Three days in Mumbai: What a small taste of a small corner of a huge city can tell you (about yourself)

As I write this I am five days into my second visit to India in as many years. This time my stay is longer, my scope wider, my engagement deeper. It is as much about meeting, building and nurturing friendships and connections—long standing and new—as it is about “seeing a place.” One does not travel half the globe to inhabit, however briefly, a world that is so very different in texture, tone and sensations from one’s own without being open to experience. But it is a complicated negotiation at times.

As an outsider, and more specifically as a westerner from a city of a little over a million, I respond so viscerally to the intensity of the Indian metropolis. And yet I am ever conscious of my vantage point, skewed and out of context, informed by the romantic images of my youth and early adulthood—elegant colonial set-pieces, followed by the wave of popular biographies of Ghandi and Mother Theresa in the 80s. I do not wish to appear the starry-eyed searcher or the foreign curiosity seeker, for in truth I am neither. The attraction is real and formless. I feel it in my bones, but am hesitant to grant it words.

I am aware that I experience India from a point of both ignorance and privilege and to formulate a response to what I see and feel leaves me as anxious as a non-poet wanting to write about poetry but refusing to for fear of reading it “wrong”. As if there is only one way to read anything. There is no such thing as pure, unmitigated and unbiased experience.

And so to my present location: Bombay or Mumbai. With a population of over eighteen million souls, Mumbai is the largest city I have ever been in. It is arguably one of the very biggest on the planet. I have to confess I found it immediately oppressive and claustrophobic. From the moment you leave the airport, humanity crushes in on you. Densely packed slums crowd the space alongside the roadway, for kilometre after kilometre, giving way at times for marble and granite dealers, before returning again. Gradually the apparent quality of the hovels improves, but it is an urbanized poverty on a scale that is difficult to process. I knew it was there. Maybe I didn’t expect to see it so explicitly.

The ride into the city was endless. A thick yellow haze hung in the air and I began to regret my decision to hire a non-A/C cab. In the rear view mirror I could see the eyes of the driver watering. With the smog and exhaust fumes blowing in through the open windows, I wondered what it would be like to spend each day moving back and forth through the impatient traffic and gridlock hour after hour.

For the traveller who arrives by air, a city makes her first impressions in the journey in from the airport. Mumbai’s welcome is pungent and emotionally disarming. From the vibrant interior of an ancient yellow and black cab, I watch the corrugated metal landscape pass as we slowly descended into the city. I take no pictures. It would not feel right.

Once I am finally settled in my hotel in the Fort area of south Mumbai, I grab my backpack and head out. The streets of the city are noisy, fast and congested. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that they often appear empty in photographs—it’s an illusion!) They seem to change flavour and character from block to block. Crossing the street, even daring to walk along the edges where the uneven pathways are blocked, or nonexistent, is an exercise in blind faith. A motorcycle is likely to roar up behind you, racing against the flow of traffic, blaring its horn to make you disappear. A legless older woman working a rusted handcart down the side of the road is my new hero. I’m at odds to know what I think of this place. I feel a little pressed under the weight of the space.

As ever, I take note of the street dogs. Here they’re a rather sorry assortment of creatures, weary and worn. Perhaps they don’t stand a chance against the cats that appear to quite handily own this part of town.

My immediate destination lies in the heart of the Kala Ghoda arts district. The area is crowded. Following my friend google  in search of the library where the literary portion of the annual arts festival is to be held, leads me through a bag search, metal detector and frisking, and into a large square crowded with young people  A variety of  sometimes quite tacky horse-themed artworks are displayed and the selfie generation is quite enamoured of them all. I am a little perplexed. I later learn that this is a new addition to the festivities, one that has drawn large numbers of people, mostly young, in from the suburbs, not for the arts so much as the party atmosphere. This type of attraction and congestion alters the tenor of the area. Of course, I’m here for the festival too—a little unexpected serendipity—but fortunately the literary programming is taking place beyond this makeshift corral, across the road in a garden oasis behind the David Sassoon Library. There one is magically removed from the noisy traffic and crowds on the street outside.

