Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The secular Sanghi

On this day in 1997, Vishnu Shahani died. His widow, Rita Shahani, would write:
He had not been ill. There was no warning. No intimation. There was no goodbye. When I woke up that morning, he was gone. 
Years later, I worked with Rita to bring out an English translation of the (Sindhi) book she wrote after Vishnu’s death. As we got the book ready for press, Rita died. It was a shock. Her daughter, my dear friend Madhavi Kapur, launched the book a few days later on 23 November 2013, a tribute to both her parents Rita and Vishnu.
Tragically, less than six months ago, we lost Madhavi too. For many of us, the pain of that loss will always remain.  
Madhavi resembled her father Vishnu in many ways, specifically in her strong principles and commitment to social welfare. At the core of Vishnu’s identity was his commitment to Hinduism. Today the Rashtriya Seva Sangh (RSS) is perceived as a fundamentalist organization: inflexible, chauvinistic and with a capacity for violence. Vishnu, a dedicated Sanghi, was open, caring and devoted only to truth and the betterment of humankind. 
While Madhavi’s biggest contribution is in education and she is remembered with love and gratitude by her thousands of pupils, she is also well known for her unwavering stand towards secularism in India. On one occasion, she took a Pune housing society to court because they refused to accept a Muslim neighbour. She won the case, the Muslim family moved in to the building - and very soon they were accepted by their neighbours and integrated.
Thinking about Madhavi today, I wanted to do something that would have made her happy. So I uploaded Rita's book and you can click on Tales from Yerwada Jail to read it if you want. 

Tales from Yerwada Jail
At bedtime every night, Vishnu Shahani’s two young children refuse to sleep until he tells them a story from his time in jail. Vishnu’s stories embody a spirit of adventure, and the youthful excitement of overcoming a powerful and oppressive enemy. He speaks of personal involvement in the Indian freedom struggle, without a trace of complaint against the hardship he faced.
After Vishnu’s death, his widow, Rita, interviews others to get a fuller picture. She finds that the perception of each participant in the family’s history varies slightly. She pieces the versions together, allowing the differing interpretations to coexist.
Time has moved on, and while Indian democracy has survived, memories of the movement for freedom against Imperial rule have receded. The names of Gandhi, Nehru and just a few others, are remembered. Through the story of the Shahani family, this book honours the struggle and sacrifice of thousands of ordinary families in the 1940s.
Tales from Yerwada Jail also tells of the little-known contribution of the Sindhis to Independence, and their struggle to find livelihood and new homes after Partition.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

No thank you, nothing for me

So a few days ago, I happened to be walking down New Bond Street. Posh shops with people standing outside saying, ‘Try this! Try this!’ and handing out free cosmetics. I kept going and the chant continued, ‘Try this! Try this!’ After walking a bit I started replying, ‘No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.’ One guy said, “Try it! It’s free!!” I said ‘No thank you.’ He said, ‘Are you sure? Take it!’ I said, ‘No thank you.’ He said, ‘Ok, what do you use?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He replied, in alarm, ‘Nothing! WHY?’ So I was thinking, why do I use nothing? Why? Why? And I told him, ‘Because I’m a Buddhist!’ No sooner had the words left my lips than I was stricken with utmost guilt! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, what would my dear departed mother have felt to hear that! What a betrayal of her patriotic Hinduism!! We don’t believe in the caste system. We believe everyone is equal. But we’re Hindus! Yes, we’re Hindus! We don’t do sati. We’re fine with widow remarriage! My parents actually did ‘kanyadaan’ TWICE for me!!! And my dad’s final cremation rites were done by his daughter (me)!! But we’re Hindus. We never go to the temple – ever, ever. Actually, we do go - but only as tourists. All our worship is done at home, in private. Often in secret. But we’re Hindus! We don’t do pooja – ok, once a year, on Diwali! But we’re HINDUS. We don’t call it ‘karma’, we call it Newton’s Third Law of Motion (each and every action has an equal and opposite reaction). Still, we’re Hindus. All this was going on in my mind and the man said, ‘Ohhhh!’ and he bowed low and said, ‘have a nice day!'

