March 10, 2017

on creativity

a thought
blinded me
one rushed
i had
a pen
a mobile
i didn’t use
so sure
it would
for hours
and days.
and down
that road
i walk
the story,
that ray
of hope
is lost
to me,

January 28, 2017

all that is chocolate is not, erm…chocolatey.

everytime i am on my way to london via euston on the british rail, i mentally tick off the cafes from where i can take away an indulging warm cup of hot chocolate. i shrink into my worn-out coat, my loyal companion for many years now, my protector against the cold draughty winds. when i’m inside and when the train is moving, it is not so chilly anymore and i let myself expand again, bit by bit. i think of the day ahead. and then the thought of a steaming hot mug of chocolate creeps into my mind from nowhere. i tell myself, i deserve it…for the hectic morning that i’ve just survived, for being the good person that i am, for the lovely children i have, for all the hard work (ahem) i put into raising a lovely, happy family. i open the book that is in my hands. i’m reading the words but my frosty mind still hovers around that hot chocolate. now, where had i had it the last time? since my visits to london are rare, i am not surprised i have forgotten: was it from Starbucks? Patisserie Valerie? Ah, yes, AMT. i remember now. it wasn’t very good.

the train pulls into euston. i am almost 45 minutes early. should i have that much-coveted mug now, or should i prolong the desire until i am on my way back home to milton keynes. i smell the air of london, of strong coffee, or business suits and leather. i browse through books and magazines. i make my way down to the underground tube and catch the northern line to tottenham court road station. my work here will take approximately three hours. thankfully, they pass fast.

it is nearly six. i return to euston looking for the train times back to milton keynes. there is none for another 10 minutes at least. to my right i see The Chocolat, Starbucks, M&S, The Camden Co (or something like that); ahead of me, i spot Delice de France, The Upper Crust; there’s the Patisserie Valerie and AMT to my left. i have to be quick. so i walk all the way to The Chocolat. had i been even half as focussed as i am on this fix of cocoa, i would have broken all academic records at my school, i think. there are a lot of youngsters inside. couples, i mean. the uncommitted ones. why uncommitted? no idea. they all look like they’re ‘experimenting’ – speaking in low tones to each other, their spaces merging; some giggle softly, eyeing the hundreds of varieties of chocolate bars, lollies on sticks, gooey cookie shapes, the colourful tubs of candies and choco-dipped nuts…but i had only ten minutes, remember? i walk to the nice lady behind the counter.

“one hot chocolate, please,” i say.

“Whicha vone, darlin?” she points to the board on the top left. i see only the images as she rattles on a list of what they have on offer: “shoco vaalentinio? vannilla? or you wish shoco rasabaerry? 100-percento shocolateo?…” my brain has switched off. she is waiting, indicating she doesn’t have the time. i feel like Sridevi’s character in the film, English-Vinglish. in my mind, the digital clock on the indicator blinks red. fight or flight?

“i just want hot chocolate, please,” i repeat.

“you wante the 100-percento shocolateo?”

“yes-yes, thank you!” i am relieved.

i pay her. my order arrives shortly. i take my cup and run. it smells inviting.

i arrive at the platform just two minutes before the train departs. there are very few seats vacant. i plonk myself on the first one i find. to my left is a lady in a white feathery fleece coat. dignified. the compartment is full. to my right is an elderly gentleman who seems tired. the rest, sitting across, flip through free copies of the evening standard. an asian family – visibly new to london – speaks in sinhalese tamil. one of them has spotted my brownness; she smiles. i return it sincerely, yet without feeling.

i should sip my chocolate now, i think. wait! i get my book out of my bag. the man to my right has begun to doze. we have reached our first stop. i turn to my left to look at the name of the station – my gaze is interrupted by the image on my glamourous neighbour’s mobile phone, which, plainly, is in my line of sight. i try to look away, but it is too late. in a fraction of the second, while she had been gently swiping her polished thumb across her touchscreen, i have been an accidental witness to two pictures on her phone. they are both of a man’s naked bottom.

i admire the human mind. what a range of emotions it can compute in a matter of flimsy moments. absent-mindedly, i sip from my cup. i almost choke again. 100-percento shocolateo. she meant, dark chocolate.
i wonder if i should feel betrayed. in my head i hear faint laughter. my own. poodi teernu alle?

