Amy Winehouse: A Diva with Demons

24 Aug

Amy Winehouse in High School

Amy Winehouse in high school

The world’s reaction to Amy Winehouse’s death seems like everyone did and didn’t know she was going to die.  When she was finally found in her Camden house on 23rd July, the media was shocked and validated at the same time. People who are now using her death as a platform for their outrage against the irresponsible practices of record firms, the glorification of drug and alcohol abuse by celebrities, the regressiveness of drug laws, etc- are the very same who mutely witnessed Amy Winehouse’s most pathetic avatars of battered, bloodied, glassy-eyed self destruction.

 Few who saw the living figure of Winehouse on one of her binges ever described her as fragile, heartbroken, a creative inspiration, a delicate flower – or other such gentle epithets that are now being showered on her memory like flowers on her grave. In short, most people have granted Amy Winehouse in death the empathy that she might have got in life. I credit this to the fact that, sadly, there might be some dignity in death, but there is absolutely none in wandering the streets of London barefoot, sobbing, in jeans and a red bra.

Distressed Amy Winehouse

A Distressed Amy Winehouse Outside her London Home

Addicts are truly pitiable creatures. Whether they are Grammy-winning superstars or homeless junkies, they are commonly the object of public humiliation. While the world waxes poetic about Amy Winehouse’s tragic life and death, there are so many who are doing exactly what she did, who are not being pitied or venerated, who are, in fact, being scorned, derided and descriminated against. Most people are unaware of the fact that, setting aside genetic predisposition and other extraneous factors such as environment and availability, addiction is a disease just like any other disease. Just as a healthy person who looks at someone diagnosed with cancer and tells himself, “that could never happen to me,” is secure in his own superior physical makeup and perceived immortality; the same way a person who looks at an addict and says “that could never happen to me,” is filled with a sense of security and even hubris over his own balanced mental state, superior life choices and lack of chemical dependancy.

It is this very false sense, coupled with the sometimes sheer repulsiveness of the addict’s outward aspect, that creates an Otherness which permits non-addicts to treat an addict with hostility and disparagement. In turn, this discrimination plays a significant role in further enlarging the addicts’ already overblown capacity for self-hatred and inability to take in support and love. So once again, they turn to alcohol and opiods like heroin which replicate the chemistry of a relational connection, and/or stimulants like cocaine and metamphetamines, that produce a sense of worthiness. In this way, we help perpertuate the cycle of “woe is me” to “wow is me” to “woe is me” again, in which they are already deeply embedded.

In August, Amy Winehouse’s family released a statement saying that toxicology reports showed that there were no illegal drugs in her system at the time of death.  The reports do indicate that there was alcohol present in her system, but it is unclear whether that contributed to her death. So until the results of an inquest, which is due in October, are published, it is anybody’s guess about what got her in the end. This uncertainty truly underscores the point which Maia Szalavitz makes in her blogpost “The Pain Of Addiction”, which was published a day after Winehouse’s death:

“One thing, however, is certain. Blaming drugs or  Winehouse’s “enablers” for her death misses the point: what she needed was compassion, most of all from herself.”

I agree. What should be taken away from all this is not that Amy Winehouse was an addict whose addiction killed her, but that she was a person who had been apportioned far more than her fair share of unhappiness and heartache, even if it was mostly self-inflicted.  As for all the fame, money and accolades, just like in Humpty Dumpty,they just summed up to all the king’s horses and all the king’s men-  not enough to put her shattered psyche back together again.

There are millions like Amy Winehouse, struggling to feel comfortable in their own skin; yearning for, and at the same time rejecting love and social acceptance. One doesn’t need to have an indepth knowledge of addiction, or a degree in psychology to empathise with these people. In my view, compassion and empathy are inextricably linked with a knowledge of our own fallibility and fragility. Maybe we can never completely envision ourselves in Amy Winehouse’s place, but surely we can realise that her situation, and the situation of others like her are not such a far cry from us as we would like to believe.

(Update: On 26th October 2011, coroner Suzanne Greenway gave a verdict of “death by misadventure”, stating that Amy Winehouse’s death was caused by fatal levels of alcohol in her system.)