Monday, September 26, 2016

Biscuits II

and now, my daughter is visiting from Kolkata.
Someone from her office just phoned:

Kya, Poona gayi?
Bataya nahin!
Kya baat hai!
Koi suspense hai, kya?
Biscuit lana, ok!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ode to a Bakery

So the other day I wanted some biscuits
Not just ordinary biscuits, mind
The biscuits I was craving
Had got to be light and crisp
Oozing with butter
Packed into square boxes
Immediately after they had cooled
Straight from the oven.
But it was morning!
What to do?
I was craving them –
And so were all my Bombay friends!
So I had to buy not one box but a dozen!
I phoned City Bakery
(Which opens for retail sale on weekday afternoons)
“Yes, you can come,” said Salamat Irani.
I rang the bell, he opened the door, I entered.
The door stayed open, just a sliver, behind me.
An elderly gentleman eased his way in,
Opening the door slightly more.
Two fat ladies entered
Chatting away animatedly
About the last dentist appointment
While they waited their turn.
A group of children came in
Then someone’s driver
Soon there was a big crowd waiting.
They had appeared mysteriously
Gravitated to the open City Bakery door
(Which stays closed all morning, every day)
Like ants when you drop a few grains of sugar.
Patient but eager,
They waited for their biscuits,

While my boxes got filled.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Happy Birthday - in Slovenian

The restaurant was noisy with a group of students. Their teachers sat together at one table. All of us were enjoying the delicious Greek food. At first I thought they must be American but soon realised they weren’t speaking English – except to the waiter, another surprise. The students finished and trickled out and the teachers stayed on, finishing their wine and enjoying their dessert. I just had to know where they were from so got up and asked them and was intrigued to learn they were from Slovenia. Never met anyone from Slovenia before. I said we were going to Meteora tomorrow and they said, “Oh that’s a long drive, nearly three hours!” When I told them that for people who live in Pune, a three-hour drive is something you’re quite used to, they said if they got in a bus in three hours they would be at the other end of their country.
Well, the baklava came in with a candle and they stood up and sang Happy Birthday Dear Ajay – in Slovenian! It was wonderful, but I pressed the wrong button so it didn’t get recorded. Everyone came to wish him, including the manager’s cute little children.
We’ve had many special moments in Greece but this was one of the most special on this very special milestone birthday … HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AJAY!

Friday, August 19, 2016

In memory of Ramananad (Bob) Savur 14 Jan 1936 to 19 Aug 2010

When I was young, my father told me, “You can be anything you want”. As a child, it felt like a gratifying affirmation of my capabilities. Only as an adult have I realised how lucky I was, an Indian woman of my generation, to have the kind of freedom I had – to travel alone at a young age, to read whatever I wanted, to think and behave independently, to make my own decisions, to never even imagine that boys could be valued more than girls. I inherited a lot from my father, including my features and life attitudes. One of his most precious gifts was to be told I could be anything I wanted, the subtext of which was that I never needed to do something just because other people were doing it.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Monsoon Country 2

On a day like this, I feel grateful that I don’t live in Bombay anymore. Fifteen consecutive Bombay monsoons cured me of the concept that rains might be poetic or romantic because in Bombay what the rains represent is the stink of damp clothes, soggy biscuits, fungus on every untended surface, and turds and plastic bags that flap around your ankles as you try to cross a flooding road. (For a longer whine, please read Monsoon country 1)
One of the most striking annual features of those fifteen years of monsoon was a newspaper front-page headline which said, “City limps back to normalcy”. Usually on another day there would be a three-column photograph, an overhead street shot which showed nothing but large black Bombay umbrellas. Though the photograph was doubtless shot fresh every year, it looked like the same photograph. Surely they were the same umbrellas.
What ever happened to those umbrella photographs? I went looking for one a few years ago to illustrate something I wrote about in my book on stories from Sindh but could not find one and felt sorry that I had to send the book off to print without it. Eventually, I came across this on pinterest.
The reason I wanted it for the book was because something my mother told me made me realise that in Sindh in the 1940s, an umbrella was less a household item and more something you saw only in movies and magazines. What could the displaced people of Sindh, who had lost everything they had and arrived with nothing in Bombay, thought and felt when they encountered the relentless torrents of rain and the acres of jostling umbrellas of their new home?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The sari that travelled from India to Pakistan