i think of the 3-odd pounds that i paid, for all my dreams about a satisfying mug of hot chocolate…i look at the cup in my hands – as if it would sweeten by magic. next time, i will try another flavour, i decide. for now, i think of the benefits of the dark brew. good for fibromyalgia fatigue. tick. i imagine an army of (very bitter) antioxidents in my mug fighting the free radicals as they cruise down my throat and into my system. tick. maybe it is not that bad after all. i relax. maybe it is working already. in a strange way i feel sorry for the woman with the mobile phone. she should get one of those tinted screens, i think, the poor thing. behind my open book, i feel a smile on my face. i relish my drink. i tell myself, i have had a long day. i deserve it…for the good person that i am…

October 18, 2016

Fear is a black hole

It feels strange to restart my journal on this subject, but getting to the bottom of this black hole has somehow turned into a self-imposed project these days.

Fear. It takes years of conditioning: under the pretext of discipline, of respect. It lurks within like a dementor, surfacing when you least expect, turning normal, unassuming joyful events into missed opportunities, if-onlys’ and such regrets. It is imposed, ironically, by those who crave the power they already have been granted. By those who fear losing that power.

When I was growing up I was always afraid. Of my parents, of letting them down, of life at school, of subjects like math and history, of failure at sports, of being bullied, of not having friends, of having friends. When you begin to analyse it on a psychological level, a pattern emerges. The laws of fear are such that if you are a person who easily fears, you will always find yourself surrounded by some people who will feed off your fear. Your fears grow roots that are unshakeable. And so it continues. As the years roll on we tend to hide away some of these fears in little boxes that we believe we will never open, that if we close our eyes they will disappear. Some fears, with the passing of time, are overcome. We mature. But in the process the roots that lie in boxes unopened and ignored, are the ones that come back with a vengeance as various other demons. Their seeds intact.

I continue to fear authority. I fear confrontation. I fear fear. These, I am still working on.

My parents today are my friends. Tick. My school batchmates today – we laugh at each other, with each other (god bless you, makers of whatsapp!), I don’t remember being so connected before. Tick. School is a been-there-done-that – with a different perspective. Tick. History is no longer boring. I now believe we were just reading the wrong books, or taught the wrong way. I can say this having finally completed my phd thesis – most of it concerning a period of Indian history. Tick. Sports: I was daunted by physical activity because I never had the stamina in me. I learnt that it was the fibromyalgia all along. And now I’ve re-discovered badminton. I train to improve my game. To pull out the boxes I’d closed when I’d once lost a few games at school. It is addictive and I love it. Tick. Maths…er, no, this is a fear I can live with ;-)

Coming back to my rant, I am compelled today to write this journal entry as part of my personal, overcome-my-fear project. Because, unwittingly, I let my sons down today.

When I was at school my french teacher always made me stand outside the classroom even though I topped her subject. Everybody knew it. She probably didn’t like my face or the fact that I was always slow to respond. Fast-forward to 25-30 years later: my 4-year-old’s reception teacher in the UK has an uncanny resemblance to my old Indian french teacher. Coincidently I, too, got on the wrong side of her book a couple of times: once, I was late for picking him up (about 10 minutes; I was busy with my thesis!); another time, my son jumped the queue when he saw me (he was excited to see his mother – as any 4-year-old would be!). But she probably over-reacted – turning her face as if to deliberately ignore, as if to show that she is the boss. I fell for it. Fear. Authority. Confrontation. And so, this morning, because I was afraid he would be marked late again (albeit due to a perfectly legitimate excuse), I quit the queue for a photo shoot in my older son’s school for siblings and abandoned the opportunity. The three of us had woken up extra early, we practically ran to the school to reach on time. We were proud because, for a change, we did make it! We looked forward to treasuring a memory.

But then none of this mattered because I just quit the queue. My sons were both upset. I was frustrated. And for what? They both got marked late anyway. I should have waited.

Lesson learnt. My son’s reception-class teacher is NOT my school french teacher. I am NOT going to let her feed on my fear anymore.

