Sunday, October 13, 2013

Snapshots from the first ever Pune Literature Festival

I attended two of the three days of the Pune Lit Fest 2013, and met some wonderful writers. It was heartening to see Pune finally host a literature festival of its own, and I felt very privileged to conduct a session on 'Writing Short Stories'.

Some images...

Ashwin Sanghi and Meghna Pant

Sachin Pilgaonkar

Manjiri Prabhu, Shobha De and Sonja Chandrachud

Ashok Banker and Manjiri Prabhu

A section of the audience

Shailesh Gogate, Deepak Dalal and Ashish Nene

Neeta Iyer, Rishi Piparaiya, Lalita Iyer and Vrushali Telang

I'm reading from Breaking the Bow

A participant working on an exercise on character development

Question Time

Point of view :)

Now, looking forward to the Pune Lit Fest 2014!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Twelve Months *

(* first published in 'Love Across Borders' - an anthology of short stories about human relationships across borders. An writers' initiative towards peace with our neighbours.)

There are a hundred and forty eight ways to woo a woman. Not one of them involves a kangaroo and a banana.
And yet Shambu stood beside the cage, nervously offering the yellow fruit through the bars, hissing at her through his smile, “Click, click!”

He continued leaning as she fidgeted with the camera. “Come on! The monkey doesn’t know where the banana stops and my fingers begin!”

“This says don’t feed the animals.” Munira looked around. “Stop it, they’ll see you.”

“I’m not feeding. This is just offering.” But Shambu already felt foolish and flushed. If only she would click once he could end this ridiculous charade. Click woman, click. Blurred, shaky, out-of-focus, no flash, anything. Just end it.

In his mind, the scene had been heroic. He was supposed to be the poor but rakish youth, charming in his disregard for rules, coaxing the older, upper-class widow to leave behind her bland frowns and reach her bangle-less wrists toward his sprightly, promising fingers.

She slipped the camera into her bag and shuffled ahead. This was a bad sign. The woman usually fished out her camera at the smallest pretence, capturing random images. Had she decided that he was pushing too much? He dropped the banana and followed, his Bollywood montage shattered. Maybe in Pakistani films the widows were different.

This was Munira’s fifth visit to India since she got married and her third since Salim died. She did not have to come back really, since there wasn’t much waiting for her and her presence didn’t seem to matter to anyone else. Salim’s parents had distanced themselves years ago on hearing their son’s strange announcement and Salim had been happy to discard what he called “their middle class anxiety” and set up house with her at Rawalpindi. The university was perfectly suitable.

Yet, every summer break, once she completed marking the undergraduate history papers, Munira found her way back to Hyderabad, to the house where in the middle of dinner, suddenly, shockingly, her husband had had a heart attack. She had been scheduled to join him in another week; a teacher’s strike had postponed exams. Though she rushed to Hyderabad, the family could not wait; they went ahead with the burial, presenting her with a garlanded photograph later.

She took back the photograph and the plate in which he was supposed to have had his last meal, embraced his mother at the airport, promising to return, little knowing that it was not really expected of her at all. So every May when she called them with her arrival date and time, they sent Shambu to receive her and planned sightseeing tours to Golconda, Shamirpet Lake and Chowmahalla Palace, hoping the overeager driver would compensate for their detached hospitality. Munira didn’t really mind. As long as in the evenings, she could sit in the kitchen, memorizing the walls Samir had known, inhaling the aromas that had wafted around him, Munira didn’t really mind.

And now Shambu was walking towards her holding cups of chai and pink candy floss.
She took the chai and raised her eyebrows at the florescent sugar.

“Shambu, this is for children.”

“I’ll eat it.”

This was supposed to be endearing, he thought. A grown man in sensible shoes with a sticky, sweet, pink moustache. In his mind, the image was cute but she wasn’t smiling. First the banana and now this candy; maybe she thought he was weird with food.

“We should be like children sometimes, you know,” he explained to redeem himself.

“Why are children always supposed to be sweet and innocent? They can be cruel.”

Shambu probably knew more about this than her, what with the two adolescents whom he ferried to All Saints High School every day, but he didn’t say anything. Once, they had spent the ride home digging their heels into his backrest, pushing to see if he would object. He hadn’t said a word. Another time, just after he had cleaned the car and dropped them to school, he found the backseat littered with peanut skins, all arranged to make a smiley face.

But still he said, “They laugh. At least they laugh. Maybe that is worth all the trouble they cause.”

He wouldn’t have dared this kind of familiarity with the rest of the family but he reasoned that since Munira hardly seemed to register him, he couldn’t really offend her. In the house, he sat on the floor or stood on the veranda if he was offered tea. With her, he could dare to plonk on her wooden bench, his buttocks at the same level as hers, even daringly close to hers.