A Formidable Fest

3 Feb


As look up when you enter the Diggi Palace

Look Up for A Riot of Colours

For a voracious reader, the Jaipur Literature Festival ’11, held at the Diggi Palace in the heart of the city, was something in the way of an elegant five course meal. Newer writers like Tishani Doshi, Sonia Faleiro, Ira Trivedi, Anjum Hasan and H.M. Naqvi, served as an amuse-bouche, along with interesting hors d’oeuvres such as M.J. Akbar, Gurcharan Das, Patrick French, Basharat Peer, Tarun Tejpal, etc. The entrée consisted of fecund discussions on topics as varied as ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’, ‘Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi’, ‘Kashmir Kashmir’, ‘A Painter’s Life’, ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Why Books Matter’, and so on and so forth, while the plat du jour offered that rare and exotic bird- the Nobel Prize winner, in this case Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee; as well as other literary and lyrical giants like Arthur Miller, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Junot Diaz, Liaquat Ahmed, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi. For desert were all the hipster lovelies, in their painted-on jeans, knee-high boots and off-shoulder H&M tops, massive SLR camera’s dangling from their elegant if somewhat scrawny necks, sipping cocktails at the Fab India café or twittering furiously on their smartphones.

But enough shop talk, this post is not going to be some tedious technical litany on all that was said and done at the Jaipur Literature Festival- by the journalists, the writers, the movers and shakers, the path finders, the heavy hitters, the catalysts, and other sundry persons of palpable presence. Rather it is a camera obscura sketch of what was seen, heard, smelt and felt, by the author of this blog.  There was so much conversation, so many sessions, so much discourse- that all of its 30,000 attendees can walk away with their own personal Jaipur Literature Festival, as reminisced and chronicled by them. And so I’d like to concentrate on the few instances that made it memorable in a way that can never be rehashed in the history of me. (A bit egocentric but there you have it.)


Blue Double Doors

Blue Double Doors

The Ajmer Shatabdi leaves New Delhi railway station at the ungodly hour of 6:05 am. You somehow find your seat in a daze of jerky somnolence and pray to god that you get off at Jaipur and not Ajmer, the train’s final destination.  The scene outside your cloudy double glass window gently undulates from the garbage strewn outskirts of Delhi, to the fresh green and yellow sarson fields of Haryana, topped with the slightest curlique of morning mist, to the more arid, bristly-haired and brushy landscapes of Rajasthan, until voila, Jaipur (if you’re still awake and lucid at this point of time I mean). And so, though tired and sleep deprived, by the early afternoon your spirit revived, as you made your way to that magical place, the Jaipur Literature Festival.


J.M. Coetzee Introduced by Patrick French

J.M. Coetzee Introduced by Patrick French

Beyond the Diggi Palace’s blue double doors,  J.M Coetzee was reading out a story named “The Old Woman And The Cats”- a heartbreaking narrative that elegantly devolves upon the perceived injustice of contraception.  Introducing his story, Coetzee said,

“I debated with myself whether this particular story would be suitable for an Indian audience, since it relies rather heavily on Roman Catholic theology, in particular on the question of whether contraception- the deliberate prevention of conception, is against the will of God. But then I thought to myself, ‘At least Hinduism takes seriously the question of where souls come from, and go to, which is more than can be said for the secular west.’”

At 70 years old, Coetzee looks like a lean, lanky hero from a spaghetti western. You know the kind- an hombre who speaks softly and carries a big gun, or, as in Coetzee’s case, a big pen. Stoic and South African, Coetzee restricted his exposure to an over-eager Indian sound byte mafia for a memorable if somewhat brief 45-minute reading of his short story which brought one to tears; not only for its content but also for its composition.


Vikram Seth reading out one of his poems

Vikram Seth reading out one of his poems

If you’re someone who has tons of questions about poetry, prose, allegory or irony, or just how to get started writing, then an open mike seminar with Vikram Seth is a chance in a million. He is somewhat of an artist when it comes to pleasing crowds. Seth smiled pleasantly and bantered lightly about his books, his writing and his adventures in glass blowing and about suggestions he had received for a prospective sequel to a Suitable Boy, which included A Suitable Girl, An Unsuitable Boy and of course, An Unsuitable Girl. He spoke about the book’s pivotal character, Lata, who would be in her 80’s by any sequel, her current zeitgeist, her probable takes on the perennial conundrum of the Arranged Indian Marriage, and about his poetry, reading out a few favorites. With his articulate manner and easy charm,Vikram Seth was like Professor Henry Higgins, only a lot less bearish. In fact I almost expected him to break out into the following lines from My Fair Lady:

“Well after all, Pickering, I’m an ordinary man,
Who desires nothing more than an ordinary chance,
to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants…
An average man am I, of no eccentric whim,
Who likes to live his life, free of strife,
doing whatever he thinks is best, for him,
Well… just an ordinary man…

The highlight of my trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival was when Vikram Seth read out “The Frog and The Nightingale”- a poem from his collection of ten fables in verse, titled “Beastly Tales From Here and There”- which every fourteen-year-old who studied under the CBSE board had to memorize, recite and possibly, (at least in my case) love.