Picture credit: Mukhtar Husain
On Eid day, I was touched to read this facebook post by my friend Rumana Husain who lives in Karachi. She was dressed in a sari that had travelled quite a long way to get to her – but I had not realised until I saw her photo and read her post how special that made it to her.
In February 2015, my daughter and spent a few days in Kochi as guests of our friend Mathew Anthony. I spoke at a Rotary Club meeting and Veda performed a guitar concert at David Hall, an elegant venue in Fort Kochi. One evening, Mathew took us to Kalyan Silks and we decided to buy a traditional Kerala sari as a souvenir of the trip. Knowing Rumana’s love for saris with different local traditions, I bought one for her too. I took it home and put it in my cupboard, and every few days (and, as time passed, every few weeks) would wonder how I was going to get it across to her. At first I was waiting for a visitor from Pakistan who would agree to carry it for her. As the weeks turned into months, I began thinking of taking it with me when I next visited London and requesting a Pakistani friend there to get it sent across to Rumana.
In April 2016, as I packed for a trip to London, I realised that more than a year had passed since I bought the sari. I stook looking at it and wondered what to do. Karachi wasn’t that far away – how silly could I get! I made a parcel and on 11 April dispatched it to Rumana by Speedpost. The post office clerk said that the parcel would reach in two weeks and I felt happy, anticipating my friend’s surprise and pleasure when she received it.
Two weeks passed and there was no word from her. Then another week, and then another. On 14 May, I telephoned Rumana to wish her Happy Birthday and could not stay silent about the sari any longer. I felt terrible hearing her thank-yous when there was nothing to show for it except the post office document which tracked the very interesting and circuitous journey her sari was on. It just did not make any sense to either of us. I kept thinking cynically that with the parcel having been opened so many times, the sari must have fallen out at some point and wandered off to another owner.
Rumana was visiting her son Adil in Singapore when the sari finally arrived at her home in Karachi on 1 June 2015. It was no longer important that it had taken so long, not even important that Rumana was not going to see it for another few weeks till she got home – the sari had reached! I was relieved. And a few weeks later, very moved to see her post and read what she wrote:
Eid Day! It called for wearing a very special sari. This sari was bought last year by my writer and artist friend Saaz Aggarwal in Kerala (she herself lives in Pune). It has a story, which you might find interesting: Saaz kept waiting for someone to carry it for me to Karachi but failed. Eventually she decided to parcel it. On May 14, my birthday, she called to wish me and asked if I had received the parcel. We were both upset to find that even after two months it had not reached me. She then went on a fact-finding mission of the lost saris of Kerala and Pondicherry (she has sent two) and learnt that the saris have had lives of their own! The parcel journeyed from Pune to Mumbai, then to Kolkata. It came back to Mumbai and then from Pune (or was it Mumbai?) it travelled to Karachi when I was in Singapore! Love this elegant sari, which I only saw on my return after a month. I decided to do some research about it and this is what I have found on the Internet. So come with me to this journey of the Kerala/Kasavu sari!
"Mundum Neriyathum (or its modernized version - Kasavu sari) can be traced back to the third century BC when Shraman tradition was spread all over Kerala. Shramanas followed a simple life style. They used to wear hand woven cotton which is yellowish off-white in colour. The tradition of golden coloured borders (Kasavu) along the Mundum Neriyathum might have been influenced by the Graeco-Roman "Palla" or Palmyrene. The Malabar coast had flourishing overseas trade with the Mediterranean world since antiquity. It should also be noted that traditional clothing of a region is closely associated with the local culture, climate and landscape. Mundum Neriyathum was well adapted to the tropical climate of Kerala. If you notice the traditional clothing all across the subcontinent, you can see that local people tend to wear clothes with colour contrasting to the landscape of that region. For example, the traditional colourful Rajasthani clothing match with the desert landscape of Rajasthan (same as our Tharparkar region); or the radiant traditional dress of Kashmiri women contrasting with the whitish landscape of Kashmir. Likewise, the off-white coloured Mundum Neriyathum contrasts well with the vivid landscape of Kerala." 
Ekta, Rumana, Saaz, Veda outside Rumana's home. Karachi, Feb 2013
Picture credit: Ajay Aggarwal