A few hours earlier, driving out of Himayat Sagar, they had completed the itinerary for the day. But the trip had been shorter than expected and he did not want to her return to the cold house and their curious stares. Hence this strange visit to the zoo. He lied about the exotic animals so passionately, that eventually she gave in and they stood behind a line of schoolgirls to buy tickets.

He often told himself not to think of the quietly bold woman, the educated, petite, pixie-like widow who was left in his care once a year. After all, he had served the woman’s husband. Shambu had been much younger then, a mere errand boy, but the family soon paid for his driving lessons and he took over his aging father’s place at the wheel of the Honda Civic. Now Shambu had a bride-to-be waiting in Lucknow; they were to be married in December after which she would join him and nanny the child that the youngest daughter-in-law was expecting.

And yet, on the hard bench of the zoo, Shambu found his gaze drawn towards Munira’s eyelashes. The way she constantly adjusted her headscarf, the way her loneliness spread around her like an aura, like a shield, refusing to allow anyone access. Would she ever move on? But then she’d never return, would she?

He shook away these conflicting thoughts and focused on the tea. It was very hot.

“It’s very hot, no?”

She nodded and said, “Yes” and gently blew on the tea before taking a tentative sip.

The sun emerged softly from behind a cloud and lit up the bench. Munira looked so beautiful then, her cheekbones highlighted, her earlobes translucent, her earrings glinting, that Shambu had to look away. Though he had witnessed her serene, easy dignity in the face of tragedy, he felt protective towards her. Like her detached wisdom would enable her to negotiate with the world but she needed him to save her from herself.

Of course, they were all day dreams. He had a girl waiting for him, then maybe a couple of children. They might even move into the quarters that were being constructed at the back of the house. All the pieces of the equation were arranged in perfect harmony, yet Shambu, restless Shambu, starry-eyed Shambu, prying, inflamed Shambu, enchanted, impatient Shambu was determined to shake them.

“You don’t want children?”

She looked away. “No”

“You know, you could marry again.”

The stench of the bird cages wafted up to them. She shook her head.

“Then I wouldn’t be able to come again.”

“Here? India? Of course you could.”

“Not India. To the house, that kitchen, that veranda.”

Shambu looked up and saw her staring intently at his face. She looked away. Maybe she had just been looking through him. She seemed to do that often.

“They are nice people,” he said, not willing to offer any specifics.

“I should have come here with him. Let the exams be.”

“We all do what we can.” Shambu did not really want to discuss Salim.

“Yes, and now I’m doing the only thing that I can do,” she said, too casually to be casual.

Sambhu was suddenly impatient to leave. “So you have enough photographs now?” He indicated her camera bag.

“Only of monkeys! I don’t need a zoo to find those!”

He did not return her smile. “There are other places I could take you too.”

A few feet away, a baby lifted her frock and squatted while her mother watched. A trail of urine snaked slowly towards them.

“How about my village? I could show you the pond beside which I would sit like that.” He pointed towards the little girl and immediately regretted it. It sounded coarse even to his ears; certainly not a topic that a professor would want to discuss.

But Munira was smirking and then giggling and then opened her mouth in full-throated laughter.

“Eeesh! Shambu! Eeesh!” Her body shook as she brought one hand up to cover her mouth.
Shambu’s eyes sparkled in delighted surprise. He reached out to take her cup, worried that she would scald her thigh with the hot tea. She held out it towards him. But when the tips of his fingers reached for her knuckles, she stopped laughing.

Slowly, they walked back towards the car. The schoolgirls were still at the tiger’s cage, their fingers pointing, voices squealing and plaits shaking animatedly as the tiger obliged with languid strolls.

They strolled along and the girls’ yelps were replaced by a hush. The tingling of their fingers was still fresh. A silence descended upon them and in the quietness Shambu offered, “We are all in our own cage also, aren’t we?”

She nodded. “Sometimes you can break out of a cage and you think you are free. But you are just in a larger cage. There’s one more door to open. And one more and one more.”

He wasn’t sure he understood but said cheerily. “At least I can open this door for you” as he held open the passenger door.

The next day, after she was given salwar-kameez material and Hyderabadi spices to take back, after she had hugged the family and vehemently denied the need for anyone to accompany her, after Shambu had unloaded her luggage at the airport, he offered her an apology wrapped in newspaper. A diary.

“This is Salim babu’s. When he was so small.” Shambu put his hand beside his waist to denote the child Salim’s height. “I once found it while cleaning the loft.”

Murira passed her fingers over the childish scrawls, over the caricature of a woman with an exceptionally large bindi, over a poem about a robot. For a minute she did not speak.

“Thank you,” her voice came out hoarse and she cleared her throat. “Thank you.