For this formidable feast, among others we need to thank William Dalrymple – travel writer, historian and chronic Indophile, whose books include ‘City of Djinns’, ‘The Age of Kali’ and ‘White Mughals’. Dalrymple and writer/publisher Namita Gokhale have been at the helm of the festival, serving as its directors since 2006. The Jaipur Literature Festival is the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific region and is produced by Sanjoy K. Roy, Sheuli Sethi and Teamwork Productions. The festival is held every year in for five days in January, and is definitely worth a trip to Rajasthan. Then again, Rajasthan is worth a trip to Rajasthan. Session videos of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival have been put up on its official website’s programme page.




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Jugni Rehndi Sector Char or How NOT to Party in Chandigarh

12 Mar

The Husband and I finally figured out that we’re a far cry from ever being invited to the cool parties in Sectors 9 & 10, where you will find the oh so de rigueur Mercedes (pronounced Marsadee!) or Audi or Beamer parked ass to elbow in every drive way. So we decided to make our own partaaay tracks in the Chandigarh party circuit by becoming frequent patrons of the hottest hot spot, wait for it, S-Lounge.

Haha. And I say haha first of all because S-lounge is actually an offshoot of Swagath South Indian Restaurants of Defence Colony fame. The second reason I say haha is because when you actually get to SL you find it populated with the likes of Bliss Chadha and Bunny Bhullar. Bunny’s real name is of course Gurnimram or Nimpreet or your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine-Deep/Preet/Jeet. Bliss unfortunately, is just Bliss. As are Lovely, Great and Baby.

The third reason I say haha is because both Bunny (who is a girl in this case) and Bliss (who is not a girl in this case) are effing drop dead gorgeous! You look at these people and you feel like you’re lacking a vital chromosome.  The men and women that I have noticed in Chandigarh are by far the most prime specimens of the Indian race that I have ever seen.

The Husband’s explanation for this is that Chandigarh is the locus for all the best looking North Indian strains in Punjab to congregate and proliferate. So, in short, you have the cream of the crop, Mughal Invasion Residual Genetic Legacy Heir-Apparents, generally hanging around doing their thing.

Being a piddly little Parsi from Vidarbha, where most people look like dried up licorice sticks, I thought that the Husband in all his Punjabidom, his Peshawari Potency,  his Rawalpindi Raw Sex Appeal, his Mirpur Khas Machismo,was the cat’s pajamas. Not anymore. The Husband is but a drop in the vast ocean that is 3rd Generation Post Independence Punjabis.

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Travel Guide: An Interview with an Idol

26 Feb

Tirupati Temple

The Temple Complex

On the Road.

“Beta, charger lidu ke?” Did you take your mobile  charger?

“Haan, papa,” Yes papa.

“Wallet lido?” Took your wallet?


“Bheju lidu?” Remember to bring your brain along?

“No papa, with you around, I’m afraid my brain will explode, so I left it back at the hotel,” I said huffily. This was vintage Dad, teasing banter peppered with a hundred inane questions.

Ever since I can remember, if my father decides to go on a trip, it will start with him obsessive-compulsively checking and rechecking that he has every single thing he may, or may not need, at arm’s length, preferably in a zip-lock pouch, sealed. It drives me cuckoo. Ergo the brains comment.

This particular exchange happened when we were on our way to Tirupati, a town about 150 kilometres from Chennai. Tirupati is at the foot of Tirumala hills, the seventh peak of which was our final destination. The peak is home to a very famous temple, dedicated to Lord Sri Venkateswara Swami.

He has about a million different names, in the northern part of the country he’s known as Lord Balaji while in the south he’s most commonly referred to as Lord Venkateswara. We planned to walk up the 4000 steps, covering a distance of 14 kilometres, which would get us to the temple complex.

This trip was a total fly by the seat of your pants kind of operation which left no room for my father’s neurotic strategizing. As we drove past sweeping green fields of ground-nut and paddy, he sat nervously in the front seat, squirming like a little child, talking on his cell phone to arrange accommodation and tomorrow’s darshan.

An appointment with Lord Balaji was serious business, not to be left to mere chance, and we had arranged to meet with a certain Mr. P., a contact who would arrange for us to enter the sanctum sanctorum to get a glimpse of the idol.

Travel Guide: Tirupati: The 4000 steps to the Temple Complex

One step at a time

We started our hike at about six a.m. It was still pretty dark but there were already a lot of people around. Men, women, children, young and old alike, all ready to scale these arduous steps in the cool blue morning. They were mostly barefoot, and I felt like a total geek, in my puma sneakers and my backpack full of Gatorade and potato chips (Dad’s idea).

We started walking up what seemed like a gentle slope, with a step every foot or so, “Easy,” I thought, “I could do this in my sleep.”

Hah! The gentle slope suddenly snow-balled into what seemed like a wall of stairs, almost at ninety degrees to the ground. After a while I started to feel dizzy, and my heart was slamming against my rib-cage. Puff, puff, pass out.