Now on my final day in the city, at least one tiny corner of Mumbai is less strange. The streets seem shorter, less confusing. The architecture is beautiful. This part of the city wears its age with grace. I have been to the Gateway of India, the obligatory tourist gesture, and today I saw the sea from the other side, looking out from Marine Drive. A completely different world unfolds there. Large, expensive vehicles line the shady streets, students pour out of colleges and universities, and in the distance, across the waters, the towers of the city’s centre appear ghostly in the midday heat. But it’s hot. I don’t stay long.

So, after my first, brief encounter with Mumbai, three things remain: the gift of being a stranger in a place where, despite disorientation and an inability to comfortably communicate, a little semblance of familiarity begins to emerge; the necessary joy that literary community affords including the precious opportunity to meet, in person, supportive and inspiring writers previously known only online; and finally, the chance to experience a hectic, sometimes seemingly harsh, city at rest. Late last night, after a wonderful, long visit with a friend, I made my way back to my hotel through the quiet virtually empty streets. Ranjit accompanied me part of the way, down byways I likely would not have attempted on my own, until he was certain I knew where I was, and I finished the walk alone. Here and there men spoke quietly, or bid one another good night. On sidewalks, those without homes were already fast asleep, and lonely yellow and black cabs crawled by, hopeful for a late night fare.

Funny that such a huge city could test me by day, and win me over at night.

The expansive possibilities of Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote

As someone who has lived a landlocked existence with an endless sea of prairie grass stretching to the east and the high cresting waves of the Rocky Mountains rising to the west, oceans have long held an inexorable pull on my imagination. Every family holiday that brought me close to either the Atlantic or the Pacific was magic. When I was younger I was drawn to stormy seascapes, images of rugged wave-ravaged shorelines, and stories filled with high sea adventure and intrigue. Now it is something else, something quieter, more metaphysical, that possesses me. From the far shores of Vancouver Island to a lonely beach on the eastern coast of South Africa, I’ve welcomed, however briefly, the untethering afforded by the impossible emptiness expanding beyond me, and revived that longing that no river, lake or landbound body of water has ever been able to fully resolve.

And so, I come to Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote’s  astonishingly rich, endlessly engaging Jonahwhale, a collection of poetry that returns, again and again, to gather inspiration, stories and imagery from the watery depths. For Hoskote, who grew up in Goa and Bombay, proximity to the sea has been a constant, one which he admits informs his life, his awareness and his writing. But as an accomplished translator and cultural curator with a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity that extends beyond boundaries, disciplines and art forms, his work cannot be confined to any specific thematic template. His poetry welcomes a wide array of influences, follows maps and legends that navigate an extensive territory, and resounds with an eclectic musicality. The poems in this collection run from multi-voiced epics taking their cues from historical, literary, or artistic starting points, to one line aphoristic pieces and everything in between. This book has accompanied me these past six months, and yet every time I open it I discover a line, a passage, or a verse that pulls me in anew, to reread, refresh, and reconsider.

I cannot assess or review such an impressive collection, I can only respond, which is perhaps the best I can manage with any of the poetry I have read this year.

Divided into three parts, or movements, the first section, “Memoirs of the Jonahwhale” summons voices from a wealth of historical, literary, and linguistic resources, some self-evident, others detailed in the poet’s endnotes, which, I understand, reflect Hoskote’s desire to honour his scholarly self rather than an obligation to explain his allusions. Some of these notes, crafted with a curator’s attention to detail, are fascinating in themselves and may well inspire a reader’s further exploration, but, as one would hope, context, background, and intertextual sources simply enrich the reading experience. They are not essential to the appreciation of the rhythms, images and intensity of his poetry.