March 23, 2009

the big picture

i never forgot this journal, like i would never forget an old friend.

priorities changed, that’s all. the fibromyalgia is worse, stubborn as ever. my toddler keeps me busy all day – except for the two hours that i force him to sleep every afternoon. it is the only time i have to fill blank pages with words. it is painfully slow, considering the limitations. but i have got up to 17,000 words so far. another 60-63,000 and i might have the manuscript for a novel. my first. in the meantime i hope, that i can finish the thesis for my phd as well. i move on from one word to the next, from one day to the next, grateful for every thought and every moment. and of course, thankful for the miracles, and life’s many surprises. one of them happened last week.

she found me.

after 18 long years of silently waiting, not knowing where she had disappeared, last wednesday, my inbox contained an email with one half-line that said: viji here, you remember. reply if you remember.

it was 6am when i read that line. athri – who is now being potty-trained – was dancing without unlocking his knees, amma kakkooooos…remove nappy pleeeeaaaase…waiting for me to put him on his potty-toilet-seat. the milk was on the gas ready to spill over. praveen was in germany all week. i acted fast, not-feeling, numb. but wherever i moved, the line followed. viji here, you remember. i had thought it was just me, not able to forget her, narrating to people… i had this best friend in school you know. we used to sit on the same bench, for almost three years. after the tenth standard, she just disappeared. i don’t know what must have happened…i wrote her many letters. something must have gone wrong. i just hope she is safe… and then out of the blue, to hear a voice that is telling me: she knew! she knew! all these years, she also didn’t forget.

despite the five-and-half-hour time difference, we exchanged about 16 emails that day. we laughed and we cried. we spoke on the phone and realised we didn’t really remember each other’s voice at all. we laughed again. five days later now, i feel humbled. strangely at peace. from my big window, i see the clouds floating gently, without a sound, making way for the sun. and i know why.

we are but a tiny speck in the universe. our lives, tiny jigsaw puzzles. like the clouds in the sky, the moments in our life are the pieces of that puzzle, suspended in space and time. and sooner or later, like the words on this journal, like good old friends and soulmates, the pieces will all come together again. they just have to…

it is all part of the bigger picture.

February 2, 2009

back from sunny india…

 and guess who enjoyed the most :-)


December 11, 2008

just pretend

the past month was eventful. it took over two weeks for the family to recover from a silly winter flu. the phd workshops began, once a week, six of them in all. the penguin book, with my story in it, was launched this week. on the bbc asian network, i had my first, albeit very nervous, excited, *15 minutes of fame on the radio. this was the good news, a tiny hole of light in the large, looming dark cloud of the bad that continues to cast a shadow on every glittery thing in sight. for three days, indian news channels streamed a mumbai that its viewers had never imagined. two weeks have passed since, and i am still shaking. i surf the internet, unable to do any writing work, or reading for my thesis, drawn again and again to the stories of the attacks on mumbai. i had begun to believe that maybe every generation has to face a war, and that this was ours. i shudder, relieved that at least this time, i was wrong. this little boy’s face still continues to haunt me though, making me cry bitterly, almost wishing – for his sake – that he was a statistic too. i wonder if becoming a mother has made me a more emotional person. i never gave in so easily before. but i see his tears and can’t help feeling angry: it was certainly not worth it, not for him. not for anyone.

i hear of hope. mumbaiites will not forget. they will not let the politicians forget. miles away in a cold, cold london, i pray, and hope for a change. long ago, we had decided to move back to mumbai by end-2009, for better or worse. for our child. for our parents. for us. i waited till that decision wavered, flickered or died. it didn’t. and yet, i am numb.

i log into to my journal, my mind unsettled. wanting to say something. anything. then i see this poem, unpublished and in my drafts’ folder, written many days ago. i forget what the context was, or what had provoked me to type these words. now i think, what does it matter…

just pretend

what you give
comes back to you
in mysterious ways
up and down
they bob
paper boats
on a thoughtful sea
memories happy and sad
you forgot to keep
some drown
as you travel
leave you till
the end
in the mist
springs out
of the waters
you least expect
you come back
among loved ones
among friends
you recognise
the bricks you built
the strings
that came undone
along the way
it is that circle
of life
of what you gave
and what came back
to you
and how
you don’t recognise
that hand
it is your own.

know it now
just pretend.

ps: shoefiend, i first saw the link to the penguin decibel prize on your blog, and i thank you from my heart.
*15mb mp3 file

November 19, 2008


athri last month, learning to smile ‘on-demand’

happy birthday, athri kutti!

of all the days in 2008, you, your father, and i have picked today to be ill with flu. but just you bounce back to your cheeky-monkey-self; we’ll get better too, and then we’ll all have a very very aappy budday. okay? now can we have that smile again, please?

