My very first novel had, as its protagonist, one Ms Delilah Cole. Born to uncaring parents, her father was called Sydney Cole. Of British origins, they were living in India. Not too sure where in India, but I remember it was a very pastoral setting, somewhere in the countryside. She made friends with an Indian family of 6 children and passed her time with them because, of course, she wasn’t sent to any of the Indian schools ( such misfortunes only befall me and my kind :D).
I don’t think we got any farther than this. If I remember correctly, we had finished writing only the first chapter. I say ‘we’ because it was coauthored by my friend Shalini. As far as I remember, it was my idea to write a novel. And since at 12, I was a very social being, I wanted to do it with someone. I roped in Shalini and we both got down to work. What was the story going to be about? We decided it had to be about a little girl who was neglected ( like Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl in School or FH Burnett’s protagonist in The Secret Garden, we ourselves felt very neglected). How do you show that a little girl is neglected? Give her an awful name ( because that’s what the parents would have done when they found they didn’t love their child). there was no question of having the girl Indian or giving her an Indian name. It had to be a western, Christian name. Where do you go for western, Christian names? The Bible, of course! What woman in the bible is wicked and evil? I had read the stories from the Bible thoroughly. So it came to me rather like a flash, Delilah. That selfish woman who couldn’t be loyal to her husband. Having just read and influenced greatly by The Tale of Two Cities, I loved Sydney and his name. I think Shalini came up with the Cole part. So Delilah’s father was a devastatingly handsome Sydney Cole. Delilah was, of course, British because well little Indian girls had no adventures in their lives. They did not have islands where there would be smugglers that they could help catch. They did not have bacon and eggs for breakfast. They did not have a secret garden to discover. They did not go to boarding schools and have midnight parties by the swimming pool. Obviously, if a story had to sell, it had to be about girls who had the opportunity to do all those things and more. And British girls did it all. Also, the setting had to be the countryside because, both Shalini and I lived in the city and we both knew nothing ever happens in the city. Whereas, in most of the novels we read, so many things seemed to happen in small villages.
I showed this first chapter to Amma once and she was amused and she finally said, “ you should write what you know, not what you think you know”. And with that, Shalini and I abandoned that first attempt. Quite frankly, neither of us knew where to take it. No sooner had we started it, we had written ourselves into a dead end.
Subsequently, though, my stories have all been about what I know. Elements of me creep into all my situations, all my characters and all my plots. Also, probably one of the reasons why I hesitate to send any for publishing. A little too much of me out there for my own comfort. I never thought about that unfinished story ever after. Leaving it as a really bad first attempt that is best forgotten.
The other day,however, I came across the following speech by this Turkish author.
I really liked the speech and it got me thinking. Sure, one writes better of what one knows then of what one doesn’t know. But does that mean that one completely abandons writing about what one doesn’t know? I mean what exercise does the imagination get when one is writing and describing what one already knows. Ofcourse, one always uses the imagination to incorporate ones experiences and thoughts and feelings in ones story so that it all reads as one story. But, what about wild imaginings? Wouldn’t a writer be better off, if he were to explore the unexplored every now and then. Wouldn’t his description of the known be so much more detailed and precise if he were to do this say every 4 months? I think it would. So, as a writer, my newest strategy is to write something completely out of my experience and world ad make it sound as genuine as possible. Hmmm perhaps, its time to revisit Delilah Cole. Shalini, What say??!
Here is a recipe I invented ( using old chappatti is my friend Rucha’s idea but i am responssible for mixing up the other interesting ingredients).
1. Two old chapattis (one day old)
2. One teaspoon ghee
3. One table spoon jaggery ( if u have a sweet tooth, more)
4. 10 almonds
5. 10 walnuts
6. Half a handful of lightly roasted groundnuts
7. Half a teaspoon of flax seeds, lightly roasted (this is a dicey ingredient, if you make for children, leave this out….children may not like it)
Tear the chapattis into small pieces and put them in to the blender along with the other ingredients. Blend until a thick paste is formed. With your hands make small laddoos.You can experiment with other ingredients as well. i also add a teaspoon of cinnamon powder.
Makes for a great prebreakfast snack…kids will love this and its sooper healthy. Plus its about making use of left over chapattis. I love it.