A strong musical sensibility underscores the entire collection, and here Hoskote draws on an abiding interest in modern avant-garde music—composers like Brian Eno, Terry Reilly, and Steve Reich—a passion rekindled for me in recent years. It is, then, not surprising that my favourite piece is “Baldachin”. In memoriam Bruce Conner, the American filmmaker whose masterwork Crossroads combines classified footage of nuclear weapon tests with an eerily sublime soundtrack by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleason, the poem also incorporates the looped trigger line of Steve Reich’s Cuban Missile Crisis inspired composition “It’s Gonna Rain”. The result is an extended prose/verse piece that pulses with the energy of an impending storm:

You are the company the name is you poisoner you cannot pretend you cannot hide you cannot swim in these neon currents I am become Death the destroyer of worlds this ocean one open mouth swallowing islands this art of making things disappear in a glow that throbs in the eye that cannot sleep this frame that’s come apart leached the colour from every drifting current this voice that shakes the continents no earthly thing trembles on its breath this baldachin of milk-white smoke has nothing to hide no crystal globe no night of mean knives no shallows no depths all ploughed bare all punctured all furrowed It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain

Beyond the sheer scope and wealth of Hoskote’s poetic vision, it is his keen sensitivity to rhythm, pacing, and visual space—the music and the architecture of a poem—that makes this collection so impressive, so endlessly engaging. If the first section contains some of the most ambitious epic offerings, complete with choral arrangements and refrains, the ten-part poem “Poona Traffic Shots”, which forms the second part, stands as sort of land-bound counterpoint tracing a cycle of rain-soaked ground voyages through countryside and memory, that calls back to the sea in its imagery:

The kick-starter has whooping cough, won’t purr.
.       A dead crow’s beak
points from the trash heap like the tip of a schooner
.       sunk in a shallow bay, a bruise
at first only grazed, then scooped by nautical furies
.       from the coast’s offered skin.

Moving into the final section, “Archipelago”,  the tone turns more intimate, not personal as these are not explicitly autobiographical or confessional poems, but smaller, sometimes quieter more focused, often inspired by art or classical themes. Like finely imagined poetic miniatures echoing history, the unforgiving beauty of nature and, as ever, rarely far from the water.

If literature can evoke a sensation so undefinable and expansive as that which I feel at the ocean’s edge, this wise and elegant collection comes close.

Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote is published by Penguin India.

 

 

 

Of secrets and sacrifices: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

The end of June is upon us and I have managed to get through Pride month with a minimal amount of stress and anxiety. In my city the official celebrations are not held until late August, but there is plenty of Pride around all the same. I have written before about my general sense of disconnect from the LGBTQ community, and the rejection and isolation I’ve experienced over the years. But to be honest, I look at Pride with some measure of envy. I wonder what it would feel like to be able to celebrate myself for who I am and not wish, after all these years, that my life had been different.

There is, in many a queer life, an inability to negotiate the public and the private, the secret and the shared, in a fluid wholistic way. Sacrifice becomes an element of existence in the world.

Time, place, and cultural considerations have long had an impact on queer lives lived. Set in Calcutta and California, Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is the kind of LGBTQ story that resonates with me, even if my own experience is very different. A queer life dominated by a need to hide and a failure to find release and connection the way one longs for is not simply a story of the past. This novel speaks to the choices we make in our attempts to salvage some normalcy when what we need or long for is denied or feared to be impossible—a reality that reaches beyond the constraints of culture or questions of sexuality or gender identity.

This warm and richly woven tale examines the shifting dynamics within a traditional Bengali family as values slowly change in response to influences from inside and outside India. Roy, a writer and journalist from Calcutta, who lived in the US for twenty years before returning to his native city, draws on his own experiences growing up in a protected, comfortable family as well as the challenges and freedoms afforded by moving to America, in this multi-faceted exploration of the conflicts between identity, honesty, and obligation.

Central to the story is Romola who, having agreed to a marriage negotiated by eager family members, finds herself in small town Illinois with Avinash Mitra, a quiet young man she hardly knows. When a letter from India arrives one day, the homesick bride tears it open without checking carefully and finds herself holding a letter from her husband’s lover who had hoped that they would be able to build a life for themselves in the US, away from the prohibitions of Indian society. This man, Sumit, wonders why Avinash did not wait. Romola, unable to begin to process the information, tucks the letter away. She does not confront her husband. His secret remains with him, her awareness of his secret remains with her. Years later, after his father’s death, their son, Amit, finds the second page of the letter and assumes he has uncovered a piece of his mother’s hidden past. Secrets multiply.