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sindhi Papad

Vikram Doctor curates a very high-quality food podcast. A week or so ago, he called to ask me if I could tell him something about Sindhi papad. I was reluctant because, though I have written a book about Sindhi stories and all, I don’t really know that much. To be honest, I do enjoy my papad, but it is not a tradition from childhood meals or anything like that. I told him I’d try and find out what I could and a few days later told him what I’d found out.
When I listened to the podcast, I must say I was impressed with the depth of Vikram Doctor’s research. At the low end of the spectrum was my own voice – embarrassingly pontificating. There was also one moment in one of the podcast interviews which I felt was unduly facetious. There’s a fairly widespread tendency to mock Sindh and Sindhis and I feel it is necessary to avoid anything low and of that nature.
Papad is certainly a Sindhi staple – that much even I know. But not everyone understands the strength that this simple staple embodies.
Angan of a joint family in Sindh
Watercolour on art paper by Menghraj Talreja (b1924)
Collection of Sanjay and Barbara Mohinani
In the old days in Sindh, papad was made at home. Women and children worked together in the angan, the courtyard, of the family home making the dough and rolling it out and laying it on mats to dry.
After Partition, families splintered, people moved to new homes and took time to settle down. Many enterprising women of families who had suddenly lost everything and had no means of income started making papad and pickle at home and walked from door to door, selling their produce to the better-off Sindhis in the towns and cities where they – equally displaced and confused – had settled, but not settled sufficiently to be making their own papad yet. Papad-making is a tedious and time-consuming process, and very soon more and more families were outsourcing from the displaced women who made it their profession.
Papad is eaten and enjoyed all over India but for the people of Sindh it has always been a staple. Sindhi hospitality is famous – when a Sindhi family is expecting a visitor, the first thing on their minds is what they are going to serve to eat and drink. A guest to a traditional Sindhi home would be greeted with papad and a glass of water, and this would invariably be followed by something more elaborate.  
Nobody seems to know the origins of papad but in a dry and blazing hot province of very little rainfall, in a time before refrigeration and air-conditioning, before even the waters of the bountiful Indus were diverted into a widespread irrigation system, it’s easy enough to imagine the process of evolution by which papad naturally emerged from leftovers in Sindhi kitchens!
The most common Sindhi papad is made with a mixture of urad dal spiced with lots of black pepper. Some people add jeera, hing and other flavours. The stiff dough is rolled out into circles like extra-thin rotis, placed on mats and dried in the sun. The papad is usually roasted on a flame and eaten, but on special occasions it is deep fried.
Goodies on sale outside Kailash Parbat, Mumbai
Sindhis also make wadi, kheecha and kachri which are different kinds of dried ready-to-fry goodies. Wadis are little nuggets of dal ground up and dried in the sun and they can also be added to gravy dishes. Kheecha are also papad, but made with rice or sago. Elderly Sindhi women relish their memories of eating deep-fried miteranji kachri with saeebhaji-khichdi, one of the most popular Sindhi meals. In Sindh, kachri was made from traditional Indian vegetables like bhindi, gawar, karela and padwal, spiced with salt, chilly powder, amchur and other flavours, and dried in the sun. Nowadays, vegetable kachri is rare and the terms kachri and kheecha tend to be interchangeable.
Roasted papad is a must at each meal in a traditional Sindhi family. Even breakfast of loli or alu-mani, or syel mani is always followed by papad. Papad is such a strong habit to many Sindhis that they absolutely must eat it with every single meal.
Among the Sindhi Bhaiband community which has trading outposts in every port across the globe, papad is rolled, dried, packed in the home country and sent out to the men in distant lands. In the early pioneering days of the community, they bootstrapped in faraway countries, enduring hardship and working to earn money for their families at home. They often had cooks who took care of their meals, but papad was rare. As they became prosperous, they could eat whatever they wanted and often arranged for consignments of papad from home.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Back in Mid-day, after a long while ...