November 14, 2008

the best instruction

brian schofield is reminded of an episode when his friend kate summerfield won the samuel johnson award for non-fiction. he doesn’t mention this in the entire length of his article, but going by the picture that goes with it, maybe that is what he means. well, whatever.

why i am putting it here is because it has the best piece of instruction i’ve ever seen in a long time.

When I was a university undergraduate, a female friend of mine got an invitation to tea from Professor Miri Rubin, the august early-modern historian (who’s now a regular on Radio 4’s In Our Time).

“I asked you here,” Professor Rubin explained, “to tell you that you are an intelligent woman. And throughout your life, people are going to be discomfited by that fact, and they’ll pressure you to conceal it. But you have to be strong enough to walk into the room and say ‘Hello, I am an intelligent and serious-minded young woman, and if that’s not to your taste, that’s your problem.’ Understand?”

Nodding weakly and gulping her tea, my friend hurried down to the bar, where we all had a good laugh at the Professor’s pronouncement. We hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. Fifteen years of real life later, it makes perfect sense.


November 11, 2008

the journey is what matters, not the destination

with my phd proposal  – round two – handed in for the registration process, i was told that i was the only one of the six that made it that day. the others would be given two weeks to rework and resubmit for another screening. i don’t need to say it; mixed feelings mushrooming again…

this second phase of the phd will involve a lot of note-taking, reading and writing, before my work will be submitted in june 2009 for a yearly status-check again. will i be on track? will my thesis be accepted? will it make sense once i am well into it…all these are questions that are flying around my head, like harry potter and ron weasley and draco malfoy on their quidditch sticks.

the workshops have begun: i just completed two and there will be five more to go before the year ends. after much struggle with extremely-low confidence levels (thanks to a school-syllabus that managed to drill nothing but the notion of ‘average-ness’ into its students) and the practicality of my thesis subject, i was stunned when i was told i had got through. by this time, i had also turned down a brilliant job offer…no more distractions now, i decided, for better or worse. i still hope it was the right decision. i started with the writing process.

at the workshop last week, when i saw 24 other candidates all doing a phd in various topics, i felt humbled. there is so much to learn in the world, so much to do, and there is no age to it (one of them is 65-plus!). by the end of the second day, with each of our enthusiasm and fears rubbing on each other, i came back home feeling numb. i had met my supervisor earlier in the day and she conveyed an issue that the panel had felt with my proposal. aha, so it hadn’t really got through, i asked. it’s always so comfortable when you’re with the others rather than ahead of them.

she said no, and flashed a smile that always manages to iron out any worries i have, instantly. i passed straightaway, she said. but there still was a change i would need to make with my thesis, though she herself felt it was unnecessary. i had already planned a structure and most of the thesis around it. now that would all have to be altered…

what is it with being a student that one is so vulnerable to mood swings. (alright, i have them even otherwise, but now i have student-moodswings as well as the non-student ones.)

at home, i played with athri, spoke to my mother in india, and tried to leave the day behind.

imagine my surprise the next morning when i see achchan’s email in my inbox. mothers. how they can sniff a child’s mind from a telephone conversation! i had not spoken to my father that night. the mail was a puzzle at first, but gradually i understood what my father was trying to say. only he would say it this way!

and i thought i should share this with you:

prepare to go on a trip

1. tickets
2. travel bags
3. cloth for every day
4. cloth for protection, wool, socks etc
5. camera
6. films
7. charting itinerary for every day
8. medicines
9. knife
10. dry fruits
11. salties
12. biscuits
13. paper plates
14. spoons
15. tooth picks
16. face tissues
17. perfume/eu de colone
18. spare chappals
19. books to read
20. chess/
21. playing cards
22. mobile phone
23. mobile charger
24. tel. index
25. small note book
26. ball pens/pencils
27. hat/cap
28. face wash/make up items
29. comb
30. razor
31. ….