Moving back and forth in time, this novel traces the childhood and youth of both Avinash and Romola, their years together as a family back in Calcutta where they raise their child in a multi-generational household, and Amit’s eventual settlement in San Francisco where he marries an American woman and becomes a father himself. A fine example of classic, emotionally balanced storytelling, each chapter adds to a network of secrets, large and small, creating a rich and bittersweet tapestry. Roy resists the temptation to break open the fragile restraints that bind his main characters, and although not entirely without hope, there is a deep sadness at the heart of Don’t Let Him Know. For Romola this is often expressed in a degree of repressed bitterness, making her, at times, less than likeable. Avinash, by contrast, withdraws. He often appears to fade into the sidelines, something that anyone who has lived for a significant amount of time closeted or otherwise invisible will recognize. His first attempt, later in life, to connect with other gay men finds him awkwardly out of synch and results in an episode that is by turns humiliating, exciting, and potentially dangerous. As a reader, I longed to know him more, yet I admire Roy’s decision to tell this story, this way.

Many LGBTQ people exist in spaces defined by loss and longing.

There is more at play here, of course. Questions of class, race, tradition, and family honour also arise, but, as with the central conflict, these issues are woven into the texture of the story. Finally, this is a novel rich in sensual detail—light, scents, and sounds. Places, from the streets of Calcutta to suburban America neighbourhoods, are skillfully evoked. My recent stay in Calcutta enhanced my appreciation of that setting in particular, with the many small features I recognized adding an extra dimension to my enjoyment of this book. A more “conventional” read for me, perhaps, it turned out to be a perfect choice for Pride month,

Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is published by Bloomsbury.

As it is in our house: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.

India is a linguistically diverse country, with twenty-two scheduled languages, thirteen different scripts, and over 720 dialects. Yet when Western readers think of contemporary Indian literature, the work that most readily comes to mind  is typically written in English, whether by India-based or diasporic writers. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, which has garnered much attention over the past year, has been, for many English readers, their first introduction to a book originally written in the South Indian language, Kannada. As one of the long listed titles for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), even more readers will now have a good excuse to meet this established Indian author through this novel, his first work to be translated into English.

At first blush, Ghachar Ghochar seems an unassuming short novel—the story of a family whose financial circumstances take a turn for what should be the better, and the impact of their newfound fortune on their household dynamics. And so it is, but it is much more. Complicated undercurrents run through this tale, building to an ending with uncertain and disturbing implications. What makes it especially unsettling, and affecting, is the strangely passive, rationalization of the narrator. He practices a willful ignorance.

The novel, set in Bangalore, opens at our protagonists’ favourite haunt, Coffee House, with a description of Vincent, the attentive waiter and quiet confessor who tends to his customers’ need and listens to their woes with sensitive discretion. He is not an audience so much as a pretext for the unnamed narrator to unfold his account. Something is troubling the young man. But his concern is distracted. He seems to harbor a conflicted attitude toward women—lack of understanding even—that hints at but does not betray the depth of what we will eventually learn is the true nature of his anxiety.

What follows is a portrait of a joint family bound at all costs to the well-being of the bread-winner, a holdover from their earlier days when resources were limited and they learned to stick together, “walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.” However, that which once insured their survival in the face of financial distress, stands to destroy them once money is no longer a pressing concern. The story unfolds in terms of status, beginning in the present. The narrator who lives with his wife, his parents and his sister, and all are expected to defer to Chikappa, his father’s younger brother, the founder of the successful spice distribution company that has afforded the ascension of the family from a cramped, dirty house in a lower middle class area of the city to a smart, two-story dwelling across town. Although it is officially a family business, in practice there is little need for the other men to have more than perfunctory roles. The uncle manages it all and the family lets it be. Everyone except Anita, the narrator’s wife, who comes from a very different background and ethic.