Out of the blue, Dipanjan Sinha called a few days ago with questions about my paintings for Mid-day. I haven't shown for a while and it's gratifying to be remembered even after such a long gap.
1 Tell us about what inspired the series Bombay Clichés.
The 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.
2 How long did it take to for the images accumulate and become the collection?
I started working in June 2005 and had my first exhibition of Bombay Clichés water colours at Bajaj Art Gallery, Nariman Point, in November the same year.  In February 2006 I had another exhibition, Love in Mumbai, acrylics on canvas, at the Oberoi Hotel gallery, Art Walk. This was a collection of devoted Mumbai couples working and living together oblivious of Valentine’s Day. My website came up in 2007 and I had a show every year in Mumbai till 2010. Now I paint mostly on commission, though when I see something intriguing I tend to rush home and pick up the paints.
Acrylic on canvas board 12"x12"
Collection of Shanth Mannige
Rainbow City
Acrylic on canvas board 12"x12"
3 What is the thought behind using the Madhubani style?
Decades ago I saw a British Library calendar with Madhubani drawings depicting London and thought how nice it would be to have something like that for Mumbai. I eventually realised that if I really wanted them I’d better get on with it and make some myself.

4 Tell us about your journey as an artist
As a child, my drawing was so bad that my Biology teacher sometimes held up my diagrams, which invariably provoked great hilarity in the class. I was more into stitch-craft, designing and executing needlework art, something I still do.
I can’t remember when my lines started flowing confidently but as an adult I doodled Ganpatis and they were quite popular. When I decided to do the Mumbai scenes, I planned black-and-white pictures on similar lines.
In those days, my three children were exceptional artists. Their early exposure came from Marina Dutta, who runs classes in her home in Colaba, supplemented by books about great artists visits to art galleries. When they grew older I invited art teacher Mahendra Damle to spend two or three days at a time at our home in Pune during the holidays and give them art workshops. It was Mahendra who brought me a book about Madhubani art in June 2005, explained the difference in fundamental concept between Western art and traditional Indian folk art, and then insisted I paint what I had drawn. About two weeks after I started, I went to see Mahendra at the JJ School of Art staff room, with my portfolio. He sat quietly for a while, looking at each painting carefully and then said, “Saaz, what you have done in these two weeks, people try their whole lives and can’t do.” This gave me the confidence to approach a gallery.
Tell me what you're thinking
Acrylic on roadside stone
Over the years, my writing has taken precedence over the painting. A few months ago, I got a call from Gauri Gandhi, a teacher at Flame University, asking if I’d participate in an event at Mandai, a beautiful old market in Pune. On 26 January 2016, a group of us sat with the vegetable vendors at Mandai at sold our wares – I did a basket of faces on roadside stones.

