The Big Move


For the past five and a half months, this blog has been comatose. That's because I've moved to New York City to pursue a master's program in arts and culture journalism at Columbia University (yay!). My life these days is being ruled by dense academic readings on art, theory, post-modernism, anthropology and a lot of other geeky stuff that's associated with a rigorous grad school program in the arts. Which means no time to for any blogging.

The upside is that I've also taken up a digital skills class where I will learn the intricacies of Wordpress and how to blog on that platform. Once I get the basics in order, I'll be moving this blog to that platform and, hopefully, start blogging on Wordpress with a some alacrity. Till then, the blogspot site will remain dormant (save for the occasional rant/post)

For the time being, though, pop over to my twitter feed and browse the archives for light reading

Green peace


A few reasons to love the Lodhi Gardens. Not that you need any reasons but its a good way to celebrate this beautiful garden's 75th birthday. Did a version of this for (what else) the Time Out Delhi magazine.

It has been 75 years since the land east of Safdarjang’s Tomb was transformed, from a place where kings lay dead to a place where common people feel most alive. In 1936, the residents of Khairpur village were turfed out of the vicinity of the Lodhi tombs, so that the 90-acre Lady Willingdon Park could be planted here. This fortnight we celebrate the Gardens’ 75th birthday.

Democratic mingling It’s the only place in Delhi where Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma or Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley stroll by as families picnic on the lawns and octogenarians squabble about politics. Anil Ambani’s lobbyist in Delhi, Tony Jesudesan, works his charm on politicians over evening walks. Hopefully the tombs of the dead sultans send a message to today’s proud rulers.
The butterfly conservatory Visitors to the gardens will spot a multitude of butterflies, courtesy a three-acre area created solely for butterflies. Thanks to the NDMC Centre for Environmental Management for Degraded Ecosystems and the organisation Green Circle, the butterfly conservatory is insecticide-free and has 22 plants specially chosen to accommodate butterfly larvae.

The greenhouse Within the garden complex, this shaded area shelters plants unable to withstand the Delhi heat. Although the flora isn’t for sale, it attracts students of botany as well as visitors interested in plants like the golden fern.

 Time travel By now, its heritage is unconfined to any particular era. Muhammed Shah Sayyid’s tomb of Delhi quartz is believed to have been built around 1444. The athpula, or eight-tiered bridge, was built by Nawab Bahadur, a nobleman in the court of Akbar; it spanned a canal which was part of the river system that once drained Delhi. The gardens were designed in 1936 by Lady Willingdon, the wife of the Viceroy. In 1968, it was re-landscaped by architect Joseph Allen Stein, who also designed the India International Centre next door.

The trees Not just for sheltering canoodling couples, the garden’s foliage keeps all kinds of secrets: The pale grey bark of the Kaim, for instance, is used to treat colic and fever, while its pinkish-brown timber is used to make cricket bats. The leaves of the Jhinjheri are good for rolling beedis and the oil from Kosam seeds are used to treat skin diseases. The city’s only freshwater mangrove can be found near the entrance to the greenhouse.

Recycled water Don’t think about it too long, but the water used to water the lawns is recycled from the Okhla Sewage Treatment Plant. The NDMC plans to set up a treatment plant at the gardens to ensure it has no effluent smells.

Fourty-four species of birds can be spotted at the gardens. These include the Blackrumped Flameback woodpecker, which parks its cackling self on tree trunks. That noise is offset by the fluting call of the Eurasian Golden Oriole which can be spotted in April.

 Its literary prominence The Gardens crop up in every other novel set in New Delhi, recently including Aatish Taseer’s The Temple-goers. Khushwant Singh chose it for his latest work The Sunset Club, in which three octogenarian friends share secrets and discuss sexual fantasies. Singh’s son-in-law, the late publisher Ravi Dayal, chose to stroll in Sujan Singh Park rather than Lodhi Gardens because he said “Lodhi Gardens is a place full of rejected manuscripts”. Vinay Dharwadker called his collection of poetry Sunday at the Lodi Gardens. But it was Octavio Paz, the late diplomat and poet, who captured it best in this poem “In the Lodi Gardens”:
The black, pensive, dense
domes of the mausoleums
suddenly shot birds
into the unanimous blue

Erudite escorts


Sorry for the silence, guys. Work, work and more work has ensured that I only write for the magazine and not for the blog. This, I assure you, will change in the coming months. For now, enjoy this short Q&A I did with Chandrahas Choudhury on his new book, India: A Traveller's Literary Companion.

In a new anthology, Chandrahas Choudhury has compiled 13 works of fiction set in different parts of the country to portray a theatrical version of India. He has included pieces by writers as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Kunal Basu and Qurratulain Hyder. In an email interview, Choudhury explains why he chose the smooth world of fiction to describe the turbulence of reality.

Are these stories meant to highlight the underbelly of India to audiences that have been enamoured by the “‘great India story?”
I did want the book to provide the greatest possible diversity of viewpoints. That’s why literature in English is balanced with literature in translation from several languages, and older Indian writers with newer ones. I’d say that the stories cumulatively reveal both the strengths of India – the complexity of its history, the many layers that make for personal identity in India, the liberatory potential of Indian democracy – and its flaws and stresses, such as the ubiquity of hierarchical thinking and the pervasive suspicion and misrepresentation of the “other”. I didn’t want a formulaic or shallow picture of India to emerge from my selections, especially when the idea of the book was to highlight the particularity and density of “the local”. 