Caution: don’t eat all of it …..it serves 2 or 3 people….its too heavy for one person.
They were there, ready for use
The pallet, my face and my muse
Careful strokes and then bolder yet
Suddenly my face is someone else
The godly colours and the devil hues
It was for jest and they were new
When the clown’s smile just stuck on
The heavenly folly just carried on
How can you make love to me?
I can never strip completely
I tried both Kerosene and turpentine
Will not my face peel away this time?
With inspiration like the Brahmaputra, the internal conflict is whether to put words to my feelings and kill it for myself but bring it alive for others or just be selfish.
“I’ve grown certain that the
root of all fear is that we’ve
been forced to deny who we
are.” Frances Moore Lappe
At an Indian classical dance concert in Canberra, Australia I felt my first pang of fear regarding my identity. And it swept over me like a wave; here one minute, gone the next but leaving me drenched all the same. Being involved in such an exercise leaves you feeling disoriented and even if this feeling is short-lived it is completely exhausting.
The concert hall was yet to be opened and the café right outside was bustling as the audience stopped for a little snack before the show. It was good to see so many brown-skinned folk, I thought. Australians, generally are a friendly people and they make conversation with you irrespective of whether you know them or not. So one lady came up to me and asked me if I was a student of dance. I said I was and a lively conversation ensued, discovering on the way that we had a couple of common acquaintances as well. She was of Indian stock and she introduced me to her extended family and some friends. One friend was a middle aged woman of Srilankan stock. When we were introduced she specifically told me that she was a Srilankan Tamil. In a bid to be friendly, I said I was a Tamil too but an Indian Tamil. She smiled. Feeling an awkward pause in the conversation, I continued to tell her about the Srilankan tamil radio channel I had accidently tuned into in Canberra. It was entertaining and interesting including a discussion on some Srilankan immigrant issues. I also commented on how Srilankan tamil was difficult for me to understand since it was slightly different. The last comment seemed to trigger something in her. Her former disinterested stare transformed as she defiantly told me that Srilankan tamil is pure and Indian tamil is not.
I cannot describe accurately what went through my head when I heard that. I can tell you the plethora of things I thought and emotions I felt but I cannot give a correct chronology of what came first. Such information would have been critical in the study of identity. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the ‘social scientist’ mode when this was flung on me. And I dare say, if I had been, it wouldn’t have been of much use, since my reactions would have been more measured. But, I did feel a range of emotions that left me exhausted and introspective for quite sometime.
I felt indignant. The cheek of this woman to call my language ‘impure’! I mean since when did Srilankans become an authority on Tamil. After all, I was from the land of Tamil, a region rich with history and culture. The only history they seemed to have was a bloody war. I was angry! when somebody claims I speak impure tamil, at the very least, it hurts. No matter that my tamil is heavily sanskritised. No matter that I cant write tamil and can barely read it. No matter that I have lived a total of 8 years only in Tamil Nadu. No matter that I am way more conversant with Hindi and English. No matter that my own tamil comrades have, often times, laughed at my tamil. But almost immediately I began to feel pity, thinking of the kind of insecurities a Srilankan tamil was facing considering the war for a separate homeland. Her own tamil identity was perhaps more important to her than mine was to me. I wasn’t fighting for a homeland based on that part of my identity. I felt sorry for her. And then I felt ashamed for assuming that the war in Srilanka should be such great influence on her sense of being. I mean, in all probability, it is, but it is still presumptuous of me to think so, specifically, in trying to rationalize her comment. Perhaps there exists no rationale. Perhaps, it requires no rationale. She might be completely disconnected from that war and still believe that her tamil is ‘purer’ than mine.
This range of emotions left me exhausted and rather tongue tied for the rest of the evening and a major part of the next day. I firmly believed and still do, that language, if living, evolves differently in different places over time. So even as the same classical tamil existed in tamil Nadu and travelled all the way to Sri Lanka, it has taken different paths in its evolution. So if at all there is a ‘pure’ tamil, it would have to be the classical tamil. Evolution also means that some great literature has been produced in both places. And a culture has evolved around the language in each nation, differing in important ways.
