very definition of cool in my eyes. He would return on holidays with multi-coloured toothpaste in tubes that stood on their head. I was still in school when I found him reading a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all non-fiction bestseller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures of a Culinary Underbelly. Chettan was the reader then. He couldn’t stop talking about Anthony Bourdain. He read a lot of autobiographies of successful people. I had no interest in such books. But the book’s cover drew me in like a moth to light. It had three cooks in whites holding swords, nonchalantly looking away from the camera. They looked like rockstars. Highly aspirational image to a dreamer like me. #anthonybourdain #kitchenconfidential #autobiography #succesfulpeople #chef

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Book: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Author: Anthony Bourdain

Pages: 307

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Buy this book here.

Growing up, I was an absolute sycophant to Chettan, my elder brother. Four years older and sent away to boarding school, he was the very definition of cool in my eyes. He would return on holidays with multi-coloured toothpaste in tubes that stood on their head. I was still in school when I found him reading a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all non-fiction bestseller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures of a Culinary Underbelly. Chettan was the reader then. He couldn’t stop talking about Anthony Bourdain. He read a lot of autobiographies of successful people. I had no interest in such books. But the book’s cover drew me in like a moth to light. It had three cooks in whites holding swords, nonchalantly looking away from the camera. They looked like rockstars. Highly aspirational image to a dreamer like me.

 

Chettan also happened to be a natural at cooking. He would throw a bunch of things together and it always tasted good. He constantly pulled my leg about how I measured out ingredients. In the book, Bourdain talks about an incident where as a cocky young cook he was thoroughly humiliated and shown his place by his pirate ship of a kitchen crew. An important turning point in life, this incident triggered the author to go to cooking school and show them how good he could be. In the same light, I learned to cook because Chettan was so good at it and because he made fun of my cooking. Though I never quite picked up the throwing things together act from him, I do hold my own in the kitchen.

 

Only in reading Kitchen Confidential did I realise what an adult milestone it was in my head. Subconsciously, I had always associated biographies as something adults read. Somehow reading them would make me an adult. It’s been almost two decades since the book was first published in 2000. In all the years I hadn’t read it, the book had taken on the colossal form of an impassable tome. It symbolised the infinite coolness that I would never be synonymous with. It had fused into a demi-god of cool; a ear-ringed, long-haired, badass biker and freestyle cook; a mutant Chettan Bourdain.

 

As awesome as I think the book is, I am thankful I didn’t read Kitchen Confidential while in college when I first took to reading in a big way. It would have fanned the fire of my self-destructive tendencies. As a student of the arts with lots of time at hand, my biggest takeaway from this would have been that drugs were cool. Now, a decade later, I find Kitchen Confidential to be a powerful testament to a rather simple motto. Show up and work. Bourdain says food (his work) is the only truth around him. I dare say that in Bourdain’s classic no-fucks-given prose, I found an answer that has been eluding me for a while. What to do in life. The answer is simple. Keep working.

 

Of course, a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller such as this one does not need my approval. What makes me wax eloquent about this book are a combination of things. It takes a certain kind of human being to talk about his drug abuse for exactly what it was. A whole lot of good times and a whole lot of bad times. They do say hindsight is 20-20 but to see through his own perspective what a life of drug abuse did to his career in the food industry, is to me, inspiring. When juxtaposed with the success story he is today, Bourdain’s life is an inspiration not to give up the fight however hard it gets. Kitchen Confidential is a self-deprecating telling of a chef’s life. It’s unmistakably American in its references, it’s a laugh riot in pockets, it’s fast-paced, entertaining and jam-packed with wisdom especially on what days not to order fish in New York.

 

In the end, Bourdain turns all his wise words about working with drugged out chefs in battlefield kitchens owned by nefarious hoteliers, on its head by introducing Scott Bryan, a contemporary three-star American chef. In comparison to Bourdain, Bryan is a saint. His kitchens are a quiet affair, his crew waltzing through service. Bryan never even raises his voice compared to Bourdain whose kitchen is run like a pirate ship. He is foul-mouthed, conniving and ruthless by his own admission. He values people who show up to do what they said they would do. That is no extraordinary wisdom but through this chronicle of his work life, he manages to show us why it’s important to show up and work.

 

Finally, reading Kitchen Confidential puts to rest a mystery I didn’t know needed solving. A little spot of smouldering embers in my brain that I have finally put out. Thanks to his celebrity and the Internet, post the book, I have read up quite a bit on Bourdain. The highschool-sweetheart wife he so appreciatively refers to in this book is now his first wife. His second marriage too has ended since. Life goes on, well beyond the book.

 

My life too has gone on till I successfully waded through the enigma I associated with this No Reservations TV star Chettan continues to idolize. In reading this book, I’ve checked off another box, a milestone under ‘being an adult’. It’s momentous. Being an adult is a rare moment of being a doer, when I accomplish something I’ve convinced myself for very long that I can’t. And reading Chettan’s copy of Kitchen Confidential only makes this milestone sweeter. Now to show up and work.

Buy this book here.

She Plays Dress Up

She wears the long face of an adult. Worry lines crease her forehead like the easy curves waves continuously retrace on sand. She sits on the couch, slumped. She is a beached whale, giant in her helplessness. She wears her hair in a careless updo her mother would disapprove of. Along the sides of her cheeks, bouncing over her springboard ears fall a silent stream of tears that chokes her. The room is dank, smelling of dust and pointlessness.

Tears on adults is worse than death. Why is she crying? Why doesn’t she know how to deal with the world? Look at how well everyone else is doing. They had seen it all, many times over. Grown women in dishevelled living rooms, struck by tears. She was a statistic to them, at best. They collected her tears in beakers and measured it out. She had overflown her quota. They had a name for her ‘condition’.

She was crying because she couldn’t feel the wetness of her tears on her skin. She couldn’t see the disarray of her hair in the mirror or smell the despair in the room. She was crying because she was drowning in all the tears she had shed but no one seemed to notice. She was crying because she didn’t want to cry.

Nobody told her they would help her. Nobody offered to wait it out with her. Nobody held her hand. Nobody saw her.

But when they came back to tattoo her forehead with her condition, she had changed. She was all smiles. Her eyes were clear and framed with kajal. Warm twirls of rouge danced on her cheeks and her house smelled of hope and babies. Her hair was long, her dress was crisp and she twittered like a dainty bird.

Nowadays her tears run from her head to her heart in an elusive underground river. Her heavy heart is drowning in the merciless liquid as the sun shines, lighting up her face. Being an adult is like playing dress-up, the best look always wins.