“Don’t look up,” my dad said. “Just look at the steps in front of you. If you look up, just the sight of how much is left will tire you out. Kind of like life, one step at a time, with the ultimate goal at the back of your mind, not in direct sight.” My Dad can be pretty smart.

I was very impressed that most of the women were climbing in saris, something I’d never dream of doing. Chubby, heaving ammas were lumbering alongside there slimmer daughters or daughters-in-law, whom they’d occasionally grab for support.

A pair of newly-weds passed us. While the husband carefully placed a camphor drop on each step, the bride would light it with a taper. The little flames looked very pretty, and if I squinted just a little, it looked like a tiny lava flow coming down the steps.

Each step was daubed with streaks of vermillion and saffron. I wondered about that till I saw a woman with a bowl, anointing each step as she walked up. Later, I saw a lot of women doing that, while their men just watched. It seemed like the women were holy menials, while the men did the important stuff, like asking God for favours and such.

The morning grew brighter, and we stopped next to a small shrine at the edge of the slope to take in the view. I could see the other peaks, which were covered in dense, rough forest, not a single patch of brown. The idol in the shrine intrigued me; it had the body of a woman, and the face of an animal bearing its teeth. I stared at it for a while, then shrugged, paid my respects and moved on.

A tall man walked by, with his two small sons on each shoulder. “A human tree bearing the fruit of his loins,” I thought. I think the climb had me a little light headed. Then the newly-weds again. They were both thin, with big, brown, solemn eyes.

The wife wore a synthetic, lurid pink sari and fake gold jewelry, and the husband was all in white, carrying a plastic bag with some food in it. They both had a thin gold string tied around their foreheads; they looked very young and very poor.

Travel Guide: Tirupati: At the summit


At about a quarter to nine, we were almost at the top. The last leg of the climb was on a footpath hugging the road that leads up to the temple complex. As we trampled on in the bright, cloudless day, cars and buses roared past us on their way up, rich people drove up in their fancy cars and imported SUV’s. Probably to pray to God to make them richer.

We reached the temple complex at about nine a.m. We called up Mr. P and arranged to meet him at one of the parking lots.

Mr. P stepped out of a white Indica. He was fairly tall, a bit unctuous, and had a gigantic thiurmann, which is a vermillion line within a white U, on his forehead. The Thirumann signifies that the wearer is a follower of Vishnu, of whom Sri Venkateswara is said to be an incarnation.

“Sir, I hope you don’t mind sir, but I have got five passes for VIP darshanam. I was hoping I could bring my wife and daughter along.” This “sir-sandwich” business always puts me off. It made me feel like the guy was a bit of an operator, and I soon found out that I wasn’t wrong.

Mr. P was a real pro at arranging darshanams. “Follow me and stay close!” he said to us. Then he kind of hunched forward, as if preparing to take off, tucked his leather pouch under his arm, and suddenly shot off in the direction of the queue complex, which one has to go through to get to the sanctum sanctorum.

I raced behind him, frantic that I might lose him in the crowd, yelling at my dad to keep up and keep close. The queue complex consists of a long, winding corridor, snaking its way to the inner temple. Human bodies are hedged in by iron grills on both sides, almost standing on top of each other, like the second-class compartment of a Bombay local. People stand for more than 24 hours in that hellish furrow, to look at the deity for less than a second.

Of course, us VIP darshan types don’t have to do all that. I felt quite sheepish and a bit guilty as Mr. P led us through obsequious side-entrances, bypassing the main queue completely. We rapidly covered ground outside the iron grills, while the pilgrims inside watched our progress placidly, without animosity towards the VIPness of it all.

The gates to the inner temple are thick wooden doors covered with gold and silver leaf. Images of gods, goddesses, animals, flowers, trees etc. were everywhere – beaten into the metal, carved into stone pillars, placed as statues, you name it.

The chanting was a faint murmur in the beginning, a soft rumble of faraway thunder; I didn’t even really notice it. A pot-bellied pujari approached us, he wore a simple white mundu with a red and green border. He was bare-chested and wore a Janayu, a cotton string across his chest, the sign of a high caste Hindu. His thirumann beat Mr. P’s hollow, in terms of size.

Mr. P folded his hands in a namaste, and spoke to him in Tamil. We were right outside the sanctum sanctorum now, and it was obvious that Mr. P was trying to convince the pujari to let us in. Finally, Mr. P. slipped him a hundred rupee note, the pujari nodded wisely and let us through the wooden doors with gold filigree. It was pretty slick, like slipping the manager a little something to be let into a posh nightclub.

My Dad the second time he visited Tirupati - in "Full Darshan Regalia" as he called it.