Why did I feel this intense urge, then to defend this language that forms such a small part of my identity?
Those transparent Dacca gauzes
known as woven air, running
water, evening dew:
– From Dacca Gauzes by Agha Shahid Ali
I am now a proud owner of a lovely Ganga Jamuna. A gift from my grandmother, it has a brown body and the borders on either side are maroon and black each. That is what a Ganga Jamuna is all about.
The two borders on either side should never be of the same colour like other saris but be parallel streams of different colurs, the ganga and the jamuna. The soothing colours and the lightness of this sari lift my spirits up. It’s a silk-cotton mix and that limits the number of occasions I can wear this outfit. It is too grand to wear to office, for example, and a little too understated to wear to a wedding. However, I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it and I am determined to find occasions to wear it in.
It is not exactly a new found interest; this interest that I seem to have developed in Saris. I have always been an admirer of my mother’s and grandmothers’ saris, especially the traditional and ethnic ones; not so much the jazzy, new, designer ones. Their collection, together, would be a treasure trove for any collector. But it is only now that I realize how convenient wrapping yourself up in 6 yards of cloth can be. Earlier, I had kept my sari wearing for the rarest of rare occasions (I know it sounds like the clause on capital punishment ) where the amount of time spent in the sari would be relatively minimal and the said time would be spent sitting or standing with no exertions what so ever. But the last 5-6 times I have worn a sari, have been during relatively mundane days when I have had full days of work, of running around, boarding buses and trains and generally keeping busy. My latest adventure with one of my mother’s south cottons was only two weeks ago when I wore a sari for an event that I was partly organizing. Not only did it stay on all day, I boarded a bus in it in the evening and travelled all the way from Mangalore to Bangalore over night and embarked from the journey with not a pleat out of place. Novices to sari-wearing will understand what an accomplishment this is! Considering that when you wear a sari for the first time, you are eternally scared that it is so precariously held together that it will fall off. I had no such worries, it just stayed. That south-cotton was a beautiful maroon with a mustard border.
I was of the opinion that saris, like so many things in society, were inconvenient and specifically designed to slow down the ‘woman’. ( which feminist amongst us hasn’t gone through that ‘bra-burning’ phase only to discover that not wearing a bra actually can be more uncomfortable and counterproductive to the liberation we all seek). But I find that draping 6 yards around yourself can be one of the smartest things you can do. Agha Shahid Ali spoke of the Dhaka muslin sari as ‘evening dew’ that can be ‘pulled right through a ring’. Dhaka muslins are gone and even when they were there, they were expensive. But south cottons continue to be light and flimsy, falling carelessly over your figure like the wind. The wind between your legs gives enough ventilation to carry you through hot summer afternoons. The extra, seemingly useless piece of cloth that hangs behind you can be used to cover yourself and protect yourself from the cold. Moreover, good saris last forever. Some of my mother’s and grandmother’s saris date back to 30 years ago and still look new. I am not going to lament the disappearing sari lest it does disappear like the Dacca Gauzes, but I am convinced that I wont let it happen in my lifetime. The sari is the new bra !
Agha Shahid Ali wrote Dacca Gauzes, a very beautiful poem full of lament and woe. Something that is rather infectious and I cannot but feel I missed out on something by not know what a Dacca Muslin felt like. But then again I should just feel the morning, dew-laden air to know!
Those transparent Dacca gauzes
known as woven air, running
water, evening dew:
a dead art now, dead over
a hundred years. ‘No one
now knows,’ my grandmother says,
‘what it was to wear
or touch that cloth.’ She wore
it once, an heirloom sari from
her mother’s dowry, proved
genuine when it was pulled, all
six yards, through a ring.
Years later when it tore,
many handkerchiefs embroidered
with gold-thread paisleys
were distributed among
the nieces and daughters-in-law.
Those too now lost.
In history we learned: the hands
of weavers were amputated,
the looms of Bengal silenced,
and the cotton shipped raw
by the British to England.
History of little use to her,
my grandmother just says
how the muslins of today
seem so coarse and that only
in autumn, should one wake up
at dawn to pray, can one
feel that same texture again.
One morning, she says, the air
was dew-starched: she pulled
it absently through her ring.