Moving down through the family hierarchy, the narrative steps back in time to the years when the narrator’s father, his Appa, struggled to look after his family and put his brother through school on a modest salesman’s salary. Yet, even if money was ever in short supply, he placed great value on good honest, hard labour:

He was inordinately proud of being a salesman. “What do you think a salesman is . . .?” he’d boast, especially when launching into stories about his prowess—how, for instance, he’d managed to sell to a shop whose shelves were always brimming with tea. He polished his shoes every morning and put on an ironed shirt. He’d leave looking like an officer and return at night, wilted from the day’s sun, his clothes rumpled. One glance at his scuffed, dusty shoes was enough to betray the nature of his day’s work.

Everything changes when Appa is unexpectedly forced into early retirement. This is the impetuous his brother needs to act on a business scheme he has been contemplating and, although both brothers are co-owners, they soon find themselves ideologically at odds and as the spice firm takes off, Appa drops into the role of a silent partner, slipping into an increasingly defeated mood. His family worries about his sanity, but not for his sake so much as their concern about their right to his share of Sona Masala’s assets.

The narrator, who with his mother and sister all fall in place, more or less on level, below the two older men, makes much of the interdependence of his family, financially bound in poverty, emotionally bound in wealth. They are all at odds, in their own ways, with the world into which they have ascended almost overnight:

It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control the money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The sister, Malati, has a particularly disastrous, short-lived marriage. Amma, the matriarch, tries to mediate between family members and maintain their honour against an outside community she no longer knows how to negotiate. Meanwhile, the narrator seems to lose any drive or motivation he may have once aspired to. He too is given a title in the family business, complete with an office and income, but soon realizes there is little for him to do. His uncle has everything under control and no one dares to question what that really means. He takes to lazing around in bed and frequenting Coffee House, showing little ambition, afraid or unwilling or perhaps unable to break away and create a future for himself. With the addition of Anita, his bride by arranged marriage, the precarious household harmony is set completely off balance. The daughter of a professor, she comes from a different background with different expectations and little inclination to suffer fools gladly. She also brings the book’s title, a nonsense expression unique to her family meaning “tangled beyond repair” that she shares with her husband on their wedding night. Yet, it is unclear whether he understands the full relevance of this image before it is too late.

Told with a carefully weighted tone and an economy of words, Ghachar Ghochar is a deceptively easy and enjoyable read. It is not until one nears the latter pages of the book that a creeping unease enters the narrative. The protagonist notices many troubling signs, but repeatedly neglects to act. It is unclear if he shares his father’s tendency to despondency or is simply too self-focused. The troubling factor is that this type of opting out, is not an uncommon response for young men when they cannot find their footing under shifting socio-economic conditions that they feel, rightly or wrongly, are beyond their control. In the Indian setting, the complications of family dynamics and expectations exacerbate the situation. And this, for me, is the real strength and tragedy of this slender volume. There are no easy answers, no heroes, no clear resolutions.

Too much like real life.

Ghachar Ghocharby Vivek Shanbhag is translated by Srinath Perur, and published by Penguin Books.

In praise of independent publishing and a link to my interview with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books

It is no secret to regular readers of my blog that I am a great admirer of Seagull Books and that earlier this year I travelled to India, a visit in part motivated by a desire to visit the offices of one of my favourite independent publishers. Admittedly some of my non-bookish friends wondered at my choice of destination, the city as much as the country. Because there is a publisher you want to meet? But if Seagull’s presence in Calcutta offered me an excuse to spend a couple of weeks in a place I had only idly imagined I’d ever be able to visit, it was a trip I undertook on my own, at my own expense. And along the way, another independent publisher that I strongly believe was also part of my journey.