We were in the belly of the temple, the seat of Lord Balaji. There was gold everywhere, on the walls, on the ceiling, on the doors, just everywhere. The chanting turned from a murmur to a roar. “Govinda, Govinda, GOOOOVINDAAAA!” they cried, eyes almost rolling into their sockets in religious fervour.

They folded their hands and raised them up high, so that Lord Balaji should be able to see that they approached him with earnest obeisance. A father raised his newborn child high over his head, so that the deity may notice and bless him or her. Many of them had shaved heads, as a lot of devotees donate their hair to the temple, symbolically sacrificing their ego and offering it to God.

Something about these peoples’ blind, unswerving faith moved my father. An agnostic since he was a teenager, my father has never put much stock in God. This trip was more for my sake than anything else.

But as we stood there, I could see my father’s faith grow, like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas day, except instead of a bunch of carolling Whos, it was a bunch of bald headed pilgrims that had done the trick. The expression on his face softened and his eyes began to smile. I felt a great surge of affection as he looked on, quite upset as temple guards roughly pushed devotees out the exit doors, after barely a second’s worth of worship.

(NOTE: My Dad and I went on this trip in 2008, way before I started this blog. I lost my Dad in the summer of 2009 due to a massive heart attack.  This post is dedicated to him. He was my best friend and I miss him everyday)

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Book Review: Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

24 Feb

Jaanwar walks on four legs. He is rude, bawdy, irreverent and has a heart the size of an ocean. He lives in the fictional city of Khaufpur, where his spine was melted when a poisonous gas leak from a factory ravaged the city slums, on a night which is always referred to as “That Night”.

Jaanwar or Animal, is the nodal character of Indra Sinha’s book Animal’s People. His world consists of the Khaufpur slums and the people who live there. Ma Franci – the fossilized French nun who has devoted her life to the people of Khaufpur, the kind and elegant Nisha, the Christ-like Zafar, Elli, the “Amrikan doctress”, whose tight jeans keep Jaanwar’s loins in a state of turmoil, and finally, little Aliya, a fellow orphan of that night, whose cheeky spirit Animal cherishes. Over them all is cast the malevolent shadow of the “Kampani” – the absconding foreign owners of the factory, and the fear that the night which disfigured their lives will come again.

Animal, a street urchin and small time trickster, is wrenched out of his self-serving existence by Nisha, who gets him involved in Zafar’s crusade to seize justice for the gas victims. As he struggles to deal with this larger picture, Jaanwar is beset by the troubles of love, lust, fidelity, trust and truthfulness. He bilks all of Nisha’s attempts to repatriate him to “human” society and prefers to remain an “animal, fierce and free”. At the same time, he falls hopelessly in love with Nisha, and ends up trying to poison Zafar, with whom Nisha is besotted.

Animal insists on living in the bowels of the deserted factory, the proverbial “heart of darkness”. He prides himself as being the only person able to negotiate the poisonous jungle that by now has overwhelmed the factory’s skeleton. He describes the “pink and white powders” still lying about and the dry grasses waiting to catch fire, so that the poisonous gases may gush out once again. From the highest smokestack is a view of the Kampani’s killing grounds – the multitude of slums and hutments around its periphery.

Along with being incredibly poignant, Animal’s narrative is also at times grotesquely funny.  Most of the humour originates from his hilarious pejoratives for the people and circumstances around him, and the truly Indian mispronunciation of certain English words (Namispond, Jamispond – say it quickly). He also makes cynical fun of the bureaucratic clap-trap and political double-speak which Zafar and his fellow philanthropists have to combat  to bring the “Kampani” to book.

The book occasionally slips into magical realism, though it feels very real in the composite sense. The story swallows the reader from its very first sentence – “I used to be human once.” And at the end of it, you emerge with the feeling that the characters in the book are people that you have encountered in real life. Even Animal’s occasional drifts into imaginative gibberish only serve to buttress the corporeality of the story.

Even though Animal’s People is a work of fiction, it takes little effort to draw a line of inference from its narrative to the real life tragedy which occurred in Bhopal. The fact that it is fiction is doubly advantageous as it gives the author the freedom to write without the fear of lawsuits, and it has garnered attention to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy from corners  hitherto unaware of its occurrence.

Animal’s People in its entirety is an indictment of corporate terrorism and a stark reminder that the “Kampani’s” victims, real or fictitious, still seek retribution for what they have undergone. Animal’s People was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book From Europe & South Asia.

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Travel Guide: The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Bhangra

23 Feb

Twilight in Kasauli

On weekends, the good folks of Chandigarh might pack up a picnic lunch and go careening up the hills to spend a day or two in quasi-high-altitude bliss.  We decided to follow suit, and after getting out of  Panchkula our rattletrap  Indica shuddered its way up through Pinjore, Kalka, took a left turn at Dharampur and voila, Kasauli.