Later, as Shambu drove back in an oppressively empty car, Munira converted her currency and passed through the security scanners, clutching the book close to her. For this time, this was enough. She would wrap Salim’s words around her, his simple, alive scribbles, his forgotten, resurrected doodles, to be preserved with cloves and naphthalene balls, to be recalled on rainy evenings, to celebrate with the fragrance of the champa tree outside her window, to be stretched and pulled so they may suffice another twelve months.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Chicken Biryani is a Bonus *

(* shortlisted for the Random House India Writers' Bloc Award)

I watch you slip away, smiling vacantly, unhearing the words I craft so carefully. Unfeeling my touch, unknowing my fingers. Your eyes glaze over my face and a question reflects in them. The query wavers for just a second before you realize that I am your husband. Recognition floods in but after a brief minute you register panic. Every time you recognise me, you also recognise your disease.

I hold your hand and smile, as if it means nothing to me and I haven’t noticed anything amiss. Like fate is a long way off yet, too far to cloud our moments together, to rain down on our sandcastles and wash them away. But in the moments that you know me, you know me too well. I avert my eyes.

Fortunately, our dog walks in, leaving a trail of mud on the floor. I am grateful for the opportunity to shout at him, to complain about mundane things like the mess on the carpet. He seems grateful too and is wagging his tail despite my stern voice, as if he knows what my talk implies. Today you remember. Our Sher has learnt the heaviness of fogs. He knows too well the dim muddle his mistress is surrounded by, for then it leaks out and spreads over the house. A smoky house where the mist is so permeating that no-one notices the dirt he brings in, the swishes of his tail or the anguish in his arched eyebrows.

Similarly, too often have I watched our son walk home gingerly, gauging the flavour of the day.

He calls from work too sometimes. “How is ma?”

“Good” I reply.

Having got his answer, he makes some more conversation, pretending he’s calling for a different purpose. I can hear the relief in his voice though.

‘Good’ is our code word for ‘she remembers’.

‘Alright’ is our code word for ‘she doesn’t’.

You walk into the kitchen and as if prompted, announce that you are making chicken biryani. The first dish you learnt from my mother after we were married. Thirty-five years ago.

The aroma of yesterdays sweeps over us, as sweet as cinnamon, as magical as the crackling of bay leaves. It engulfs us and replays scenes of eating together, of listing down expenses, of discussions about our son, his band, his hairstyles. I see myself fidgeting with the remote while you try to snuggle against me. See you sulk. See you reading, marking papers. See us playing chess together, watching a movie, discussing someone from work.
The memories pile one on top of the other, stacking themselves so high, I am afraid that they will crash. They are tinged with a charm that only nostalgia can provide. I know that not all the moments we lived were coloured so. Words have been flung around the house too, sulks have fluffed up the couch and our fans have wrung the sadness out of several nights. Mostly yours. And disappointments. Mostly mine.

An evening stands out. It is an evening so removed from the present that I am surprised by its clarity. I had unlatched the door to find you sitting with flowers in your hair. A new saree hung on your shoulders, peacock-blue and silver. You didn’t get up from the couch but the tinkling of your bangles revealed that you weren’t composed.

“Shweta? What happened?”


“Why are you dressed up? Were we supposed to go somewhere?”




I remember. Our anniversary.

“Oh God! I’m so sorry!”

“Forget it.”

“I’m terribly sorry! I’ll make it up…”

I had taken you in my arms but you were not to be appeased easily. You sat stiff, sobbing silently. Then, for some reason, you had looked at me strangely and whispered, “One day when I forget, you’ll know how this feels.”

Over the years, maybe I have added new dimensions to the expression on your face that evening. Maybe I have rephrased your words harshly. Maybe you suspected something and didn’t know it then. Or maybe it is just fate.

The only thing that I am sure of is that I keep you with me even in the moments you lose me. Even when I am just a cloud, swirling before your eyes, you are as lucid to me as a childhood rhyme. I love your unsure eyes as well as I love the certainty in your gaze, and for me, that is enough.

Every plate of chicken biryani is only a bonus.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Grandmother’s Hands

As I watch myself pulling on socks,
I see my grandmother’s hands.

At other times,
Those fingers of a soft childhood
Stir soup or sign deliveries.

They turn up when
I reach out to pat a friend
Or in to nurse an ache.

She doesn’t manifest
In my face or my legs or hair
Not in the smile or eyes.

But most appropriately,
At the tips that write these words
To fill the gaps between our worlds.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

He Kissed

The way he kissed my head and
Turned a world.

My head turned
And slowly
He kissed my world away.

The world!
He kissed my head
And slowly turned away.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012



Whispered the woman to the sun,
Do you also
Ache for soft hands
To cool your fires?


As long as this heart
Beats for you,
It is not mine.
For only a rogue
Would swindle and smile.


The hair turns white
And sight black
Through loose pale skin
The colours move
From without to within.