you may add few more things and you may expand on every item of the type, quality, purpose of each item.
the journey will be over soon, but preparations take longer. after you come back you do not need the above preparations. you tell your story of how you enjoyed the trip.

i hope you got my point.

i did, achchan. thank you :-)

October 31, 2008

an open letter to aravind adiga

dear aravind adiga

an ostrich was whisked away from its homeland when it was very young. abroad, it was taught many rich things of wonder and beauty. it came back home one day after many years, very posh, bisleri in hand. when its shiny feathers were ruffled by some red dust raised by a few ostriches passing by, it clucked and stomped about in anger: bloody countryfellows! haven’t you been taught how not to drag your feet when you walk!?

i finally finished reading the white tiger, and as i closed the book on the train last night, i felt nothing but a sense of deep relief, and regret. relief, that i had survived reading your book. regret, that one more english-educated indian has learnt what was not part of the syllabus: shouting at the rooftops about how dark and dirty the country is. and look! they even awarded you £50,000 for doing that. well done!

alright. i needed to get that out of my head. now on to the white tiger.

you wrote a work of fiction, as your disclaimer says within the first few leafs of your book. balram halwai is a fictional servant. his master is fiction. and all that happens in between the master and the servant is imaginary as well. this part is good, something different, almost bollywoodish, and funny as well. but then – and here’s my problem with you – why did you, in your moment of glory, dedicate your story to the so-called dark reality of india? why do your interviews read like typical bbc news-reports:

Well, this is the reality for a lot of Indian people and it’s important that it gets written about, rather than just hearing about the 5% of people in my country who are doing well. In somewhere like Bihar there will be no doctors in the hospital. In northern India politics is so corrupt that it makes a mockery of democracy. This is a country where the poor fear tuberculosis, which kills 1,000 Indians a day, but people like me – middle-class people with access to health services that are probably better than England’s – don’t fear it at all. It’s an unglamorous disease, like so much of the things that the poor of India endure.

aww. how considerate. a rocket shoots up to the moon from a country called india, and suddenly there are concerns about millions below the poverty line, sitting outside their roofless houses and scanning the night sky. and my heart almost melted when you said:

If we were in India now, there would be servants standing in the corners of this room and I wouldn’t notice them… That is what my society is like, that is what the divide is like.

tch, tch, poor mr adiga. this is all you see in india. fortunately for you, the poor of india will not get their hands on your award-winning book. except of course, in the raddi shop, where it might fetch them an extra rupee or two, for the hardbound version. but i sincerely doubt if they’ll open and read it. isn’t that why you chose balram halwai as your protagonist? if you are so taken aback by the corruption in the country, you might have also felt, somewhere in your big heart, that perhaps the true darthvaders of india are some of its politicians. why didn’t you pick on them? they wouldn’t read your book either. why a servant, who you would not even notice, standing in the same room as you?

my dear mr adiga, the servitude in india, is not its dark side. it is in fact, for the servile, a potential way out of it. i am not a social service or human rights worker to argue with you over this, but considering that we were born the same year, and that i lived in india for 14 years more than you did, let me try.

india is a vast country. it has one of the oldest civilisations. one of the strongest systems of tradition and prayer. we have the caste system. we have always had kings and a multitude of their servants. now we have the rich and the poor. neither can do without the other. i have been a faithful reader of the time magazine ever since i can remember; i read stories about india on the bbc. but i know in my heart that neither time, or the bbc, will understand that strange balance.

back to your book.

i stop thinking about balram halwai. i think of tarabai, of pandu, sobha, sharda, ravi, heera…all of these who i met at some point during my childhood (i haven’t changed their names; their identity has been threatened already, thanks to you). the servants who scuttled in and out of the houses in our 13-apartment building. i think of laxman, swapnil, auto-drivers from my school and tuition classes, one of who was also a part-time servant at an advertising agency where i briefly used to work. and who often let me travel for free.

i try to imagine an alternate life for them, and i realise how they come with their own class divisions.

the illiterate rich

i recall the times when my mother insisted sharda’s eight-year-old daughter should at least learn to read and write. for no charge or cut in her salary, sharda’s daughter began to come to our house every afternoon. books, pencils and charts were all provided by my mother, and so was the education. about three weeks later, her daughter stopped coming to our home. the parents didn’t want to educate their girl-child. “her father doesn’t like it,” sharda reasoned, “after all she has to also work in some or the other house one day.” my mother used to take tailoring classes at the time, and offered to teach her, without a fee. sharda simply wasn’t interested.