5 A lot of your work is on Mumbai. What about the city moves you?
For the first three years after I came to live in Bombay, from a privileged and cloistered childhood in the Nilgiris, I was in culture shock. Then a time came when I thought I would never live anywhere else. Now, nearly twenty-five years after defecting to more space and leisurely lifestyle in Pune, Mumbai is still the city to which for many reasons I feel most connected.
Part of the fascination is the complexity of so many different communities inextricably and often incongruously intertwined, coexisting in a fast-moving flux held together by the simple Mumbai parameters of goal-orientation, action-orientation, tolerance for discomfort, and straight talk.
Female education
Acrylic on canvas board 12"x12"

When I started working on my Bombay Clichés, I saw that my characters were turning out to be calm and self-contained, so caught up in their private worlds that the viewer was quite shut out. It reminded me of the feeling I’d had when I first arrived, of being an outsider. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Shikarpur boy who built a Rs10K empire

Yesterday, Pune lost one of its stalwarts of industry, PP Chabria. Founder and Chairman of the Finolex Group, Mr Chhabria died at 86 after a brief illness. He was widely known to be gentle, dignified and the personification of humility. He was also a man of extraordinary achievement.
Prahlad Parsram Chhabria was born into a wealthy business family of Karachi, on 12 March 1930. As a child, he spent happy times in his native town of Shikarpur, the love for which he carried to the end of his days. When his father died, he was just twelve years old. Within a short while, the family lost all its money. He was taken out of school and went to work in what turned out to be a series of menial jobs. As a helper in a cloth store, he got used to winding up bales of cloth, sweeping and even washing the shop owner’s lunch utensils. As a cleaner in a truck, he sat next to the Pathan driver and in a few weeks was able to converse with him in fluent Pushtu. After two months working with his brother-in-law in Amritsar, he had picked up Punjabi too. In later years, living in Pune, he invariably chose to address public gatherings in Marathi rather than English or Hindi.
On his way home to Karachi at the end of his stay in Amritsar, travelling alone by train, the young Prahlad woke in the morning to find that a currency note had been stolen from him. Shocked and upset, he had the courage to approach the railway police at the first halt, the tenacity to insist that the co-passenger he suspected be searched, and the remarkable power of memory and observation to prove that the note found was his: to the astonishment of the police constable, this young child knew the number on the note! PP Chhabria was that rare individual whose education ended when he was twelve years old but had the intelligence to learn every aspect of business on the job, and as he became established in business, he was always respected for his prowess in finance, sales, human resources and public relations.
In 1945, at the age of fifteen, PP Chhabria came to live with relatives in Pune working in their home and business to earn his keep. Two years later, the events following Partition caused his mother and brothers to flee from their home in Sindh and join him in Pune. Like many other displaced families, they started a small business of their own. By now he knew the city well and used this knowledge, bringing electrical goods from Bombay and supplying to local shopkeepers. It was this fledgling business that he grew to the Rs10,000 crore Finolex Group, working in close partnership with his younger brother, Kishan, KP Chhabria. In 1954, they established Finolex Cables and in 1981, Finolex Industries.
PP Chhabria was a loving family man, devoted to his wife Mohini and their three children, Aruna, Prakash and Sonali. In August 1981, tragedy struck and they lost Sonali to leukaemia. PP Chhabria had been a talented singer, excelling in the words and melodies of KL Saigal, Pankaj Mullick and others ever since he was a young child. After Sonali died, he stopped singing. His guru, Swami Ram Baba was a great source of strength through the difficult times of his life.
In the years to come, as Finolex grew from strength to strength, and PP Chhabria and his family established the Mukul Madhav Foundation and the Hope Foundation and Research Centre, active in the fields of medical assistance, education and social welfare. He also set up schools and an engineering college in Ratnagiri, always conscious of the lack of education in his own life and committed to providing opportunities to others.
first appeared in Pune Mirror under the heading The Karachi boy who built a Rs10K crore empire on 6 May 2016