See you soon you big baboon

Kasauli is about 60 km from Chandigarh and you can  probably travel up there in about an hour and a half if you don’t mind taking on those hair-raisingly blind hairpin turns at suicidal speeds. Never mind all those cautionary spectacles of the Mercedes  pichkaoed into a Santro, or the Maruti that looks like it’s being force-fed a boulder, or all the trucks that go OK TATA BYE BYE over the hillside.

Kasauli isn’t too far off but otherwise I’ve noticed that when you travel up to these places you kind of fall into a pleasant pentameter of hill, town, hill, town, hill, hill, town, town. Traffic usually bottlenecks when you get to a town and you have to crawl along its narrow streets lined with  dusty denizens selling patent leather handbags, ‘best’ furniture, furry caterpillar mufflers, home made fruit wine and pictures of gods, among other useful items.

Our driver Boviji got a little too carried away and drove us straight to Monkey Point, alternate spellings- Manky Point and Manki Point. Much Punjabi blusterings from the husband and Sardar grumblings from Boviji followed,  after which we had to backtrack about 5 k.m. through Garkhal to get to our resort. However, I wasn’t disappointed because there were many mankies at the resort also. Nice little mankies, who would scurry up the Chir-Pines at the slightest approach, not like the big Langur pricks we have in Maharashtra who just sit there and leer at you.

Outside the Firang Club Cafe

Kasauli is pretty much like any other hill town,  with magnificent vistas,  majestic Himalayan oaks, blah blah, yada, yada, yada. Frankly, I was much  more interested in making googly-eyes at the husband than playing the intrepid journalist,  so think of this post as more of a camera obscura sketch rather than an actual tourist guide report or a source of  tourist information. No breathtaking panoramas  in this post, sorry.

The Church

The highlight of our trip was probably the yummy leg of Raan we had for dinner, and this quaint, very Edgar Allan Poe-ish church near the bus stand. It had interesting gothic arches, a solid granite structure, a very laconic caretaker and Jai Yesu type music playing inside. The pews and the rafters also seemed to be of a very respectable solid oak and the few stained glass windows were unshattered and kept quite clean. Plus, the spotless alter cloth and dozens of candles were witness to the fact that people actually prayed there. I don’t know why but I found that surprising.

Another thing I loved were all these furry dogs running around like such mawalis, growling and bullying small children and these  miniature cows with a Napoleon Complex who look very placid but I’ve heard can be quite vicious.

Church Caretaker

Something or someone has definitely given the Up North Experience a face lift from what it was in the nineties. I remember going to Manali when I was thirteen and being disappointed at all the deforestation, the choked roads and the junglis roaming around in their gypsies – whose idea of summer fun was raping women. My family and I were with another couple,  who were a bit younger.  One evening, the reasonably sexy young wife decided to go for a walk  alone down one of Manali’s main streets, where she was accosted by a group of ominous men in an Omni, and was told to get in. But then she screamed and some stoned hippies came to her rescue. True story. I guess I have globalization to thank, because now those same junglis probably go to London and Switzerlaaand, making the north a relatively safer place for us day tripping yuppies.

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Art for Art’s Sake- Sara Abraham’s love affair with Contemporary Indian Art

18 Feb

Phulki and the Akundo Flowers by A. Ramachandran

Contemporary Indian art is big, no, it’s huge. While art paintings of top-selling contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta go for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, older generation artists like M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and A. Ramachandran, rake millions in the international markets. According to the Economic Times, Christie’s, contemporary fine art auctioneers with their headquarters in London, realized 10.1 million dollars in South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art alone in an auction held in September 2007.

Given all these heady figures and glamorous economics, it is a bit disorienting to sit next to a rather unlikely looking original prospector of the gold rush that is Contemporary Indian Art – a 79-year-old grandmother, who sits in her stylish but comfortable drawing-room in Chennai, sipping her mug of tea, her close shorn white hair silhouetted against the golden light of a tall brass lamp.

The first thing that you see when you enter Sara Abraham’s home is a painting of a lotus pond by A Ramachandran, which takes up almost an entire wall. You feel almost accosted by its deep rich colours, and it demands that you look at it for more than the polite minute. Yes, when you enter Sara Abraham’s house, you get kidnapped by Indian Art.

Other contemporary artists that her walls feature are M.F. Husain, F.N.Souza, Ganesh Haloi, Gogi Saroj Pal, Ramanujam, Bikash Bhattacharji, Tyeb Mehta, Vivan Sundaram, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chawdhury, and Janaky Ram. In a brightly lit corner sits her pet – a portrait of Sara by M.F. Husain, a present for her sixtieth birthday. “Sara at Serene Sixty”, proclaims the wooden overleaf, in a childish, comical scroll, presumably the artist’s.