you were right in observing that they are “witty, acerbic, verbally skilled and utterly without illusions about their rulers.” sharda definitely knew her space. as the only maid-servant at a colony of bungalows in lonavala, she earns over rs 2000 a day. they are richer than you think, mr adiga. they are comfortable. and they know what they’re doing. besides, not only are servants paid well in india, they are also given their dues for any extra chores they might have had to do during a wedding or festival for instance, and presented new clothes and baksheesh at the end of the day, from the ‘masters’ who can afford it. (er, you don’t happen to read amitabh bachchan’s blog, do you? i thought so.)

and then there are the rickshaw-wallahs in mumbai. did you, in your travels for time magazine, come across a few who have their own investment brokers and share market advisors? no? i guessed that as well.

as i write this, my mother is teaching heera’s son at home. the tuition master asked for rs 400 and heera couldnt didn’t want to afford it. my mother teaches him for free. and i am sure she is not the only person doing this social service. the servants don’t publish recruitment ads for teachers. that does not mean they cannot find a way out.

the vulnerable

sobha was young, very fast in her work. needless to say she was efficient. it was around the time i was getting married and a lot of guests were visiting us at home. one day, my sister discovered rs 500 was missing from her knapsack. there had been no one in the room that morning except for sobha when she went in to sweep and mop the floor. poor sobha. she thought the bag was a visitor’s and no one would notice. when my mother confronted her she admitted she was the thief. it was her first crime, she sobbed, she felt tempted to steal. five hundred rupees would fetch her a lot of things. but our house was in the midst of a marriage preparation. we couldn’t take any risks. my mother gave sobha the salary that was due, and sadly, had to ask her to leave.

pandu was a child when my masi adopted him. she and her family lived in a farmhouse and had two very young children of their own. pandu would gel in, she said. she fed him the same (freshly-cooked) food that she gave her children, new clothes for every festival, and my cousins gave him the books from school. he managed to learn a little. they shared their love for their pet dogs and the cows behind their house. they lived happily for about 10-12 years. when pandu was 16, he disappeared. my masi was shattered, not because pandu had stolen their valuables or money. he had crushed her faith in him. eventually, pandu was caught and the money retrieved. my masi did next what anyone else would. she slapped him. it was the only punishment he ever received from her.

the entrepreneur

tarabai was a great cook; she cleaned and mopped floors, and washed the dishes at peoples’ homes. her husband drank and used up all her money. she managed to save the rest for her son and daughter who she wanted to educate. one day some illicit liquor killed her husband and many others like him (i’m sure you would have heard or even written about these cases too). she used whatever money she had to set up a makeshift extension outside the kitchen that faced the road. she cooked and cooked. her vadapavs were popular all over thane. her children got the education she had always dreamed of. her son today owns at least a dozen superstalls, and eateries in the city. her daughter was married with pomp. after all, they are now part of the Indian middle class.

one other thing. when you talk about the india rising to be a superpower, with supermalls, and supersalaries for call-centre staff and the IT and the construction and the film industries all doing well, do you think the domestic staff working in people’s homes don’t get a hike? perhaps you must hire one to find out his or her monthly wage? even the veta advertisements in india show the bai to be english-educated and singing an english lullaby if you remember!

this is what the real colour of india is, mr adiga. it is not dark. it is not white. it has millions of shades. balram halwai is but one of them. but for the sake of those 36,000,05 gods, please don’t use him as a representative of india’s servitude class.

you are a good feature writer mr adiga. i remember reading some of your articles in time. but this time, i’m sad to say, the white tiger seems like one long fleeting feature about india from the eyes of an outsider. for the eyes of an outsider. and by deriding the country standing there on the booker podium, you only made it worse.

i hope your next book is a lot brighter, and i hope you find a good servant.

radhika praveen

ps: you should read shantaram by gregory david roberts. the author practically lived in dharavi for twelve years. there were murders and poverty and prostitution in his story as well, but it certainly didn’t feel dark. on the contrary, every word in shantaram reeks of hope and optimism. roberts is not even indian, but, unlike yours, his story reads like it is from the heart.

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