Monday, March 14, 2016

Lucknow Diary

Basement bonanza

It was a Sunday afternoon, and most of the Hazratganj shops were closed. Where were we going to get our mulmul chikan kurtas? As we disappointedly discussed the options, a personable young man materialised and beckoned us to follow. In a few minutes, we had entered an underground cavern, a 6000-square-foot wonderland displaying embroidered fabric of every hue and application: not just kurtas but exquisite table linen, curtains, and even embroidered Pashminas. This was not the mid-1980s SEWA revival of chikankari visible in street stalls all over India. The store, Ada, was an exposition of nawabi wares from times bygone, and clearly beyond us. As we tried to slink away, explaining that we didn’t have time to get anything tailored, he protested, “But I can ship it to you in Pune!”
How did he know where we lived? Grinning at our incredulous expressions, he pulled out a copy of the book I’d signed for him after my event the previous day. Vinod Punjabi was not so author-struck that he didn’t laugh at me for having written a book about Sindh without being able to speak the language. I, however, was so flattered that we ended up shopping for double of what we’d intended.

Green room grouse

The Lucknow Literature Carnival, founded by the elegant and visionary Kanak Chauhan, is in its third year and my book on Sindh formed a fairly respectable sideshow. The festival’s Authors’ Lounge was a place to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. We enjoyed Ashok Vajpeyi’s jokes and stories, and were so charmed by Keki Daruwalla that it was impossible to resist buying a copy of his new novel, Ancestral Affairs. It was interesting to learn about Manish Gupta’s online initiative to promote Hindi poetry and see some of its high-quality clips on the festival screens. It was also interesting to be a small-town outsider from the insular world of the opinionated Delhi journalist. “The rural voter is so intelligent!” said one with a faraway look of enchantment in her eyes. “It was the urban youth who voted this government to power,” declared another with authority.

Fading gentility

In Lucknow we found upperclass Hindustani to be the prevailing language – even among the young, cool and motivated volunteers at the Lucknow Literature Festival. However, the city’s elegant old architecture is almost all gone. My husband Ajay had lived here in the late-1970s and looked in vain for familiar landmarks, seeing only flyovers, shopping malls and fancy multi-storeyed condominiums in their place.
The beautiful Imambaras of Lucknow are also in a state of genteel decay, the golden spires on each dome tarnished and unrecognizable for what they were. We left a leisurely exploration of these exquisite monuments for another time, and went instead to meet Lucknow’s iconic bookseller, Ram Advani, who was convalescing at home with a hip fracture.
Listening to Ram’s stories of the past was a pleasure. Active in his Hazratganj bookstore until his fall, Ram has lived in Lucknow since the mid-1920s, when he was a toddler. While he has clearly lost touch with his mother tongue, Sindhi, he was full of praise for his people and the single-minded determination with which they started afresh in Lucknow after Partition. “They sold their products on the streets,” he told us. “They established a reputation for being reliable and for keeping their commitments, and they set standards for local businesspeople. Their businesses have grown into huge, modern concerns and they have become wealthy.”

Chaat city

In this city of culture where shopkeepers attend literature festivals, we were lucky to meet Murlidhar Ahuja and hear one of these stories in the first person. Murli’s father, Dayaldas Ahuja, ran the railway canteen at Sukkur Railway Station in Sindh. A refugee after Partition, he worked as a tea boy in Ajmer Station, eventually taking it over. In 1960 he moved with his family to Lucknow where he ran a dhabha in Charbagh. He invited his elder brother and his sister’s husband to join him and, working eight-hour shifts each, they kept the dhabha open around the clock. This was the origin of the family business, a chain of hotels and restaurants and a bakery industry.
Lucknow is famous for its kababs and biriyanis but vegetarians must make do with chaat. We had some at Murli’s Royal Café, a match to anything that the Aggarwal kitchen can turn out.
But the best vegetarian food in all of Lucknow, and we were privileged to have a meal, is at the home of Urvashi Sahni. There were seven unique dishes, most remarkable of which was a colourful blend of potato and beetroot, flavoured with finely-chopped onion, coriander and green chilly, and spiked with uncooked mustard oil.