Sara Abraham found Contemporary Indian art, but in a way Indian Art found her as well. When she was a new bride in the 1960’s, with nothing to do, Sara started looking at art the way other women of her time looked at saris and jewelry. Three years at the Government School of Arts in Madras and another year in Bombay gave her the eye she needed to fire up and sustain a passion that would last the better part of a lifetime. “Being a student of fine art, I saw real quality in Indian Art, and pushed it till others saw it too.” she said.

She tried her hand at painting herself but soon gave that up. “I felt I was a mediocre artist, so I decided to promote others instead of promoting myself.” Now Sara can sit back and see the culmination of her life’s work, in the form of an exhibition held by Gallery Sumukha in Chennai, to commemorate the occasion of her eightieth birthday. The exhibition will showcase every piece of art that she has collected over the years. There will be almost 200 pieces on display.

On the night of the opening, Sara is wearing her trademark cotton sari- black with a geometric pattern in dull gold on the pallu and border. The exhibition is on two floors and guests slough their way from one painting to another, as if on a pilgrimage of beauty. A woman in a pink sari snaps open a gossamer fan and started fluttering it, even though the air-conditioning is on full blast. On the landing between the two floors was a family portrait by Vikram Bhattacharya – a much younger Sarah Abraham seated with her husband Zachary, surrounded by her three teenage children. The second floor has an entire wall full of paintings by M.F. Husain, including a charcoal sketch of Zachary. The place is teeming with friends, family, artists, the press and every shape and size of Chennai cognoscenti. Sara stands there, unfazed by any of it, basking in all of it. She greets people as they walked in, and poses for tons of photographs with her children and grandchildren.

“I will always remember Sara for her great generosity,” said the contemporary artist Lakshma Goud. “In the early 80’s, when no one knew me, Sara offered me a piece of land in Banjara Hills. I told her I couldn’t afford it. She told me to pay her back in water colours,” he grinned. “I was amazed that someone would put so much faith in an artist.”

Later on, people gathered downstairs in the courtyard for the unveiling of a book to commemorate Sara’s life and her achievements. As they stood under the mango tree sipping their cocktails in the tepid evening, Sara’s brother-in-law, Bobby Sistah, gave a celebratory speech. “If anyone deserves a celebration of her life, it’s Sara,” he started, smiling.

However, as the saying goes, even the longest journey begins with a single step. “My first piece of Indian Art was an Akittan Narayan. It was painted on a board of Madras Kirk. Unfortunately, the board wasn’t prepared and the paint dropped off over the years. I was very sad, but I didn’t let that discourage me.” she said. “I bought art whenever I could all my life.”

Sara Abraham bought Contemporary Indian Art at a time when nobody else wanted it. At that time, people were more interested in buying foreign prints to decorate their homes than the works of Indian artists. “My sister pointed out that instead of buying prints; why not buy original Indian contemporary artists for the same price. I believed in Indian Art when no one else did. But I did my best and kept pushing peoples’ awareness. To the extent that I even gifted paintings to my friends and relatives to increase appreciation for Indian art. And finally, people began to be aware of the quality of Indian Art.”

Talking about the time before the Christie’s and Sotheby’s of the world swooped down on Indian Art, she said “Back then, foreigners who bought our art were only interested in exoticism, they weren’t interested in India. The popular themes amongst foreign buyers were things like temples, or poverty.”

In the mid to late 70’s Sara’s close association with the artist M.F. Hussain, who was already a known name then, inspired her to start “Kalayatra”. As the name suggests, “Kalayatra” was a roaming contemporary art gallery whose purpose was to showcase contemporary Indian Art and make it popular. “Kalayatra, because it wasn’t a static gallery, created a lot of awareness. We traveled all over the country, exhibited in all the metros and in some smaller towns like Hyderabad, Nagpur and Kochi as well.”

The gallery did about one or two shows a year and was a huge success. Other art dealers that were doing similar work at that point of time were Keku Gandhi of Chemould, Dadabhai of Pundole, and Alkazi of Art Heritage.

Talking about how she met M.F. Hussain, Sara said “It was in the 70’s, me and my sister Suzy were outside Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, when Suzy suddenly yelled “There’s Hussain!”. She opened the car door and ran after him. He took us to his house, where Suzy bought a painting and a sketch. I bought my first Hussain later, from Chemould Art Gallery in Bombay. It cost Rs. 2000, I couldn’t afford it so I went to Jhaveri Bazaar and sold my diamond earring for a thousand rupees, and paid the rest in four installments.” M.F. Husain and Sara Abraham have known each other for over sixty years now. “His wife once joked that I was the only woman she felt secure about leaving him alone with.” She laughed.

