Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ma Gupu in Jehangir Hospital, Pune

The general ward at Jehangir Hospital, Pune, is a crowded kind of place. When I entered, I looked around for a while before I saw this spunky-looking elderly woman sitting upright near a window, reading the newspaper. Her back was to the sun – sunlight helps in healing she later told me, and she’d asked that they move her to a bed near the window a few days ago.
In case you’d like to spend some time with Mrs Gupta too, she’s in bed 166. They won’t transfer the phone line, but if you call ahead to check that she’s still there, it’s +91-20-26050550 or 26122551, and she now uses her maiden name, so ask for Nergis Barucha. She has been discharged, but is still using the hospital facilities until her relatives decide how she is to be looked after and come to get her.
She wasn’t sure exactly when that would be – “Maybe today,” she said. It kind of reminded me of the time when I was five and in boarding school for the first time (Nazareth it was) waiting for my parents to come visit me. “Maybe today,” I would think when I woke each morning and found, heavy hearted, that I wasn’t at home. But Mrs Gupta isn’t feeling sorry for herself or anything like that – she’s just waiting, practical, cheerful – only just a tiny bit worried about how she will pay the ayah since the money the relatives left when they last visited ran out a few days ago.
Since Mr. Gupta died seventeen years ago, she has been teaching at a school in Panchgani. She told me that she works from 8 in the morning till 7 in the evening. Her favourites are the 1st standard kids, but she still teaches Geography, French and English to classes 9, 10, 11, and 12. And she is very involved in running an English-medium school for underprivileged kids, too. One morning last month, she woke up and started getting ready as usual when she suddenly found – she’s not quite sure how exactly – that she’d fallen on the floor. She got up, tended to herself as best as she could (haldi and sugar, patted around for broken bones, bathed in neem water – you know Ma Gupu) and went off to work. It was only a few days later when she collapsed and had to be driven in to hospital. Here the tests showed her to be in excellent health and physical condition – except for the matter of one broken vertebra. That was three weeks ago.
“Everything happens for the best,” Mrs. Gupta told me. “In ’48 I broke a vertebra and it caught a nerve that affected my left leg. Now that nerve is free and my leg is fine! In any case, I’ve been working too hard. This is god’s way of telling me that I really need to rest.”
Ma Gupu then told me about how she found strength in the story of how a young Tibetan boy had jumped out of his monastery window when the Chinese broke in, hanging in terror to a ledge until he finally said to himself, “in the name of god, I let go!” It worked for the Dalai Lama, and now, when in despair, Mrs. Gupta says to herself, “In the name of god, I let go!” and let what will, happen.
While that’s probably what keeps her so cheerful and relaxed despite everything, it’s also probably why she blithely donated all the money left by Mr. Gupta, including his entire Provident Fund to Lawrence School, for the education of underprivileged children. And why, when a group of OLs got together last year and quietly sent her gifts of money, she put it in a Bank of Maharashtra fixed deposit when the manager promised her benefits of various kinds, but she’s in hospital today without insurance, and she doesn’t even have an ATM card.
Mrs. Gupta is eighty-one years old. I went to visit expecting to see an enfeebled, incoherent, bed-ridden invalid. But she was sitting in a chair, recognized me at once (we last met in 1977 when I was fifteen) and we chatted on and on. She asked after my parents, whom she remembered very well, and I spun out all the “happily ever afters” of my life for her. And she told me about her days as principal at Horseley Hills, and how Mr Gupta died, in Sardarshahr (a town in Rajasthan with, incidentally, the most god-awful roads you can imagine), just one month after they went there to start a school, She even told me about the time she took Ramesh Venkat* himself (a great favourite of Mr Gupta) to the HMs office for some awful misdemeanour. A doctor doing rounds walked by and asked how she was doing. “Preparing for a trip to Everest!” she said.
She wore a full shoulder-to-waist harness. “Makes me look like Jhansi ki Rani or maybe Joan of Arc gone awry,” she joked, and told me how when she’d said that to a group of youngsters visiting an accident victim in the ward, they’d replied, “No, no, ma’am, you look like Cleopatra!”
As I was leaving, I told her that I would spread the word in the OL community. So she said to pass on her very best wishes to all for Christmas and New Year.
In case you want more news about Mrs. Gupta and can’t actually come to Pune to visit her, feel free to mail or phone me, 9823144189. And in case you want to help, do get in touch.
*Present HM of Lawrence

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bombay Clichés at Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery

Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery is a pristine space – beautifully maintained and managed. As someone without training or experience or even artist friends, I am so very fortunate to have had my first show in this classical and highly-regarded gallery, from 6 to 12 November this year.
By another stroke of great good fortune, the show was covered by many publications – including every major newspaper in Bombay and Pune. Partly this was because of its theme – Bombay. But the real reason for the huge publicity was because it was the prominent art critic Ranjit Hoskote himself who gave me the names and phone numbers of all the art correspondents. I know Ranjit because for some years we worked in the same office (Times of India, Bombay) and I’m very grateful to him for sparing the time to view my portfolio and for his generosity in sharing the names and numbers.
The biggest coverage was in Sunday Mid-day (seen alongside) which does not have a particular art correspondent, but when I called the desk to ask if they would cover my show, the person who picked up the phone happened to be Alpana Lath. When I introduced myself, she told me that she used to make the pages when I wrote a column for the paper in the mid to late 1990s. She was now the editor, loved the images I sent her, and when the paper appeared with a full page devoted to them I was absolutely ecstatic. 
I’ve posted quite a few of the press clippings here, as I am very proud of them! Some were phone interviews, since I live in Pune. However, I visited the Time Out Mumbai office where editor Naresh Fernandes – whom I also know from my days with the Times. It was in the early 1990s, and he had just started his career; I enjoyed his writing style (as he did mine), and I made an effort to stay in touch, including during his stint with Washington Post. Naresh too found my work interesting, and it was a real thrill for me to be featured in Time Out!
All this press coverage, interestingly, did not bring a huge crowd of visitors to the show! Very few people actually came off the street and most of those who did were art students or people on a lunch break from nearby Nariman Point offices. It was a pleasure to interact with them and a spiritual learning experience to observe different reactions.
My first buyer came in on the second day of the show. I had brought around fifty paintings to exhibit – how and why so many were made in such a short time is described in these press interview clippings – and I spent that first long buyer-less day, 11am to 7pm, in the anxiety that I was going to have to take them all back home. The first buyer was an art collector, Sidharth Bhatia, who had read about the show in Sunday Mid-day. In fact we were acquainted, as he used to work with the Independent when I was with TOI ; they were owned by the same company as the Times and had their offices in the same building.
Not surprisingly, there were quite a few paintings left at the end of the show. But I was lucky again, as they were all packed and taken on commission by Niloufer Kapadia of the elegant Fourth Floor gallery at Kitab Mahal. She had read about the exhibition on the alumni network of The Lawrence School, Lovedale, where we both had the great good fortune of having studied at.
When I read what I’ve written above, it strikes me that the success of my show was much more about being in the right place at the right time than any particular artistic talent. And I think that sentiment is also reflected in the welcome note I wrote for visitors to the gallery, which I displayed on its notice board:


And thank you for visiting this exhibition of Bombay Clichés!
I lived in a city called Bombay for many years. 
All that while, I never forgot the feeling I’d had, when I first came here as a teenager (an extremely awkward teenager from a rather cloistered, privileged background) of being an outsider. The feeling came back to me very strongly when I started working on these paintings and I noticed that my characters had turned out (quite unwittingly) to be rather calm and self-contained, so caught up in their own private worlds that they cut the viewer out completely. This reminded me of how I felt back then.
Today, nearly 3 decades later, and having lived away for 12 years, Mumbai is still the city to which for various reasons I feel most connected. When I started working on this collection, my idea was to use simple line strokes to portray the complexity that makes Mumbai an alluring symbol of the realities of the universe: constant movement, relentless expansion, predictable patterns, extremes of all kinds, seemingly precarious but perfectly reliable balance – and continuous change. I added the pen embellishments partly to represent the frolic and bustle, partly because I was trying to create an innocent, folk art effect - but in the end because, really, I’m a writer and not a painter at all.
The paintings are priced at Rs. 5000 each.
In case you want one which you can’t see here – any particular scene, colour combination, design – I’ll be happy to make it for you!
Here, then, is my outsider’s view of “my” Bombay. I hope that you, visitor or native, will feel the warmth and humour of these scenes as I do.
Saaz Aggarwal

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Communities, Mumbai

“Table join-madi,” I requested, delighting the Chembur roadside restaurant waiter with my fluent Kannada, and he hovered around for more, eventually disappointed to find that there wasn’t any. Partly it was the way I casually stretched out that “join”, but mostly it was the word madi, a handy and flexible connector with strong cultural and philosophical undertones that enables one to string together words of practically any other recognizable language, and distinguish oneself as reasonably-versed in Kannada.
It’s true of every city, but more particularly true of ours. Distinct subcultures – tight, village-like communities – coexist in painstakingly carved-out domains. Some are conceptual, and circumscribed only by their own peculiar rituals and culture. But locality, of course, is the most common determiner of community: for years I have thought of Colaba as my village, with familiar faces dating back thirty-five years and more. Back then, I was an ethnic minority so rare that there were only two of us, my brother and me. Our lives had a sheer backdrop of pain and isolation, unable as we were to shelter in any of the community niches of our compatriots. But today, along with exponential choices in areas as diverse as fizzy drink, career and Internet vendor – choice of community too abounds.
Occupants of the same carriage in the local each day are subject to hidebound, time-bound hierarchy and sacrament of great significance which set them apart as a unique entity. Members of Mensa have all the uppercrust edge of Brahmins with five-thousand-year old traditions. Those who met and married through the TOI Matrimonials will have a fellow feeling for others who did the same. Beggars at each separate traffic light have distinct territory, vision and mission, and (unwritten) industry best practices all their own. Even intelligent-looking women who sniff disparagingly at buffet tables, dismissing them as “press conference food”, will pass each other on the street with a certain cosy familiarity of attitude. It’s this fundamental sociological reality that gets you the very best idlis in Matunga, and, if exotic pure-veg concoctions in world cuisine figure on your scheme of things, you will surely take your NRI visitors for a meal at Shiv Sagar.  Every minority group – religious, sex-related, educational, privilege – follows its own set patterns.
Threads link individuals, (as madi did the waiter to me), forming a link between their communities, and this integrates the whole. In the case of Mumbai, despite the staggering different categories, there is a well-defined and easily distinguishable amalgam. This stereotype describes us as brisk, business-like, goal-oriented, action-oriented and completely no-nonsense. It goes on to flatter us as highly adaptable, and with a high tolerance for discomfort but a low tolerance pretence or posturing.
And yet, each little microcosm characterizes a whole host of different habits and rituals which engender a vital sense of belonging. Everywhere we go, we bump into others of our particular ilk, and this, despite the teeming multitude, gives rise to the illusion that Mumbai is actually quite a compact, well-knit place.  It’s all we can do to keep regulating our various faces to retain our rightful places in each community while maintaining the sanitized front of a Mumbaikar. Or, as we say in Kannada: “Adjust-madi”.