Burgeoning girls’ education

Urvashi founded the Study Hall Foundation for girls’ education nearly thirty years ago and her work has transformed the lives of thousands of young women in and around Lucknow. While the Study Hall School initially seeded her other initiatives – a school for underprivileged girls; a special needs school; a centre for learning; a rural school; an Open School centre for children of migrant workers; and an NGO, Didi, that creates employment for the girls’ mothers – outside funding was essential for growth. Urvashi told us that one of her biggest donors is the Kewalramani Foundation.


With its IT towers and trendy youngsters, typified by the courteous and motivated team of volunteers at the festival, who would say that Lucknow was the capital of a backward state? One morning, however, I peeped into the canteen of the luxurious (but poorly maintained) government guesthouse a friend had arranged accommodation for us in, and saw a dozen or so cocooned bodies sleeping on the floor. Leftover food from the previous day lay uncovered on a platform. Packets of dal, spices, cashewnuts and other items were randomly scattered on a low shelf. Underneath the shelf was a basin heaped with delicious-looking balushahi, and next to it lay a pair of someone’s dirty shoes.
an edited version of this diary first appeared in Outlook magazine issue of 14 March 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016

Karachi bakery, a south-Indian specialty

Sindhis are so well integrated wherever they live that nobody ever thinks they have come from somewhere else. Somehow, this extends to the perception that 'Karachi' is a land of sweetmeats which belongs to India. According to this board we came across at Bangalore airport this morning, Karachi Bakery is a 'South Indian Special'.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Art Mandai

monsterdotcom (an installation by Saaz Aggarwal)
Kunal Ray, a professor at Flame University, wrote this descriptive article, Art in the Bazaar, and I was happy that The Hindu picked my piece monsterdotcom as an illustration (but not so happy that, in their wisdom, did not credit me for it).
The project began in December when Gauri Gandhi, who also teaches at Flame, called to ask if I would be part of an art initiative to integrate with public spaces in our city and show work with a group of other artists. The place she chose was Mandai, a market built in what would then have been the centre of Pune's 'native town' during the British administration. It is a beautiful place and very well organized for vendors to sit on platforms with their wares and storage cells under them. 
I felt that this was a fabulous initiative to integrate people from different walks of life and give us a more meaningful connection with our hometown, and was just delighted that she had considered inviting me to be part of it.
I have lived in Pune for twenty-three years and I love it for its pace of life (more leisurely than Bombay where I used to live); its beautiful trees that transform the skies with brilliant colours in summer; its fresh fruit and vegetables; its warm, smart and cultured people … and various other reasons! However, in the past several years, it has become terribly congested, the municipality and other administrative systems have been unable to cope, and the traffic is just terrible. There is also a huge and continuing influx of migrants from other parts of the country which has changed the fabric of the city and made it more interesting. 
We went to explore the mandai, a word which means market in Marathi, and were absolutely charmed. I had planned to exhibit my paintings at the event but after spending time at Mandai, decided to create installations which would blend with the character of the place. I bought small baskets and planned to paint little roadside stones for display and sale, a process which might fall under the category of 'Found Art’. In the end, when I picked up each stone and looked at it, brush in the other hand, I could see faces looking back at me and they somehow came to life. 
Ajay and I sold stones for Rs500 and Rs1000 each, having dressed the part of traditional vendor couple and which probably attracted visitors to the event as much as the faces themselves. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016


So, I was sitting there, watching the river flow by fast
And thinking about my dear friend who so suddenly left this earth
And wondering, “River, where do you come from? Where are you going?”
Expecting something more profound than a geography-test type of answer
Which in a way I did get, because I started thinking of other friends
So many of them, actually – 
So beautiful, so smart, so kind (some even on facebook, actually)
And when life has been cruel, which it often has, so brave. So very brave.
It was Ardha-Kumbh, the crowds were thick, though only half as thick, I suppose.
We sang, stayed in line, made offerings, gave money
Though I would not consider taking a dip or drinking the water
Since it is holy, peaceful and pure but also dirty and polluted (and cold)
Like most places on earth, I suppose.