Although she has now retired from a professional role in the art world, Sara is always happy to assist people in buying good art. When asked the all important question – What is good art – “Good art is something you can look at every day of your life and not get fed up of it. There is not one piece in my house that I wouldn’t be happy looking at, at least ten times a day.” She replied, smiling contentedly.

(Note: I had written this piece two years ago for an ACJ assignment, but I really like it so I thought I’d publish it here)

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Alea Jacta Est

17 Feb

There is one signal in Chandigarh which runs for 120 seconds and plays “i’m blue abidiabada” in the background while some nice punjabi lady lilts out traffic rules. In office, if you take off your sweater someone is bound to say “tumne to summer declare kar diya hai”, not a bad idea for meteorologists who anyway don’t have a clue, just keep putting sweaters on and pulling them off, open up an umbrella, wear a banyan, and just stand there.

One the train from Delhi I was hit on by a real life rocket singh, who was nice enough to clear away my tray when he thought i was sleeping and help me with my suitcase which was filled with old pictures of the wadia family. One of the best things about living in Chandigarh is the Kalka Shatabdi to and from Delhi. If you dont actually meet anyone, you always get to overhear interesting stories. Like twin sisters who got married on the same day at the same time, or rocket singh, or a gentleman who used to design cars.

Another fun thing about Chandigarh is driving to places nearby like Amritsar to see the golden temple, and attend PTC Miss Punjabi, judged by Harbhajan Mann and Divya Dutta and treated to the musical samplings of Gippy Grewal  brawling out tracks from his hit album, The Gabru 2.  Yet another fun thing about Chandigarh is going to alliance francais and being taught by feisty little Sardarnis like Mrs. Grewal who can converse equally well in Punjabi or French (and actually uses Punjabi to explain French sometimes), looks like a sparrow but is actually more like a miniature pinscher.

I have to say that i never liked North India very much, being born and brought up in Nagpur, but you can’t hate the Punjab. The Punjab is awesome. Imagine all the anachronisms of the world being stuffed into one tiny little shoebox, and powdered with a lot of manners and money.  Kind of reminds me of my Parsi relatives living in decrepit mansions called The Mount or Daisyville or Sillville. But that’s material for another blog.

Yes I do like the Punjab, the tandoori chicken portions are enough to feed a Maharashtrian family of five, the Sardarjis are very courteous and flirtatious. Not to mention sooooo tall and good looking. One little Marathi Manoos would be lost in the forest of Surds. I mean I used to think that i lucked out marrying a man that’s 6’2 but that apparently is par for the course here in Punjab. The women also, I used to think Delhi had good looking women but you have to see the ones here. True they all look like they came out of a Yash Chopra Mohabattein factory, but still very pretty.

I’ve started to kind of like Delhi too, I think it’s become more interesting and safer for women. Plus a lot of the safety issues are just hoo-haa created by paranoid daddies who dont want their gudiya rani to pop her cherry before marriage. Three words- Hymen Replacement Surgery. Let gudiya get a life and you get one also.

But there is a lot to be said about the Punjab and I will be saying it, if I dont wither out and give up first.

Well I’m Here

17 Feb

I don’t know how soon i shall be bored of this, but i hope not too soon.  For now i’ve joined the unwashed hordes of graphomaniacs out there desperate to feel important. Since this is my first post, let me explain the name. Ahuna Vairya is the name of an Avestan language Zoarashtrian prayer. All you Parsis out there  probably learnt this prayer by age 5. It starts with yatha ahu vairyo… Yeah, even i didn’t know that’s what it’s called till i started searching for a blog name.

I’m not super religious but i needed to bank on my parsiana to sound exotic so people will read my blog. plus i can use avesta names without sounding like a pretentious prick, something that i’m consciously going to avoid throughout my blogging career.

On the other hand, this prayer is super effective for panic attacks and to shoo away bogymen who like to stand in corners of dark rooms. You need to say it five times though, five is the magic number for some reason, and then top it up with some Artem Vohu (Ashem Vohu), three times. Its cool because the language is so old, it sounds made up. I remember the first time my husband heard me muttering this prayer under my breath, and he thought i was having a seizure.

Blogging is kind of like talking to yourself, only crazier. But that’s ok, because as it happens, I do talk to myself, so I don’t mind adding another feather in my crazy cap.  I’m just another sad, mad individual who wants to believe desperately that the world gives a shit about what I have to say. Little do I know that no one goes on the internet to read, for god’s sakes. So here I am, basically talking to myself, basking in my own wordiness. I wish there was something like a cyberspace echo, because I bet I’d hear it right about now…Helloooooo,  is there anyone there??


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