How did you select these pieces? 
Well, I had all of modern Indian literature to choose from, because the concept of the book was “stories that engage powerfully with place”. Now place is integral to the human sense of self, to our awareness of history, to our dreams – and therefore to storytelling. This meant that the scope of the book was vast. So in a way I was being paid to teach myself a lot more about Indian literature than I did when I was offered the editorship of the book. Many older Indian writers, from the first half of the twentieth century, haven’t really got their due in English – Fakir Mohan Senapati and Phanishwarnath Renu, for example – so I was keen to include them.

Why didn’t you include any non-fiction in this anthology?
The idea of the anthology, and indeed of the entire series of traveller’s literary companions to different countries, was that it was all going to be fiction. There are lots of non-fictional guides and introductions to India anyway. And in moving between character, society, and landscape, all the while telling a story, fiction offers an intensity and depth of representation that most reportage cannot achieve.

Why aren't any of your pieces in the book?
Well, usually as an editor of a book it's not considered good form to select your own work. And there was so much good writing to choose from – about a hundred years worth of modern Indian fiction – that it wouldn't have been right to put my own writing into the book. At the same time, I did feel ambitious for the little bit of the book that did feature my own writing – the introduction, and the notes to each story – so I threw myself into making these bits as vivid as possible.

The stories in this anthology reflect the political turmoil of the region they're set in…
Literature can't but help address questions of politics, social injustice, gender and history. These issues always come up in the telling of stories. Obviously I did want the stories I chose to be a complex as possible, so that they both fulfilled the demands of the theme of the book but also transcended it. I just chose the stories I loved best.

Delhi in the 50s


My latest piece for the TimeOut Delhi magazine as part of our cover story about the ten decades of Delhi. If this essay feels a bit abrupt, it's because it was part of a larger canvas that looked at Delhi life over the last 100 years. Read on:

As New Delhi struggled to its feet after Partition, it had at least two things on its mind. The first was rebuilding the lives of its refugees, in new colonies at the city’s periphery, areas like Rajinder Nagar to the west and Kalkaji to the south. The second was escapism. The elite cinemas of Connaught Place were too few to help refugees flee the difficulty of their new lives in raw, far-flung suburbs. Between 1952 and 1961, cinema halls sprung up right in the neighbourhoods they now inhabited.

Jangpura, the colony originally provided to the villagers displaced from Raisina Hill, received a new deluge of the displaced, and with them Eros, south Delhi’s first movie hall. Karol Bagh had Liberty and Patel Nagar had Vivek. In 1954, the Delite and Golcha cinemas both opened at Daryaganj, the former with plush interiors and the first air-conditioned hall in the city. (Such was the impact of this new cinema-going experience that the Hindustan Times film critic gushed about Delite’s “carpeted floor, comfortable seats with sidelights [and] the lowest rates, lower than any of the New Delhi cinemas,” instead of reviewing their debut flick Angaray.) Come 1961, Shiela would expand the movie-watching experience with its 70mm screen.

The birth of these movie halls didn’t just provide Dilliwalas with entertainment, but also heralded the first days of an egalitarian cinema culture in the city. They collapsed the elite cinemas, like Regal, with the working-class scene of travelling fairground shows. With class-stratified seating and cheap front-row stalls, for the first time, people of many classes shared the same hall, receiving the same entertainment. Inclusiveness didn’t just mean cheap tickets, though. When Shiela opened, screening only English language movies, patrons were offered synopses of the story written in Hindi and Urdu. To add to the sensation, audiences were sometimes treated to live stage-shows, as at Delite in 1955, when the Pakistan-born father-son duo Prithviraj and Raj Kapoor enacted the play Yahudi ki Kahani.

Meanwhile, for the more established set of Dilliwalas, live entertainment meant Rudy Cotton enthralling listeners with his saxophone renditions of “Blue Moon” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” at the Lagoona in Scindia House. Indians had finally inherited the thumping music-stages and dance floors from British officers and US soldiers. At the restaurants of CP – Lagoona, Alps, York’s and Volga – live jazz had centre-stage of Delhi’s social life. While Cotton’s melodies rang through Lagoona’s walls, Hecke Kingdom and the Jazz Quartet band propped up the fortunes of Volga in CP. Until the band arrived, Volga’s tables stayed vacant. After the Quartet tuned up, you were lucky to get in. “Hundreds have had the uncomfortable and embarrassing experience of either queuing up for a table, or going elsewhere for their fun,” recorded the listings magazine Delhi Diary. Those who went elsewhere often landed up at Alps, on Janpath, to hear pianist Mosin Menezes and his Quartet belt out his famous number “Night Flight”.

The crescendo of New Delhi’s jazz era was a visit by no less than Dave Brubeck, on a 1958 world tour sponsored by the US State Department at the dawn of the Cold War. Over 3,000 people crowded into a free open-air concert in the University Gardens to see Brubeck slam out “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “St Louis Blues” (he would only compose “Take Five” in 1959, on his album Time Out). A sombre State Department communique reported the success of the Delhi show, in demonstrating to Indians that jazz “can display discipline and intellectuality of a high order”, and shouldn’t be classed with “wild and undiscplined” rock ‘n’ roll. Either way, the message from Brubeck that Delhi heard loud and clear was the title of his second song, “I’m In A Dancing Mood”.