Passing through London on route to Delhi, I selected a flight schedule that would allow me to make a detour into the city for a short visit. (As much as I’d love to spend more time in London it is beyond my means.) There I had lunch with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless publisher (editor, chief cook and bottle-washer) of Istros Books. Specializing in literature from the Balkans and South-East Europe, Istros is dedicated to discovering and promoting exciting, challenging new works from the region. Their philosophy is that “quality knows no borders.” Over the past few years, Susan has become a friend and inspiration. This year, because I wisely decided not to try to navigate London on my own as I did a few years back, we had time for more than a rushed coffee.  We managed to fit in lunch at the British Museum, a stroll through the Assyrian exhibit, tea with poet and translator Stephen Watts (whose partner has translated work for Seagull because, of course, it is a small world), and even a quick stop at the LRB Bookshop! Both of these  publishing ventures have several important things in common. They are willing to engage with their readers, booksellers and reviewers. They submit their books for awards. They are supportive of other independent publishers and understand the importance of facilitating connections, not building walls. They are not unique in this, but surprisingly there are some independent publishers who do not seem inclined to make the effort. And it shows. Translated and non-mainstream literary circles are very small and many of us who read and write about these literatures are relatively isolated from like-minded souls. The conversation is critical and it does help promote and sell books. And it helps make life just a little bit richer too.

This connection between reader and publisher (or rather the vision or philosophy that a publisher inspires) is one of the subjects I wanted to pursue in  the conversation I had with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine. He is, naturally, looking at the big picture against my individual perspective, and yet responds with the grace and wisdom he is widely respected for and that has served him well, against all odds, for over thirty-five years. You can find my piece here.

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As an added note, Seagull has recently learned they have to relocate and are looking to find a new home in South Calcutta. I hope they are able to secure a suitable space soon. When they do, perhaps I’ll have to go back to check it out…

On another way of seeing and remembering Calcutta: A link to my photo essay at Sultan’s Seal

Before I went to Kolkata last month, my strongest visual image of the city was not informed by guide books, travel websites, or National Geographic features. Rather, it was Naveen Kishore’s haunting black and white photographs of his hometown that captured my imagination. I remember, in particular, a darkened residential street—Calcutta, at night—quiet and empty. What would it be like to be there?

Naveen Kishore’s photographs on display at the Seagull Books store.

And, of course, I arrived to what seemed a circus of noise, colour and crowds. It wasn’t until I began to pull out my phone as I navigated the streets of Bhowanipore, that I began to see the neighbourhood in which I was staying. Even when I had my proper camera with me, I continued to use my phone, for the built in GPS as much as for the ease of uploading and sharing photos along the way.

But I knew that I would want to do more. Photographs have increasingly become part of my creative process. And when I use them in concert with words, I feel liberated to edit and manipulate them as much as I edit and manipulate language to express myself. The images that accompany my recent essay for RIC Journal were processed to heighten the colour and dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the text. The photographs that comprise the piece that has just been published at Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal website are entirely different in style and intent.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist, journalist, and very fine photographer. Over the years he has provided a home for photo essays by a number of excellent photographers and photojournalists. My humble contribution is entirely personal, again a reflection of my time in Calcutta, this time in black and white. The ordinary and the extraordinary. Twenty-four images—sometimes detailed, sometimes stark—and a simple text. And that special magic that only be conveyed with black and white (and all the shades of grey).

You can find my piece, Calcutta in Grey here. With much gratitude to Youssef for putting it together so beautifully.

Brief notes on returning home from travel and a link to my photo essay at RIC: Journal

Kolkata is not a place that inspires indifference. It has been almost exactly one month since I left it behind, and yet my thoughts and imagination are still occupied by the city, the people I met, and the experiences I had.

Now that I’m home, with the endless winter so very slowly melting away, I am once again confronting that familiar heaviness that weighs me down and reminds me how hollow and lonely life here can be. Perhaps it is this perennial inability to fit in that drives the restless traveller on. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a photo essay, just published at the wonderful RIC:Journal. This is, in words an images, an attempt to hold my first encounter with India close just a little longer.

You can find my piece here. With gratitude to Saudamini Deo.